Father Mark, Sermons


The author facing his test of his fear of heights

Proper 8C; Pentecost 5; Genesis 22; 6/28/2020

How many of you have never ever experienced test anxiety?   Life is full of tests from the time we learn to walk,

maintaining our balance, learning how to tie our shoes; learning not to sneak the cookies from the cookie jar,

school tests, achievement tests, tests to certify licenses and certifications for our vocations.

Remember your driver’s test?   Athletic and musician tests of skill and endurance.

Then there are those tests we experience in relationships which involve a dual focus.   We are tested in being a means of grace for living with other’s faults while at the same time attempting to reduce the number of our own faults so that the relationship can grow. 

We are in the midst of numerous tests to our lives such as how we face the COVID pandemic.

So when people ask me does God test people, the first thing that comes to mind that is that life itself is a series of tests or if you’d rather, challenges.   Forks in the road are a common occurrence.  Every choice we make is in some way a test.   Tests are a part of our spiritual, mental and social development.

Our choices in response to life’s tests questions come from the authority on which we choose to base our lives. 

The authority we choose determines the guidance we receive and values inherent in that authority by which we make our decisions.  The God or gods that we choose determine our response to the tests we take in life. 

There are courses in test taking—how to take tests—that I have attended.  Sometimes it can be helpful to learn how others take tests.  The story of Abraham is one example.

Abraham discerns God’s calling him in a dream to walk a three day journey to a land called Moriah, which 1000 years later would be the location of Jerusalem and the Temple.  He hears the words, take your son.  The words in Hebrew do not indicate a command but more of an appeal to sacrifice Isaac.  This request gives Abraham a choice without the fear of guilt for not doing so.  This must have been mind boggling and agonizing for him. 

Abraham left and lost his home and extended family in Haran for the promise of a new land and extended family and nation that would become as numerous as the stars. Sacrificing Isaac, would nullify everything that God had promised.   It didn’t make any sense.  Since guilt had been removed from the equation, Abraham faced a free choice to walk away or sacrifice Isaac.  Abraham’s response indicated the depth of his faith.  The angel’s intervention, and the provision of a ram indicates God’s distaste for child sacrifice which was a common practice during those times.  

The story may also reveal how difficult discernment can be.  Understanding God’s movement in our lives can be difficult to ascertain.  Cultural influences can contaminate our receptivity.  In Abraham’s case, child sacrifice was not uncommon in those times.  Could the child sacrifice in the culture have influenced Abraham’s dream?

God’s loving corrective nature adjusts our vision and behavior as we move along.    Discerning unexpected changes in direction is not out of the ordinary.  Often times when God calls us to move we aren’t given the total blueprint in how everything fits together and how the finished product will look. 

Following the trail for the Holy Grail takes time—the Grail meaning Christ himself.  The Grail is the vessel that contains the presence of God.  We are now that vessel.   

The three days in the story did not represent a specific 72 hours but signified a long period of time.  

How difficult it is for us to take “three days” to sit in prayer and to listen for the voice of God moving in us and to move out in the direction we are being led?  

I believe we’re in a similar situation to Abraham in that we are being tested during this COVID pandemic.

Our “three days” are faced with the limitations it places on us and how we are to respond to those limitations. 

How do these limitations, and the impact they have on us, affect our physical, mental and spiritual lives?  

What message might an angel of the Lord bring to us in the midst of all this as the virus drags on and on and on and on?   As the psalmist (137) said, “how do we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” when the people of Israel had been exiled to a different country. 

Our “exile” is of a different nature.    Where in our lives do we experience a sense of exile?    Where do we experience a sense of exile within? 

We as Abraham can respond to God, by saying, “Here I am.”  We’re in this situation we really don’t like. 

What path do you want us to take in our minds, hearts, and spirits?   Help us to listen.  Help us to hear.  Help us to follow. 




Acceptance is living with open hands…

With the spike in COVID cases in our county and Texas after Memorial Day, the wishful thinking of many of us is in the process of or has finally been extinguished.   It looks as if it’s going to be with us for a long time.  There was always this little place in the back of my and many of our minds that just maybe, hoped that things would lighten up a bit.   The human mind is a mysterious entity.  We tend to hope sometimes beyond hope and skirt the boundaries of reality.  

The mind is often terrified of suffering, fearing at a subconscious level that we will in some way cease to be, called the fear of non-being.   If we come to a real perspective, which the spiritual life gives, that suffering is a part of life, then we can develop the interiority to cope with it.   The presence of God, as Jesus found, transcends suffering and death.  But this has to be more than a theory.  This Presence has to be known before we are able place suffering in its proper place as a part of life while God remains in the center of our awareness.  Without this spiritual awareness our fearful minds reach for false Utopias that are nothing but a mirage.   This is especially evident during times as now as messianic politicians begin to promise far more than they will ever be able to give, denying the reality that they don’t have the control of the universe that some of us wish they had.  In our fear of suffering, some clamor for someone who will make us safe.  How can a politician living in Austin or Washington D.C. keep us safe?  Even local officials and police cannot guarantee our safety.  This sought panacea to avoid suffering usually turns out creating more suffering than it alleviates.  As with suffering, our safety is our personal responsibility and making choices in the guidance of the Spirit more often leads to peace and joy rather than increased suffering. 

Having worked with alcoholics and their families in the past, many years ago I read a recovery story called, “Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict” in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.   There was one sentence his story that had a profound affect in my spiritual life.  The sentence:  “Acceptance is the key to all my problems.”   He didn’t say that acceptance means that one does nothing or that life is hopeless, but that we cannot magically undowhat is” as our mind attempts to escape the situation’s suffering.  Acceptance is merely accepting “what is,” and moving from that point forward under the guidance of his Higher Power, for us the Eternal Life Giving Trinity.   Acceptance is the core of the Serenity Prayer of Richard Niebuhr:   God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. 

So if we’re having an especially difficult day, we accept and begin from where we are, as David did in Psalm 69:2:  I have sunk into the miry depths, where there is no footing; I have drifted into deep waters, where the flood engulfs me.   Acceptance doesn’t mean that we have to like where we are but that we’re willing to begin where we are as we learn to rest in God and then discern where to go from here.  Sooner or later, we’ll experience David on the “other side” of the mess in Psalm 40:2: He brought me up from a desolate pit, out of the muddy clay, and set my feet on a rock, making my steps secure.  Here we experience a sense of being secure in the midst of our difficulties.  We’re in spiritual school right now as those who we carried away in the Babylonian Captivity were: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4).   We’re not suffering to the depths they did but metaphorically, we are in a “strange land” in our situation.   

So here we are.  Where do we go from here?  Physically, probably not very far and not with many others.  Spiritually, where do we go from here?   Stay put until you get a message from above.   Or at least while you’re about your COVID adjusted day, listen intently, for the presence that maintains your stillness within.  The Spirit leads us into all Truth who is God, himself, and beginning there is enough. 

For example, having not being able to exercise like I used in the gym to left me in a conundrum.  Using free weights/dumbbells was a huge core of my exercise routine as was the treadmill.  Walking at Patton Park turned out to be too risky with the large amount of people there and the new track locked out to the community.  I tried to buy weights for two months and there were none to be had online or at stores.  

I was led to pick up a book of my shelf on the Jesus Prayer by our beloved late Bishop, Bob Hibbs, (An Altar in Your Heart) which I have been reading to those who participate in our online Compline services on Wednesday.   Using other prayer disciplines, I hadn’t really used this.  But then the other day the strange idea came to me to use the Jesus Prayer and combine it with riding Kathy’s stationary bicycle.   I detest stationary bicycles as they are so B-O-R-I-N-G!!!   But closing my eyes and repeating the Jesus prayer to avoid the distractions of the living room enabled me to ride the stationary bike and develop a rhythm, similar to the one I had when I mountain biked during our time living in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Colorado.   The stationary bike allows me to close my eyes without the danger of running into something so I am able to blend exercise with prayer, something I’ve never thought of before.

Out of difficulty, or chaos as in the creation story in Genesis, God can create anew.   The timeless of eternity is the destination to which prayer takes us.  I was on the stationary bike a half hour before I realized it.   Acceptance allowed me to offer God the fragmented pieces of my life and he delivered to me a new way of life in the midst of our present pandemic. 

Acceptance is the key to all our problems.   Acceptance requires our acceptance of God.  God is always ready and waiting to act in the here and now.

Let Him.


Fr. Mark


What’s in a Symbol?

What do these symbols mean to you? What do they do within you?

Hangings, colors and seasons?  What’s the big deal? 

There’s a term used in liturgical Church circles for the season after Pentecost.  It’s called Ordinary Time. 

I remember when I was young and how bored I became looking at the same old green altar hangings from the end of May through November.   I was taught that the color green symbolized “a time of growth” which in agrarian terms naturally occurred in the late spring and summer months.   Years later, when working at Church of Reconciliation in San Antonio with the late Rev. Sam Todd, we reflected on how the colors change and that several are used for two different seasons, such as purple for Advent and Lent and green for Epiphany and Ordinary Time.  We wanted to focus on a color that represented each season as to increase the focus of one season-one color.   

We added the traditional Sarum (from Salisbury, Anglican) Blue (Mary) color for Advent and decided to use the Red for Pentecost and the season of Ordinary Time following throughout the rest of the Church Year.   So why did we do this?

It all comes down to symbol.   We use symbols so much we don’t ever realize we do it.  When we look at keys, we think “car” or “door” or “opening” for example.   In spiritual circles, symbol is a window through which we are carried to God.   We have candles on the altar.  But why?  To represent the Light.  But have you ever looked at the flame of a single altar candle to the point that you’re meditating on that light and that the process empties you of all thought so that your mind, heart and spirit are open to God?   Symbols are not just thoughtful meanings, they are a means of transporting us out of this world into the next and then God appearing to us in this world in the here and now. 

So why Red?  Red surely symbolizes the “tongues of fire” experience of the disciples and those around them on the first Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2.   Red is a color that is charged with energy.  Fire is a transforming agent, purifying that which needs to be purified, separating the slag from the precious metal, melting away the sin that attaches to our minds, hearts, and wills.   I recall working in a die casting factory with 2200 degree molten aluminum being poured into my machine reservoir.  The impurities of the metal floated off on the top attaching in a crusty form around the reservoir edges while the silvery colored metal with shades of red and flames leaping out of it gleamed in its beauty.  I never tired of looking at the purified metal that was refined by fire. 

When I was younger, I compared the school year with the Church Year.  Great attention was placed on Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost (six months) because this is when Jesus was active in the world (bear with me—Jesus is still active in the world).  So after Pentecost which corresponded with school being out, the lazy hazy crazy days of summer all seemed to run together in ordinary time, as did the Church Year because Jesus had been raised, ascended, the disciples became apostles when receiving the Holy Spirit and then all is right with the world until next Advent.   Ordinary Time, the time after Pentecost was like a time when we could slough off a bit and relax.   Little did I know, that this cultural aberration of “school’s out—church is out,” couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Ordinary Time isn’t “ordinary” at all.  Why?  Because it’s our turn. God is just getting started with us. Ordinary Time is really “Extraordinary Time.”  Why?  Because this is the time when God and Jesus incarnates in us (becomes “enfleshed” all the way down into our cell tissue, in every breath and in every heartbeat) in the Holy Spirit.  Ordinary Time becomes extraordinary because this is the period where the disciples (students), come apostles (meaning “sent”) to learn how to be Spirit led from within. Pentecost means the you and I become the Temple of God on earth.   We may “go to Church” to gather in the Sanctuary (someday we’ll return to the sanctuary) but we are the sanctuary within whom the Spirit lives.  So Ordinary Time is when we are learning how to become Spirit led and there’s no “school year” because it’s a 365 day a year deal.

This is why I leave the red hangings on the altar during Ordinary Time—the time after Pentecost, to remind us that it’s time to “get the Red out.”   Green is a “cool” color.  Red is a “warm” to hot color.  When the Spirit penetrates us, we are changed and changing, there’s a reaction going on inside.  Things within us our getting moved around.  Priorities are changing and our lives in the daily begin to change too.   This is God’s intention, and Jesus’ and the Holy Spirit’s that we are no longer couch potatoes, but that there’s a Divine Light and Fire in us that is dancing around within us waiting to get out there in the world at the same time.  For some reason, the color green just doesn’t symbolize this.

We might say that we are dying to let the Red expand in us for as St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” The miracle in all of this is that “resting” in God doesn’t lead to a nap. Resting in God awakens us and empowers us because “Wild Red” is going to be working through us. “Wild Red” is the nickname for the Holy Spirit in the late Wes Seeliger’s great book, Western Theology. I used that text for teaching spiritual formation with youth in Episcopal Schools when I was a chaplain. It’s a fun read while getting the point across that the Holy Trinity is anything but tame.

May your day be full of Red,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Moccasins are soft

“Judge Softly”

“Pray, don’t find fault with the man that limps,
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
Or stumbled beneath the same load.

There may be tears in his soles that hurt
Though hidden away from view.
The burden he bears placed on your back
May cause you to stumble and fall, too.

Don’t sneer at the man who is down today
Unless you have felt the same blow
That caused his fall or felt the shame
That only the fallen know.

You may be strong, but still the blows
That were his, unknown to you in the same way,
May cause you to stagger and fall, too.

Don’t be too harsh with the man that sins.
Or pelt him with words, or stone, or disdain.
Unless you are sure you have no sins of your own,
And it’s only wisdom and love that your heart contains.

For you know if the tempter’s voice
Should whisper as soft to you,
As it did to him when he went astray,
It might cause you to falter, too.

Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.

I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind and narrow-minded, even unkind.
There are people on reservations and in the ghettos
Who have so little hope, and too much worry on their minds.

Brother, there but for the grace of God go you and I.
Just for a moment, slip into his mind and traditions
And see the world through his spirit and eyes
Before you cast a stone or falsely judge his conditions.

Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.

Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.”

~ by Mary T. Lathrap, 1895

The spewing of incivility lately caused me to remember the saying, “Don’t judge a person until you walk a mile in his moccasins.”

As a youngster I was very close to my extended family, uncles, aunts and cousins. It was always a treat when we could visit and play. My dad, uncle, brother and I would go hacking (a low quality of golf). When I got into high school, my uncle and aunt divorced. I was heartbroken. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned why. My uncle whom I deeply loved was involved with domestic violence with my aunt whom I also loved. I was confused. I couldn’t see him doing this. He was so fun to be with and loving to me.

After college, I began to learn about the darker side of World War II. I had known the battles, places, dates and all of this since my childhood as we were given to know the history of the importance of the sacrifices made to put an end of the tyranny and insanity that had overcome the world. Earlier as a child I recall my uncle playing with my battery powered Bulldog Tank I received at Christmas. When he visited, I didn’t get to use it much. But what I didn’t know is that he was a tank commander in Patton’s 3rd Army and one of the conflicts he was in was the Battle of the Bulge. My uncle never talked about any of this except on two occasions when I was in college and both times he stopped before he completed the sentence.

I began to understand the reasons why people do what they do. Just because Louie had “battle fatigue” (a.k.a. PTSD and Moral Injury) didn’t excuse his earlier behavior. I never witnessed the behavior but now at least I understood the inner turmoil that would occasionally explode outwardly from him. My uncle got help after the divorce and we remained close whenever I returned to visit my parents. Had I been where my uncle was from 1943-1945 I have no idea what mental state I would be in. I cannot even fathom it.

Suffering creates a series of inner wounds and concoction of fear and anger that mostly remains hidden to the human eye. Suffering creates a hardness and rigidity within, that we were never meant to carry. When Jesus teaches the Beatitudes (Matt. 5), he is speaking to our need to wear the moccasins of others.

Jesus teaches “Blessed are those who mourn”–blessed are those in emotional turmoil. People who suffer often do not know how to mourn so that they may be comforted and healed within. Jesus follows with “Blessed are the meek”–Healthy are those who have softened what is rigid within.

My uncle was my first experience of learning to wear the moccasins of others. I would see the suffering of others as a priest and intensely so as a therapist. Some of my clients were victims. Some were perpetrators. I learned how to soften my inner rigidity to work with the latter. Both victims and perpetrators tend to repeat behaviors that are driven from their invisible wounds and the rigid places within. When learning their story I understood, the “why” of their history even though not all would be willing to enter the mourning to heal. That remains a mystery to me of why some do and some do not.

It’s easy to live in a small town and to notice the idiosyncrasies of others–their weaknesses while being unaware of what drives them from their rigid places within. We may never know. But this doesn’t keep us from looking for the rigid places within ourselves that react to the rigid places within them, and simply pray, “Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus will soften our rigid places within. And who knows, once our rigid places soften, others may in some mystical way, begin to soften the rigid places within themselves.

What do you think?

I used to own a pair of moccasins. Moccasins are soft and comfortable, much more so that my rigid leather and cordura snake boots. I need the snake boots sometimes. But I think I’ll get me another pair of moccasins. And remember to remain soft within when I am around others who may not be able to be so.

Here’s to being meek, and softening what is rigid,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Praying the Beach Ball

This is in continuation of a June 7th sermon I did on How to Pray.

I remember when my parents would take Steve (my brother) and I to the beach when we were little.  We’d swim and splash around and stand in the sand as the water lapped upwards and rescinded, slowing removing sand from around our feet and our feet would sink a little more into the sand with each wave.  The simple joys of childhood.  I find I enjoy them far more than looking at my cell phone.  There’s something all-encompassing about having water, wind, sand and sunshine awakening your bodily senses and filling you with the Mystery of Life.  That’s something I’ve never gotten from a cell phone.

Then my dad would bring out the beach ball.  We’d bat it around and throw it at each other, splashing, laughing and all that.  One day, curiosity got the best of me and I held the beach ball and attempted to submerge it under the water.  It didn’t work. First of all, it took a lot of energy to push it under the water.   There was some kind of pressure moving the ball to the extent that the ball slipped from my hands and surfaced with great force, like a missile, out of the water, actually rising above it for the moment. 

So as a curious scientist (I love science) always does, I tried again with much more determination and with an adjusted grip to make sure that the ball didn’t slip.  Well it did slip a few more times and I repeated the exercise until I was finally able to hold it steady under the water. 

It was exhausting.  I can’t believe the amount of energy it took me to be able to hold that ball under the surface of the water.  Finally, my energy depleted, I let the ball go and it rushed toward and cleared the surface of the water.

Many years had passed when I began to learn how to practice various kinds of prayer.  Contemplative prayer stood out above the others. It was rooted in the ancients and was all encompassing in its carrying me into the vast Mystery of the Holy One that transcended any words I could find to describe it except maybe for the word, solitude.  But even this word is empty in the attempt to describe the experience. 

While practicing contemplative prayer early on, I recall how difficult it was to still the mind.  As I attempted to relax, allow my breathing to enter its natural rhythm, the contents of my mind became louder, sometimes to the extent that it would be very uncomfortable to the point that I would stop the prayer and go do something else.

Then my mentors would reassure me that all this is normal and not to worry about not being able to get my mind to quiet down.  This was just a part of the journey.  Then the memory of being at the beach with the beach ball “rose to the top.”  My cluttered and pressured mind wasn’t the problem in the prayer.  My cluttered mind was the reason for the prayer.  Whether you have an attic, a basement or a junk room, there’s a lot of stuff thrown hither and thither there.  Our spirits and minds also have a lot of stuff in recessed places that we have forgotten about that takes up space and weighs us down.  Prayer is learning to be still enough for long enough to allow all these beach balls that have consumed our energy and attention, affecting our spirit and behavior.   Prayer is learning to listen deeply to what has been hidden so that it may rise to the surface and be given to God.   Prayer is about becoming free.  As the stuff rises to God, so do we and the Spirit makes a home in all the places within us that were once cluttered with the stuff which encumbers our lives. 

Prayer will first bring discomfort before you experience the Peace of God.  In therapeutic genre, the phrase goes, you have to feel it to heal it.   God isn’t trying to make us miserable.  God is trying to get through to remove the misery from us but we must first acknowledge this before God can act.  This is actually what confession really is.  To confess isn’t a bunch of groveling, and being miserable, beating ourselves up and saying what a horrible person we are.  Far from it.  Confession is simply acknowledging what is, allowing God to be in the midst of us to release us from it and to simply without drama or histrionics, move on.

My mother became an Episcopalian when she married my dad.  But that didn’t change the 23 years of her Southern Baptist history so my brother and I grew up with what my spirituality professor in seminary called, the “lash of the oughts.”  This translated into a lot of beach balls under the awareness of my memory that needed to be released.  Contemplative prayer healed me.  Contemplative prayer is still healing me.  Or perhaps I should say that I am being healed by God through the practice of contemplative prayer. 

So when your mind is racing and you find yourself, stressed, going in circles, feeling conflicted, it is past time for contemplative prayer.  Resisting what’s in your mind just makes it stronger.   Learning to invite God into it all so that it may be removed, well, that’s what works for me.   Records of contemplative prayer reveal that I’m not the only one and that it’s been a practice by millions of Christians before the fourth century if not before.  That’s pretty good research sample on which to verify the practice.

Not to be trite, but prayer is really learning how to play with a beach ball—playing beach ball with God.    We throw the ball to God and God gives us another one to throw back to Him.   Playing beach ball is a lot of fun—joyful in fact.  Contemplative prayer, after we begin to get the hang of it, takes us into the Joy of our Master.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

There are two authors I have used for Contemplative or Centering Prayer.  One is Thomas Keating and the other, Cynthia Bourgeault.  Let me know if you would like more information. 


Fr. Mark