Sep 11, 2016

In Good Faith: Standing on Solid Ground

In a "bonus" second September edition of my monthly In Good Faith column, I reflect on perspectives gained on the 15th anniversary of 9-11.

Standing on Solid Ground

When I was in high school, a small group of us would often gather on the roof of my friend Matt’s apartment building in Brooklyn. I’m pretty sure we were allowed up there, but to gain access we had to travel up a sketchy, poorly-lit staircase that led to an old, battered door. A few furtive glances to make sure no one was looking, you know just in case, and suddenly we had again attained access to our urban refuge. Nothing illicit went on up there, though we did haul up a hibachi at one point. 

But what was so striking about this special retreat was the view. The building, you see, was on the last street in Brooklyn Heights. It overlooked the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River and it offered a panoramic view of lower Manhattan. You could see the Statue of Liberty, South Street Seaport, and, most prominently, the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I will always cherish the memories of being up on that rooftop, laughing with good friends and discussing life as the sun set over that stunning skyline. 

I’ve been thinking about this view and reflecting on the gift of perspective this week. Because this time of year always brings a mixture of joy and anticipation and excitement as we return to the fall routine amid beautiful New England weather. But given that this is the 15th anniversary of 9/11, it’s also tinged with a nagging sense of despair that exists just below the surface, at least for many of us.

Like a skyline, our perspective changes over time. Buildings are erected and razed, morning breaks and the sun sets, the view changes sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. A skyline indelibly linked to the prosperity and confidence of a nation morphs into a symbol of humanity and vulnerability. 

The temptation is so strong to place our faith in things that are fleeting. Like money or the allure of success or tall buildings; seemingly impenetrable symbols of strength and stability. And that can work for awhile, at least until it suddenly doesn’t, and our perspective changes once again.

The good news is that you can play an active role in the narrative of your own perspective. There are things that happen in life — tragic things, things out of our control — but we can affect how we choose to view life. When you claim faith as an integral part of your perspective, you are opening yourself to the counter narrative of love and hope in a sinful and broken world. 

Perhaps that’s the miracle of faith: that despite our changing circumstances and perspectives, God’s love for us is constant and immutable.

Thinking about that view from the rooftop of my friend’s house in Brooklyn, I realized that a certain perspective had been irrevocably altered on that day 15 years ago. Partly because a dominating piece of the skyline had fallen, but mostly because our sense of invincibility had been toppled along with it. Yet what we see with our own eyes is not always the full extent of reality. 

So often, what we hold up as icons of strength and stability are fleeting and we are reminded that God is the only permanent fixture of our lives; that we can rely on nothing we build with our own hands or create out of our own sense of self. Everything that is earthly will pass away. Everything, no matter how tall or how wide, no matter the cost or the beauty. And what remains is our relationship with God, our relationship with the eternal ruler of all creation. That is the bedrock upon which our perspective, and all else, stands.

Aug 31, 2016

In Good Faith: Washing Away the Hate

In the September edition of my monthly In Good Faith column, I share the story of a good friend who encountered hate in the form of ugly graffiti and turned it into a message of love. This is precisely what faith is all about!

Washing Away the Hate

It started out as another beautiful Saturday morning in Lexington, Kentucky. My friend Laurie Brock, an Episcopal priest at St. Michael’s Church, took the short walk from the parsonage to the front doors of the sanctuary. What she encountered last week, however, was shocking.

Hateful and graphic graffiti was scrawled across the doors and the sidewalk in front of the church. Now, Mother Laurie, as she’s known to her flock, texted me photos of the graffiti. And I assure you, this wasn’t just your garden variety, colorfully creative 1970’s New York City subway graffiti. This was crude, hateful stuff that invoked the political, the satanic, and the, um, anatomical. 

So what do you about this? Well, the first thing you do is alert the parish and suddenly power washers appear and chemicals you didn’t even know they sold at Home Depot show up and there’s a whole group of parishioners cleaning and scrubbing and washing away the hate. In several hours it’s all gone, with nary a trace left.

Which is great. Except that the emotional scars of hate-speech scrawled across the entrance to your sacred space remain etched in the community’s consciousness. And I love what Laurie did the next day. She amassed several buckets of sidewalk chalk and, as part of the liturgy, she invited everyone outside to cover the sidewalk and driveway with messages of God’s love. Parishioners of all ages expressed their own responses through words and art to the hate that just 24 hours before had been scribbled all over the front of their church. 

To me, this is what faith is all about. It’s not about ignoring hateful rhetoric but responding in love. It’s not about being reactionary in the face of evil but being proactive in the name of God. It’s not about rejecting others but accepting them as fellow children of God.

As Laurie said to the news media when they inevitably showed up, “The vandalism is not the story. That's a part of it. The end of the story is always love in the Christian faith. When people send out into the world hate and violence, our responsibility is to respond with love.”

As people of faith, we embrace a powerful counter-narrative that transcends the small-mindedness of hateful rhetoric. For Christians, this is rooted in God’s love for humanity as made manifest in Jesus Christ. Yet this is not unique to our tradition. God’s love for the world — the entire world — is stronger than that which divides us. And we cling to this ideal of love even in the face of anger and hatred. 

I’m not sure if the perpetrators of this act in Lexington were making a political statement, a religious statement, or whether they were just a couple of teenagers looking for a thrill. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the response. And I’m proud of Laurie and her community for making an even bolder statement in the name of God’s love.

Aug 29, 2016

Post-Labor Day Church: 5 Ways to Welcome Newcomers

One of the things churches take very seriously is the Sunday morning welcome. We have ushers and greeters and newcomers’ packets and welcome tables during coffee hour and signs proclaiming "All Are Welcome!" posted everywhere. Recognizing that walking into a church for the first time can be intimidating, a tremendous amount of effort goes into making visitors feel welcome.

Now some parishes do this better than others. I’ve personally had every experience from being completely and utterly ignored to being treated like a minor celebrity. There’s a fine line between genuinely feeling as if people are glad you’re there and feeling as if the congregation is simply desperate for new blood — in a vampire, blood-sucking kind of way. 

But this whole idea of welcome isn’t simply a veneer of good manners. And hopefully it’s not just the adoption of certain best practices from the hospitality industry, as passed on through the filter of church growth consultants. 

Rather, if it’s authentic and not just self-serving, welcoming the stranger is a spiritual endeavor. It’s the whole idea of treating one another as if we are encountering Jesus himself. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus even identifies himself as the stranger to be welcomed when he says, “Just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” So welcoming the stranger is not just about being polite, it’s about being a Christian. 

Never is this as apparent as that first Sunday after Labor Day. In many parishes, this is the great dividing line between the loose-goosey, informal summer time and the get-back-to-the-fall-routine that begins the Program Year. Other than, say, the Christmas and Easter services that draw many people who have no intention of attending church more than twice a year, September has a different vibe. This time of year, in addition to welcoming back parishioners who have drifted away but want to be more intentional about regular worship, we welcome many newcomers searching for a church home, intent on finding a community of faith. 

In other words, September offers us a unique opportunity to welcome the stranger. And it begs the question, are you ready and willing to do so?

While there are many strategies to an effective newcomer program, here's a quick and dirty fall checklist:

1. Update the Website. Is the fall worship schedule posted? Have you removed references to Holy Week 2014? Remember, the website is your parish's "virtual usher" -- it's the first place all visitors go before entering the worship space.

2. Update Newcomer Packets. You do have these, right? A simple folder with (at a minimum), a welcome letter, contact information sheet (and what to do with it), general info about Sunday School and upcoming programs and events.

3. Schedule Ushers and Greeters. As the crowds (hopefully) show up, there's often general, if holy, confusion as many enter the doors for the first time. Are there people on hand to direct people to the worship space? To walk new families to the nursery or Sunday School area rather than just passively pointing the way?

4. Social Media Strategy. Be intentional about what's posted on the parish public pages. Let people know about service times and other upcoming special events. This may not be the time to wade into controversies over liturgical minutia. If you've ever considered purchasing a Facebook ad, this would be the time to try it out. Encourage parishioners to invite friends to try out your parish!

5. Don't Just Talk About Welcoming, Be Welcoming. At the announcements, don't talk about how welcoming your parish is, simply be welcoming. Help people who look confused during the liturgy, invite people to attend coffee hour, resist the temptation to catch up with all your friends -- talk to newcomers first, then catch up.

The upshot is that when we get to that post-Labor Day crush and people scramble to return to the fall routine, be intentional about your welcoming (yes, even if someone you don’t recognize sits in your pew). It’s not just the responsibility of the ushers or the clergy to welcome strangers. It’s up to you. Even if it takes you out of your comfort zone to reach across the aisle and offer words of introduction and encouragement. 

This is what building up the Body of Christ looks like. And we're all invited to do our part.

Aug 15, 2016

6 Ways to Make the Olympics...Awesomer

I've been watching a lot of the Summer Olympic Games in Rio the past week. There are several reasons for this: 1) I like sports 2) I'm on vacation and 3) I'm a big fan of live Tweeting events like this.

Having seen a decent amount of coverage gives me the authority to make a few suggestions to the International Olympic Committee. Take my ideas and the Olympics will be even awesomer. And, while "awesomer" is not actually a word, I think it conveys the true Olympic spirit of overcoming adversity -- in this case the limitations of linguistic constraints.

The Clergy Confidential Suggestions to Make the Olympics Awesomer

1. Bigger Medals. Medals are nice but they're too small to convey athletic greatness. Unlike the
Stanley Cup you can't drink out of them. And unlike the Heisman Trophy you can't put it on your mantle as the crowning achievement of your life. Frankly, anything that could slip under the seat of your car never to be seen again, is inadequate to the achievement. I suggest the IOC quadruple the size of the medals. Thus making all the winners -- regardless of whether they won gold, silver, or bronze -- look like Flavor Flav standing on the podium.

2. Force Athletes to Sing. One of the beautiful things about watching the medal ceremonies is hearing the various anthems of all the different countries. Who knew Fiji even had a national anthem (congrats to their rugby team, by the way). Actually, if you watched NBC's Olympic coverage, you rarely heard any anthem besides the American National Anthem -- why would we watch anything where an American lost?

But in order to encourage athletes to sing when they're on the medal stand, I suggest stripping the medal from any athlete who just stands there. What's wrong? Do you not even know the words to your country's national anthem?! Unless the athlete is crying, the anthem stops and the second place finisher gets to hear his/her anthem. This continues until someone is awarded the gold medal who actually knows the words to their country's respective anthem.

3. Add Average Person for Perspective. It's inspiring to watch athletes from around the world compete in their respective sports. The beauty is that the best athletes make their strivings look effortless. Think about American gymnast Simone Biles, flying through the air on her gold-medal winning vault. It's amazing! But still, it's hard for the average person to relate to such athletic prowess.

For the sake of comparison, I suggest that for each event one middle-aged person in reasonable shape first show what they could do. For instance, the winning female shot put (congrats Michelle Carter!) went nearly 68 feet. That sounds great but how far could I throw a shot put? Five feet? 20 feet? I have no idea. Let's put this all into perspective!

4. Allow Pets. Before the Winter Olympics in Socchi, there were reports that the Russian authorities went around killing stray dogs -- something about an eyesore. But what if we encouraged athletes to compete with their pets? What if they were given extra points for having their dog or pet turtle or whatever join them in the competition?

Who wouldn't want to see Usain Bolt's greyhound (puma?) race alongside him during the 100 meter dash? Or why wouldn't Katie Ladecky bring along her clown fish to swim with her? Think of the visuals, NBC!

5. See Athletes in Other Sports. It's amazing to see top athletes competing in their chosen sports. The single-minded dedication to, say, sculling is inspiring even if it does border on OCD. What the public would love to see, though, is how these athletes would compete in other disciplines.

Sure, Michael Phelps dominates in the pool. But can he throw a javelin? How would the greatest swimmer of all time fare in the modern pentathlon? We want to know. And I suggest a random drawing. If the 4'8" Biles ends up on the men's basketball team, so be it.

6. Make Tweeting an Olympic Event. Live snarking the Opening Ceremony on Twitter should be an Olympic event. With medals awarded. And a podium involved (it can be a virtual one). A true Olympic sport that transcends barriers of age, gender, and fitness level. Winners gain new followers; losers are blocked.

You see, there's great potential to make the Olympics Great Again! So to speak. I hope the IOC is listening. I don't even need any credit for these ideas -- just implement them no questions asked. It's my gift to the international athletic community. Though a medal received in the mail wouldn't be returned...

Aug 10, 2016

In Good Faith: Let the Games Begin

Since deadlines don't respect vacations, I've filed the August edition of my In Good Faith column from an undisclosed coffee shop somewhere in the world. I write about that thing that's on many of our minds this week -- the Olympics in Rio. Enjoy. If you can pull yourself away from the TV long enough to read it...

Let the Games Begin

As I write this, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio are in full swing. Like much of the world, I
have tuned in to a few events so far — some biking and swimming and a touch of women’s soccer. Also, like much of the world, I lounged on the couch and stuffed my face with food as I watched these world-class athletes put their bodies to the test. 

Sure, there’s a certain incongruity to it all. But then again, we’re Americans! We’re world champion arm chair athletes who can eat heroic quantities of junk food while watching the fittest among us exert themselves. Thanksgiving Day has nothing on Super Bowl Sunday for sheer gluttony of spirit. And anyway, I’m sure there was no shortage of baclava as the ancient Greeks followed the flight of their heroes’ discuss tosses.

But my point isn’t shame and guilt — there’s enough of that floating around the atmosphere. It’s the difficulty the average person has of relating to Olympic events. And I don’t just mean the obscure ones. Sure, most of us don't throw spears around for purposes of self-preservation. Thus the javelin toss seems an odd endeavor. We may have tried our hand at archery during summer camp when we were eleven, but chances are no one would accuse us of being a modern-day Robin Hood.

It’s the whole notion of elite-level competition that feels remote. Yes, we hear commentators wax eloquent about the purity of competition and the human spirit, but most of us are just trying to make it through the day. No one’s competing for prizes when it comes to getting dinner on the table or paying for this year’s family vacation or tending to an ailing parent. There’s no medal for walking the dog or calling a friend who seems depressed or taking a child with an ear infection to the hospital in the middle of the night. 

Competition is, in many ways, a luxury item. Something we can do when all our other needs are being met. In suburbia, this might mean training for the local five-mile road race. Maybe this year, if we train really hard and get our speed work in up at the high school track, we can finally beat our next door neighbor. 

But for much of the world, competition simply means survival. It means finding enough food and clean water to keep loved ones alive. It means not being crushed by the economic and environmental effects of globalization. It means keeping one’s self and family safe from forces of terror and disease.

It’s the reason, whatever your country of origin, you can’t help but pull for the Refugee Olympic Team. These 10 individuals, talented athletes across several disciplines, were literally pulled from misery and given a chance to compete in Rio. Their presence doesn’t solve the larger global refugee crisis, but it does offer visibility to a difficult and untenable situation. It also puts a human face on the often faceless plight of this particular brand of global human suffering.

As the games go on, I encourage you to listen to their stories. Not just in the NBC, ratings-boost, feel-good way, but the stories that connect these athletes to the larger crisis of human pain and suffering. The ultimate goal isn’t athletic victory but the inspiration of hope. 

You can always find the divine at work in this life if you open your heart and soul to the stories that lurk beneath the often over-produced surface. Even if you can’t relate to, or even name, the five events that comprise the “modern pentathlon.”