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.” 

Aug 8, 2016

Liturgical Olympics

Admit it. You're slightly obsessed with the Olympics. That's not a bad thing, of course. Competition and the human spirit...blah, blah, blah. 

But what if these events were a bit more relatable to church life? What if we had events in which clergy and lay people could compete and receive that "crown of glory that never fades away?"

Fortunately, I've given this some thought. Here's an excerpt from my 2015 book Father Tim's Church Survival Guide. If you have other ideas for events, let me know. Then, collectively, we can "go for the gold!" Or at least the Golden Chalice...

Liturgical Olympics 

It happens every two years -- people become obsessed with sports they never give a second thought to in the intervening four years. I don’t know too many people who are huge luge fanatics outside the friendly competitive confines of the Olympic Games or who could name all the members of the Brazilian relay team in non-Olympic years.

Anyway, it’s made me think that we should institute an every-four-years Liturgical Olympics. Each diocese could field teams in church-specific events. Instead of the ugly jackets worn by many of the delegations, the “athletes” could wear hideous vestments during the Opening Ceremonies at the Washington National Cathedral. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We first need to come up with comparable events. 

Here are some suggestions based on the winter Olympics.

Freestyle Skiing — Thurible Twirling
Everybody loves the daring, gravity-defying thrills of freestyle skiing. Why not transfer this to the skills of our best thurifers? The possibility of setting things on fire adds to the danger of this exciting event. Thurifers show off their skills with 360s, around the worlds, figure eights, and even the newest move called the spinning nautilus. Extra points gained for smoking out any Protestant spectators.

Speed Skating — Speed Mass
After the starting gun/sanctus bell, Celebrants compete to say the Eucharistic prayer and distribute communion as quickly as possible. Everyone begins with the altar set for communion, 100 communicants in (mostly) good standing, and one deacon. The giant running digital clock behind the altar allows spectators to track each competitor’s time. While this event is Rite II, the Liturgical Olympic Committee (LOC) is considering a switch to Rite I to watch Celebrants trip over the words “innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.”

Pairs Figure Skating — Acolyte Choreography
Acolytes must serve at a high mass without extraneous movements or fainting while using perfect form and correct manual acts. Additional points are awarded for singing the hymns and not falling asleep during the sermon. Points are subtracted for unruly hair, wearing sneakers, and getting wax on the cassock.

Ski Jumping — Changing the Worship Space
Participants are challenged to make a substantial change to the worship space and then suffer the wrath of parishioners. The losers either give in and change it back or go home and curl up in the fetal position. “Substantial change” may refer to the removal  of flags from the sanctuary, repositioning the altar, or removing anything — no matter how ugly — donated by a current parishioner (i.e. the modern baptismal font, 1970s-style altar hangings, etc).

Cross Country Skiing — Endurance Preaching
The ultimate liturgical endurance test, preachers are set up in a pulpit and asked to preach extemporaneously on a surprise text for as long as possible. There are two ways to get disqualified. 1) Uttering the words “um,” “er,” “ah,” or  any other vocal placeholder or extra long pause (judges’ discretion) 2) When the first spectator falls asleep. This is the least popular event to attend especially because smart phones and knitting are not allowed.

Hockey — Coffee Hour
Participating clergy are thrown into a loud, crowded room with people drinking bad coffee out of styrofoam cups. They have 20 minutes to remember everyone’s name, have heart-felt pastoral conversations with long-time parishioners, identify and talk to all newcomers, answer passive aggressive questions about the hymn selection, and suck down two cups of coffee.

And a few more based on the summer Olympics.

Beach Volleyball -- Pine Needle Pickup
Like trying to get all the sand off your body, out of your hair, and away from your clothes after a trip to the beach, this event is about ridding the church of pine needles after Christmas. Contestants are given a broom, vacuum cleaner, and a pair of tweezers. The first one to get up all the needles before the next Olympiad wins.

Diving -- Sacred Cow Tipping
Bravery and derring-do are the traits that earn gold in this event. Each participant is given a sacred cow to skewer such as switching to the contemporary language version of the Lord’s Prayer or changing the Sunday service times and told to dive right in. The one to live to tell about it is declared the winner.

Synchronized Swimming -- Three Sacred Ministers
Similar to the Acolyte Choreography event in the Winter Liturgical Olympics, this tests the mettle of teams consisting of a Celebrant, Deacon, and Sub-Deacon. Points are deducted for each misstep or out-of-synch bowing at the name of Jesus. Unfortunately for the judges, this is difficult to score since they cannot see into the massive cloud of incense.

Table Tennis -- Call and Response
This event takes great concentration and anticipation. Teams of five are assembled
consisting of an officiant and four “parishioners.” The officiant says a phrase such as “The Lord be with you” and his/her teammates must correctly respond with “And also with you” in the shortest amount of elapsed time. If they speak too soon they are disqualified and the Lord isn’t, in fact, with them.

Fencing -- Sermon Dialogue
In this event, preachers must spend five minutes immediately following the sermon to engage the congregation in dialogue. No longer able to hide behind the built-in authority of a gigantic pulpit, they must answer pointed questions about their theology from the chair of the religion department at the local university. The winners successfully navigate this exercise without either weeping or proclaiming “because I said so, that’s why.”

Boxing -- Worship Committee Meeting
Contestants are placed into one large Worship Committee and asked to come to consensus on whether or not to use incense when the bishop visits even though it’s not a major feast day on the liturgical calendar. There are no medals awarded in this event.

Jul 20, 2016

The Trump Bible

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson created his own version of the Bible. Sure this sounds presumptuous but it was actually published as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth and is known today as the Jefferson Bible.

Jefferson spent his twilight years literally cutting out passages he either didn't agree with or felt were "supernatural." The Resurrection? Didn't make the cut. Passages referring to Jesus as divine? Into the ash can. Anything smacking of the Trinity? Nope.

While Jefferson took this to the extreme, it was consistent with his overall religious outlook. He was a Deist; Deism being generally defined as belief in the existence of God based on reason and nature alone.

As I've read about Donald Trump's dance with Christianity and listened to words that feel counter to the Christianity I've experienced, I'm convinced he should go and do likewise. Trump should just adapt the Bible to his own purposes. With the Jefferson Bible, there's precedent! Plus any charges of plagiarism can easily be blamed on a speechwriter.

So, while I've already written a Trump-inspired Eucharistic prayer or Trumpcharist, the Trump Bible seems the logical next step.

With a little tweaking, some of the best known passages of Scripture can simply be repurposed to better support the Republican nominee for president. And anyway, what's a bit of a Messiah-Complex among friends?
"The first shall be first and the first shall be first. Being last is for losers." 
"The only thing the meek will inherit is being pathetic." 
"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in my awesomeness.” 
"Trump is impatient; Trump is unkind; Trump is envious and boastful and arrogant and rude. Trump insists on his own way; he is irritable and resentful. And now these three abide: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is...Trump." 
"Seek first the election of Trump and all these walls will be built around you." 
"Therefore put on the full armor of Trump, so that you may be able to withstand the Democrats on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truthiness around your waist, and put on the breastplate of self-righteousness. With all of these, take the shield of defensiveness, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil Hillary." 
"This is the day Trump was nominated. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Unless you're from Mexico or a Muslim-American."
"No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Trump."
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Donald, so that everyone who votes for him may not perish but may have eternal greatness."
"O taste and see that Trump Wine is the greatest." 
Of course I could go on and on. But I have a GOP Convention to live-tweet (@FatherTim). But fear not! Others have gone where I haven't had the time to go. There's even a website called not to mention an entire #TrumpBible hashtag on Twitter.

Unassuming Prophet

I rarely put sermons on Clergy Confidential. I do have a sermon blog titled @FatherTIm Sermon Vault where I warehouse them, but I generally only share those links with the parish I'm serving since a) preaching is all about context and b) no one needs more sermons clogging the internet. 

But I did want to share what I said at yesterday's funeral for the Rev. Ed Allen because his was an inspiring life, one that deserves to be shared. Ed was a parishioner at St. John's and a retired Episcopal priest and it was an honor to preach at his service -- I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've ever preached at the funeral of a fellow priest.

I hope you'll take a moment to read it and recognize that we need Ed's voice now more than ever. 

Funeral for the Rev. Edward P.  Allen
July 19, 2016

What a privilege to stand before you this afternoon and reflect upon the life of a fellow priest. A man I admired and was inspired by, a man known and loved by each one of you. But before I begin, I thought I’d share something Ed wrote 24 years ago; a note Alice gave me one day several years ago that she’d found in a file of his old sermons. 

It was titled, One of the Terrors of Preaching. “More often than not, after a week of meditating on the themes expressed in collect, Old Testament, psalm, epistle, Gospel and the life of the parish and the world — after mulling them over, twisting them this way and that, trying to find some connection between them and what was going on inside myself — and after finally putting something together  that I could pass off as a sermon, I would find myself in church on Sunday morning listening to readings that I would swear I had never heard before. I would ask the ceremonialist, ‘Is she reading the wrong lesson?’ or I would hastily check the lectionary, only to discover that what I was hearing was what I had been reading over and over all week, except that now it was coming to me from an entirely new angle. Then, with my confidence in my insight totally shaken, I would have to get up and preach. Sometimes it was disconcerting; at other times is was, ‘What the hell! Go for it.’ Anyway, it was never dull.”

There was a fullness to the life of Ed Allen that can’t be captured in just a few minutes. But, what the hell, go for it! 

Ed was a husband and father, of course, an Episcopal priest who served parishes in California and as college chaplain at the Interfaith Center at UC Irvine. A man of faith and compassion and humor; a storyteller and a gentle soul. But also a man of passionate conviction who stood up for right in the face of wrong; for love in the face of hate; for justice in the face of discrimination

If Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, Ed Allen took that commandment and lived it, both in his personal and vocational lives. His words and deeds reminded us all that Jesus’ invitation to love one another was not optional. We can’t love our neighbors as ourselves on our terms or at our convenience. It just doesn’t work that way.

As Alice and her children were gathering stories in the days after Ed died, Norton forwarded me an article that his brother Ted had posted on Facebook. And I was amazed by a 1963 California newspaper clipping. The headline was “Corona del Mar Pastor Jailed in Sit-In” and there was a picture of a 35-year-old Ed Allen in his clerical collar — wearing a very stylish plaid blazer I might add. Ed had been arrested for protesting a new housing development that was discriminating against people of color. As the article reported, Ed was “carried bodily to a police car and spent six hours with 23 other pickets in a cell built for 12 persons before he was bailed out.” Presumably by Alice.

But what really stood out to me were some of Ed’s quotes. After his arrest, Ed was quoted as saying, “Segregation is a black mark against America. However, the challenge of integration is a frightening thing. There are those who are afraid of the changes that equal rights will bring. Through their fear, they either do nothing to ‘rock the boat’ or else they will campaign actively to keep things as they are. Those who want to see American freedom truly practiced are equally afraid. It takes guts to stick your neck out — especially for somebody else.” 

Yes. Yes, it does. And I’m particularly moved by Ed’s witness for two reasons. First, his
passionate stance for standing on the right side of racial justice during a seminal time in our nation’s history and second because, sadly, we still desperately need that voice today, 53 years later. 

It is precisely the fear about which Ed spoke that still confounds our efforts to seek reconciliation. It is our fear of change, our fear of those who differ from us, and our fear of giving up control. The gospel of Jesus, as Ed well knew, is all about driving out fear and breaking down barriers between and among people. Not everyone is willing to live that out in such a tangible way and for that we can all be inspired and encouraged to make a difference in our own day, in our own way.

I also love this part of the article: the reporter asked Ed how he felt about the prospect of arrest and “Father Allen admitted he was ‘scared’ to take part in a sit-in demonstration” and his wife, Alice was “‘pretty nervous at first’” (at the time, she did have two young children at home). But “‘She’s proud of me now,’ he added with a grin.’” And I think we can all spot that grin from a mile away. 

On the last day I saw Ed — near the end, I’d gone up to Linden Ponds to pray with him and with Alice — I made a point to wear two of Ed’s stoles Alice had recently given to the church. I wore a red one to do the monthly service at Allerton House, a nearby nursing home, and I wore a white one to do a committal service in the Memorial Garden — the same one I’m wearing right now.

And I intentionally wore them because I’m aware that the current generation of clergy has a mantle to take up. Courageous priests like Ed Allen, even in his gentle and self-effacing way, helped till the soil of racial reconciliation at a time when the harvest was plentiful but the laborers were few. And it is important for us to continue to nurture what was planted in Jesus’ name. Work that needs to continue, work that must continue if we are to be faithful to the ministry of our Lord.

Today as we remember Ed’s life and celebrate Jesus’ victory over death, we are once again reminded that nothing can separate us from the love of God. In his letter to the Romans St. Paul writes that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

For everyone privileged enough to know and love Ed Allen, nothing can separate us from the memory of this unassuming prophet. Nothing can separate us from the influence he had and will continue to have upon us. And this is precisely why, even at the grave, we can make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.