Mar 21, 2020

The Top 10 Reasons to Attend Online Church

During this unprecedented time, many faith communities around the world are gathering online for worship. While this is no one's preference, it is an important way to hold congregations together and keep people connected to one another. 

At the parish I serve, we're holding Sunday services at 10:00 am via Facebook Live on our Facebook page. It's not exactly a liturgy with high production values, but it comes from the heart. Clergy, parish staff, and volunteers everywhere are doing the best they can in this brave new liturgical world.

But, you have to admit, there are some advantages to gathering online for worship. Here's my Top Ten List -- add others if you have them -- and see you online!


The Top 10 Reasons to Attend Online Church 
1.  You can wear your PJs to church.

2.  Drink coffee DURING the sermon to stay awake.

3.  Hungry? Don’t wait for coffee hour. Grab that donut RIGHT NOW!

4.  Every Sunday is the Blessing of the Animals.

5.  Bad hair day? Who cares!

6.  You can scroll through Facebook during the “boring parts.”

7.  La-Z-Boy > Uncomfortable pew.

8.  Seven year itch? “Cheat” on your pastor by tuning in to another church’s service without even breaking one of the 10 Commandments!

9.  No kneeling. Or standing, for that matter.

10. Keeping connected to God and your community during this unprecedented time. 

Mar 20, 2020

In Good Faith: Meat Hoarding (and other tales)

In my latest In Good Faith column, I write about the darker impulses that arise when we face uncertainty and the opportunities to engage our better angels. 


Meat Hoarding (and other tales)

The woman in front of me on the checkout line at the grocery store the other day had two
carts. How she managed to push two carts around the store by herself remains a mystery. The first cart was stacked high with paper goods. That’s a polite way of saying ROLLS AND ROLLS OF TOILET PAPER. The other cart must have had 50 boxes of chicken nuggets. 

Now, in fairness, perhaps I was behind Old Mother Hubbard. Maybe she did “live in a shoe” and have “so many children she didn’t know what to do.” That’s certainly a possibility. But the more likely scenario is that she had two toddlers at home and was panic buying. 

As I walked by an empty shelf elsewhere in the store, I saw the butcher shaking his head and muttering, “people are hoarding meat. What are they gonna do with all that meat?” “Hoarding Meat” might make a great name for a death metal band, but it’s a curious response to a public health crisis.

At one level, I understand the impulse to hoard toilet paper, chicken nuggets, and meat. In times of uncertainty, fear is an appropriate and expected emotional response. People want to take action to protect themselves and their loved ones. Do you really need the last 12 bottles of Purell that you spotted on the shelves of CVS? Well, who knows? So you better grab them while you can, before someone else does. 

The problem, from a spiritual perspective, is that we’re called to love our neighbor. When Jesus distills everything down to the basics, he tells us to do two things: love God and love neighbor. That’s it. Simple, really, at least in theory if not in practice. But loving our neighbor is half of what we’re supposed to do! 

In these unusual circumstances in which we’re living, I encourage you to think about how your actions align with the notion of loving your neighbor? This concept is an essential part of every faith, but it’s also part of what it means to be a decent human being. It’s called “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” after all, not “Mr. Rogers’ Dystopian Free-For-All.”

Every action we take has consequences, but the good news is that this works both ways. You can reach out to those in your community who may feel isolated and alone. You can give that extra roll of toilet paper or bottle of hand soap to a neighbor who needs one. You can donate to a local non-profit that is struggling to raise funds right now. You can mail a letter to your great aunt who has steadfastly refused to join the computer age. You can buy a gift card from a local restaurant for future use. 

And, I know this sounds radical, but these devices we carry around in our pockets that have cameras and social media apps also have this function where you can dial a number and speak — in real time! — with someone else using nothing but your own voice. Who knew, right?! 

This is an opportunity to let the love of neighbor shine brightly through you. I invite you to reflect upon creative ways to do just that. We will get through this time, we will survive this ordeal. But we will only thrive if we love our neighbors as ourselves.

Mar 5, 2020

In Good Faith: Skunked!

In this month's In Good Faith column, I share a story about Delilah's recent encounter with a skunk (spoiler alert: it didn't end well) and what we might learn from her response. 


Skunked!

The unmistakable smell started wafting through the kitchen. That was the first sign. Having
been down this smelly road once before, my wife and I knew exactly what had transpired. Delilah, our nearly 16-year-old lab/husky mix who loves to lounge outside on chilly evenings, had just been sprayed by a skunk. 

We quickly brought her inside and up to our second floor bathroom with the walk-in shower. Holding our noses while googling the correct ratio of dish soap, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide (Rats! We’re out of peroxide! Substitute with vinegar!), I found myself stripped down and lathering up a wet, smelly, shell-shocked dog. So much for a relaxing Sunday evening after a long day.

While Delilah didn’t exactly enjoy the process, she tolerated it. Mostly, I think she just realized she needed help and couldn’t deal with this alone. At least that was my human projection as she stoically stood in the shower, enduring the frantic machinations around her. If the odor was offensive to my own nostrils, I can’t imagine what it’s like for a dog whose sense of smell is at least 100 times more sensitive than my own. 

For non-dogs like you and me, admitting we need help is challenging. After all, we’re taught to be independent, and self-sufficiency is held up as a grand American virtue. Yet there are times in our lives when we, like Delilah, simply can’t do it alone; moments when we need help and must rely on others. 

This is a natural part of the aging process, of course. There’s a whole sector of the health care industry dedicated to this very task. It’s right there in the name “assisted living” facility. But many experience what it means to need help long before that stage of life. Like when we’re down with a bad case of the flu and a neighbor brings over some chicken soup or following a surgery when a nurse helps you out of bed or when you’re suffering from inconsolable grief and a friend stops in to sit with you. 

We can’t always do everything by ourselves, and recognizing our need to accept help from others is part of what it means to be human. Most of us would much rather help others than accept help from others. It’s hard to admit when we can’t get by through our own merits and by our own sheer will. Yet needing and accepting help isn’t admitting weakness, it’s simply admitting our humanity.

From a faith perspective, awareness of the divine presence reminds us that, in the end, nothing we do or accomplish is without God’s help. That helps eliminate the hubris that we’re fully in charge of our lives — we can fool ourselves only until we actually need help, at which point the house of cards comes crashing down around us. 

The other side of this is that no matter the darkness of the particular situation we’re facing or the seemingly helpless place in which we find ourselves, God is present with us through it all. And there’s both great freedom and comfort in this. 

I’m not sure what Delilah was feeling as we scrubbed and rinsed her over and over again. But I do hope the next time you find yourself in need of help, you accept it as willingly as Delilah. It’s not always easy, but it’s the only way we can collectively make it through this mortal life. 

Oh, and apparently it’s skunk mating season. A neighbor up the street also had a dog sprayed by a skunk the same night. I’m not sure if it was by the same Pepi le Pew that hit Delilah, but I wish him well in his romantic endeavors. Just please leave Delilah and the other neighborhood dogs out of it next time. They’re just not that into you. 



Jan 29, 2020

In Good Faith: Star Struck

In my monthly In Good Faith column, I write about meeting a legend and the ensuing awkwardness. Yet being star struck, from a theological perspective, is a good and holy posture.

Star Struck

Have you ever been star struck? I remember one year when I was a kid, my father took meto Carnegie Hall for a concert featuring a narration by the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame first baseman Willie Stargell. Being in the music business himself, he knew the conductor and I went that evening with the promise, or at least the hope, that I’d be able to go backstage afterwards to meet this baseball legend. 

I lived for baseball back then. I knew all the stats and all the players’ uniform numbers.
Being from Baltimore, I certainly wasn’t a Pirates fan, a team that had beaten the Orioles in the World Series twice in the 1970s.

But still, I was so excited to meet a true superstar, and I even brought one of Willie Stargell’s baseball cards, hoping that he might sign it. My brother still laughs at the sight of me standing before this giant of a man, staring up with eyes wide open, haltingly asking “Mr. Stargell” to please sign an autograph, and then watching me drop the card, not once but twice. He graciously signed it for me, but from a dignity standpoint, this was not my finest hour. 

The reality is, I was star struck. Meeting a literally larger-than-life sports hero got me all twisted up. It was exciting and thrilling and nerve-racking and reduced me to a tongue-tied little kid. Which, in fairness, I was. 

For Christians who follow the liturgical calendar — which orders the holy days and seasons of the church year — we’re in the Season after Epiphany. And at one level, this whole season is about being star struck. On the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), the Magi are quite literally star struck as they follow Star of Bethlehem. Their journey is driven by a deep yearning to be in the presence of God, which comes to fulfillment upon their arrival at the manger. 

In this sense, being star struck is something to be embraced and encouraged. Rather than embarrassment and shame, it brings hope and solace, meaning and wholeness. Sometimes we meet God awkwardly or with hesitation. But God doesn’t care about how we present ourselves, just that we do. So allow yourself to be star struck, and know that what really matters is that you’re simply responding to a deep yearning in your soul. 

The piece Willie Stargell narrated that day was a newly commissioned work by an African-American composer named Joseph Schwanter titled “New Morning for the World.” It blended orchestral music with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. Combined with Stargell’s voice and presence, it was a powerful piece that was unveiled to much acclaim. Embedded within it, with the strings slowly droning, were these words from his “I Have a Dream” speech:

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God's children. We cannot walk alone. As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. No, no, we are not satisfied and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The possibilities are limitless when we allow ourselves to be star struck by the divine.

Jan 8, 2020

In Good Faith: New Year's Dissolutions

In my January In Good Faith column, I admit to failing pretty much every New Year's tradition. I think I'll be okay.


New Year’s Dissolutions

I didn’t make it to midnight on New Year’s Eve. Well, I guess technically I did since I didn’t
actually fall asleep until after midnight. But I was in bed with the lights out when the clock (that I didn’t hear) struck the New Year. 

Over the years, I’ve come to recognize that the arrival of the New Year isn’t dependent upon my staying awake to ring it in. Whether or not I’m awake at the stroke of midnight, the New Year still arrives. And that’s rather freeing! Despite the more-than-you’d-think e-mails mistakenly addressed to me as “Father Time,” I bear no responsibility for the transition from one year to the next.

I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions this year. This isn’t unusual for me, as I can’t remember the last time I did. I can get all philosophical (“time is a false construct”) or delude myself into thinking that, to channel Mr. Rogers, I’m fine just the way I am. While my wife and brother have made a pact to give up sugar, I just couldn’t come up with anything. Despite all the “New Year! New You!” ads for gyms and hair care products, I’m pretty sure God still loves the old me.

This week a friend forwarded me an article about a Lutheran pastor from Canada with the headline “Meet the Strongest Priest in the World.” Apparently the Rev. Kevin Fast, who bears a strong resemblance to a jacked up Santa Claus, pulled three firetrucks weighing 109 tons across a 100 foot parking lot in just 34 seconds. He’s also on record (with video evidence!) as having pulled 15 cars at once. 

All of which is to say, I could resolve to double my efforts at the gym. Pastor Fast — maybe I could, ironically enough, outrun him? — makes my exploits on the StairMaster at Planet Fitness seem rather pedestrian.

I didn’t eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. This brings good luck, apparently. Black-eyed peas weren’t part of my tradition growing up — or maybe my parents just decided to take their chances. But either way, seeing all those Facebook posts of people preparing black-eyed peas for their New Year’s Day celebrations makes me wonder what I’m missing and how luckier I’d be if I’d partaken.

There’s evidence that the tradition goes back to Rosh Hashanah and the celebration of the Jewish New Year, but these days it’s mostly a Southern thing. In the Civil War era, black-eyed peas were grown as food for livestock and became a staple of slaves. When General Sherman undertook his infamous March to the Sea, he destroyed all the crops deemed useful to the Confederate Army. He ignored the black-eyed peas, figuring they weren’t fit for human consumption. Those left in the South gratefully subsisted on the peas and ever since they have been viewed as a symbol of luck and prosperity, particularly fit for a celebration of the New Year. 

So while 2020 begins for me with many unrealized traditions, I am nonetheless optimistic. Hindsight may indeed be 2020, but I pray that we will have the foresight to live into the future with peace, hope, and love. In the end, that’s really all that matters.