Mar 6, 2015

In Good Faith: Tuning Peg

In my latest In Good Faith column, I liken Lent to a spiritual tune-up. If it sounds familiar, it's because a version of this essay appears in my book Dust Bunnies in the Basket: Finding God in Lent and Easter. So basically I plagiarized from myself.

Tuning Peg

When I was a kid, I sometimes tagged along with my father to symphony orchestra rehearsals. He was a conductor with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s and so when a babysitter got sick or my mother was working, I’d accompany him to the old Lyric Theater downtown. 

When I wasn’t hanging out in the dressing room with the poker-playing horn players or wandering around backstage among the huge double bass cases and assorted timpani drums, I’d be out exploring the red velvet-lined boxes in the balcony. 

Looking back, these were pretty special moments, memories I particularly cherish since my father died of cancer at fifty-two.

You could say that one of the soundtracks of my childhood was the tuning of the orchestra. If you’ve ever been to a classical music concert you know that they all start with the same ritual tuning. After a nod from the concertmaster, the principal oboe player gives them an A and then the rest of the orchestra tunes their instruments off of the oboe which, of all the instruments, provides the truest pitch. It just takes a few moments, but they always tuned up at the beginning of the rehearsal and then periodically throughout it if my father heard something that didn’t sound quite right.

The spiritual life is a bit like an orchestra in this regard. Over time, instruments naturally get out of tune if left alone. Strings in particular are very sensitive to cold or humidity. A violin string might stretch out, causing it to go flat. Or it might constrict, causing it to go sharp. A violinist must do a bit of fine-tuning with the pegs to get the instrument back in playing condition. 

In a sense, the season of Lent is the church’s tuning peg. Because our priorities can become slightly off key, Lent brings us back into tune, allowing and encouraging us to live again in harmony with God. It’s easy to let our spiritual lives get away from us. We get busy; we get self-absorbed; we get bogged down by endless activity. We let the minutiae of life drive our priorities, and suddenly we find ourselves out of tune with God. 

It might be so subtle that we hardly notice that our spiritual life has gone a bit flat, or it might be strident, atonal disharmony. Either way, Lent holds the potential to bring our spiritual lives back into tune. It encourages self-reflection and a return to the basics of our faith.

Lent forces us to reconsider the priorities of our lives. It demands we face the questions about what is truly important. There’s a natural sifting of the superfluous and nonessential pieces of our lives that brings us back to the brass tacks of the human experience. The basics of family and friends, shelter, food, and helping others in need are often what remain. And at the heart of these is our relationship with the living God, the God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us, the God who joins us on the journey of life and faith, whatever trials and tribulations we meet along the way.

Throughout Lent, I encourage you to allow your spiritual tuning peg to be turned, if even just slightly. It requires obedience to the ultimate conductor of our lives yet results in ever-increasing peace, joy, love, and harmony.

Feb 13, 2015

Virtual Shrove Tuesday

One of the best things about the Episcopal Church are the number of parishes that host Shrove Tuesday Pancake Suppers. Call it what you will -- Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday -- but it's all about the pancakes.

At my own parish, St. John's in Hingham, Massachusetts, it's one of the great highlights of the year with fabulous food, an intergenerational crowd, pancake games, and the ritual burning of the palms from last year's Palm Sunday service to make ashes for the next day's Ash Wednesday liturgies.

But what you do when your community is paralyzed by an insane amount of snow? Throw in a burst pipe in the parish hall, the usual venue for the Tuesday night supper, and you've got an epic flapjack failure. Right?

Not a chance! Because this year we're holding a Virtual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. I've encouraged everyone, wherever they are, to join in by...eating pancakes at some point on Tuesday.

Whether it's breakfast, lunch, or dinner; at home, in a restaurant, at a neighbor's house, in an igloo,

And on behalf of my community, we're inviting everyone in the entire Church to participate. How? Eat pancakes! And then post pictures of you eating them to social media with the hashtag #VirtualShrove. Whether you're eating pancakes at church or with your family, why not tell the world we're preparing for Lent?

Oh, and if you're curious as to why it's called Shrove Tuesday? Here you go:

The day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is known as Shrove Tuesday. To shrive someone, in old-fashioned English (he shrives, he shrove, he has shriven), is to hear his acknowledgement of his sins, to assure him of God's forgiveness, and to give him appropriate spiritual advice. The term survives today in ordinary usage in the expression "short shrift." To give someone short shrift is to pay very little attention to his excuses or problems. The longer expression is, "to give him short shrift and a long rope," which formerly meant to hang a criminal with a minimum of delay. 

Shrove Tuesday is also called Fat Tuesday (in French, Mardi Gras) because on that day a thrifty housewife would use up the fats that she had kept around for cooking (the can of bacon drippings for instance). Fatty foods would not be eaten during the penitential season of Lent. Since pancakes were a standard way of using up fat, this day became associated with them. Which is why, of course, so many parishes hold Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers. So this last day before Lent has become the 'feast' to prepare for the time of 'famine' in the desert. 

Feb 9, 2015

Dust Bunnies in the Basket

Gearing up for Ash Wednesday? Here's the title chapter from my new book Dust Bunnies in the Basket: Finding God in Lent and Easter. Illustrated by the incomparable priest-cartoonist, Jay Sidebotham, it serves as the companion guide to Dog in the Manger: Finding God in Christmas Chaos (also illustrated by Jay).

If you're looking for a fun guide for your Lenten journey (I mean, besides Lent Madness), I hope you'll pick up a copy. It also has discussion questions at the end of each session if you have a book group or just seek further individual reflection.

Somehow both of these books slipped through the cracks at Forward Movement, where my archnemesis, Scott Gunn, is the executive director. He was probably lulled into submission by the awesomeness of the accompanying illustrations.

He has also informed me that for a LIMITED TIME ONLY, the book (already dirt cheap at $10) is available at 30% off through Forward Movement. Use code LENT15E2 at checkout to receive the discount.

Dust Bunnies

I don’t like dust and I especially don’t like dust bunnies. You know those mysterious furry things that lurk behind your bedroom door, or in your closet, or under your bed. Who knows how they got there? Who wants to know how they got there? But they’re there, and I don’t like them, especially when they move around. You’ve probably seen them do this: you open a door, look behind it, and the dust bunny catches just enough air that it seems to start hopping away. 
Cleanliness may or may not be next to godliness but dust bunnies show up whether or not we’re compulsive dusters. Even Mr. Clean himself occasionally sees dust bunnies in his pantry closet—and his clean- shaven, earring-wearing self is horrified. 
So, it’s not the most comforting thought in the world on Ash Wednesday when we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Fortunately, this doesn’t turn us into walking, talking dust bunnies. God’s not going to sweep us away with a giant feather duster. But the words of the Ash Wednesday service remind us that there is something greater out there, greater than what we can see with the naked eye, greater than our hopes, fears, and dreams. And that something is God. It’s not that we’re as insignificant,  useless, and annoying as dust bunnies; it’s just that the world doesn’t revolve around dust, and it doesn’t revolve around us. God is the center of all life and creation, which doesn’t mean we’re useless; we’re just not in control. 
Think about dust for a moment. There are two ways to create it, through inactivity and activity. If you go downstairs into the part of the basement that rarely gets used, the part where you store old boxes full of books or that pair of cross-country skis you’ve long since outgrown, you encounter dust. Run your finger along those skis and you get a tangible reminder that they haven’t been used in ages. Your finger is suddenly covered with dust, and you might even sneeze once or twice. 
Then there’s the other way dust is created, through activity. That’s how those dust bunnies in your bedroom came to be. Through the everyday activity of life, you create dust. It comes in on your shoes or your clothes, or on the kids’ backpacks. If we’re not kicking up some dust, we’re not really living. 
Jesus encourages us to kick up some dust every now and then, to roll up our sleeves and get involved with the world and the people around us. We might get dirty every once in a while, but that’s okay. Through our relationship with Jesus we are cleansed, renewed, and dusted off time and time again. 
All of this is why I like to hold a children’s Ash Wednesday service every year. Not many churches do this because there’s a natural inclination to shield our kids from concepts like mortality and human sin. And the idea of dumping ashes on the heads of young children and telling them they’ll eventually die gives some clergy the willies. But ignoring an important and integral part of life isn’t the answer. You certainly don’t have to spook children to make the point—though I do know a woman who went to Catholic school and for years was convinced that the ashes themselves came from the bones of dead nuns. 
I simply like to make age-appropriate connections for children that hopefully lead to further questions. On Shrove Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras), we burn the palms from the previous Palm Sunday. At the next day’s Ash Wednesday service, I invite the children to sit with me as I use a mortar and pestle to create the ashes. As I grind the burnt palms and strain out the larger pieces, I talk about life, death, and resurrection. Then I administer the ashes on their foreheads. Rather than removing the mystery, I find this process draws them deeper into the story and makes the entrance into the season of Lent that much more tangible. 
Of course, one year I had just imposed ashes at the children’s service with the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” when a little girl looked up and asked, “Pixie dust?” Sure. Why not? 

Feb 6, 2015

In Good Faith: Another Way

In my February In Good Faith column I examine the unfortunate image of Christians in the main stream media. The article starts out in a similar vein to my recent blog post Ripping Jesus from the Headlines but is written for the broader audience of the secular publications in which it appears.

Another Way

If all I knew about Christianity was what I learned through the media, I think it’s safe to say I would not be a Christian. 

I mean, think about it. From the outside looking in, what do you see? Westboro Baptist Church — a hate group unworthy of the name “church,” or “Baptist” for that matter. Creationists living in utter denial of the value of scientific inquiry. Sexual predators masquerading as priests.  Homophobic and jingoistic rants in the name of Jesus by pastors with bad hair and 900 numbers. Delusional people waiting for the (non-Biblical) "Rapture." Preachers on the radio spouting the “prosperity gospel” of pray hard enough and God will make you rich. Lawsuits over the right to erect monuments of the 10 Commandments and/or public nativity scenes.

Or put another way, if you went up to a bunch of non-church-going strangers and asked them what came to mind when they thought of Christians you’d likely hear: judgmental, hypocritical, holier than thou, irrational, out of touch, humorless, and intolerant. 

And the hits just keep coming. Last week there was a story about a group of Christian legislators in Mississippi pushing to get the Bible named the official state book. Now, I love the Bible as much as anyone — in my ordination vow I affirmed my belief that Holy Scripture “contains all things necessary to salvation” — but when it’s used as a cudgel to whack those who disagree with you, you might just be missing the whole point.

So while it’s easy to understand how people outside the faith might come to such negative conclusions, all of this has absolutely nothing to do with the faith I know and proclaim. Frankly, I’m tired of Christianity being hijacked by groups that bear little resemblance to Jesus’ underlying message of love, hope, and forgiveness and everything to do with human insecurity and fear.

One of the main reasons I’ve written this monthly column for five and a half years is to help change this perception. It’s certainly not because I like seeing my picture in the paper. Sometimes it feels like a mere drop in a giant bucket of misinformation, but I’ll keep at it. Because what a lot of people in the religion business seem to forget is that our role is simply to point to the divine presence. No one person or group has all the answers — faith inevitably comes with a heavy dose of mystery and none of us have a monopoly on the mind of God. Beware of those who claim such certainty.

The good news is that we don’t have to have all the answers. We’re human, after all, which is precisely the point. God can take care of the rest — the loving judgment, the conversion of the heart, meeting people wherever they may be along the journey of life and faith. The role of faith leaders is invitation and encouragement; the rest of it is above our pay grade anyway.

So I simply invite you to come and see that there is another way. To recognize that the heart of the gospel has nothing at all to do with the negativity and judgmental attitudes that hover over the surface. To encounter a God of deep meaning and mystery. To meet a God who will let your heart overflow with peace and gratitude and allow your soul to sing with praise and joy. To understand that the God of love and justice and compassion is absolutely nothing like the God of the headlines. 

Jan 23, 2015

Serendipity strikes again

Serendipity is not only a fun word to say, it's a joy to experience. It's generally defined as "fortunate happenstance" or "pleasant surprise" but when serendipity actually happens it's more a feeling than a definition.

My mother shared a serendipitous experience with me via the U.S. postal service and I thought I'd pass it on. Why? Because it's my blog and I can be serendipitous if I want to.

It turns out that the choir at her parish in Baltimore, the Church of the Redeemer (the same parish that sponsored me for ordination), will soon be singing the Bruckner Mass in E Minor. I guess it had been awhile since they sang this setting because one of the singers found an old service leaflet in his copy of the music.

Anyway, the bulletin for the Fourth Sunday in Advent in 1977 listed my late father as the Conductor of this special musical offering. When we lived in Baltimore, where he was the Associate Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, he would occasionally lend his gifts in this way to the parish. As I think about it, what rector wouldn't love to have a symphony orchestra conductor in the congregation?

So they did the Bruckner Mass with the Redeemer choir, musicians from the Baltimore Symphony, and some singers from the Baltimore Symphony Chorus, which my father also directed. (Fun Fact: Bishop Carol Gallagher sang under my dad as a member of the Baltimore Symphony Chorus).

In looking over the service, I have to admit that from a churchmanship perspective, the liturgy gave me retroactive agita. They sang the mass settings as part of Choral Morning Prayer. Sigh. But from a church geekery historical perspective, it was fun seeing the congregation directed to the texts in the "New Prayer Book."

It's been 23 years since my father died so this was a particularly meaningful find. Indeed he's still there -- bodily at least -- in the columbarium at Redeemer.

Oh, and by the way, if you are an awesome priest, Redeemer is seeking a new rector at the moment. It's a special place which you can read about here. The former Bishop of Maryland, Bob Ihloff, is serving as interim. Plus, as a special perk of the job, you'd get to provide pastoral care to my mom when she complains that I don't call her enough.