Apr 4, 2018

In Good Faith: Not According to Plan

In my April In Good Faith column I write about the unexpected Palm Sunday spent in a hospital room and the ways in which even the liturgical calendar doesn't bend to our own wills. For those keeping score at home, Ben continues to heal from his collapsed lung.

Not According to Plan

This past weekend, Christians throughout the world marked the holiest days of the Christian
What a difference a week makes!
year. We moved into the Upper Room on Maundy (Holy) Thursday as we experienced the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus’ offering to become as a servant among us to wash the disciples’ feet, and the giving of a New Commandment as Jesus encourages us to love one another as he loves us. We experienced the agony of the cross on Good Friday as Jesus was betrayed and handed over to be crucified. We experienced the passover from death to life, dark to light, Lent to Easter at the Great Paschal Vigil. And we reveled in the glow of the Resurrection and the joy of the empty tomb on Easter Day. 

It is a full, intense, gut-wrenching kaleidoscope of emotions and, when fully lived into, a reminder that the Christian life, while transformative, is not an easy journey to embark upon. The heart of the Christian faith is emblematic of the human condition in its raw pain but in the end, it holds out an uncompromising vision of hope. Death is not the end; the fullness of joy awaits those who put their whole faith and trust in Jesus — as inconceivable as the story may seem to those with a more rational bent.

The reality is that the death and resurrection cycle is not relegated to a particular three days in the spring calculated by the lunar calendar. Moments of death and resurrection know no time frame. Which is perhaps why I spent Palm Sunday in an Emergency Room at South Shore Hospital. This day that marks Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem takes place the Sunday before Easter. It offers Christians an ancient portal into the events of Holy Week and the last days of Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage. Most people think of the palms themselves and the processions that take place outside churches as worshippers shout “Hosanna” and reenact Jesus entrance into the city where he would be crucified.

On Palm Sunday, following the procession and the waving of palms, the liturgy quickly turns. Suddenly the Passion gospel is read, often with the congregation taking the role of the crowd, and in an instant the joyful cry of “Hosanna!” is replaced with shouts of “Crucify!” The events soon begin to spiral out of control and chaos reigns for a week until Mary Magdalene arrives at Jesus’ tomb on that first Easter morning to find it empty. That’s when the whole world changes and all our preconceived notions are flipped upside down.

But back to the ER. Late on Saturday night, our 18-year-old son, Ben, started complaining of sharp chest pains. No traumatic event, just excruciating pain in an otherwise healthy young man. After various tests — EKGs, x-rays, CT scans, he was diagnosed with a collapsed lung. A spontaneous pneumothorax to be precise. Thus began 48 hours in the hospital. He’s on the mend now but we’re all healing from the fraught emotion of it all. When your son looks up at you and says, “I don’t want to die,” there’s an internal death and resurrection cycle that takes place within your own soul.

Whatever is happening in your own life — a medical issue, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, deep depression, feelings of unworthiness, unchecked sin — know that you are not alone. The God who has experienced the very worst of the human condition is with you. Loving you, tending to you, comforting you. These cycles of our lives don’t always fit neatly into the calendar. Life is a constant adjustment. But you are not alone. My son is not alone. We are not alone. And that is the good news, the joyous news, of Easter as we collective move from “Hosanna” to “Crucify” to “Alleluia.”

Mar 28, 2018

Stations of the (Parish Ministry) Cross

One of the things about being on sabbatical during Holy Week is having the time and mental capacity to come up with ridiculous ideas. As I was thinking about the Stations of the Cross, it occurred to me that we really need a version that shares the reality of parish life during Holy Week.

If you aren't familiar with this devotion, also known as the Way of the Cross, it tells the story of Jesus' final moments leading to his crucifixion. Originating in Jerusalem and the desire to walk in Jesus' footsteps, the devotion became popular for those unable to make an actual pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There are traditionally 14 stations, eight being based on Scripture and the other six rooted in pious legend. Here's a link to some more information about this practice that includes the actual stations.

Many will pray the stations on Good Friday. At my own parish, St. John's in Hingham, Massachusetts, we always walk the outdoor Stations of the Cross at Glastonbury Abbey as part of our devotions that day. I always find this a particularly moving way to mark the solemnity of the occasion.

But without further ado, here's a version for those preparing to pull off Holy Week in a parish setting. Enjoy.

1. The Bishop Condemns the Clergy to Exhaustion

2. The Choir Accepts their Cross

3. The Copier Jams the First Time

4. The Rector Meets His Mother Issues

5. The Verger Helps Carry the Cross

6. The Sexton Wipes the Face of the Rector

7. The Copier Jams the Second Time

8. The Rector Meets the Women of ECW

9. The Copier Jams the Third Time

10. The Deacon is Stripped of Her Vestments

11. The Parish Secretary is Nailed to Her Desk

12. The Bulletins Die in the Copier

13. The Organist is Taken Down from the Choir Loft

14. The Rector is Placed in the Tomb

Feb 21, 2018

Parkland Dreamers


It’s an odd epithet. These days, it evokes this country’s immigration debate. But it also conjures up naivety and a lack of being rooted in reality. We hear it used in just such a pejorative way when we read the story of Joseph and his brothers from Genesis. They say to one another, “Here comes this dreamer,” just before they threaten to kill him and throw him into a pit. 

Now at one level, this was literally true. The precocious youngest child of Jacob had a couple of dreams foretelling both his greatness and the future servitude of his older brothers. Sharing these visions didn’t sit well with his elder siblings, who already resented him for being their father’s favorite son.

But the world needs dreamers, visionaries who are able to see new possibilities. People not held back by convention or old patterns of thought and belief. Human beings often get stuck through the power of inertia and dreamers help us break through conventional wisdom to experience stunning, unexplored vistas of dynamic alternatives.  

In a sense, Jesus was the ultimate dreamer. He laid out a vision of hope and peace and transformation. He envisioned a world where justice rolls down like water; where swords are beat into plough-shares; where barriers between people are shattered; where the kingdom of God is realized in our very midst. His words and actions ushered in the possibility of a new world order where the poor and downtrodden are lifted up and mighty oppressors are cast down from their thrones.

There have been some other dreamers in the news this week. Through passion and eloquence born of tragedy, the teen survivors of the Parkland School shooting have offered us a vision of what this country should be. They have shaken the forces of inertia and indecision and have helped all of us re-open our eyes to both the horror and the possibilities that lie ahead. 

Many have pejoratively called these young people dreamers. The implication being that they are na├»ve and they’ll eventually grow up and realize they can’t actually make a difference in the world. 

But I think they can. 

And while many of the state legislators the students met with in Tallahassee essentially patted them on the head and sent them away with platitudes, I am confident they won’t be silenced. I heard a steely determination as I listened to their voices; a commitment to stay in this fight for the duration, along with an invitation to the rest of us to join them.

Yes, there will be pushback and setbacks and defeats. Gun violence and the forces that enable it are deeply ingrained in our country. Dreamers often cause resentment — whether that’s Joseph or Jesus or the young people standing up for an end to the killing. There will always be people who take the role of Joseph’s brothers or Jesus’ opponents or status quo politicians. 

But we can’t lose the dream. We can’t stop looking to the dreamers. Wherever they arise and in whatever improbable form they take, we must help keep the dream alive. Because dreamers are some of the most important voices in any society. Those with ears to hear must listen.

Feb 5, 2018

Vintage Clothing

There’s vintage and then there’s vintage. There’s poking around the Goodwill Store in search of the perfect wide-collared, 1970’s brown polyester shirt for your Les Nesman from WKRP in Cincinnati Halloween costume. And then there’s Martha Washington’s silk taffeta gown she wore as First Lady in the 1780’s that is displayed at the Museum of Natural History. 

Last Sunday I had my first brush with actual vintage clothing. Think Martha’s dress but 200 years older. It was a curious series of events that found me standing at the altar at St. John’s wearing sacred vestments dating to the mid-1500s. But there I was, celebrating the Eucharist in a fiddleback-style chasuble with cloth-of-gold stitching and embroidery reminiscent of the most gifted Renaissance-era European nuns. 

The vestment had been in the family of a parishioner named Betsy Bishop for many years. The story goes that she had an uncle who traveled the world collecting art and artifacts. His collection became so valuable that he could never afford the import duties to have them shipped back home so he stayed in Europe — with his treasures — until his death. Sort of an art collector’s variation on Charlie and the MTA. 

After her uncle died, the vestment was given as a wedding present to Betsy and her late husband Jack, a fitting gift as he was an Episcopal priest. Last year, Betsy donated the chasuble to St. John’s rather than a museum, saying she wanted to see it worn occasionally rather than having it hermetically sealed behind a glass case. After working with a renowned textile conservationist, and promising only to wear it very rarely, we dedicated the vestment in Jack’s memory. 

Several people have asked me what was going through my head as I wore this ancient and sacred vestment, one that had been worn by so many faithful priests over the generations. Honestly, my first thought was “Do. Not. Drop. The. Chalice.” Now, after 17 years in the priesthood, I have yet to knock over a chalice full of wine. But all I could think was, “Well, there’s no time like the present.” 

Once I relaxed and remembered it wasn’t about me — it’s never about the priest up at the altar — I was able to appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was able to let the Church’s ancient liturgy, ritual action that has become part of my vocational identity, take over. In that sense, it was no different from any other Sunday and any other celebration of communion that has taken place over the past 2,000 years. There is bread, there is wine, there is a representative of the Church, there is a gathered community, and there is the divine presence. 

At one point my mind wandered to who else might have worn this chasuble — and where. A mystery in the midst of the wonderful and sacred mystery that is Eucharist celebration. 

Serving at the altar, whether the altar is a makeshift table in a hospital room or carved from Italian marble, always brings perspective. The perspective that others have come before and others will come after; the perspective that we are all connected to something greater, something that transcends time and space; the perspective that despite our limitations and failures, we are destined for glory. 

So, this unique vestment made all the difference and no difference at all. I was glad to wear it and I was proud to be able to honor the Rev. Jack Bishop, a Civil Rights activist who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in both Selma and Boston. Yet it was also — as it was originally intended to be — all about our Lord’s sacrifice. I’m thankful to Betsy who recognized this all along. 16th century vestments do belong in museums but they also, ultimately, belong at the altar. 

Jan 25, 2018

Annual Meeting "Tips"

This may come as a surprise, but the Annual Parish Meeting takes place...every year. Ours is always scheduled for the last Sunday in January or, as we call it here in New England, The Last Sunday Before the Patriots Appear in Yet Another Super Bowl.

As at other Episcopal parishes around the country, we gather for a meal, elect Vestry members, and present the budget for the coming year, and allow people to ignore what's actually being said by handing out a comprehensive report of all the ministries just before the meeting. I always like to present a year-in-review slide show which, I think, adds some color, texture, camaraderie, and humor to what can be fairly dry proceedings.

Annual Meeting week always creates a bit of anxiety around the office -- not Holy Week-type stress -- but there are lots of last-minute reports and details to pull together. The copy machine in the parish office gets ridden hard and there's inevitably a complicated pastoral emergency that arises.

Oh, let's be honest. It's mostly the rector's anxiety. I always apologize in advance during the staff meeting in the week preceding the Annual Meeting. I think most clergy in charge of parishes approach the Annual Meeting with the nagging fear that the Vestry will attempt to invoke the church equivalent of the 25th Amendment. That's the one that allows for the removal of the president from office if the vice-president and a majority of the Cabinet deem him physically or mentally "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." Not that there is a church equivalent, but that's the level of paranoia that gets unleashed.

Anyway, I've had the Annual Meeting on my mind the past couple of weeks and I have a few "suggestions" to make yours more enjoyable for everyone. Oh, and here's an actual tip that we're doing this year: hiring a magician to entertain the kids while their parents attend the meeting. Definitely steal that idea!

1. During the Rector's Report, have the curate sit behind the lectern and stand up after every few sentences to enthusiastically lead congregational clapping.

2. Have the Treasurer present the budget using "fuzzy math" and "voodoo economics." Basically, keep talking in circles until there's a motion to close the meeting.

3. Encourage the Rector, during the dreaded open discussion portion at the end, to "answer" every question like a Bill Belichick press conference: "We're on to next Sunday morning."

4.  Pray for all the trees you killed by printing all those copies of the Annual Report that is also available online.

5. Remember, if you keep the meeting under an hour, there is a brass plaque waiting with your name on it. Sure, it will be attached to the bottom of one of the uncomfortable metal folding chairs people are forced to sit on during the meeting. But still.

6. If the coffee has run out by the time the rector makes it in to offer the opening prayer, there will be no Annual Meeting (which is either a promise or a threat, depending on your perspective).

7. After the meeting begins, lock the doors. Captive audiences are the best audiences.

8. If the congregation spends 20 minutes debating why the candle budget increased by 1.5% last year, there may be bigger issues that need addressing.

9. Don't entertain any suggestion that begins, "Wouldn't it be really great if we made this a Bi-Annual Meeting?"

10. When the same guy gets up to speak, as he has at the last 35 Annual Meetings, and demands to know why we no longer do Morning Prayer on Sunday morning, consider it a motion to adjourn.

In the end, for as much preparation as it takes, I do love Annual Meeting Sunday. It's a gift to be able to hit the pause button amid the pace and volume of parish life and both celebrate the last 12 months while looking ahead to the future. Blessings to all who have upcoming Annual Meetings. May your budget be balanced and your attendance figures be up.