Dec 6, 2018

In Good Faith: Wait For It

In my December In Good Faith column, I reflect on household nativity set wars of the not-so-distant past, and share what they can reveal about theology.

Wait For It

In the not-so-distant past, great wars erupted over baby Jesus in our house. Not the actual, living, breathing baby Jesus who burst into the world on that first Christmas Day, but the small figurine that accompanied our crèche. Our household was evenly split on whether baby Jesus should be placed in the manger before Christmas or on Christmas. 

The argument for putting him into the nativity set earlier in December revolved around his being an
integral part of the scene. What’s a crèche without Jesus? It’s just a bunch of shepherds and wise men standing around a cold stable for no apparent reason. Not to mention the accusations flying around about not being in the proper Christmas spirit. What’s next? Not hanging a wreath on the front door?

The other side of the debate held that Advent, the liturgical season that precedes Christmas, is all about anticipation and waiting. Be patient! Jesus is on the way, but has not yet arrived. If you can wait until the 25th to open your presents, you can wait a couple more weeks to complete the nativity tableau. 

Once the boys got involved and started taking sides — opposing ones, naturally — baby Jesus ended up in a few tug-of-wars. In the absence of Jesus, the empty manger would invariably be filled with someone: Spiderman. Mrs. Incredible. A stray army man. Though, the Hulk was too big and knocked the whole thing over. And there was that one year, someone hid baby Jesus so well that he didn’t turn up until after Easter. 

In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor issue with which to contend. In a world where famine and persecution and natural disasters and crushing poverty is encountered every day, Jesus himself wouldn’t be overly concerned with precious nativity sets placed on mantle places, often more for decoration than devotion. 

But theologically speaking, both responses to the baby Jesus figurine conundrum are correct. Jesus is always present — that’s the Incarnational promise of Christmas, after all. That the Son of God entered the world in human form and abides with us through whatever we encounter in this mortal life. Yet that sense of anticipation is an integral part of our spiritual lives this season. It gives us the space to fully prepare ourselves to receive him anew each year. 

There are all sorts of nativity sets available on Amazon. In recent years I’ve seen one featuring Star Wars characters and another that’s comprised entirely of dogs. My favorite, though, is the Hipster Nativity Set ($59.95 on Amazon) complete with Mary and Joseph taking a selfie with baby Jesus, the Three Wisemen on Segways carrying Amazon Prime boxes, solar panels on the roof of the stable, and a shepherd in skinny jeans Snap-chatting the whole scene. 

In the end, if you’re setting up a crèche in the weeks before Christmas, I hope you’ll think deeply about the significance of it. Reflect on the characters, think about the story from their varying perspectives, and whatever you decide to do with baby Jesus, know that you are deeply and profoundly loved by God.

Nov 21, 2018

Now Thank We All Our God (Behind the Music)

One of my favorite Thanksgiving hymns is “Now thank we all our God.” I like it because of its sentiment; I like it because I can follow the tenor line; but mostly I like it because of the story behind it. 

This joyful hymn of gratitude wasn’t written because things were going well. It’s easy to be
thankful in the midst of prosperity. Rather it was written in 1636 by a Lutheran pastor named Martin Rinkart in the midst of war-torn Germany.

Pastor Rinkart came to serve a congregation in the old walled city of Eilenberg in Saxony at the beginning of what came to be known as the 30 Years War. Now, if you don’t remember your middle school European history class, the 30 Years War was fought in central Europe, amid a swirl of religious and political discord, and was one of the most destructive and deadliest conflicts in human history. Eight million people died through a lethal combination of military engagements, famine, and plague. It finally ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, but not until after the devastation of entire regions.

Eilenberg became a refuge for political and military fugitives, an oasis of sorts in the midst of a war-torn region. But this brought problems of overcrowding, leading to widespread famine and rampant disease. Eilenberg was also invaded by various armies over the years, causing even more anguish and destruction for both residents and refugees. The suffering is hard to imagine, but when you read stories about throngs of half-starved, plague-ridden townspeople fighting over the corpse of a single dead cat, you get the idea.

Things were tough for Pastor Rinkart as he sought to minister to the people of his congregation and eventually to everyone in the besieged town. In the year he wrote his now famous hymn, there were four pastors in Eilenberg. By the end of that year, one had fled for his life and never returned, while the other two contracted the plague and died, leaving Rinkart as the only pastor in town. During the height of yet another diseased-riddled year, Rinkart was conducting up to 50 funerals a day and in 1637 he officiated at over 4,000 burials, including one for his own wife. With his tenure in Eilenberg paralleling nearly exactly the duration of the 30 Years War, he spent his entire vocational life ministering to others, barely surviving on limited rations, giving away most of what he did have, and having the soldiers who forcibly stayed in his home stealing anything that was left over.

It’s hard to imagine his state of mind in the midst of such despair and heartache. And yet, in the depths of such overwhelming sorrow, Rinkart penned “Now thank we all our God,” a hymn so full of hope and gratitude. Rather than a lament, he summoned the joy emblematic of a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. And I find this remarkably inspiring, much more so than someone writing of God’s bountiful grace while surveying a Thanksgiving table heavy laden with rich foods.

As you gaze upon the bounty of your own Thanksgiving feast, I encourage you to think about Pastor Rinkart and be inspired by his story. Recall that this hymn was composed as a bold statement of faith, not just a nice sentiment about gratitude. 

While Rinkart was a prolific hymn writer, he also used this text as a grace before meals with his own family. Perhaps you will use it this way as well. I could think of no better way to give thanks to our God “with heart and hand and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom his world rejoices.”
Now thank we all our God
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom his world rejoices;
who from our mothers' arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
to keep us in his grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
of this world in the next.
All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son and Spirit blest,
who reign in highest heaven
the one eternal God,
whom heaven and earth adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore. 

Nov 5, 2018

Fair Trade Coffee Resolution - Passed!

This past weekend, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts passed a resolution I offered encouraging
the exclusive use of fair trade coffee at all church events. Shockingly, the bishop allowed me to speak into a live microphone to present the resolution and it passed overwhelmingly.

The point of the resolution was not to compel parishes to serve fair trade coffee, but rather to offer a moral imperative based on Christian values to do so. For me, after visiting Central American coffee farms while on sabbatical earlier this year, this has become an issue of economic and social justice.

It was also meant to highlight a partnership between Episcopal Relief & Development and Massachusetts' own Equal Exchange, whereby for every pound of fair trade coffee sold, 15 cents is donated to ER-D.

I've blogged about this issue in the past and shared a list of authentic fair trade coffee companies. This is a complicated issue where some corporations have attempted to use the fair trade label for marketing purposes. There are also independent coffee shops that don't sell coffee labeled as fair trade but, through relationships with farmers, everyone is earning a fair wage for their labor. The key is to ask questions and then use your purchasing power to align with your values.

As I said in presenting the resolution, "Jesus reminds us again and again that small things, like purchasing a cup of coffee that lifts the burden of exploitation, are just as important as grand gestures. It's why he tells his disciples that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains; it's why he washes feet and cooks breakfast and interacts with children. Small gestures serve as windows into our souls, while offering hope to a broken world."

Below is the full text of the resolution. My hope is that other dioceses and denominations across the country will use this resolution in their own context to raise both awareness and the economic conditions for the millions of small farmers in the coffee producing countries of the global south.

If I can help you move this forward in any way, please don't hesitate to be in touch. I'm hoping the resolution we passed is just the start.

The Use of Fair Trade Coffee at All Church Events

Submitted by: The Rev. Tim Schenck, The Rt. Rev. Bud Cederholm, The Very Rev. Amy McCreath, The Rev. Diane Wong, The Rev. Sarah Brockmann, The Rev. Jeff Mello, The Rev. Deborah Warner, The Rev. Phil LaBelle, The Rev. Suzanne Wade, The Rev. Beth Grundy, Mr. Rick Collins, Ms. Dawn Tesorero

that the 233rd Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts calls upon all congregations, ministries and diocesan bodies to use fair trade coffee at all church events; and be it further

that the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts be encouraged to support goals of the fair trade coffee movement, which include: raising income levels of small-scale farmers
and farm workers; more equitably distributing economic gains across the industry; encouraging environmentally sound and sustainable farming methods; promoting ethical working conditions; and increasing consumer awareness of the economic forces affecting farmers and the exploitation of workers.

Coffee has long been an integral aspect of hospitality and fellowship in our communities and fuels much church business. This resolution encourages parishes, missions, chaplaincies and our diocese to commit to the exclusive use of fairly traded coffee. While fair trade coffee costs slightly more (generally only 3 or 4 cents more per cup), we feel this is an investment in thousands of unseen people in the $100-billion global coffee industry, in which 80% of the world’s coffee is produced by 17.7 million small-scale farmers, often living well below the poverty line.

The goals of the fair trade movement are consistent with the Christian faith, and this resolution reveals a small but impactful way our purchases can better reflect our Christian values in the global economy. Fairly traded products help make our sisters and brothers on the other side of the supply chain more visible to us, connecting us to the people behind the products we enjoy, while rejecting child labor and economic slavery through debt peonage. Fair trade coffee is also organic – grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides – and of higher quality, which improves taste, positively impacting the impression made on visitors and newcomers.

Our denomination has already made access to fair trade coffee both easy and affordable through a partnership between Episcopal Relief & Development and Massachusetts' own Equal Exchange. 
In addition to facilitating easy ordering and providing quality products, when congregations join the partnership (which is free), 15 cents is donated to Episcopal Relief & Development's General Fund for every pound of fairly traded products purchased.

Statements Against
  1. Fair trade coffee costs more per pound and would place an undue burden on economically struggling parishes.
  2. Navigating the world of fair trade coffee is complicated, and some corporate entities have sought to co-opt and dilute its impact.
Implementation Requirements
The resolution’s submitters are prepared to make resources available, including the results of their research and other information they’ve gathered, as well as to assist diocesan staff in disseminating gathered information to parish vestries and other local ministry leaders who are interested in exploring fair trade coffee options for their particular ministry settings.

Oct 4, 2018

In Good Faith: No Parking Zone

In my October In Good Faith column, I find spirituality in walking a puppy through a church parking lot. No, seriously.

No Parking Zone

I spend a lot of time wandering aimlessly through the church parking lot. It never used to be this way. My general philosophy had always been that parking lots were designed for cars, not people. But then we got a new puppy, and suddenly I find myself walking around the parking lot like a lost itinerant preacher holding a leash rather than circuit riding atop a horse.

Cooper is now five-months-old, a curiously adorable mix of basenji, German shepherd, and
chihuahua. We’ve been doing puppy classes (which, apparently, are no longer referred to as “obedience school”), but in the months before figuring out leash walking, Cooper and I have spent a lot of time strolling through the church grounds, with particular emphasis on the parking lot. For some reason, he has an affinity for it. 

One lesson this has revealed, besides the fact that he’s no longer motivated by the cheap training treats, is the joy of exploring familiar spaces in new ways. I mean, if someone had asked me a few months ago about the church parking lot, I would have been able to sketch it out on a napkin. I know its basic shape, the upward slope of the driveway, the proximity of the church, the Memorial Garden, and playground. 

But I didn’t really know it. I never paid attention to the way the light hit the pavement through the trees at different times of the day or how particular angles of church architecture stand out from different vantage points or the beauty of the wild vegetation that forms a natural barrier around it. Forced intimacy with the familiar brings new perspective, opening fresh insights and inviting wonder. That’s an unexpected gift that can arise even through someone as seemingly mundane as walking a dog through a parking lot. 

And it leads to reflection upon what other newly revealed joys we may be missing that exist in our midst. It may be someone in our lives with whom we’re familiar but never really taken the time to truly know. Or a daily ritual like a commute or a walk around the neighborhood that we no longer fully see because we’re too distracted or we find ourselves staring at our phones or it’s just become too familiar. 

People often have this experience with the Lord’s Prayer — it has become so rote, so familiar, that we fail to hear the power behind it. When we put it in context, we recall that Jesus teaches it to the disciples after they ask him how to pray. Think about that! If you were allowed to ask Jesus one question, this might not be at the top of your list, but it would likely make the top five. And he gives us a simple, poignant, direct, example of how to converse with the divine. 

Fall is a wonderful time to open your heart and mind to the wonders of the familiar. Unlocking the potential beauty of that which surrounds us, invites us into the world that exists beyond first impressions. It gives us the opportunity to break through the familiar in order to experience things with fresh eyes. I encourage you to discover your own parking lot moment. 

Sep 5, 2018

In Good Faith: Learning the Ropes

In my September In Good Faith column, I write about being in unfamiliar situations and how sometimes we're the regulars and sometimes we're the extras.

Learning the Ropes

Last week I felt like an idiot. It’s not that I did anything particularly stupid, though that’s never
out of the realm of possibility. But I walked into a coffee shop in Boston I’d never been to before, to meet a friend, and I did everything wrong. I got in line at the wrong end, I went to the wrong counter to order, and I went the wrong way after picking up my coffee. I did make it to a table without spilling hot coffee on a fellow patron and getting sued. Fortunately, there’s a distinction between feeling like an idiot and acting like one.

Now, I spend a lot of time in coffee shops, as anyone who knows me can attest. Most of this time is spent in my self-proclaimed “satellite office” at Redeye Roasters in Hingham, but wherever I travel I’m always seeking the best coffee in town. So generally I know what I’m doing — I even know the difference between a macchiato, cortado, and cappuccino. That’s how well I know coffee shops.

But every coffee shop does things slightly differently. Well, maybe it’s all the same at a chain like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts, but each independent coffee shop has a slightly different traffic flow, ambiance, and decor. That’s half the charm!

As I bumbled my way through the ordering experience in Boston, I could feel the regulars giving me the stink eye. “Who is this clueless fool?” I imagined them thinking to themselves, as I accidentally cut off the woman ahead of me. 

If I’m honest, I can’t blame them for thinking this way. I’ve had the same thought when I show up on a Saturday morning at Redeye, or what I like to refer to as “amateur hour,” when the place is full of interlopers on their way to Nantasket Beach and other weekend coffee warriors. “Look at that guy! He doesn’t know the line forms to the left. Hahahahaha.”

It’s embarrassing how judgmental we can be when we’re the ones in the know. It makes us feel superior to be part of the in group; to be the Norms and Cliffs at Cheers rather than the endless parade of extras. But inevitably the tables are turned and we find ourselves on the other side, needing assistance and direction, compassion and understanding.

This time of year, many among us are considering going back to church for the first time in awhile or thinking about trying out a new church. This can be a daunting experience and you can’t help but feel self-conscious about the possibility of doing things the “wrong” way. But I do hope you’ll lay those anxieties aside and dare to walk into a faith community this fall. 

Here at St. John’s, as I’m sure is the case at other local congregations, you will be welcomed without judgment. No one will roll their eyes if you can’t find the right page in the hymnal or if you’re two minutes late to the service because your toddler couldn’t find her cape. We’re all in this together and there is no wrong way to approach the God of unconditional love. And anyway, what’s the worst that can happen — standing when you’re supposed to sit or kneeling when you’re supposed to stand? If God can’t handle that, I think we all may have greater problems. 

In the end, no matter how much I may have unintentionally bucked the norms, I still ended up with a great cup of coffee that day in Boston. That’s my hope for you — that no matter the initial discomfort, you’ll find a place to nurture your soul and live out your faith.