Apr 28, 2016

In Good Faith: Searching for Clues

In my latest In Good Faith column, I explain why I am taking my place as the latest in a long line of crime-fighting clerics. 

Searching for Clues

It all started with an innocuous, tongue-in-cheek text from a friend: “I think you should help the local police solve mysteries like the vicar in Grantchester.” 

You know Grantchester, right? The popular PBS detective show set in 1950s England where an Anglican priest (played by James Norton) assists the gruff and overworked local detective in solving crimes. 

At first I thought  this was a joke but then I thought, why shouldn’t I help out the Hingham Police Department with their unsolved mysteries? Sure, my wife has accused me of being rather unobservant (how am I supposed to know what color the dining room walls are unless I’m, you know, actually in the dining room?). But I’ve binge-watched enough Law & Order to know the Miranda Rights by heart. And I’ve watched David Caruso in CSI:Miami so I’ve learned the precise moment at which to remove my sunglasses to achieve maximum dramatic effect when interrogating a suspect.

But besides all this, there’s certainly precedent for clergy aiding the cops. Besides the Rev. Sidney Chambers, the priest in Grantchester,, there’s G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, the Father Dowling mysteries, Andrew Greeley’s Father Blackie Ryan, and a parishioner recently lent me a mystery series by Julia Spencer-Fleming featuring a crime-fighting Episcopal priest named Clare Ferguson. 

I’m not sure how all these clerics find time amid their busy days to look for clues — perhaps that’s the real mystery here. Nonetheless, I’m sure I can moonlight a bit while still faithfully tending to the flock. I mean, if the detectives on Law & Order can get from Battery Park to Harlem in 30 seconds during rush hour, anything’s possible, right?

Anyway, I tweeted out my friend’s suggestion and suddenly it became a thing — thanks to Patriot Ledger writer (and Twitter follower) Lane Lambert. He loved the idea of life imitating art and suddenly an article about this new “partnership” was on the front page. Slow news day aside, Sergeant Steven Dearth of the Hingham Police Department replied that they’re always open to help. Perfect! I was in. 

Actually, I did meet with Sergeant Dearth — we had a lot of fun with this, trading photos on Twitter. Who knew the Hingham Police had a Twitter account? But more importantly, it’s helpful to remember that the police are set within the community rather than set apart from it. 

There has been a lot of negative publicity regarding law enforcement of late — much of it deserved, especially in relating to people of color. But we can’t forget that there is also a tremendous amount of good work being done out there in difficult conditions. 

Calling for justice and praising those who serve their communities faithfully are not mutually exclusive. As a person of faith, I pray for both an end to senseless violence and for greater communication and understanding. Something that begins with seeing one another as fellow children of God and recognizing that we’re all in this together.

In the meantime, if you see me walking up and down Main Street with a huge magnifying glass “looking for clues,” please do everyone a favor. Call the police.

Apr 23, 2016

Top ways to embarrass your teen on a college tour

With a junior in high school (what?!) I've had the pleasure of taking him on a couple of college tours. It's true that after awhile they all start to look the same, so can you blame me that my mind begins to wander after seeing yet another "amazing fitness center" that trumps any gym I've ever belonged to?

One of the best parts of these tours, led by the ubiquitously perky coed, is the awkward silence when she asks if there are any questions after her five-minute monologue about the intricacies of the overly complicated meal plan. Actually there's a lot of awkwardness mostly from the teenagers using their strongest powers of mental telepathy to will their parents into not uttering a single word.

Nonetheless, here are some tips for simultaneously breaking the silence and embarrassing your teenager. I mean, there have to be some perks to forking over $150,000 for four years, right?

1. Dress for Success. Black knee-high socks with shorts? Why not? Maybe you'll even start a new retro fashion trend. Or maybe dig your 1980's-era multicolored spandex running tights out of the recesses of your closet. You can show off the contours of your middle-aged legs while considering the walking tour your workout for the day. Don't forget to announce your Fitbit steps at every stop on the tour!

2. Dining In. Make sure to ask the tour guide if parents are eligible to sign up for the meal plan. Since you plan to eat with your son/daughter and friends in the dining hall at least twice a week. Clarify whether the plan truly is "all you can eat" since you will have driven five hours for dinner.

3. What's in a Name? Definitely question the name of the school mascot. "What do you mean they're called the North American Spotted Yet Fighting Owls? Don't you know that's an endangered species!?" Then stage a sit-in on the quad until the name is changed.

4. Matchmaker. Start telling the other prospective students on the tour that your son/daughter was just dumped by his/her girlfriend/boyfriend and is "quite the catch." Then list the reasons for your progeny's awesomeness starting with their kindergarten prowess in finger painting.

5. Back to School. Loudly talk about how you're also considering enrolling so you can reenact Back to School by throwing massive parties and having an affair with one of your professors.
Rodney Dangerfield's role in the 1986 movie

6. Memory Lane. When passing Fraternity Row, make sure to share, in vivid detail, all your best drunken carousing stories with the entire group. When the tour guide explains that Greek life has evolved over the years and that the collective GPA of those in fraternities and sororities is actually higher than the school average, guffaw loudly. And state your unequivocal belief that hazing builds character. Just look at you!

These are just a few tips to help make your college tours more enjoyable.

But in all seriousness, I literally don't care where Ben ends up going to school. I just want him to be happy, make a few life-long friends, find his passion, and continue to live more fully into the person God is calling him to be. And perhaps send me a t-shirt from the bookstore.

Mar 23, 2016

In Good Faith: Spring Fling

In my latest In Good Faith column, I write about fulfilling a lifelong fantasy and glimpsing a bit of resurrection in the process.
Spring Fling

It started with a throwaway Facebook post. A lament that, given what I do for a living, I 
would never get to go to spring training. I mean, the season of Lent, the busiest time of year for parish clergy, just happens to coincide with Major League Baseball’s own season of preparation. Christians may be preparing for Easter but ballplayers are preparing for Opening Day, so there are a few parallels. If you’re desperate enough.

Getting to see my beloved hometown Baltimore Orioles play in spring training has crept up my bucket list over the years. Okay, I don’t actually keep a bucket list, but if I did it would be near the top. Connecting with my inner child, combined with some warm sun after surviving another New England winter — what could be better? Alas. Maybe when I retire.

But then I got a text from my oldest childhood friend who had seen my pathetic post. “Thinking about taking dad to see a couple games next week for his birthday. You in?” After verifying that he wasn’t just mocking me by adding salt to my first world wound, I started thinking seriously about going down for a couple of days. No, I didn’t have the time. No, flying to Sarasota for two days without a Saturday night stay-over wasn’t cheap. But in the end, the answer was clear.

You see, this wasn’t just any friend taking just any father to Florida for spring training. This was my second family growing up. Yes, Ned moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, 20 years ago to start a family and a career and we rarely see each other anymore. But as with the deepest relationships, when we do get together, it’s as if no time has passed.

This wasn’t really about baseball, however. Ned’s dad is dying. It’s not imminent, but the cancer has now spread into the bones so the sand is rapidly moving through the hour glass. A man who has been a source of inspiration and support throughout my life; someone who is a living connection to my own late father; a person whose gentle humor and unconditional devotion to his family and friends have endeared him to so many over the years won’t, in fact, live forever.

And so, in-between innings, we talked about life and death, faith and family. Time stood still as the three of us laughed and cheered and talked about the things that really matter in life — the relationships that define us and shape our identity — and the sense of peace in the face of death that, even as it comes from a life well-lived, defies all understanding.

Spring training was everything I anticipated it would be. There was hope, as well as the defining sights and sounds of baseball, in the air. The crack of the bat, the warm breeze, the wafting odor of grilled hot dogs, the chatter of the ballplayers, the smack of balls hitting leather.

As people throughout the world prepare to walk through the agony of Good Friday before encountering the joy of Easter, it’s worth remembering that resurrection comes in many forms. Spring training was, for me, a resurrection experience in the midst of Lent. It was time spent with people I care for deeply, and included moments I will always cherish.
But that’s really what the Christian faith is all about — snatching life from the jaws of death; finding hope in situations that feel utterly hopeless.

Wherever you may be during this holiest time in the Christian year, and wherever you may worship, I encourage you to nurture the relationships that mean the most in your life. This begins with the God who loves you with reckless abandon and continues with those to whom you have had the privilege to walk this mortal journey. 

Life doesn’t always go into extra innings. Which means taking advantage of resurrection moments when they present themselves. Even if this means sitting in the Florida sun watching the home team win a meaningless spring training game, that means the world to you.

Mar 7, 2016

What Your Coffee Says About Your Denomination

Recently, I ran across a post that compared different coffee drinks with one's theology. I loved the concept but it a) wasn't very comprehensive and b) wasn't all that interesting. So I thought I'd take a crack at this since there are few things I love more than theology and coffee (not necessarily in that order).

While Jesus gave the disciples wine at the Last Supper, I have it on good authority that he only did so because Judas forgot to bring the coffee. Traitor! But that may just be apocryphal.

Personally, I drink my coffee like I wear my clergy shirts: black. But that's just the tip of the denominational, coffee-infused iceberg. So, I'm taking this brief break from my supreme duties over at Lent Madness to dip into this particular vat of over-caffeinated theology.

Anglicans -- Iced Coffee

Could there be any more appropriate coffee drink for God's "Frozen Chosen?" Well, perhaps tea. Anglicans drink tea. (And for fussy Anglo-Catholics, anything involving Latte Art --  which is the lace cotta of the coffee world).

Calvinists -- Espresso

Bitter, harsh, preordained.

Fundamentalists -- Coffee Beans

If you're going to take Scripture literally, even when it was not meant to be read as such, you will certainly just take the coffee bean (as God created it) and, forsaking reason, simply chew on the beans. Have fun with that.

Lutherans -- Coffee-Infused Beer

Martin Luther would surely approve of blending coffee with Oktoberfest.

Methodists -- Affogato

Espresso over vanilla ice cream is as close as you can come to the sweetness of sacramental grape juice. It may not leave your heart "strangely warmed," as John Wesley would put it, but you can always order a "light and sweet" coffee as a chaser.

Mormons -- Decaf

If your religion doesn't allow you to partake in caffeine, you end up with brown water. That's what decaf is after all.

Roman Catholics -- Italian Roast

Low quality beans, over-roasted to kill the flavor. When it's finished roasting, white smoke arises as a signal that it's "done." (Secondary option: Irish Coffee).

Pentecostalists -- Double Espresso

Drink a few of these and you, too, will begin speaking in tongues.

Prosperity Gospel -- Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino

This or whatever is the most expensive drink on the Starbucks menu. Also, it's not actually coffee -- it's dessert.

Unitarians -- Cafe au Lait

Foamy. Sweet. Feels good. Free range beans.

Whatever YOU Believe -- Black Coffee

Coffee in its most pure form. As God intended. The way we all see our own particular brand of Christianity.

Mar 2, 2016

In Good Faith: Salty Language

In the March edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about the virtues and vices of cursing. Well, mostly I don't care whether you curse or not. With a few exceptions.

Salty Language

Many years ago I knew a grizzled priest who had been an infantryman during the Korean War. He was a faithful pastor and one of those guys who would literally give someone the shirt off his back if he met someone in need. You could always tell when he was around though, because he used to, well, curse a blue streak. When asked about his salty use of language, he used to say, “Jesus converted every part of me, except my tongue.”

I personally don’t curse much but I’m not really bothered by it — save for places like the local playground or in the middle of worship. I prefer to use old-timey oaths like “criminy!” and “egad!” Partly because they’re more socially acceptable but mostly because they’re a source of embarrassment when my teenagers overhear me.

Well, there was that minor incident when I came home on leave from Fort Knox for Thanksgiving dinner one year and midway through the meal casually asked my brother to “pass the $*&^#^% mashed potatoes.” That warranted a few raised eyebrows from the great aunts but, in my defense, it can be difficult to extract yourself from the culture in which you’re living.  

I can’t tell you the number of times per week someone casually curses, notices my clerical collar, and then hastily apologizes. I rather think God has bigger fish to fry. Like poverty and racism, for instance. And I’m pretty sure I do as well.

This doesn't mean that righteous anger is unholy — frankly, there’s not enough of it in our world. To curse injustice and then do something about it is an act of faith, something the ancient Biblical prophets both embodied and now point us toward.

The reality is that language is a powerful tool. It can be used to raise up and it can be used to tear down. There’s a difference between cursing as a linguistic device or using it as a throwaway part of speech and actually cursing at someone. The latter is indefensible not because of the particular words themselves, but because of the attitude behind them. When we curse at someone we are actively seeking to destroy their soul by minimizing their value as a fellow child of God. Somehow that’s different than saying a bad word when you hit your thumb with a hammer.

This naturally brings up the matter of taking the Lord’s name in vain, something that has apparently been going on since humanity first learned God’s name. I mean, there’s a reason it made the original Top 10 list, aka the 10 Commandments. The negative things we say about God and one another do matter because, as Jesus put it, “the things that come out of the mouth defile.” Why? Because they are a reflection of the heart. 

So while it’s no surprise to hear a member of the clergy encouraging you not to take God’s name in vain, it’s more about being mindful of your words. What does your choice of words say about your heart? Perhaps it’s crying out for healing. Or it needs to deal with unresolved conflict or anger.

Or maybe it just feels good to occasionally let loose a string of socially forbidden words. A few recent studies even claim cursing is a good stress reliever. There’s a point of diminishing returns however — those who curse regularly don’t benefit as much as those who choose their spots more judiciously. 

Either way, I won’t be too offended the next time I overhear you say something salty when your car won’t start. You don’t even need to apologize.