May 23, 2018

In Good Faith: The Royal Power of Love

In a special Royal Wedding edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about Bishop Michael's Curry's stirring words as he preached to a world in desperate need of a message of love. He made America, the Episcopal Church, and the world proud. Though I'll still never became either a royal watcher or a watcher of The View.

The Royal Power of Love

I’m not much of a royal watcher. I find a figurehead monarchy whose yoke we overthrew
200 years ago less than compelling. Sure, at the insistence of my wife, I watched a few episodes of The Crown on Netflix, but I generally prefer my kings and queens relegated to the chess board. 

Attending an early morning Royal Wedding watch party was never going to happen. Partly because I just can’t pull off the fascinator look, but also because I figured I’d see all the photos the next time I’m on line at the grocery store staring at the tabloids as the person in front of me inevitably pays with a check.

I did perk up when I heard Harry and Meghan invited Bishop Michael Curry to preach. As an Episcopalian, Bishop Curry is the head of my denomination; he is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I’ve heard him preach several times and I thought to myself, “Do these royals have any idea what they just signed up for? They better hang onto their fancy hats!”

And sure enough, Bishop Curry — one of the foremost preachers in America — nearly blew the walls off St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. What captivated everyone was Bishop Curry’s ability to speak simultaneously and forcefully to both the royal couple and the entire world. His mere presence, as a passionate black man in a mostly staid white context, was as powerful as his words. His message about the power of love stood in stark relief to a global context crying out for justice, mercy, and hope.

In his inimitable style, Bishop Curry quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. on the “redemptive power of love;” spoke of the “revolutionary movement” Jesus began that was “grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world;” and proclaimed the power of love’s ability to change the world. His words resonated because we all need this message more than ever in a world that feels increasingly divided, divisive, and violent. And they were so moving because, in a sermon that transcended national lines and denominational barriers, Bishop Curry was speaking to humanity as a whole, in addition to the royal family. 

For Americans, the Royal Wedding took place the day after yet another school shooting, this time at Santa Fe High School in Texas. People were tuning in for an escape from the daily images of violence that dance across their screens — I think that’s the true allure of the machinations of the royal family — and they were given the gift of hope. For that’s what Bishop Curry was so powerfully preaching about; hope in the midst of adversity and the power of love to overcome the trials and travails of this world.

The aftermath of Bishop Curry’s sermon has been a joy to behold. I never thought I’d live to see the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church joking with Whoopi Goldberg on The View or helping Al Roker with his weather report on The Today Show or getting parodied on Saturday Night Live.

Yet Michael Curry understands better than anyone that while celebrity is fleeting, the power of love endures. The question is, will we embrace this love, share it with one another, and allow ourselves and our world to be transformed? Or will we simply chase after the next shiny object and be swept up in the succeeding news cycle? If you were among the two billion people who watched the Royal Wedding, you have a choice to make.

May 2, 2018

In Good Faith: Aging Gracefully

In my May In Good Faith column, I write about living with a Denial about what looms in the future is powerful. And I'm generally good with that.

Aging Gracefully

Delilah turns 14 this week. If she was a teenage girl and I was her mother, this would be an
intense time fraught with conflict and angst. But she’s a dog. An increasingly older dog. An “active senior” as her slightly more expensive bag of dry dog food proclaims, like she’s moved into a retirement community and keeps busy by playing bridge and attending Brigadoon sing-a-longs.

The multiplication tables drilled into my head as an elementary school student didn’t go up to 14 so I needed my iPhone calculator to figure out that she’s 98 in dog years. Regardless of species, that’s getting pretty long in the canine molar, if you ask me. And it’s starting to show. Like all of us, she’s slowing down. Walks are becoming more leisurely and rather than leaping up at the sound of the doorbell, she’s more apt to bark half-heartedly. 

Now, we talk about a lot of controversial topics in our household, from religion to politics to my eldest son’s inexplicable love of the New York Yankees. But the one topic no one will broach is the fact that Delilah is not, in fact, immortal. She will not live forever. 

Delilah’s advancing age has become our family’s elephant in the room. We’re all aware of it, but no one names it. For to do so would make a hard reality concrete and we’re just not ready to go there. 

Denial is not a healthy way to deal with inevitabilities. I’m always encouraging families to talk about and prepare for the death of a loved one. One of the greatest gifts you can leave your family is clear instructions for your funeral and burial so they aren’t left guessing amid profound and raw grief. “I think I once heard her mention she wanted to be cremated but maybe she was talking about her pet rabbit?” 

Yet, when it comes to Delilah, I literally can’t seem to practice what I preach. As with any adored member of the family, it’s hard to think about life without them. Our teenage boys can barely remember the years before we adopted her; she’s been that omnipresent in their lives. Her presence is intertwined with all sorts of family memories and it’s not just the myriad Christmas card photos that mark her yearly existence in our lives. That’s just a snapshot of what belies the daily interactions and informal encounters with our sweet yellow lab/husky mix. The same one who has come to work with me for well over a decade.

In the end (not Delilah’s end, since I can’t speak of that), gratitude for each remaining moment is what matters. Taking a moment to smile when she does that thing where she lifts up a single ear or summons the energy to sprint after the squirrel she’s never caught and never will, but not for lack of trying. Perhaps that’s the lesson for all of us as we collectively deny Delilah’s eventual demise: to enjoy the remaining time we have and stop to give her that extra belly rub. Which is not a bad way to interact with any aging loved one — minus the belly rub, of course.

In the meantime, we’ll celebrate her 14th birthday with reckless abandon. Since we adopted her the first week of May when she was “about one,” we mark it on May 5th. Or, as we call it, Cinco Delilah. 

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.