Jun 28, 2017

Sitting in a pew -- I'm the worst!

I'm lousy at sitting in pews.

Of course as a "professional" church goer, I don't do it very often. On Sunday mornings I strut around the altar in fancy vestments, stand in the pulpit for 10-12 minutes, and sit only when other people are doing liturgical things -- like reading from the Bible or singing a choral anthem.

But as Summer rolls around and vacation looms, I'll be spending a few weeks sitting in pews at some yet-to-be-determined churches. And I'll again realize just how easily annoyed I can be. Uncharitable thoughts inevitable arise. Like:
"I can't believe how many typos are in this bulletin. 'The Lard be with you?!' Come on!" 
"That is not the proper order in which to light the altar candles. What kind of liturgical yahoo trained this acolyte anyway?"  
"If this hymn was played any slower, I swear I'd fall asleep standing up." 
"Would it be rude to yell, 'I object!' in the middle of this vaguely heretical sermon?"
Perhaps it's simply an occupational hazard. I mean, when bus drivers ride the bus, they can't help but think to themselves how poorly the driver took that turn back on Main and Elm, right? But I'll be honest. No one likes sitting next to me -- certainly not my family. It may be the what-I-thought-was-barely-audible-but-apparently-was-not sighs too deep for words.

I remember a slightly different approach to clergy sitting in the pews that was equally irritating to the priest's family when on vacation. The spouse used to complain about her husband the minister acting as "Pew Captain" whenever they'd be in church together. He'd be the first one in the congregation to stand up or respond to a versicle. His "amens" were hearty and he encouraged everyone around him to sing louder.

I guess that would be a different kind of annoying. But the truth is I'm easily distracted when I sit in church and this does nothing at all for my spiritual life.

It's not a bad thing to want to worship in the beauty of holiness or to want worship to be "decently and in order." But when small things consistently get in the way of your experience with and of God, you may have some spiritual work to do. I know I do.

And it's worth reflecting on two questions: Where does your mind go during worship? And where does your heart go? Not every service will feel like a heaven-meets-earth transcendent moment. I get that. But you also have to put yourself in a receptive frame of mind to encounter the holy and be accepting and grateful -- and forgiving -- in order to experience God's amazing grace.

So worship, as important as it is, can never become an idol in and of itself. We can't sacrifice our faith on the altar of personal piety. Certainly not when it comes to going to church in an unfamiliar place a few Sundays a year.

So wherever I end up worshipping this Summer, I'll try my best to relax and enjoy being in relationship with Jesus while having a break from being in liturgical control.

And, anyway, I'm sure I'll have some clergy stop by St. John's this summer. And they'll feel the same way about some of the things I'm doing up there.

Jun 5, 2017

Words of Wisdom from Uncle Matt

Ben receiving his diploma
There's a slew of advice slung around this time of year. Especially for the freshly minted high school graduate. Some is inspiring, some is heart-felt, some is clich├ęd, some is unsolicited but either way, there no lack of it.

Whether through commencement addresses or notes to the graduates, the opportunities for doling out advice is legion. With my eldest son, Ben, graduating from Hingham High School this year, I'm particularly aware of the abundance of advice. 

One of the endearing traditions at Hingham High is the presentation of the Red Envelopes at the graduation rehearsal. 

Here's the deal:
"Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, clergy and friends may send their senior student a special note of congratulations on his or her upcoming graduation. We will carefully keep these cards and notes for each student and distribute them to the seniors during their graduation rehearsal." 
I had a lot of fun writing Ben's letter -- as we all did -- and am proud of him and his 2017 classmates.

The best letter he received, however, was from my brother Matt. Uncles are great, right? They can say things parents can't and Matt has always had a great relationship with Ben. I asked Matt if I could share his letter with the wider world and I do think every high school graduate could benefit from Matt's wisdom. Feel free to share it with that special graduate in your own life.

Dear Ben,
Uncle Matt

You're a high school graduate! Hurray! 

One more step to go in your academic career! Well, unless you're a masochist and choose more school after college. Either way, I'm here to congratulate, support, and give some free uncle-ly advice:

The real world is where the action is, and you're right to want to zoom through college and get to the good stuff. Sure, post college life also has rules, schedules, and responsibilities, but at least they come with a paycheck. And while at school you're rewarded for great performance with a vowel, out in the real world you get handed a bigger paycheck. I know what you're thinking. It's so close, you can almost taste the freedom.

But from someone who couldn't wait to get out there and start achieving, take a deep breath. Slow down. You're about to learn the big things that will help make you successful in the real world. And don't worry -- I'm mostly talking about things outside a classroom. Here's my list of things you need from college, things that will make you succeed when it's over, but that you can't rush through:

1. Live without mom and dad. Seems simple, but it's an adjustment whether you believe it or not.

2. Manage your time. Successful people do this without teachers or parents nagging them.

3. Learn how to hold your liquor. It's better in business when the other guy is more drunk than you.

4. Learn internal motivation. The role of grownup as authoritarian is over. That's a blessing and a curse. Make it a blessing.

5. Make deep friendships. That just happens at college. And you'll need them. And they'll be there when you do.

6. Question stuff. But don't just ask why in a late night philosophical way. Ask how to change and improve. Then do it.

7. Don't date one person the whole time. But don't date a hundred people either.

8. Go abroad for a semester or a year. Just do it.

9. Don't drop out. No matter what. You need the piece of paper. 0.1% of the time it works out and you only hear about those.

10. Be a brash and confident kid. But eventually, be humble. And thankful. Arrogance doesn't win in the end.

Have the best time! I'll be visiting you and checking up on this list!

Congrats, Ben. 


Uncle Matt

What's Matt doing these days? He's doing his usual entrepreneurial thing, currently serving as the Vice-President for Admissions at Smartly, the online MBA company. Previously he led the global growth strategy as Executive Vice-President at Rosetta Stone. Oh, and he went to Williams College.

Happy graduation season, everyone!

May 4, 2017

In Good Faith: Keeping Up Appearances

In my May In Good Faith column I share a bizarre experience from my previous life working in political campaigns and write about the importance of vulnerability.

Keeping Up Appearances

Twenty-five years ago, I went to California to work on a congressional race. This was back
when I did this for a living so it wasn’t completely on a whim. When a campaign manager friend of mine called and asked if I’d come out to run the field operation, I figured “why not?” My dad had just died and I was looking for a change of scenery anyway. Of course, as with most campaign jobs, he wanted me there immediately. So I hopped in my dark blue 1985 Ford Bronco II and headed West.

Our candidate was a successful divorce lawyer in the East Bay area but, as this was the first time he’d ever run for office, we had some educating to do. Like when you go knock on doors in a rougher part of Alameda County and you’re trying to position yourself as a man of the people, you probably shouldn’t show up driving your sporty new Mercedes.

This wasn’t the only problem with this particular campaign or this particular candidate. When we would organize phone banks to call voters, his wife would invite a bunch of her friends…which was good. But she’d also bring cocktails…which was bad. So it started out fine but by the end of the night, they were basically drunk dialing potential voters.

I mention this because when we’d be arguing with this guy about his choice of car — and he had a lot to choose from — he would always refer to his Mercedes as his “battle vehicle.” It was the car he’d take whenever he had to be in court. And that phrase — and more importantly that mentality — has always stuck with me. 

So often we approach life as if we need to wear “battle armor” — which is actually what he called the expensive suits he’d wear to court. We want to project an image of strength and power and great confidence while not allowing anyone to detect even a whiff of insecurity or weakness. And so we go to great lengths to enter into situations on our own terms, with great bravado.

The problem is that this isn’t any way to go through life. We can only keep up such images for so long because they don’t reflect reality. We are not the images we project and eventually the walls do come a-tumblin’ down. Weakness and brokenness, rather than strength and wholeness, more often reflect the reality of our lives.

The thing about the life of faith is that it’s not about keeping up appearances or projecting images; rather it’s about being broken open to the God who knows our imperfections and loves us anyway. 

In order to be our most authentic selves, we must allow ourselves to be broken open. And that means putting away our battle vehicles and our power suits and standing naked before God — at least metaphorically — and recognizing that not only are we unable to control every situation, we shouldn’t even bother to try. Because it doesn’t work. And the only thing we end up battling is our own integrity. 

It’s helpful to occasionally ask ourselves what walls have we built up around our hearts? What defenses have we erected to protect our vulnerabilities? What images are we seeking to portray that don’t mesh with reality? It takes a tremendous amount of energy to maintain an inauthentic image. Energy that’s better spent being in right relationship with God and those with whom we interact in this life. 

So, how did this particular election turn out? Let’s just say I was not entirely sorry when we lost a close primary and I headed back East.

Apr 10, 2017

Holy Week Invitation: Will you admire Jesus or follow Jesus?

At one level, we love the grand pageantry of the entrance into Holy Week. Palm Sunday is fun. Like Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, it attracts large crowds. And like bobble-head night at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, there's a liturgical give-a-way in the form of palms; a tangible souvenir to prove your presence and loyalty.

There's something we love about the image of crowds and palms spread along Jesus' path. Riding on a donkey doesn't exactly project the same image of strength as a Presidential motorcade but still, the palms are symbols of admiration and adulation. And this excites us. In a world of dwindling church attendance, we're dazzled by the prospect of big numbers. We can't help but think, “Finally, they get it. Finally, Jesus is getting his due. Finally, they recognize Jesus for who he is.” We equate large enthusiastic crowds with validation for his message. And that pleases us, hoping that this will also, somehow, validate us.

But here’s the problem with this model: Jesus didn’t come into the world to attract admirers. He didn’t seek to build up his base by drawing large crowds. He wasn’t concerned with the optics of success. 

No, Jesus didn’t seek admirers but followers. He sought people who would follow him not just when things were going well, but when things didn’t go according to plan; not just when things were joyful and euphoric but when things turned dark and tragic. And they do. 

This coming week we must ask ourselves whether we will be admirers of Jesus or followers of Jesus. Holy Week brings us face-to-face with the question of whether we are content to call ourselves people of faith only when it’s on our terms or whether we are disciples of Jesus willing to follow him when it’s inconvenient or difficult or painful. Are we fair-weather Christians who love to wave palms around and proclaim “Hosanna” or are we disciples of Jesus who recognize our complicity in the Passion by crying, “Crucify?” 

It’s easy enough to follow Jesus when things are going well. When life is smooth. When the parade is heading down the street and we’re surrounded and buoyed by the support of others. It’s harder when life takes a turn. And there’s a health crisis or a relationship fades or we’re confronted with conflict at work or home. Jesus knew full well about life taking a turn. 

Yes, we can and should admire Jesus. But if we stop there, we’re missing the invitation to truly transform our lives. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, writes about the difference between being an admirer and a follower of Jesus: “A follower strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.”

The Christian life is not an intellectual pursuit. It is about the entirety of our souls. We can’t follow Jesus at a safe, emotionally-detached distance. We can surely admire him that way and that’s a good first step. But Jesus wants all of us, not just part of us. To follow Jesus takes heart and soul and mind and full immersion. 

So, the invitation has been extended. How will you respond this week? Will you keep your distance or fully engage with Jesus? Will you be willing to make sacrifices or will you play it safe? The possibility of radical transformation awaits as we prepare to walk the way of the cross. As we prepare to follow Jesus. 

Apr 6, 2017

In Good Faith: Blind Spots

Yes, the blog takes a back seat to all things Lent Madness this time of year. But here's my latest monthly In Good Faith column titled Blind Spots. We all have them -- even if they transcend the lessons learned during Driver's Ed.
Blind Spots

One of the things about having children is you end up reliving experiences you hadn’t
thought about in years. Sometimes this is a blessing — like when you get to re-watch those original Star Wars movies. And sometimes this is a curse — like when you have to essentially retake geometry. 

One such experience is learning how to drive. The fits and starts of those early days behind the wheel typically don’t come to mind when you hop in the car to run an errand. Unless you have a child taking Driver’s Ed and then you suddenly have a driving expert sitting next to you. One who criticizes your every rolling stop and comments on your apparently lackadaisical use of the blinker. 

Now I’ve blocked out most of my time in Driver’s Ed, but I particularly remember the conversation about the blind spot. Barry, our rather gruff, Brooklyn-bred instructor, seemed to spend an awful lot of time on it and so I knew that, in theory, there was a spot when changing lanes that you couldn’t really see using the mirrors alone. Though it seemed to me rather ridiculous that you couldn’t see a big van or truck that was right next to you, or at least sense it — by using The Force. 

But all it took was driving on the highway for the first time and not completely turning around and hearing that bus lean on the horn to realize that, oh, so that’s the blind spot Barry was talking about. It’s not merely theoretical — and with all the angles involved, maybe geometry actually is useful.

But in time you come to learn that even beyond driving, we all have blind spots. Areas of our lives that we literally can’t see. They may have to do with family relationships or politics or our work life. They may be based on our upbringing or gender or race or nationality or faith tradition or socioeconomic class. But these blindspots can wreak havoc on those around us, even if they don’t particularly register with us. They’re easy enough to ignore — until we wind up bumping into something and causing a metaphorical wreck or negatively impacting the lives of those around us.

So what do we do about our own personal and communal blindspots? Well, we can be in relationship with those with differing perspectives or experiences. That’s really the best way to address them, which is why it’s so important to have conversations with those with whom we disagree or with those whose experiences differ from our own. When we end up only staying within the confines of our own tribe, it may be more comfortable, it may be more enjoyable, but it only broadens our blind spots, which ultimately diminishes both us and our respective communities.

Yes, it’s awkward to discover and acknowledge our blind spots. You have to crane your neck a bit and leave your comfort zone. You have to intentionally seek out new perspectives and work a bit harder to see. But the payoff is a fuller life; a more faithful life; a richer life. Which is precisely what the life of faith, regardless of tradition, beckons us towards. 

There’s a reason that in the Christian faith Jesus is always giving sight to the blind. The miracle transcends the physical because the real point is that as our perspective is changed and broadened we begin to see those on the margins of society; fellow children of God to whom we might otherwise be blind. 

In the end, we need assistance in the form of others to help us see our blind spots — we can’t do it alone. I encourage you to be open to other viewpoints, to recognize that you don’t have all the answers, and to allow the illumination of new perspective to shine in your heart and soul.