Jun 6, 2019

In Good Faith: Garbage Time

In this month's In Good Faith column, I write about living in the present and the perils of being a scrub.

Garbage Time

Garbage time. In basketball, that’s what they call the last few minutes of a blowout. The time
when the outcome of the contest has already been decided, and the two teams are literally just running out the clock before they head to the showers. Since no coach wants to risk an injury to a star player during the last few meaningless minutes, garbage time is ruled by subs and rookies It’s a time for third-stringers to shine, a chance to make a positive impression on coaches and dazzle fans with their hidden prowess. Alas, there’s a reason most of these players haven’t cracked the starting lineup: they’re just not that good.

There are times in our own lives when it feels like we’re just running out the clock; times when we spend more time anticipating future events rather than living in the present. Waiting for our toddlers to get out of diapers, waiting to receive a coveted promotion, waiting to finally become empty nesters. If we’re not careful, we can spend a significant portion of our lives in a self-imposed garbage time. And that’s a sad and joyless state in which to exist.

So how do you break out of this? How do you find joy in the present even as you anticipate that which is to come? Well, if I had an easy answer, I would have already written a bestselling self-help book. But from my own Christian tradition, I find that a few moments each day of intentional, contemplative silence is helpful. It helps keep life in perspective and makes you mindful of the small joys that permeate our seemingly mundane daily lives. Silence forces you to step off the metaphorical treadmill, walk away from your electronic devices, and reflect upon the often taken for granted blessings of your life.

Sure, silence can be both elusive and scary. It’s difficult to carve out moments of quiet in our fast-paced existences, and silence forces us to confront things about ourselves we might prefer to drown out. Yet it also brings balance to our souls and delight in the small, unheralded triumphs of our lives.

In the church year we often talk about “Ordinary Time.” There are actually two such seasons, one that lasts anywhere from four to nine weeks starting on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, and one that begins after Pentecost (usually in May or June) and lasts up to 28 weeks. 

These seasons are not “ordinary” in the sense of being boring or useless. Rather they are so named because they reflect the fact that, liturgically speaking, they are not dedicated to a particular season or observance. 

Some people might see these long periods as the church’s garbage time. There’s nothing flashy about them. There’s no festive Christmas Eve midnight mass or stark service of Good Friday during Ordinary Time. You won’t encounter colorful vestments or over-the-top processions. And yet, when it comes to faith, there’s no such thing as garbage time. All time is holy and sanctified and blessed; no time is meaningless or insignificant or unworthy of praise. Indeed, the most surprising moments of our lives often occur when we least expect them. 

It’s been said that basketball would be much more compelling if they just awarded 100 points to each team and started the game with two minutes left. I’m not sure about that. But I encourage you to be aware of areas of your life you may be treating as garbage time — and commit to changing up your approach. The game of life is too short to waste.

May 20, 2019

What difference does it all make?

This weekend, as we were wrapping up our year-long Confirmation Class and offering one
final session before our high schoolers will be Confirmed, one of them asked a great question: "What difference does it all make?" 

In other words, why does the death and resurrection of Jesus matter? Why not just sleep in on Sunday morning and leave this Christian stuff to others? 

I loved this question because it gets at the very heart of why we do what we do. This is precisely where the spiritual rubber meets the road, a question that forces us to reflect upon our own experience and understanding of the Christian faith and life. And it's a question we need to ask ourselves, if not daily, then at least regularly. 

I posed this question on Twitter because I wanted to share some of the answers with our Confirmands. I hoped to show them that this is an important question for Christians everywhere, not just for a group of 15 kids sitting around a table with a few adults in a church basement.

In the Episcopal Church, Confirmation is termed "a mature public affirmation of faith." It's aspirational, but this is the kind of introspection that leads to a mature faith -- something we all continue to strive for wherever we may be on our own spiritual journeys. We don't have all the answers, individually, but collectively we can point to the broader concept of meaning as we reflect on why this all matters. And I for one take great solace and inspiration in the variety of answers that emerge. 

I couldn't possibly share all the answers that continue to roll in. But here are some of the responses. I encourage you to think about this yourself and perhaps even share your own answer as a comment.

@lindsaymonihen: It means choosing hope over despair, which I believe is a more challenging road. The resurrection means hate, war and hunger do not have the final word in our world; there is an outrageous hope calling us forward.

@bishopannehec: Resurrection frees us from fear of death and all captivities. By faith in such freedom we become newly alive, engaged with earthly life in a heavenly way. Resurrection gives us a lens of courage to confront evil; a lens of hope to overcome despair; a lens of love to cast out hate.

@jericson1963: The death and resurrection of Christ means I am never alone, never beyond love, hope and a sure and certain future.

@allancarpenter: The difference is, quite personally for me, the faith that all things are made new versus the perspective that all things are winding down into oblivion. It’s a big one.

@revsusanrussell: Jesus liberates us from the fear of death: from worrying so much about getting to heaven that we’re too paralyzed by fear to work to bring heaven to earth. We are freed to be fully alive by the power of the resurrection – healed, whole and liberated in this life and the next.

@loudluthrn: Trusting that God loves me and frees me from the power of sin and death through Jesus has helped me live a more abundant life in (often surprising) relationship with others. It is sometimes hard but a seed of joy and peace can always be found to keep me going.

@Knapsack: Hope that can keep us going in the face of possible (likely) defeat, because Jesus should by all earthly rights have been destroyed and forgotten, which was Power's intent: but instead, he lives. And frees us (me) to risk failure to speak truth.

@cbdemp: Because there is nothing too dark, too scary, too terrifying, too daunting that Jesus and in turn, God, hasn’t experienced. There is nowhere I find myself, Jesus hasn’t been.

@BethanyUA: I don’t need to be afraid of anything: Not death or being wrong or embarrassing myself or anyone’s opinion. I trust that God is working out the details and my job is to choose love every day. I can’t live this way 100%, but God understands when I miss the mark and loves me anyway.

@gojirama: I can't imagine facing the death of loved ones, or my own death, without the promise of the Resurrection.

@FortnightBuzz63: Ultimately, I am not alone. I'm not alone in the struggle and suffering of life, and I will not be alone in the mystery of dying. In the end when I lose everything else I won't lose God's companionship.

@julien650: Hope. If he lives, we live. No matter how deep I am in despair and darkness, the light of Jesus can bring me back to life - can restore my brokenness to wholeness and I can live again.

@jathko: If Jesus can take the worst of the worst (horrible humiliation & death) & turn it into something so glorious, then he can most definitely take the rot in my life & the shadow of what’s to come & transform that into a thing of beauty. I’ve tasted it & have a certain hope for more.

@thekitchendoor3: Because death is everywhere. We lose loved ones, we lose our own lives, we see the oppression and suffering around us. Resurrection means the story doesn’t stop there.

@MichaelJMcCall: If my immortal soul is safe with the Lord, then I need not be focused on my own behavior against a set of requirements. This gift allows me to become less selfish and focus on the needs of others, which are both earthly and spiritual.

@thefunrevucc: The resurrection is the fulfillment of the promise of God’s everlasting and unconditional love. Nothing I do will change God’s love for me. More important, nothing my worst enemy does will ever change God’s love for that person, either. So better to love than hate!

@JimMead18283862: I know I'm valued and loved by a creator who will have the last word about me, & about everything and everyone else--justice & mercy! I live with hope, courage, accountability. I talk to a living Jesus, not an idea. I treat others differently bc Jesus is risen. Meaning! Purpose!

@garysdeskcom: From a Christian perspective: somehow, through Jesus’ passion we are saved. On a broader level: evil does not always win. Good can come out of bad. On a personal level: God cares. God just gets how much life can suck.

@HeyImJoeTheBear: Jesus took the burden I was meant to be take. He gave me the free gift of forgiveness. Nothing I can do can repay that debt and I live in joy because of it.

@johnrovell: It reminds me that no matter how dark things get or how badly I f*ck up, there is always a chance for rebirth and mercy and new efforts. Jesus rising from the dead basically allows me to raise my head up every day and keep trying, trusting that God is not done with me.

@NoVACLC: It's a simple day to day thing. Nothing is ever so bad that we don't get another chance tomorrow.

@perdue_jrp: There's always hope. No matter how bad it gets, God will come through for you.

@SmudgeThomas: Strength to get through. God carries you through the worst of the worst times and builds you up so grandly.

May 9, 2019

In Good Faith: The Soundtracks of Our Lives

In this month's edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about the dramatic moments of our lives -- and the accompanying soundtracks.

The Soundtracks of Our Lives

Whenever I watch a show on Netflix or see a movie, I’m always struck by how dramatic the
scenes are — the courtroom encounters, the romantic professions of love, the stirring chase scenes. And then I contrast this with my own life, and the interactions I have on a daily basis feel somehow…lacking. 

It finally struck me one day, that it’s less about the drama in my life. I mean, sure, I don’t engage in many high speed chases with guns blazing, like some sort of clerical version of James Bond. And my wife wouldn’t take kindly to my living as though I was starring in a romantic comedy. Nor would my bishop. 

But I realized the thing that’s really missing is the accompanying soundtrack. What makes so many of these moments tug at the heartstrings or get the heart pumping, is the music that matches the movement. 

That training scene in Rocky set to “Gonna Fly Now” just wouldn’t fly if  Sylvester Stallone was doing one-armed pushups and punching raw meat if it was set to, say, “The Sound of Silence” or simply silence. Or Darth Vader entering a scene from Star Wars without composer John Williams’ iconic accompanying Imperial March theme, wouldn’t create that same sense of impending doom, than if he just appeared from stage left. Music sets the mood and heightens the drama and intensifies the emotions that go with the script. 

Sure, there’s a bit of emotional manipulation, as when the crescendo builds to the climactic fight scene in a Bruce Lee movie or the classic combination of strings, tuba, and trombone that were used to create the Jaws soundtrack.

We don’t have this in our own lives, at least not to the same degree. No one plays “Eye of the Tiger” when I stumble into Planet Fitness before work; there’s no on-call string section to play soothing background music when I visit a dying parishioner in the hospital; there’s no trumpet fanfare when I do the dishes without being asked.

But none of this means our lives are any less dramatic than what we witness on our screens. Less purely entertaining, perhaps; not neatly wrapped up in one hour chunks, maybe. Yet our lives do play out in high definition, albeit without the accompanying real-time soundtrack. 

Which begs the question, what would your life’s soundtrack be? If you’re like me, it would likely change depending on your mood and situation, spanning the range of human emotions. There are times when we need encouragement and comfort, inspiration and hope, empowerment and strength. 

I’m a big fan of the blues, precisely because they encompass a wide range of emotion — joy, grief, anger, hope, faith, love, betrayal, sadness, and possibility. In the next moment I may listen to the Magnificat by 16th century Italian church musician Giovanni Palestrina, a master of Renaissance polyphony. And then I may crank some AC/DC. 

In other words, the soundtrack of my life, like life itself, is complicated. And I would imagine, yours is as well. Dramatic, full of contradictions, boring at times, over-scheduled at others, messy, and confusing. But all blessed by God — all of it. Even when the soundtrack doesn’t perfectly align with the script.

Apr 4, 2019

In Good Faith: Coffee Connections

My April In Good Faith column doubles as the Holy Grounds book release edition of my monthly article. Why? Because it's an excerpt. So, sit back, relax, pour yourself a nice mug of coffee, and order yourself a copy of Holy Grounds: The Surprising Connection between Coffee and Faith - From Dancing Goats to Satan's Drink (Fortress Press). Bonus: if you can't stand this excerpt, move along, save yourself a few bucks, and make a nice cup of tea instead. 

Coffee Connections

When it comes to coffee, I’m a late adopter. While my college fraternity brothers tossed back
herculean quantities during late-night study sessions, I didn’t touch the stuff. As an army officer, while members of my platoon sucked down coffee with reckless abandon, I remained an outlier. When I managed political campaigns, and coffee was the jet fuel of marathon strategy sessions, I passed. At post-church coffee hour, while everyone drank coffee and critiqued the pastor’s sermon, I drank lemonade. 
Miraculously, I also endured a coffee-drinking wife, seminary, and one child without drinking coffee. The combination of two children under the age of two and full-time work in parish ministry, however, put me over the edge. And once I slipped down the rabbit hole of coffee consumption, a journey of discovery emerged that continues to unfold. 
Coffee often evokes the power of connection through personal narrative. Ask anyone when they first discovered the joys of coffee and prepare to be regaled with glimpses into their life story. Coffee can serve as an entry point into interpersonal relationships and shed light upon a person’s values and most deeply held beliefs. In answering the simple question “When did you become a coffee drinker?” a person shares much of their life journey. 
My parents began every day with freshly brewed coffee. While most Americans still scooped pre-ground coffee out of giant tin cans, they sought out whole-bean coffee from rare specialty shops. The sound of the grinder and the irresistible aroma of coffee in my own kitchen always remind me of the comforts and simplicities of childhood. 
One of my earliest memories of coffee revolves around my late father, a symphony orchestra conductor. He had a special relationship with the owner of the local coffee shop in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood and I often accompanied him on his excursions to what was then a rather seedy side of town and is now one of Baltimore’s hippest areas, chock full of trendy restaurants and coffeehouses. 
At the Coffee Mill, a dazzling variety of whole-bean coffees sat in plastic bins with big scoops while the aroma overwhelmed the senses. Customers shoveled beans into bags, then brought them to the counter for weighing. The regulars, mostly men, were a mix of Baltimore’s intelligentsia, artists, and urban pioneers. It wasn’t a cafĂ©—you couldn’t actually buy a cup of coffee—but no one seemed hurried as they browsed the bins and chatted with fellow patrons. 
One year, the owner, seeking a catchy, evocative name for a new blend, gave some beans to my dad to sample, asking him to help christen the roast. Which, I recall with great pride, he did. For many years afterwards, you could still show up at the Coffee Mill and pick up a bag of Allegro con Brio. 
Allegro, an Italian word, indicates a brisk or lively tempo in musical scores. Con brio is another musical direction meaning with vigor. So I can only imagine the newly christened coffee was bright, lively, and strong. Too bad I never got to taste it before the Coffee Mill closed down, after nearly three decades, in 2003. 
My first taste of coffee came after a fancy dinner at a neighbor’s house. The Steinschneiders, an older couple with grown children, occasionally invited our young family over to sit in the dining room for a meal. Mrs. Steinschneider made a big fuss over the after-dinner coffee, and I remember drinking a bit, loaded with milk and sugar, in a china cup. 
I didn’t drink coffee again until I sidled up to the coffee pot one morning as a desperate, newly ordained cleric, dumping in an embarrassing amount of sugar and cream. Basically, my first foray into regular coffee drinking was an experience in warm coffee ice cream. As someone who now drinks his coffee the way he wears his clergy shirts—black—this admission is embarrassing. 
The point is, when we share coffee stories, we offer something of our selves in the process. Ask people you’ve known for a long time or people you’ve just met about their relationship with coffee. You may be surprised at the ensuing revelations and insights into their own life’s journeys.

Mar 8, 2019

In Good Faith: Spiritual Wallflowers

In my March In Good Faith column, I refute the notion that Christians who follow the words of Jesus are mere wallflowers, citing the example of a little-known Ugandan martyr. 

Spiritual Wallflowers

I used to dread middle school dances. The angst began with the whole decision over whether to even go or just bag the whole thing. Among my circle of friends, the conversations typically went something like this: “You know that dance is on Friday. You going?” “I don’t know, maybe. How about you?” “I’m not sure yet. Is Chris going?” “He says he’ll go if we go.” 

And so it went, until we finally decided we should go; not necessarily because we wanted to, but because it would do more harm to our social reputations not to go. 

Which, in the end, I usually ended up regretting. Why? Mostly, the awkwardness of it all; the beady little eyes of the chaperoning geometry teacher; the loud music that I wasn’t really into; the cute girl I secretly liked who someone else had the nerve to ask to dance; the self-conscious standing around with friends as we tried desperately to look like we were having fun. The technical term for our approach to the whole scene was wallflower. 

Sometimes when people hear certain phrases from Jesus, they consider Christians who embrace his teachings to be little more than wallflowers. On the surface of things, sayings such as “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, turn the other cheek,” feel like asking to be walked all over.

Because everyone knows that if you love your enemies, you’ll be exploited. If you do good to those who hate you, you’ll  be taken advantage of. If you bless those who curse you, you’ll become a laughingstock. If you pray for those who abuse you, you’ll be bullied. If you turn the other cheek, you’ll be smacked again.

Maybe Jesus is just soft. I mean, if these words were posted on Twitter, they’d be mocked and laughed at. He’d get trolled for being a snowflake. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek — that’s a recipe for losers. Everyone knows that if you really want to succeed in life, you should hate your enemies and do ill to those who hate you and curse those who curse you and abuse those who abuse you. That’s the recipe for success. Might makes right…right? 

But it is possible to change the world while following Jesus’ humble ways, even if it doesn’t necessarily lead to what many might consider “success.” As an example, I wanted to share the story of a little known Ugandan martyr named Janani Luwum. I heard his story a number of years ago and it has always stuck with me. 

Luwum was born in Uganda in 1922, briefly worked as a schoolteacher before studying divinity in London and being ordained an Anglican priest. In 1969 he was consecrated bishop of Northern Uganda, which soon after coincided with the overthrow of the government by the notorious dictator Idi Amin. You may recall hearing of the brutal era of repression and the bloodbath that ensued in this land-locked east-African country. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered for being of the wrong ethnicity or the wrong religion or simply not showing adequate allegiance to Amin.

In 1974, Luwum became Archbishop of Uganda at a time when the cauldron of tension between church and state became increasingly heated. During this period he continued to call out the human rights abuses when few dared to publicly defy Amin. The archbishop was quoted as saying, “I face daily being picked up by the soldiers. While the opportunity is there I preach the Gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present Government which is utterly self-seeking. I have been threatened many times. Whenever I have the opportunity I have told the President the things the churches disapprove of.”

That is not being a wallflower. And yet it is following precisely Jesus’ counter-cultural words of love and forgiveness. Janani Luwum did not fight violence with violence, rather he fought violence with love and prayer, forgiveness and blessing. He resisted injustice, advocated for his people with fervor and compassion and called out the abuses and excesses of an oppressive and sinful regime. He died a martyr, gunned down by Amin’s henchmen for speaking truth to power. Yet his courage continues to serve as a model of hope and inspiration to Ugandans as well as to people of faith throughout the world. 

As Christians begin the introspective, penitential season of Lent, we are reminded that the way of the cross is ultimately stronger than the way of the hammer. Wherever you live out your faith this season, may you be drawn ever closer to the transformative power of love.