Nov 25, 2015

Top 10 Reasons to Attend the Community Thanksgiving Service

Interior of Old Ship Church in Hingham, MA
It's that time of the year. The time when people of faith across all denominations "gather together to ask the Lord's blessing" by holding community Thanksgiving services. There are several reasons these are held in towns across America: it's a tradition, ie. we've always had one; lazy local ministers can get out of holding their own services; and it's a time when people of all faiths can come together at a place other than the soccer field on Sunday morning.

Here in Hingham, I participate in a Thanksgiving Eve service at Old Ship Church, the country's only remaining 17th century Puritan meeting house and current Unitarian house of worship. Then on Thanksgiving Day at 9:00 am we celebrate the Great Thanksgiving at St. John's -- something that likely makes Puritans roll over in their graves since they fled to America to get away from the Church of England.

If the following list sounds familiar, it's an excerpt from my book Father Tim's Church Survival Guide (Morehouse, 2015). If it doesn't ring a bell, buy the book. But only if your faith comes with a major dose of humor.

Top 10 Reasons to Attend the Community Thanksgiving Service

Each November all the local clergy and a disproportionately small number of townspeople gather for the Interfaith Community Thanksgiving Service at the local Congregational church. It’s nice to gather, certainly, and I appreciate knowing all the local clergy. But at a completely different level, there are many good (well, 10) reasons to attend such services. Thus, I offer you my:

Top Ten Reasons to Attend the Community Thanksgiving Service

1. When else would you get to hold a bulletin emblazoned with cornucopia clip-art?

2. To prove the superior vesture of Episcopalians (or, at what point does an abundance of polyester cassock-albs become a fire hazard?).

3. To get away from the in-laws for an hour while they dispute the ingredients of your late grandmother’s stuffing recipe.

4. To worship God in lowest common denominator form (along with several references to Mother Earth).

5. To pray that parishioners from other churches will see the light and join your congregation.

6. To enjoy seeing the area clergy being paraded around in front of the congregation like a police line-up (“Hey, you, number two Methodist; stand next to that Presbyterian and sing ‘Eagles’ Wings’”).

7. To take bets on how many times the hosting cleric will say the word “welcome.”

8. To witness hearing all the participating clergy being given a line or two (in the name of inclusion) so it feels like a third grade play.

9. Since the rest of your family refuses to go, it makes for a contemplative time.

10. To enjoy the post-service store-bought brownies and punch reception (a result of several unnamed Protestant denominations for whom wine is anathema).

As an Episcopalian I look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with The Great Thanksgiving. All the rest is just icing on the turkey. 

Nov 12, 2015

In Good Faith: So Long Sunday Morning?

In my latest In Good Faith column, I explore the demise of the sanctity of Sunday morning. Does it really matter? As long as we find time to gather for worship at SOME point during the week, perhaps not. 

So Long Sunday Morning?

Let’s be honest. The “Sunday mornings are sacred” ship has sailed. People work, shop, and
spend time on athletic fields. The only “blue laws” left out there are the ones governing whether it’s appropriate to use blue tooth technology in the library.

This isn’t necessarily a reflection that the “moral fiber of the nation” is on the decline. Our country’s blue laws, restricting work, recreation, and the purchase of alcohol on Sundays in order to encourage religious observance, may have started in New England but they have always been a source of church-state conflict. 

In the nearly six and a half years since I’ve lived on the South Shore of Boston, however, the prevalence of Sunday morning youth sports has exploded. Combined with the ability to shop seven days a week either online or in person -- all of which would make even the most tolerant Puritan blush -- there’s literally no escape from daily obligation and responsibility. 

This doesn’t mean people are scrapping the need for spiritual renewal, reflection, and refreshment or that the nation is heading down the path to perdition. Though it may well indicate just how over-scheduled we’ve all become — and that is a spiritual issue. Because without time set aside for sabbath keeping we end up sacrificing our souls on the altar of endless activity. 

All of which does put a Christian minister in a bind. Do I rail against the “devil” of Sunday morning youth sports (I mean, even the NFL waits until 1:00 pm) and condemn every business from Walmart to the local coffee shop for opening before noon? Or do I take a deep breath and offer an alternative to Sunday morning worship?

The reality is that for people who work hard all week, Sunday morning may well be the one day when sleeping in is even a possibility. We all need time to recharge and renew — we spend too much time running on fumes as it is. 

But for those of us who embrace the modern world with all its challenges and opportunities, including Sunday mornings becoming just another day, there’s still a need to step off the hamster wheel. It’s more important than ever to take time out to pause and reflect and seek perspective. Otherwise life passes us by in a flash and we realize, often too late, that we’ve missed much of it. 

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, it is precisely because we’re so busy that we need to make time to worship. Not to add yet another thing to our over-burdened to-do lists, but to give meaning to everything else we do.

The fact that you can now buy a six pack of Bud before noon may or may not matter to you. But taking time out to worship and give thanks for the abundant blessings of this life — even if it’s not on a Sunday morning — still matters. However or wherever you find space to spiritually recharge and renew, I encourage you to do so. You owe it to yourself.

Nov 5, 2015

In Good Faith: A Football Life

In my November In Good Faith column I write about my increasingly complicated relationship with the game of football. It's a game I love and continue to watch, even as the culture of violence and medical realities begin to emerge from behind the curtain.

A Football Life

I like football. For those who know me, this is hardly a revelation. I’m a rabid Baltimore Ravens fan. But only because my beloved Baltimore Colts stole out of town by cover of darkness in 1984 as the arch-villain of my childhood, owner Robert Irsay, moved them to Indianapolis. 

I grew up cheering for Colts quarterback Bert Jones, eating at the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Restaurant, and I even have a stadium seat from the old Memorial Stadium in my living room. Fine, that last part is only wishful thinking — my wife long ago exiled my prized possession to the screened-in porch.

So why am I suddenly struggling to find my usual unfettered joy in the Sunday afternoon NFL ritual? For years, after a full morning at church, I would look forward to planting myself on the sofa and reveling in the pageantry and strategy of professional football. When I served a downtown Baltimore parish I would even occasionally walk straight from church to the stadium to catch a game.

I still enjoy football and I still watch it every week, but something has changed. Something that has nothing to do with the fact that the Ravens are mired in a dreadful season while I live in the increasingly large shadow of Tom Brady and the Patriots. I mean, I don’t even want to go see my barber anymore for fear of the ribbing I’ll take from the owner. And I desperately need a haircut!

The reality is that nothing has changed — except our own comprehension. When I see a bone-crushing, helmet-to-helmet hit on a receiver going across the middle, I no longer think “Wow! He absolutely demolished that guy! What a play!” All I can see is the receiver’s brain rattling around his cranium and wonder whether that’s the hit that will cause him to slur his words in his 40s. Acronyms like TD and QB have been replaced by the one that really matters: CTE — Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. 

A number of people I know and respect have sworn off watching football on moral grounds. These aren’t folks on a moral crusade against a violent game they despise. Some of these people have been lifelong fans, some played the game themselves at high levels. Some have publicly announced their intentions on social media, some have simply and quietly turned off their televisions. Some are parents of children entering youth football age, some have never had kids. But what they have in common is the ability to see beyond the glitz and glamour to examine their own hearts.

I admit, I’m not there. I still watch football and (mostly) enjoy it. But their discomfort with the culture of violence has given me pause. And I’m grateful for their witness, a witness that may well turn out to be prophetic.

Who knows what the future holds for the National Football League? If I were a betting man, and I’m not (I don’t even play fantasy football), my guess is that in another generation or two professional football will look very different, both in terms of the game itself and the demographic it attracts. While the NFL is currently atop the world in viewership and income, don’t forget boxing and horse racing were once the top two revenue-generating sports in America. They’ve been shuttled to the periphery of athletic consciousness, a place football may well end up. 

In the meantime, along with much of America, I’m left to my own self-justifications. Though phrases like “the players knew the risk when they signed up” and “football builds character” ring increasingly hollow. 

Oct 22, 2015

The Eye of the Needle

I really do apologize for this. But as I was writing my stewardship sermon, I couldn't get the the Rocky III theme song "Eye of the Tiger" out of my head. Except this 1982 song by the band Survivor morphed into "Eye of the Needle," a reference to Jesus' statement that "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."

Here's the movie scene with the song if you have no idea what I'm talking about. It does kind of make you want to start training to fight Clubber Lang.

Anyway, before I could finish my sermon, I had to get this distraction out of my head. So here you go. I suggest having the choir sing it as the offertory anthem on Stewardship Sunday.

The Eye of the Needle

Risin’ up, back in the church
Did my time, raised my pledge
Went to communion 
Now I’m back in the pew
Just a man and his will to give more
So many times, it happens too fast
You trade your pledge card for glory
Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of your church
You must fight just to keep them alive.

It's the eye of the needle
It's the thrill of the pledge
Risin' up to the challenge
Of our Rector
And the stewardship chair
Stalks his prey with his phone
And he's watching us all with the
Eye of the needle

Face to face, out in the narthex
Hangin' tough, stayin' gen’rous
They stack the odds
Still we take to the pews
For the pledge for the church to survive


Risin' up straight to the top
Had the guts, got my tithe in
Went the distance
Now I'm not gonna stop
Just a man and his will to give more


The eye of the needle
The eye of the needle
The eye of the needle
The eye of the needle

Oct 8, 2015

In Good Faith: Seeing the Big Picture

In this month's In Good Faith column I write about the big picture of faith and our tendency to want to focus on the dots. A shout-out to pointillism and the awesomeness of museum gift shops.

Seeing the Big Picture

When I was a kid my parents often dragged me and my brother to museums. It wasn’t just that they were trying to ram some culture down our throats; they were genuinely inspired by art and wanted to share that passion with their children. Much of which was lost on the two of us who whined and complained our way through centuries of magnificent works of art until we reached the great pinnacle of the museum experience: the gift shop. 

But I remember being fascinated with one particular style of painting known as pointillism. That’s the medium in which small distinct dots are placed in patterns that make up images. When you stand up close all you see is a bunch of dots. But as you back up, the figures and background begin to emerge. At a certain distance you can no longer even tell that there are any dots at all. They blend together to form what looks like a typical painting. 

Perhaps the most famous example of pointillism is the late-19th century Georges Seurat painting titled “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” It hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, a place I went to (of my own accord!) a few times when I was attending seminary in Chicago. They have a great gift shop, by the way.

I was thinking about this recently as it relates to our lives. So often we focus on the dots while missing the big picture. We get annoyed with our children for spending too much time on the Xbox rather than giving thanks for the gift of their very existence. We get frustrated with the time it takes to attend to the needs of aging parents rather than being grateful for their continued presence in our lives. We focus on doing the dishes rather than enjoying the company of our guests.

As with encountering a pointillist painting, it’s important to take a step back to see the big picture of our lives, even as the details and annoyances of the everyday continually draw us in. Otherwise we get to the end of our lives and realize we weren’t really paying attention to what, in the end, matters. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s slogan on the economy, “It’s about the relationships, stupid.”

Much of this is about living a life of gratitude and thanksgiving. That’s the posture of faith; a way of viewing life as a gift from God rather than something to endure or “get through.” And it’s precisely why attending to relationship with the divine makes a difference. God pulls us back, away from the dots of life, allowing us to see things in all their glorious living color. And when we let God do this, the full image of God’s love for us becomes increasingly clear.

I still love museum gift shops. And while I no longer see them as sweet relief from the cruel and unusual punishment of being exposed to art, my kids sure do.