Jan 6, 2017

The "Real Reasons" the Magi were Late

As everyone knows, we celebrate the arrival of the Magi to the manger on January 6th, the Feast of
the Epiphany. Well, unless your only contact with the Christmas story is an annual pageant in which case you believe they arrived right after the shepherds on Christmas Eve.

Don’t get me started on the way we jumble the story at pageants (the shepherds and wise men never meet!). But I sure won’t be the one to tell the pageant director (and the parents) that there won’t be any frankincense this year.

The reality is that, according to Scripture, the Magi arrived today. Perhaps by now Jesus is sleeping through the night (let’s face it, that first night might have been holy but, as any parent knows, there was surely nothing “silent” about it).

Anyway, this got me wondering about what kept the three kings from making an on-time arrival. I scoured many sources at the Vatican library and came up with the following possibilities:

1. Balthazar took forever doing his hair while Caspar and Melchior sat on their camels and stewed.

2. The holiday traffic on the way into Bethlehem was dreadful.

3. Four words: goats in the road.

4. The Star of Bethlehem (the original GPS) kept saying “recalculating” and they found themselves in a sketchy part of town.

5. Caspar drank way too much water at the first oasis which meant an extra long stop at the Molly Pitcher rest stop.

6. Untying fancy sandals to go through the TSA checkpoint took a long time. Retying them took forever.

7. Due to poor behavior on the part of the other two kings, Melchior had to pull over more than once to yell, “If you don’t stop fighting I’m going to turn this caravan right around!”

8. Stopping at the Holiday Inn slowed them down because, in a precursor to today’s “War on Christmas,” Balthazar kept insisting the name should be changed to “Christmas Inn.”

9. “I told you that stop at Herod’s house was a waste of time.”

10. They took a vote and decided to take their sweet time getting to the manger so they would have a day all to themselves on the Church calendar.

Have a blessed Epiphany everyone!

Jan 5, 2017

In Good Faith: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

In my January In Good Faith column, I write about the potential pitfalls of New Year's resolutions and the importance of God-centered affirmation.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

This time of year is lousy for one’s self image. 

Part of this is self-inflicted. I mean, someone had to eat those last dozen Christmas cookies
(Yeah, no one's winning anything here)
before they went stale. And no on wants rancid egg nog taking up valuable shelf space in the refrigerator in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve. So you’ve stepped up to the dessert plate and done your heroic duty by taking one for the Yuletide team.

Part of this is stress-induced eating. Fortunately, we can blame this on spending time over the holidays with our somewhat dysfunctional families. How do you cope with over-bearing in-laws who have stayed beyond the requisite three days? Why, stuffing your face with pie, of course.

Part of this is societal pressure. Cookie swaps? Yes, this is how you ended up with 10-dozen different varieties of Christmas cookies including, but not limited to, gingerbread, meringues, sugar cookies, chocolate bourbon balls, etc.

Part of this is due to re-gifting. Besides the same fruitcake that’s been passed around the neighborhood for the past decade, people actually do give tasty, calorie-laden items that you want to keep. And consume. Because they’re delicious. And you don’t really have time for dinner since that tree won’t trim itself!

All of which, combined with those Facebook memes depicting broken post-holiday scales, don’t help anyone’s self image as they prepare to ring in the New Year. Which is precisely how all the local gyms stay in business (“New Year, New You!”).

What gets lost in this body-shaming, resolution-making time of year, is that God loves you precisely as you are and for who you are. Whatever you look like, God already loves you with reckless abandon and nothing you do or don’t do can change that. If your 2017 resolutions include eating only whole grain, free-range kale and running a marathon every day, God will love you just as much as if you resolve to watch every show ever released on Netflix. 

Now, I’m not saying this in a Mister Rogers “I like you just the way you are” kind of way. Sure, that’s affirming and it’s important to hear this message, especially at times when our self-esteem has bottomed out. But God isn’t just a nice guy in a cardigan sweater who feeds the fish and brings you into the Land of Make Believe. 

God loves you for who you are even as God seeks your transformation. God loves you even though there are things that God would like nothing more than to help you change. 

What do I mean? I believe God loves me even as I am being invited to be less judgmental of others, more gracious in my offline and online interactions, more open to those who differ from me. God encourages our transformation to be kinder and more open and more accepting and more compassionate. For Christians, this means “taking on the mind of Christ,” as St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Philippians. 

So, if you have made resolutions as we begin this new year, remember to be kind to yourself. Yes, God seeks your best self but God already loves whatever self you have to offer. And this is something that tends to get lost amid our frenzied annual period of self-shaming.

Dec 29, 2016

Tots & Toddlers Christmas Eve Service

Six years ago on Christmas Eve, several visiting families arrived with their children for our popular 4:00 pm pageant service. Their great sin? They arrived at 4:00 pm thinking there'd be "room at the inn." Which of course, there wasn't.

Our sympathetic ushers offered them the chance to stand outside the worship space and be brought in for communion but, with young children in tow, they decided to just leave quietly in great disappointment.

When I first heard this story a few days after Christmas, I cringed. Majorly. I could only imagine a family who, with great effort and perhaps some trepidation about walking into a new church, got the kids ready and out the door with joy in their hearts. Only to be turned away.

But in the end I didn't just cringe. I decided to do something so this would never happen again. Out of this Christmas Eve fail our newly conceived 2:00 pm Tots & Toddlers Service was born.

Now I'll be honest. The Pageant Service had gotten a little out of control. There's a reason I affectionately (for the most part) refer to it as the "Zoocharist." It's loud and joyful and energetic and chaotic. The Christmas story is told through the annual children's pageant, interspersed with carols, I read my Christianized version of The Night Before Christmas, and we share communion before sending everyone home with a blessing and candy canes.

The idea in creating the new service was to take the edge off the Pageant Service and offer an informal service for parents of little children in a more relaxed environment. At Tots & Toddlers (which one parishioner still insists on calling Toddlers & Tiaras), we tell the Christmas story in an accessible way as the children help me set up the creche with all the usual suspects. We also intersperse the action with single verses of traditional Christmas carols printed in the bulletin.

Since there obviously aren't enough wise men and sheep and angels, etc, to hand out to every child, we hand out stars to bring forward and place in the creche at the designated time. This way all the children feel as if they are participating and placing a tangible piece of themselves into the story of Jesus' birth.

We then bless the creche, share communion, and send them home after 40 minutes to bask in the warm glow of Christmas expectation and wonder.

The first year we had no idea how many to expect and 85 people showed up. The next few years it hovered between 100 and 150. This past Christmas Eve, it jumped to 220 and became the second largest of our four Christmas Eve services.

Did it really take the edge off the 4:00 pm Pageant Service? Kind of. It's definitely not as chaotic or loud but we've since installed TV screens in the parish hall so latecomers (or those actually coming on time) can view the service on a live video feed. This year we also had our assistant minister go into Upper Weld Hall to celebrate the eucharist concurrently for the 85 people who couldn't fit into the church.

But the real surprise has been the positive response from parents with young children who most likely wouldn't have attempted making it to church on Christmas Eve. It's also a way to draw our youngest children into the Christmas story in a fun, engaging, interactive way. Their faces make it all totally worth the extra effort it takes to add another service to an already full day.

I'm sharing this concept because several clergy have asked me about this liturgy. I'd be happy to share exactly what we do at St. John's with any parishes for whom this might be a viable option. Ultimately, I want every single person who attends church on Christmas Eve -- whether a longtime parishioner or someone taking tentative steps towards claiming a spiritual life -- to have a positive experience. We can't afford to turn anyone away. We just can't.

As you think about your line-up of Christmas services and what may work for your community, consider adding a Tots & Toddlers service. You may, like me, never look back!

Dec 23, 2016

In Good Faith: In the Bleak Midwinter?

In the Christmas edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about the rare (even in New England!) white Christmas. And why the Christmas weather really doesn't matter at all.

In the Bleak Midwinter?

Judging by the weekend weather forecast, it looks like we, yet again, won’t be getting that white Christmas we’ve been dreaming of. Bing Crosby can sing his heart out on the 24-hour Christmas music radio station your co-worker has been playing since Labor Day, but an actual white Christmas, even in New England, only seems to happen once per decade. Heck, last year it was 70 degrees on Christmas Day in Boston!

My first Christmas Eve serving my own congregation at a small parish just north of New York City, I remember opening the big oak doors as the candlelight service ended at midnight to see beautiful, fresh snow coming down in large flakes. It was such a stereotypical, idealized moment, yet I couldn’t help but acknowledge that it truly did feel holy. It was indeed a white Christmas! And if that can’t warm your heart, you’re a pre-conversion Ebenezer Scrooge.

I thought I was so special — it must have been the amazing sermon I preached — that this would undoubtedly happen every year. And…it hasn’t happened since. Nope. Not once.

But maybe that’s not so bad. Because in this era of fact-checking and fake news, it’s worth looking at this whole notion of a white Christmas. Certainly, the nostalgia-driven Christmas Industrial Complex adores the idea of snowfall on Christmas. Just look at the Christmas carols that perpetuate this state of yuletide perfection.

“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan..snow had fallen, snow on snow.” And, “the snow lay on the ground, the stars shone bright, when Christ our Lord was born on Christmas night.” These are just a few of the hymns. If you look at the more popular seasonal music you’ll encounter, “Let it Snow,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “Winter Wonderland.” 

That’s all fine, of course. It just didn’t actually snow on that first Christmas. How do I know? Um, because Jesus was born in the Middle East. So the odds of a blast of nordic air the night of Jesus’ birth is highly improbable. 

Of course that doesn’t matter — it doesn’t change anything. Christmas isn’t about some bygone five-day forecast. It’s not dependent upon ideal weather conditions or snow-making machines. It’s about the hope of the world being born in less-than-ideal circumstances. It’s about joy entering our lives amid the mud and muck of a stable rather than a sterile birthing room. It’s about God taking human form and changing the course of salvation history. It’s about a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness being unable to overcome it.

Wherever you are, whatever your faith tradition, whatever the weather, I hope you’ll open your heart to the Christmas story this year. When we receive it in a way that cuts through the sentimentality of the season, it can’t help but be a vehicle of hope and transformation. And let’s be honest — we could all use a dose of that now more than ever.

May God bless you in the year ahead and may you have a very merry, if not particularly snow-filled, Christmas. 

Dec 21, 2016

8 Christmas Eve "Welcoming Tips"

Hark! Christmas Eve is well nigh upon us! 

And this day offers congregations a unique opportunity to welcome and show Christian hospitality to visitors, seekers, strangers, and seasonal attendees. It's an exciting time to be in parish ministry and, while there's much to get done, it's also the very reason most of us have dedicated our lives to serve the church. As my curate likes to say, "This is our Super Bowl!"

There are some wonderfully creative ways to reach out to people and welcome them to your parish this season. From social media to musical offerings to invitational preaching, the options are abundant. The folks at Building Faith have had some good tips over the years and I encourage you to check them out.

To enhance the conversation, I thought I'd add a few additional tips for parishes to help make visitors feel particularly welcome on this most holy night. Definitely try at least a few of these and I guarantee your church will be the talk of the town.
1. Instead of the bride's side and the groom's side, have ushers ask whether people would prefer the "actually a parishioner side" or the "who are you we've never seen you before" side. This will come in handy when the preacher later brings up separating the sheep from the goats in the sermon.

2. Refer early and often to "those people" who have "not darkened the door of the church" along with the phrase "You know who you are!"

3. Judge rather than help people who have trouble navigating the Prayer Book/Hymnal/Bulletin juggling act. Snicker when they try to find Hymn 100 ("Joy to the World") but can only find S-100, that ever joyful plainsong version of the Trisagion.

4. At the announcements, remind everyone in the congregation (in a sarcastic tone) that you really do hold services more than once or twice a year. Also, toss around the term "communicant in good standing."

5. Make no mention of Christmas Eve services on your website or church answering machine. Or, if you do, make sure you've changed the service times since last year. Nothing says "Ho, ho, ho" quite like showing up just in time for the dismissal.

6. Don't explain the logistics of communion. It's best to keep newcomers' anxiety
about appearing foolish or "doing the wrong thing" ratcheted up as high as possible. Don't forget to correct anyone who says "thank you" after receiving the host by hissing "you mean 'amen.'"

7. Encourage parishioners to come in a few days before Christmas to drape coats over their regular pews to reserve them.

8. Keep the large front doors locked since everyone knows you go through that side door near the kitchen to get into the worship space.
Well, I hope this has given you a few extra ideas to make your guests feel welcome on Christmas Eve. What's the worst that could happen? They'll just try a different church on Easter.