Dec 8, 2016

In Good Faith: Let You Light Shine (or not)

In my December In Good Faith column, I write about holiday perfection and why it doesn't actually matter.

Let Your Light Shine (or not)

When you live on Main Street in Hingham, Massachusetts, there is great pressure to put up white candle lights in your windows in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I’m not sure how long this tradition has been in effect but it likely traces back to the 17th century town fathers. You know, the ones who missed the boat to Plymouth and had to settle for johnny-come-lately-to-the-New-World status. The ones who don’t have a famous “rock” to celebrate, as anticlimactic as the real thing may be.

When we first toured the church rectory over seven years ago, my wife noted the abundance of outlets in the rooms facing Main Street. I mean, now that she mentioned it, there were plugs under every single window. What was that about? Were we supposed to put illuminated neon beer signs in all the windows? Our gracious guide just laughed — it was May after all — and explained this unique “requirement” of living on Main Street.

Come December we dutifully went out and purchased the requisite white lights. Well, we tried but by then they were all sold out. And no one was interested in my suggestion to use actual candles. Which was good because, as the house was built in 1789, I certainly didn’t want it engulfed by flames on my watch.

Since the four windows on the second floor comprise the boys’ rooms, we spent the last seven years arguing with them about those window candles. The bottom line? They don’t want them in their rooms. They get knocked over, they can’t sleep with these additional “night lights,” and they see them as a form of parental oppression. We tried negotiating but most December evenings we ended up with lights in the first floor windows and maybe one or two on the second floor. Basically a pathetic, half-hearted display of holiday cheer and certainly not up to the lofty standards of Main Street in Hingham.

So you know what? We’re done. No lights in the windows this year. We can chalk it up to a season of our lives — and with a senior and sophomore in high school we’ll soon enough repossess the windows of our home. 

But I think our window candle struggle isn’t a bad metaphor for the holiday season. So often we aim for perfection — with exterior lights and Christmas cards and holiday parties — and we undoubtedly come up short. One strand of the icicle lights on the porch doesn’t light up, the dog doesn’t quite cooperate in the photo shoot, one of the guests drinks too much spiked egg nog and causes a scene. And as we look around, perceiving perfection in everyone around us, we feel less than whole. We dwell on our shortcomings and fail to see the goodness in our best efforts.

And that’s a shame. Living up to other people’s expectations or appearances is not what Christmas is about. At all. If you’re a person of faith, or at least trying to be one, recognize that God loves you not for what you do but for who you are. That’s the miracle of Christmas — that God entered the world in human form to dwell among us. And, remember, it wasn’t to a sterile birthing room but to a muck-filled stable. God doesn’t demand perfection but faithfulness.

So, please, be kind to yourself this holiday season. And kindly don’t judge us when you drive by the St. John’s rectory and don’t see a full set of candles blazing in every window. We, like everyone this time of year, are doing the best we can.

Nov 30, 2016

And our (Episcopal) flag was still there

I'm not a big props-in-the-pulpit guy. Maybe I witnessed too many Trinity Sunday sermons growing up where the preacher would mess up some analogy using three tapers or three cups of water and I'd end up more confused than ever.

But I did use a prop at our midweek Eucharist on St. Andrew's Day (November 30). I was talking about Andrew, the first apostle called by Jesus, which led to the well-known St. Andrew's cross, which led to my hauling out an old Episcopal Church flag that resides on the top shelf of a tall cabinet in my office. 

I think the flag in question was replaced in our nave by a newer flag a number of years ago and, since we never throw things out in churches, it was naturally placed on a virtually inaccessible shelf in the rector's office. Please don't question it. That's just how things work.

Many people know the symbolism behind the Episcopal Church's flag but many have no clue so I thought I'd say a few words about it. Plus, I'm teaching an Episcopal 101 class to newcomers this Sunday so these sorts of things are on my mind.

The first thing you should know about the Episcopal Church flag is that it's a relatively recent addition to our church. It's not as if in the aftermath of the American Revolution, the clergy and laity sat around thinking, "Let's see. We need a new Book of Common Prayer, a Constitution, Canons, and, oh right...a flag!"

In fact the flag wasn't approved for use until 1940. Just imagine that General Convention -- they approved both a hymnal and a flag!

I'm not sure when the Episcopal Church suddenly realized they didn't have a flag -- and
needed one -- but it was designed by William Baldwin, a member of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in the Diocese of Long Island (NY). 

And I, for one, love the design of this flag. It's become iconic partly because of the flag itself but also because of the iconic "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" signs that you can still spot all over the country. 

So what's the symbolism involved and why was I mentioning this on St. Andrew's Day? I'm getting to that last part, be patient.

The large red cross on the white field is the Cross of St. George, the patron saint of England. That makes sense, as we are members of the worldwide Anglican Communion, directly descended from the Church of England. It's been speculated that the white on the flag represents the purity of the Christian faith while the red is symbolic of the sacrifice of Jesus and the blood of the martyrs. Maybe that was Baldwin's intent or maybe it's a later explanation but either way, it works.

The light, sky blue is the color associated with St. Mary (who says Episcopalians don't take Mary seriously enough? She's on our flag!). The nine white crosslets represent the nine original dioceses that made up the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States following the Revolution (Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and South Carolina). In hockey terms, these would be like the Original Six (Boston BruinsChicago Black HawksDetroit Red WingsMontreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs).

Anyway, these nine crosslets are arranged in the pattern of a St. Andrew's Cross (or Saltire). Why? Because when the fledgling American church needed a bishop they couldn't send a priest to England -- the ordination rite required allegiance to the king. A major problem! So Samuel Seabury of Connecticut was sent to Scotland (ding, ding, ding!) to be consecrated in 1784. 

Legend has it that, when it was time for his martyrdom, St. Andrew believed himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord. Thus he was bound, rather than nailed, to a cross in the form of an "X." 

But why, you ask, is St. Andrew the patron saint of Scotland? Because it's said his relics were, by divine guidance, transported from Constantinople to Scotland. In any event, there has been a strong connection between the Scots and St. Andrew since as early as the 8th century. Hence the Scottish flag prominently bears the cross of St. Andrew.

So you see, this has all come together quite nicely. I had a prop for my homily and perhaps you've learned something about St. Andrew. Or at least the Episcopal Church flag.

Nov 12, 2016

A Eulogy for Don

Although I've probably preached hundreds of funeral sermons over seventeen years of ordained ministry, I haven't delivered many eulogies. 

Oh, I've heard plenty of them. To the point that I felt the need to write my Unofficial Eulogy Guidelines a couple years ago.

But, I've only ever given two. One two-and-a half years ago for Anne Carroll and one today for her husband Don Carroll. 

Both funerals took place at St. David's Episcopal Church in Baltimore -- my childhood parish and the place I sang in a stellar boys' choir back in the day (and back when boys' choirs existed outside of King's College and Vienna). Their adult children, Ned and Sandy, invited me to speak on both occasions -- which was a great honor and privilege.

You see, Anne and Don were special people in my life -- second parents really. I met Ned when I was seven and we became fast friends. Soon enough our parents became equally close and our families were intertwined in remarkable ways. From little league fields to Gilman School to St. David's to beach vacations; through interstate moves and graduations and weddings and moments of heartbreak, our family connectedness was one of the few constants in life.

And when such constants fade away, you grieve the loss. Deeply. Even as you give thanks for the blessings of such relationships.

Eulogy for Donald W. Carroll, Jr.
St. David's Episcopal Church
Baltimore, Maryland
November 12, 2016

It started with a throwaway Facebook post. A lament that, given what I do for a living, I would never, ever get to spring training. I mean, the season of Lent, the busiest time of year for parish clergy, just happens to coincide with Major League Baseball’s own season of preparation. Ballplayers are doing calisthenics and taking batting practice while Christians are engaging in Lenten disciplines and giving up chocolate. So there are definitely parallels. If you look hard enough.

But I never got to spring training as a kid and I figured the only way I’d ever get to see my beloved hometown Baltimore Orioles would be to retire. And my wife informed that this was definitely not an option.

But then I got a text from a childhood friend who had seen my pathetic post. “Thinking about taking dad to see a couple games next week for his birthday. You in?” After verifying that ‘said friend’ wasn’t just mocking me, I started thinking seriously about going down for a couple of days. No, I didn’t have the time. No, flying to Sarasota during Lent didn’t make any logical sense. But in the end, the answer was clear.

You see, this wasn’t just any friend taking just any father to Florida for spring training. This was my second family growing up. Ned and Don Carroll were the only two people on God’s green earth that could get away with calling me “Timmy.” And Don was slowly, if gracefully dying. Time was running out.

So the trip wasn’t about baseball. Not really. It was about spending time with a man who had been a source of inspiration and support throughout my life; someone who was a living connection to my own late father; a person whose gentle humor and unconditional devotion to his family and friends have endeared him to so many of us over the years.

And so, in-between innings, we talked about life and death, faith and family. Time stood still as the three of us laughed and cheered and cursed the Yankees and talked about the things that really matter in life — the relationships that define us and shape our identity — and the sense of peace in the face of death that, even as it comes from a life well-lived, still surpasses and defies all understanding.

Don was so proud of Ned and Sandy — and not just because they both married way up with Amy and Diane. He was so proud of his five grandchildren, Will and Sean and Jenny and Noah and Annie; and the life he created with his beloved Anne. He was well aware of the legacy of love he was leaving behind. A legacy that was so beautifully and tangibly expressed by Ned and Sandy as they cared for Don with such devotion and compassion in his final days.

Finally making it to spring training this past February was everything I anticipated it would be. There was hope, as well as the defining sights and sounds of baseball, in the air. The crack of the bat, the warm breeze, the wafting odor of grilled hot dogs, the chatter of the ballplayers, the smack of balls hitting leather. And it was also, for me, a resurrection experience in the midst of Lent. A time to celebrate life, even as Don’s life itself was slipping away.

But that’s really what the Christian faith is all about — snatching life from the jaws of death; finding hope in situations that feel utterly hopeless; recognizing joy in the midst of grief.

It was a privilege to know Don Carroll — and I should say it took me years before I could call him anything other than “Mr. Carroll.” But what a gift we’ve all been given to walk part of our earthly pilgrimage alongside this amazing man. I am forever grateful for Don’s presence in my life, as I know we all are.

You know, life doesn’t always go into extra innings. Which means taking advantage of resurrection moments when they present themselves. Even if this means sitting in the Florida sun watching the home team win a meaningless spring training game, that somehow means the world to you.

Nov 10, 2016

Why A Trump Presidency is the Best Thing to Ever Happen to the Church

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:5)

Just after Donald Trump announced his candidacy in that rambling, humorous (in a 'what-is-our-electoral-process-now-a-reality-show?' kind of way) address on the steps of Trump Tower, I tweeted out:

"Just awoke from a nightmare! Dreamed that during the Prayers of the People we prayed for 'Donald, our President.'"

Well, guess what I did yesterday? Yup. Prayed for "Donald, our President-Elect." And far from a scripted reality show, this is our new national reality. On January 20, 2017, Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the next President of the United States.

After rapidly moving through Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross' ubiquitous five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), I've come to a sixth stage in these last 24 hours: unabashed joy. Wait, what?

Well, first, let's define "joy." The Biblical concept of "joy" does not equate to "happiness." It has nothing to do with a superficial, in-the-moment, fleeting sense of satisfaction. Joy as in "rejoice in the Lord always" is rooted in a profound and abiding trust in God's merciful presence.

So, yes, in this sense I am joyful and believe a Trump presidency will be the best thing that could have ever happened to the Church. Not the country or people on the margins or the world, mind you, but the Church. Because we have a unique and Biblical opportunity to seize the moral initiative and offer a powerful counter-voice to the forces of violence and oppression. The Church that takes seriously Jesus' radical message of inclusion will not only be relevant but will play a critical role in shaping the future trajectory of our nation.

Oh, this struggle won't be easy. My sense of "unabashed joy" is severely tempered by the knowledge that many will be hurt emotionally and spiritually and financially and even physically along the way. And the Trump Administration will be especially difficult for vulnerable populations, however we define them. I'm not suggesting Donald Trump alone is responsible for the systemic racism and sexism that pervade our country -- these sins (let's call them what they are) were present long before the 2016 election cycle and would have remained with us whoever was elected president on Tuesday.

But this will be the defining moment of our ecclesiastical generation. We have an opportunity to reclaim our identity as people committed to the way of justice and peace in God's name. And that is "good news" in the gospel sense of the word.

How exactly is a Trump presidency good for the Church? Here are some ways I believe Election Day  can be a transformative event moving forward:

Reclaim Our Prophetic Voice
The prophet Micah (6:8) puts it simply when it comes to the Lord's requirements for the faithful: "Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God." Do. Love. Walk. These are not passive acts but calls to discipleship. The prophetic voice does not come from the seat of power but calls those in authority to account for sinful behavior. The Church must be this voice in the world.

Recognize Our One Lord
Like the grass that withers and the flower that fades, temporal kingdoms come and go. But the Word of God, as made manifest in Jesus Christ, endures forever. We are subjects, first and foremost, of the Kingdom of Heaven. We can never forget from whence our true authority derives. Truth is found not in ideology or partisan politics but in the transforming and redemptive work of our Lord.

Stand with Those on the Margins
We remind ourselves continually of Jesus' call to stand with the marginalized and dispossessed. We remember Jesus' ministry to and solidarity with the "least of these" (Matthew 25). We embrace movements like Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock. We listen and stand in the trenches and pray with those on the margins such as the LGBTQ and immigrant communities, the poor, the physically disabled, and the mentally ill, among others. For white Christians, this means stepping aside and allowing our brothers and sisters to lead the fight and write the narrative. For the sake of authenticity, their experiences must inform our actions.

Make Sacrifices
Yes, we must stand with others. But the privileged among us, especially white men like myself, also must be willing to make sacrifices. Otherwise we're just offering platitudes from a safe distance -- through official "statements" or blog posts or on social media. Real change demands true sacrifice. What privileges are we willing to forego to make justice -- economic and otherwise -- a reality.

Embrace Fear and Grief
Be aware that for many people in this country, Tuesday's result was devastating. A patronizing pat on the head and a "don't worry, it'll all be okay" response is not helpful. As a female friend of mine put it, "The Church must be willing to let people be afraid and discover what might help them feel less afraid. The Church must be willing to allow people to feel grief and despair. I am feeling the grief and anger of hundreds of years of well-qualified, talented women being pushed aside for mediocre white men to take center stage. Those feelings will not go away, but they can be transformed by God and a Church who recognizes its complicity in oppression and beings to work for justice."

Be a Resistance Movement
Yes, we are the Jesus Movement but we are also now a Resistance Movement. One that speaks truth to power even when it means leaving our comfort zones to stand up and mobilize for hard gospel truths. Racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia -- these are not acceptable either among an intimate group of friends or in the halls of Congress. Loving our neighbors as ourselves does not mean giving in to the powers and principalities without fighting for justice. It means speaking up even if people refuse to listen. It means subverting the political process in the name of justice.

Love Our Enemies
We must fervently pray for President Trump, for his cabinet, and for all those in power. And we must love them not only with our lips but in our lives. We must listen to the concerns of those with whom we disagree. Not out of arrogance or judgment but with open minds and hearts. This doesn't mean accepting or enabling hate speech -- that we unequivocally call out -- but we are to respect the dignity of every human being in our daily and online interactions.

Be Reconcilers
We must tear down walls between people who are different -- politically, culturally, racially, religiously -- rather than building them up. Relationships matter. Fellow children of God matter. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). It is time to practice reconciliation with reckless abandon.

Embrace Hope
As Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion, once put it, "We are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world." Now more than ever we must embrace the promise of hope embedded in Christ's resurrection. Out of darkness, there is light; out of death, there is life. We must embody hope with the utter conviction that love will indeed prevail. Through the resurrection, Christ has trampled down the forces of death and destruction. This is not a denial of the pain involved, but a reminder that all our hope on God is founded.

This will not be an easy time. There will be times of trial and persecution. Times when all feels lost and hopeless. But we are a Resurrection people, imbued with a sense of hope that can never be driven out. We will be sorely tested -- sometimes to the breaking point -- but love will prevail. Love born of hope in the living Christ always does. And that is the true source of my joy.

My friends, never forget that at the heart of our common life stands "faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:13)

Nov 7, 2016

Jesus: Soft on Sin and Unelectable

In the waning days of the election, I started reflecting on just how bad a presidential candidate Jesus would have been. 

I mean, there are certain things that would play well to the masses. His back story is good — son of a simple carpenter, a small businessman who worked hard to pass on his strong family values and solid work ethic. 

But you just know the opposition research guys on the other side would uncover the “scandal” of his true parentage. One whiff of the whole “Son of God” thing and they’d accuse him of insisting on ruling by “divine right.”

And Dan Brown-inspired Mary Magdalene conspiracy theories aside, not being married is a huge liability. Not to mention state dinners rife with tax collectors and sinners rather than dignified diplomats. His style is just all a bit too...unorthodox.

And while Jesus was always willing to stand up to the powers and principalities of injustice and oppression, you know he wouldn’t go negative. He just wouldn’t be comfortable tearing down a fellow child of God in order to win at all costs. I’m pretty sure you need a killer instinct to succeed in modern electoral politics. Peacemakers are seen as weak and, despite his clear record, he’d be labeled “soft on sin.”

Primarily, though, the Sermon on the Mount would have made a lousy stump speech. Sure there’s a nice rhythm to it with the memorably repetitive “Blessed are those who…for they will…” trope. But we want our candidates to project an image of strength and power; we want to see leadership and action. We want messages of confidence and abundance and optimism. We don’t want to hear about the meek and the poor and the persecuted and the hungry. We want uplifting rhetoric that inspires and reminds us of our national supremacy on the global stage. We want someone who will make the kingdom of heaven great again! Not someone who will highlight the as-of-yet unrealized dream of God’s kingdom here on earth.

The reality is, whichever candidate is elected tomorrow, as a nation we still have work to do. This election has brought the bitter divides in this country into stark relief. And the election process has unleashed a Pandora’s Box of hatred and bile that I fear will be difficult to contain in the years ahead.

This is why candidate Jesus would invite us to consider the Beatitudes, the section that forms the heart of both the Sermon on the Mount and his very ministry. By highlighting faithfulness over victory, Jesus asks us to behold his vision of hope; to see a world where fear and hatred are driven out by compassion and love. The work of reconciliation and honest conversation amid disagreement is not easy. But the vision of peace and justice and love abides even in what feels like a dark time in our common life.

In the meantime, in the spirit of hope, go ahead and order an “I Survived the Election of 2016” t-shirt off e-Bay. And then, come Wednesday, we can move on to the difficult but important work of making this a better world for all. Even if Jesus himself would have gotten trounced in the electoral college.