Apr 23, 2015

Good Shepherd Disasters

Good Shepherd Sunday. It comes around every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. And it's full of sheep. Lots and lots of sheep. We hear the passage from John's gospel where Jesus proclaims, "I am the Good Shepherd." We read the familiar lines of the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd." We sing hymns with pastoral references like "Shepherd of Souls Refresh and Bless."

Preachers either love this day because of the powerful and comforting metaphors or, if they've been at  it for awhile, feel like they've already said everything they could ever possibly say about sheep. This year I stand somewhere in the middle -- thinking I really should have brought in a guest preacher from New Zealand.

Anyway, as I was thinking about the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd I remembered the tiny Good
Shepherd chapel at the Washington National Cathedral. I wanted to remind myself exactly what it looked like as I had a pretty powerful spiritual experience there the day before I was ordained a deacon.

What I learned was never, ever google images of the Good Shepherd. There are some horrendous examples of "art" out there which may well forever ruin this wonderful image for you. Think I'm joking? Fine. Take a look for yourself. Just remember, I warned you...

Thank you Franklin Mint. If your intention was to make Jesus look like
Mitchell from Modern Family but with long hair, you've succeeded. 
Jesus as Fabio. Next time add a breeze so he gets that sexy windblown look. 
You do know that this was just a metaphor, right? Jesus wasn't actually a shepherd.
He called disciples, not a flock.
Ah, the romance of holding a lamb by the light of the moon. Creepy. 
Jesus is about to wack you with a crowbar. Better wipe that goofy grin off your face, sheepy.
Hearts. Rainbows. It's like eating Lucky Charms!
Jesus as Chuck Norris? "Watch me use my flying roundhouse kick to turn this thing into a lamb chop."
"I use this crown of thorns as a scrunchie to keep the long flowing locks out of my face."
"You once were lost, but now you're found -- so hold still while I snap your neck."

Jesus as Faberge Egg meets Frankie Avalon as the teen angel 
singing "Beauty School Dropout" in Grease.

Disco Jesus busts a move. White man overbite optional.

"This sheep is like psychedelic, man."

Jesus channels his inner Angus Young from AC/DC. 
"Back in Black Sheep"

Apr 16, 2015

"Can I get a witness?"

In this Sunday's gospel passage -- an account of one of Jesus' final post-Resurrection appearances -- Jesus tells the disciples "You are witnesses to these things." He was talking about the literal events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection but also about the cosmic interaction between God and humanity as seen through his own life. And he left them, and all of us, with the challenge to be witnesses of our faith, not just innocent bystanders.

I think it's safe to say that most Episcopalians are witness-challenged. When it comes to using "witness" as a verb, we often fail to do our faith justice.

Yes, we're basically members of the Witness Protection Program. We'd rather have plastic surgery, change our names, and move out of state than stand up and boldly share our faith.

The thing about being a witness though -- whether in the legal system or as a testimony of faith -- is that you can't keep silent. It doesn't work that way. Because a witness is powerful only when he or she speaks truthfully and powerfully of that which was seen and heard.

Yesterday, as the verdict of "guilty" was handed down in the Aaron Hernandez murder trial, we encountered a true witness. In the immediate aftermath of the jury decision, Ursala Ward, the mother of Odin Lloyd, was given the opportunity to speak. She spoke openly, honestly, and faithfully. And we could all learn from her example of what it means to witness to our faith.

She didn't try to hide her pain, tearfully expressing that "The day I laid my son Odin to rest, I felt my heart stop beating for a moment. I felt like I wanted to go into that hole with my son, Odin."

And then, standing in the same room as the former star football player who never expressed any remorse for the murder of her child, Ursula Ward spoke some courageous and powerful words:

"I forgive the hands of the people who had a hand in my son's murder...and I pray and hope that someday everyone out there will forgive them also."

And then she sat down.

That is how you witness to your faith, friends.

PS. After I wrote this, I learned that Ursala is actually...an Episcopalian, a member of Church of the Holy Spirit in Mattapan, Massachusetts. See, we CAN do this.

Apr 7, 2015

Index of First Lines: Easter Snark Edition

My poor blog gets neglected every Lent. With Lent Madness getting all my online attention and creative energy, this space withers away like a poor, neglected stepchild.

Fortunately for everyone concerned, I have crawled out of my post-Easter fetal position and have once again been inspired by my muse: coffee.

If you're familiar with the Episcopal Church's Hymnal 1982, you know how to find your favorite hymn when all you can remember is the first few words. You flip to the back, to the invaluable "Index of First Lines."

With Easter on my mind since, you know, it lasts for 50 Days of Fabulous, I thought I'd take a look. Hence, here is the...

Index of First Lines: Easter Snark Edition

1. "Now the green blade riseth" -- Yeah, it's spring. Get a lawnmower.

2. "Come, ye faithful, raise the strain" -- After a long winter, it's time to return to the gym. And strain a bicep.

3. "This joyful Eastertide" -- Low tide always smells less like Easter lilies and more like rotting fish.

4. "Christ Jesus lay in death's strong bands" -- Are you sure this is actually an Easter hymn?

5. "He is risen, he is risen" -- Insert middle school Viagra joke.

6. "The strife is o'er, the battle done" -- The strife may be o'er, but this hymn goes on forever.

7. "We walk by faith and not by sight" -- Especially at the beginning of the Easter Vigil when we stumble around in the dark with fire.

8. "Welcome, Happy Morning, age to age shall say" -- Actually nobody has ever said this. In any age.

9. "Christ is alive! Let Christians sing" -- Um, we already are singing. It's an Easter hymn.

10. "Jesus Christ is risen today" -- Thank you, Captain Obvious.

Apr 2, 2015

In Good Faith: On a Pilgrimage

In the Holy Week edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about both Pilgrims and pilgrims. Blessings to all as we begin this journey to the cross and beyond.

On a Pilgrimage

For most Americans, even those of us living on Boston’s South Shore, so close to Plymouth, it’s hard to hear the word “pilgrim” without devolving into stereotypes. The word immediately conjures up images of somber men wearing black clothes with funny hats, big white collars, and silver belt buckles. While a quick trip to Plimouth Plantation quickly shatters these quaint yet misguided notions, when it comes to pilgrims, we can’t help but default to thinking about the men and women who came over on the Mayflower. 

Those original settlers didn’t necessarily refer to themselves as Pilgrims — the name only became synonymous with them in the 18th century. But 20 years after they arrived, the Plymouth Colony’s governor, William Bradford, reflecting on that journey to a new land in search of religious freedom, did reference the 11th chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews saying, “They knew they were pilgrims.” The word originally meant “foreigner” and for Paul, it was intended to convey that the true home for followers of Jesus was heaven and that they were all just passing through this world as strangers in a foreign land.

This week, Christians throughout the world mark the central events of their faith. In the liturgies of Holy Week, we immerse ourselves in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection — the very story that forms our identity as people of God.

And in a very real sense, we all become pilgrims during Holy Week. Not the stereotypical pilgrim who eats turkey on Thanksgiving (it was actually lobster!) but a pilgrim who yearns for a deeper relationship with God. A spiritual pilgrim who seeks to join his or her fellow sojourners on the collective journey of life and faith. 

When you enter into the heart of the the Christian story with profound intention and loving commitment, you do become a stranger in a foreign land. You embark on a pilgrimage of spiritual discovery. One fraught with highs and lows, opportunities and temptations, tears of joy and tears of sorrow. It’s a journey that draws believers closer to God; a journey that exposes our human weakness; a journey of discovery about ourselves and the God revealed to us in Jesus; a journey that demonstrates, above all, the power of God’s love for each one of us.

Wherever you worship — or even if you are only tentatively thinking about walking this journey with a community of faith — I encourage you to immerse yourself in this pilgrimage. Here at St. John’s, we travel from the Upper Room and Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist (communion) and foot washing at the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday to the agony of the crucifixion on Good Friday to the passing over from death to resurrection at the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening to the full-on joy of Easter Day. If you take these steps, I guarantee
you will emerge transformed and renewed. 

Unlike Plymouth Rock, which is the most anticlimactic tourist destination this side of the Alamo, you won’t leave disappointed or unfulfilled. As with everything, you get out of your faith what you put into it — and this is the time of year to jump in with both feet. Even if there are no yams on the other side.

Mar 6, 2015

In Good Faith: Tuning Peg

In my latest In Good Faith column, I liken Lent to a spiritual tune-up. If it sounds familiar, it's because a version of this essay appears in my book Dust Bunnies in the Basket: Finding God in Lent and Easter. So basically I plagiarized from myself.

Tuning Peg

When I was a kid, I sometimes tagged along with my father to symphony orchestra rehearsals. He was a conductor with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s and so when a babysitter got sick or my mother was working, I’d accompany him to the old Lyric Theater downtown. 

When I wasn’t hanging out in the dressing room with the poker-playing horn players or wandering around backstage among the huge double bass cases and assorted timpani drums, I’d be out exploring the red velvet-lined boxes in the balcony. 

Looking back, these were pretty special moments, memories I particularly cherish since my father died of cancer at fifty-two.

You could say that one of the soundtracks of my childhood was the tuning of the orchestra. If you’ve ever been to a classical music concert you know that they all start with the same ritual tuning. After a nod from the concertmaster, the principal oboe player gives them an A and then the rest of the orchestra tunes their instruments off of the oboe which, of all the instruments, provides the truest pitch. It just takes a few moments, but they always tuned up at the beginning of the rehearsal and then periodically throughout it if my father heard something that didn’t sound quite right.

The spiritual life is a bit like an orchestra in this regard. Over time, instruments naturally get out of tune if left alone. Strings in particular are very sensitive to cold or humidity. A violin string might stretch out, causing it to go flat. Or it might constrict, causing it to go sharp. A violinist must do a bit of fine-tuning with the pegs to get the instrument back in playing condition. 

In a sense, the season of Lent is the church’s tuning peg. Because our priorities can become slightly off key, Lent brings us back into tune, allowing and encouraging us to live again in harmony with God. It’s easy to let our spiritual lives get away from us. We get busy; we get self-absorbed; we get bogged down by endless activity. We let the minutiae of life drive our priorities, and suddenly we find ourselves out of tune with God. 

It might be so subtle that we hardly notice that our spiritual life has gone a bit flat, or it might be strident, atonal disharmony. Either way, Lent holds the potential to bring our spiritual lives back into tune. It encourages self-reflection and a return to the basics of our faith.

Lent forces us to reconsider the priorities of our lives. It demands we face the questions about what is truly important. There’s a natural sifting of the superfluous and nonessential pieces of our lives that brings us back to the brass tacks of the human experience. The basics of family and friends, shelter, food, and helping others in need are often what remain. And at the heart of these is our relationship with the living God, the God who creates, redeems, and sanctifies us, the God who joins us on the journey of life and faith, whatever trials and tribulations we meet along the way.

Throughout Lent, I encourage you to allow your spiritual tuning peg to be turned, if even just slightly. It requires obedience to the ultimate conductor of our lives yet results in ever-increasing peace, joy, love, and harmony.