Jan 23, 2015

Serendipity strikes again

Serendipity is not only a fun word to say, it's a joy to experience. It's generally defined as "fortunate happenstance" or "pleasant surprise" but when serendipity actually happens it's more a feeling than a definition.

My mother shared a serendipitous experience with me via the U.S. postal service and I thought I'd pass it on. Why? Because it's my blog and I can be serendipitous if I want to.

It turns out that the choir at her parish in Baltimore, the Church of the Redeemer (the same parish that sponsored me for ordination), will soon be singing the Bruckner Mass in E Minor. I guess it had been awhile since they sang this setting because one of the singers found an old service leaflet in his copy of the music.

Anyway, the bulletin for the Fourth Sunday in Advent in 1977 listed my late father as the Conductor of this special musical offering. When we lived in Baltimore, where he was the Associate Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony, he would occasionally lend his gifts in this way to the parish. As I think about it, what rector wouldn't love to have a symphony orchestra conductor in the congregation?

So they did the Bruckner Mass with the Redeemer choir, musicians from the Baltimore Symphony, and some singers from the Baltimore Symphony Chorus, which my father also directed. (Fun Fact: Bishop Carol Gallagher sang under my dad as a member of the Baltimore Symphony Chorus).

In looking over the service, I have to admit that from a churchmanship perspective, the liturgy gave me retroactive agita. They sang the mass settings as part of Choral Morning Prayer. Sigh. But from a church geekery historical perspective, it was fun seeing the congregation directed to the texts in the "New Prayer Book."

It's been 23 years since my father died so this was a particularly meaningful find. Indeed he's still there -- bodily at least -- in the columbarium at Redeemer.

Oh, and by the way, if you are an awesome priest, Redeemer is seeking a new rector at the moment. It's a special place which you can read about here. The former Bishop of Maryland, Bob Ihloff, is serving as interim. Plus, as a special perk of the job, you'd get to provide pastoral care to my mom when she complains that I don't call her enough.

Jan 21, 2015

Annual Meeting Haiku

Do you hear that sound? It's the collective stress of rectors and wardens throughout the Episcopal Church freaking out about the upcoming Annual Meeting. 

Surviving the Annual Meeting is an ecclesiastical rite of passage for clergy and parishioners everywhere. Plus, since mine's this weekend at St. John's in Hingham, MA, it's been on my mind. A lot. 

Thus, I thought I'd share a timely excerpt from my newly released Father Tim's Church Survival Guide (Morehouse 2015). I'm pretty sure a number of you will be able to relate.

Annual Meeting Haiku

At the end of January most congregations hold their canonically-required Annual Parish Meeting. You can always tell when a parish has a divisive issue to address since they schedule the meeting on Super Bowl Sunday, secretly hoping fewer people will attend. 

At their best, Annual Meetings are wonderful celebrations of parish life. They give parishioners a chance to hear about the breadth of ministry that takes place — both visible (Sunday School) and invisible (Altar Guild). New vestry members are elected, the annual budget for the coming year is presented, and the congregation is given an opportunity to ask questions and offer comments. 

The Annual Meeting is an invaluable time to take a step back in the midst of the daily grind of ministry to seek the broader view, examine the past year, and look ahead to where God may be calling the congregation in the future.

Unfortunately they rarely live up to such lofty ideals which is why they are often poorly attended. If you haven’t checked your watch early and often during an Annual Meeting, you’re probably not a true parishioner. 

These affairs are also an annual source of stress for clergy, lay leaders, and parish staff. Transparency is important and thus offering details about the budget plays a vital, if tedious, role. If there are “fireworks” at the Annual Meeting they usually stem from the budget presentation --  thoughtfully provided by the three parish cranks who bring up the same issues every single year.

As a service to all who diligently prepare for their respective Annual Meetings (and those who must endure them), I offer the following poem to save everyone time, effort, and copy paper. I recommend standing up, reciting this, and then sending everyone home. I promise you will go down in the annals of parish history as the most revered rector/senior warden combination to ever grace your congregation. The Annual Meeting will be over before you can say “brass plaque in my honor” three times. 

The Annual Meeting Haiku
Budget blah, blah, blah
Something about Jesus Christ
Please up your pledges.

Jan 20, 2015

Ripping Jesus from the Headlines

If all I knew about Christianity was what I learned through the media, I think it’s safe to say I would not be a Christian. Think about it. From the outside looking, what do you see?

  • Westboro Baptist Church — a hate group unworthy of the name “church.” 
  • Creationists living in utter denial of the value of scientific inquiry. 
  • Sexual predators masquerading as priests. 
  • Homophobic and jingoistic rants in the name of Jesus by pastors with bad hair and 900 numbers. 
  • Delusional people waiting for the (non-Biblical) "Rapture." 
  • Lawsuits over the right to erect monuments of the 10 Commandments and/or public nativity scenes.

Or put another way, if you went up to a bunch of non-church-going strangers and asked them what came to mind when they thought of Christians you’d likely hear: 

  • Judgmental. 
  • Hypocritical. 
  • Holier than thou. 
  • Irrational. 
  • Out of touch. 
  • Intolerant. 

It's easy to understand how people outside the faith might come to such conclusions. I mean, the hits just keep coming.

This past week there was a story about a group of Christian legislators in Mississippi pushing to get the Bible named the official state book. Now, I love the Bible as much as anyone, but when it’s used as a cudgel to whack those who disagree with you, you might just be missing the whole point.

And lest you think I’m ignoring the Episcopal Church, you're likely familiar with the tragic episode that took place two days after Christmas in the Diocese of Maryland where the newly consecrated assistant bishop hit and killed a 41-year-old cyclist. After a few days sitting in a jail cell, she’s out on bail facing charges of manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident, drunk driving at three times the legal limit, and texting while driving. I doubt anyone in Baltimore tentatively thinking about returning to church heard this story and declared, “Yup! That’s the denomination for me.”

Recent studies show that negative views of religion in general and Christianity in particular are on the rise which makes following Jesus increasingly counter-cultural.

So what do we do about this? How do we change this perception? Well, we can become defensive and start pointing accusatory fingers of judgment at those who don’t believe what we believe. We can rail against the forces of secularism and hunker in our stained glass bunkers and just ignore everything that’s being said “out there.”

Or we can take a few simple steps to chip away at the fossilized Jesus and restore the transforming Jesus; the Jesus who loves us with reckless abandon and calls us into the fullness of community. 

Here are three suggestions:

1. Know Jesus. It all starts with relationship, which only happens through an active and engaged prayer life. "Pray without ceasing" is the ultimate goal which doesn't mean you have to walk around on your knees all day but rather that your entire life becomes an act of prayer. To truly know Jesus is to be spiritually plugged-in, something that happens through spiritual discipline (the root of the word coming from disciple, not pertaining to punishment). Read the Bible regularly, pray daily, worship weekly and you will come to know Jesus.

2. Follow Jesus. It always comes back to discipleship. Model your faith in the way you live your life. Be mindful of your relationship in your interactions with others; in the way you treat those in any need or trouble; in the way you treat strangers and loved ones alike. Use your hands and heart to make a difference in the world in ways both great and small. Participate in your community of worship as an active participant not a passive observer.

3. Share Jesus. You have likely experienced moments of grace and transcendence in your own life. Have you hoarded them in your heart or have you shared them with others? We need to get over our ecclesial reticence in order to be part of the conversation. Otherwise, the harmful Christianity of the headlines wins. If we keep our faith locked up within the decorative confines of a heart-shaped box, we're not being truly faithful Christians. If you can't "Go tell it on the mountain," at least go tell it on social media.

We know and proclaim a God of love and justice and inclusion; a God who is accessible and inviting and compassionate. A God who is full of joyful surprises and absolutely nothing like the God of the headlines.

Know Jesus, Share Jesus, Follow Jesus. It's time to take our faith back.

Jan 16, 2015

What I've learned after a week on Instagram

I'm not great with technology. Well, I'm okay eventually, but I'm generally about three to five years behind. I was not an early adopter of social media. I still don't have HD or a DVR. I've never watched a show on Netflix.

Some people think I'm a technological genius because I blog, Tweet, etc. But here's a little secret: I'm only technologically advanced when it comes to other middle-aged priests. Many of my colleagues make me look like a veritable Steve Jobs -- the only real similarity is that we both wear a lot of black shirts.

I'm not sure how I ended up behind the technology curve. Granted, some of it has to do with my age. My two teenage boys look at me like I have three heads when I tell them about the computers we had at Gilman Middle School in the early 1980s. Actually, that should read computer (singular) since we only had one. It was named Hughie(sp?) and it was basically a refrigerator-sized calculator. Please don't tell Ben and Zak that the only reason they exist at all is because I wanted free at-home tech support.

The irony is that my late father was always ahead of everyone else with these things. We were the first ones on our block to have a Betamax. Remember those? You could record TV shows to watch later! Unfortunately VHS won that battle and we were stuck with a Betamax. But he was also the first one to get a CD player. Some of this was practical because his first recording (he was a symphony orchestra conductor) came out on cassette, LP, and this fancy new thing called a compact disc.

I remember walking into Tower Records in Manhattan to buy my very first CD and seeing a tiny section of them maybe the size of your average church altar. I brought it up to the counter (it was a Cars CD as I recall) and the girl behind the counter looked at me and said breathlessly "You have a CD player?" I was a playah! Well, I would have been if girls didn't terrify me.

All of which is a preamble to the fact that I now, years after it came bursting onto the scene, have an account on Instagram. Frankly, I joined it as a way to calm my nerves during the Ravens playoff game against the Patriots last Saturday (we will not speak of the result).

I'm still figuring it out but I like it. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram all have their own languages and
vibes. Instagram is all about images and it's fun to take pictures of odd or unusual things as you move about the day. Mostly they're things I'd notice anyway but not give any real thought so Instagram seems to heighten one's awareness, not take away or distract. Ultimately it's just another way of being connected to people and that's a gift.

Granted some people post nothing but selfies (unfollow) or post way too often (unfollow) or post nothing but pictures of their cats (unfollow). But there are also many imaginative and beautiful images that people share, offering insights into their days or their lives. It also allows me to see some unique perspectives from the lives of some of my parishioners. I have a policy of never following or sending friend requests to folks in my parish -- I always say yes or follow back if they send me a request. I just never want to put anyone in the position of having to say no to their priest.

So, if you're on Instagram, look for me. You can follow me @Father_Tim. I'll be the one posting pictures of coffee (unfollow).

Jan 8, 2015

In Good Faith: Amending the Resolution

In my latest In Good Faith column I write about New Year's resolutions. And skinny jeans. But mostly New Year's resolutions.

Amending the Resolution
Have you given up on your New Year’s resolutions yet? Do you even remember what they were? I mean, it’s the second week of January so it’s about that time. It’s too cold out to go to the gym -- maybe if someone warmed up the car for you or Santa brought you the fully loaded home gym you asked him for. And it’s not your fault that carbs are just so darn tasty. Plus it would be a slap in Aunt Edna’s face if you refused a piece of her aptly named pound cake.

I’m not trying to discourage you or sow the seeds of resolutionary failure. I’m not implying that New Year’s resolutions are little more than early-January to-do lists. Really.

Actually, the arrival of a new year is a wonderful opportunity to sit back, reflect, take stock, realize you’ll never have a clue what “Auld Lang Syne” actually means, and think about your life. Even if doing so as the calendar flips is a bit contrived, it’s still important to take the broad view on occasion. It’s hard to do so amid the swirl of life since we’re so often just trying to get through the day without forgetting to pick up the kids from their music lessons. Or feed them something other than that leftover Happy Meal for breakfast.

Now, I’ll grant you that self improvement is a worthy goal. Who doesn’t want to fit into their brand new skinny jeans? But most New Year’s resolutions end up being Richard Simmons-esque in nature. They’re inwardly focused -- “I resolve to lose weight, to look better, to feel better.” In other words, most of our resolutions are the narcissistic year-end equivalent of a selfie (and don’t get me started on the selfie stick).

But if our resolutions are “all about us” we miss an opportunity. Because the great gift of embracing the big picture of our lives is the gift of perspective. It’s a chance to examine and strengthen our core values rather than just navel gazing at our sit-up hardened cores. What if we turned the focus outward to think about those around us? Those in need, those who are hurting, the lonely, the grieving, the sick. And then resolved to do something to help those who need it most. Imagine the possibilities!

When you strip away everything else (to reveal, I’m sure, six-pack abs), the whole “New Year, New You” culture omits an important theological fact: God loves you for who you already are, not who you have resolved to become. Yes, God invites you to realize your potential but it’s to become the person God has called you to be, not the person you think others want you to be. 

We tend to forget this as we’re resolving to change all those things we don’t like about ourselves. Most of us realize pretty quickly, however, that while it’s certainly a “new year,” we’re stuck with the same old “you.” And that’s okay. Because while there’s always room for improvement, chances are you’re already doing much to be proud of. Even if you need a new pair of skinny jeans.

The Rev. Tim Schenck is author of the newly released “Father Tim’s Church Survival Guide” (Morehouse) and Rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, MA. Visit his blog “Clergy Confidential” at clergyconfidential.com or follow him on Twitter @FatherTim.