Aug 5, 2018

Endless Summer (Church)

Everyone knows the night before he died, Jesus turned to Peter, James, and John in the Garden of Gethsemane and asked plaintively, "Can you not sweat with me one hour?" This poignant moment in the Passion narrative foreshadows the one hour that future Christians would spend in un-airconditioned churches during the summer months.

Some might complain about summer church -- or not even show up at all. But summer church also offers a plethora of opportunities and joys. Here are just a few:

1. Hot Yoga. All that standing and kneeling in sweat drenched pews? People pay good money for this! Bonus: you'll sweat off 10-pounds and receive salvation.

2. Side Bets. Keep yourself entertained, and potentially enriched, by wagering with your pew mates on whether or not the clergy will sweat through their vestments by the time The Peace rolls around.

3. Beautiful Skin. Overheated churches are basically spa treatments, when you get right down to it. Forget the sauna. Just show up for the 10:00 am service (pro-tip: it's much hotter than the 8 o'clock).

4. Hits from the '80s. As you watch the wax candles droop on the altar, you'll feel totally empowered to speak to the organist and request Modern English's "I'll stop the world and melt with you" as the sequence hymn instead of that old warhorse "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken."

5. Shroud of Turin(ish). During the sermon, the preacher will inevitably wipe his or her face with a
handkerchief. Grab it after the service and if there's an image of the preacher's face, voila! Instant cottage industry.

6. Easy Money. When the crucifer's sweaty hands cause her to lose her grip on the processional cross and it comes crashing down on your head causing you bodily injury and emotional distress, sue the church! Most parishes have a shady lawyer in the pews. Grab him during coffee hour and put him on retainer.

I hope this brief foray into the belly of the summer church beast helps open your eyes to the incredible possibilities of sweating through another August service.

Aug 1, 2018

In Good Faith: Step-by-Step

In my August In Good Faith column I write about what it's like to live in the same house with someone who obsessively counts her steps -- and the importance of accountability in the spiritual life.


Step-by-Step

My wife and I have the ultimate mixed marriage. It has nothing to do with race or religion or
socio-economic class. It’s not that I’m an Orioles fan and she’s a Yankees fan, though I am and she unfortunately is. Or that I hate chocolate and she loves it, which is strange but true. No, our mixed marriage is based on the fact that she wears a Fitbit and I don’t. 

At night, if Bryna hasn’t hit her daily goal of 11,000 steps, she starts parading around our bedroom. I’m trying to wind down by reading a novel and she’s marching around the room like she’s in a Russian military parade. 

And God forbid she’s behind her three friends from high school, with whom she competes for steps on a daily basis. It may be looking good around dinner time but if her friend Sharon — who has shorter legs which translates to more steps and lives in New York City — gets too far ahead, I get dragged out for another trip around the block. Sharon still always wins, but at least her margin of victory is a bit more respectable.

We all need accountability in our lives. Whether it’s through friends or devices or goals, or a combination of all three, accountability is important. When all you want to do after work is come home, crash on the couch, and binge watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix, it helps to have a motivating outside force. For Bryna, and by extension me, even though it’s against my will, the accountability comes from that little device she wears around her wrist. Have you embraced a healthy lifestyle today? Or have you embodied the virtues of the three-toed sloth? The Fitbit doesn’t lie.

In the end, it’s about discipline. Discipline is a word that often makes us uncomfortable. We either think of being sent off to military school or being punished. But I love the fact that the word “discipline” shares the same root as the word “disciple.” It’s not about punishment, but about following faithfully and embracing practices that are life-giving. 

It’s why people of faith speak of prayer and worship as spiritual disciplines. Such devotions help keep our respective relationships with God in shape. Perhaps we could use a Fitbit for faith to remind us if we’re neglecting our prayer lives or skipping church too often. A device that would keep us accountable to our relationship with the divine, not out of guilt but out of that deep love that God has for each one of us. 

I wish I could claim complete freedom from Bryna’s Fitbit. I’d love to say I don’t believe in such ridiculous accountability to an electronic device; that I am all about free range exercising; that I will never be beholden to a popular fad; that my steps are between me and God, thank you very much. But then I go for a run, making sure never to leave the house without my fancy stopwatch around my wrist. We all embrace accountability in our own ways. And that’s not a bad thing.

Jul 19, 2018

In Good Faith: Soft Landings

In my latest In Good Faith column, I write about my sabbatical reentry and the reentries we all make at various points in our lives.

Soft Landings

Astronauts talk about getting their Earth legs back after a mission to space. Sailors stepping ashore after a long voyage speak of sea legs. I’m not sure what the equivalent might be for clergy returning from a four-month sabbatical. Pulpit legs?

But the predominant image that comes to mind after returning from a transformative time
away comes courtesy of our space program: reentry. For astronauts, reentry into the earth’s atmosphere and the return to terra firma can be jarring. Retired astronaut Ron Garan, described his experience of reentry on the Soyuz space capsule as being, “like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, on fire, then crashing really hard.” 

I’m not suggesting my own reentry was quite so dramatic, but it’s a slight shock to the system. After traveling and writing and not shaving for a significant chunk of time, reality hits hard. I’m again beholden to my calendar and the responsibilities of leading a growing congregation and e-mail and deadlines. So many deadlines.

Yet, it’s also comforting to return to the routine, and I’m excited to share my experiences with my parishioners over the coming months and years. In addition to traveling to Central America and Europe and a bunch of places in between, I completed my major sabbatical goal of writing a book on the intersection of coffee and faith called, naturally, Holy Grounds (Fortress Press - spring 2019). So, in that sense, my return feels more “mission accomplished” than “Houston, we have a problem.”

While my own reentry comes after an unusually long period of time away, summertime is traditionally full of such reentries, albeit on a smaller scale. Whether you vacation in exotic locales or enjoy some down time in your family room, eventually you return to your normal routine. You can’t live out of a suitcase forever and there’s a limit to how much binge watching Netflix you can do before your eyes bug out.

In a way, life itself is a series of reentries. We change jobs or get married or have babies or grieve the death of a loved one. Returning from each new experience opens us to the possibility of personal transformation as we reenter the rhythm of our daily lives. Sometimes the return to the regular routine is jolting, and sometimes it’s smooth and natural. Either way, we reenter changed by the new experiences and encounters we’ve had along the way.

For Christians, Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate reentry. He comes bursting out of the tomb, after three days, and things are both the same and very different. He remains wholly himself and yet transfigured in resurrection glory.

In this sense, there are some parallels to our own lives. For us, we reenter our own life situations changed and indelibly marked by the experience of time away. We may return refreshed or renewed or with new perspective on the circumstances of our lives. We need time away, but we can’t stay away forever. Reality returns, responsibilities await, relationships need tending. This is the give and take that defines so much of our earthly existence, a constant struggle for balance. 

My own reentry has been more soft landing than crash landing, and I’m grateful for that. May your own reentries be gentle this summer. Enjoy some time away, and may your eyes be opened to the beautiful gift that is your daily life.

May 23, 2018

In Good Faith: The Royal Power of Love

In a special Royal Wedding edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about Bishop Michael's Curry's stirring words as he preached to a world in desperate need of a message of love. He made America, the Episcopal Church, and the world proud. Though I'll still never became either a royal watcher or a watcher of The View.

The Royal Power of Love

I’m not much of a royal watcher. I find a figurehead monarchy whose yoke we overthrew
200 years ago less than compelling. Sure, at the insistence of my wife, I watched a few episodes of The Crown on Netflix, but I generally prefer my kings and queens relegated to the chess board. 

Attending an early morning Royal Wedding watch party was never going to happen. Partly because I just can’t pull off the fascinator look, but also because I figured I’d see all the photos the next time I’m on line at the grocery store staring at the tabloids as the person in front of me inevitably pays with a check.

I did perk up when I heard Harry and Meghan invited Bishop Michael Curry to preach. As an Episcopalian, Bishop Curry is the head of my denomination; he is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I’ve heard him preach several times and I thought to myself, “Do these royals have any idea what they just signed up for? They better hang onto their fancy hats!”

And sure enough, Bishop Curry — one of the foremost preachers in America — nearly blew the walls off St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. What captivated everyone was Bishop Curry’s ability to speak simultaneously and forcefully to both the royal couple and the entire world. His mere presence, as a passionate black man in a mostly staid white context, was as powerful as his words. His message about the power of love stood in stark relief to a global context crying out for justice, mercy, and hope.

In his inimitable style, Bishop Curry quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. on the “redemptive power of love;” spoke of the “revolutionary movement” Jesus began that was “grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world;” and proclaimed the power of love’s ability to change the world. His words resonated because we all need this message more than ever in a world that feels increasingly divided, divisive, and violent. And they were so moving because, in a sermon that transcended national lines and denominational barriers, Bishop Curry was speaking to humanity as a whole, in addition to the royal family. 

For Americans, the Royal Wedding took place the day after yet another school shooting, this time at Santa Fe High School in Texas. People were tuning in for an escape from the daily images of violence that dance across their screens — I think that’s the true allure of the machinations of the royal family — and they were given the gift of hope. For that’s what Bishop Curry was so powerfully preaching about; hope in the midst of adversity and the power of love to overcome the trials and travails of this world.

The aftermath of Bishop Curry’s sermon has been a joy to behold. I never thought I’d live to see the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church joking with Whoopi Goldberg on The View or helping Al Roker with his weather report on The Today Show or getting parodied on Saturday Night Live.

Yet Michael Curry understands better than anyone that while celebrity is fleeting, the power of love endures. The question is, will we embrace this love, share it with one another, and allow ourselves and our world to be transformed? Or will we simply chase after the next shiny object and be swept up in the succeeding news cycle? If you were among the two billion people who watched the Royal Wedding, you have a choice to make.

May 2, 2018

In Good Faith: Aging Gracefully

In my May In Good Faith column, I write about living with a 14-year-old...dog. Denial about what looms in the future is powerful. And I'm generally good with that.


Aging Gracefully

Delilah turns 14 this week. If she was a teenage girl and I was her mother, this would be an
intense time fraught with conflict and angst. But she’s a dog. An increasingly older dog. An “active senior” as her slightly more expensive bag of dry dog food proclaims, like she’s moved into a retirement community and keeps busy by playing bridge and attending Brigadoon sing-a-longs.

The multiplication tables drilled into my head as an elementary school student didn’t go up to 14 so I needed my iPhone calculator to figure out that she’s 98 in dog years. Regardless of species, that’s getting pretty long in the canine molar, if you ask me. And it’s starting to show. Like all of us, she’s slowing down. Walks are becoming more leisurely and rather than leaping up at the sound of the doorbell, she’s more apt to bark half-heartedly. 

Now, we talk about a lot of controversial topics in our household, from religion to politics to my eldest son’s inexplicable love of the New York Yankees. But the one topic no one will broach is the fact that Delilah is not, in fact, immortal. She will not live forever. 

Delilah’s advancing age has become our family’s elephant in the room. We’re all aware of it, but no one names it. For to do so would make a hard reality concrete and we’re just not ready to go there. 

Denial is not a healthy way to deal with inevitabilities. I’m always encouraging families to talk about and prepare for the death of a loved one. One of the greatest gifts you can leave your family is clear instructions for your funeral and burial so they aren’t left guessing amid profound and raw grief. “I think I once heard her mention she wanted to be cremated but maybe she was talking about her pet rabbit?” 

Yet, when it comes to Delilah, I literally can’t seem to practice what I preach. As with any adored member of the family, it’s hard to think about life without them. Our teenage boys can barely remember the years before we adopted her; she’s been that omnipresent in their lives. Her presence is intertwined with all sorts of family memories and it’s not just the myriad Christmas card photos that mark her yearly existence in our lives. That’s just a snapshot of what belies the daily interactions and informal encounters with our sweet yellow lab/husky mix. The same one who has come to work with me for well over a decade.

In the end (not Delilah’s end, since I can’t speak of that), gratitude for each remaining moment is what matters. Taking a moment to smile when she does that thing where she lifts up a single ear or summons the energy to sprint after the squirrel she’s never caught and never will, but not for lack of trying. Perhaps that’s the lesson for all of us as we collectively deny Delilah’s eventual demise: to enjoy the remaining time we have and stop to give her that extra belly rub. Which is not a bad way to interact with any aging loved one — minus the belly rub, of course.

In the meantime, we’ll celebrate her 14th birthday with reckless abandon. Since we adopted her the first week of May when she was “about one,” we mark it on May 5th. Or, as we call it, Cinco Delilah.