Oct 3, 2019

In Good Faith: Practice What You Preach

In my October In Good Faith column I write about the spiritual dangers of hypocrisy and why yelling at your children to stop yelling might not be such a great idea.

Practice What You Preach

“Stop yelling!” When a parent yells at a child to stop yelling, it’s the ultimate do-as-I-say-not-
as-I-do moment. And, believe me, every parent’s been there. You’re in the car, trying to listen to the voice on your GPS leading you to an out-of-the-way apple orchard for some quality family time; you’re sitting in heavy traffic because there’s an accident up ahead; the kids are whining from the back seat because they are simultaneously “starving” and have to go to the bathroom, even though you just stopped five minutes ago. And, to top it off, they’re loudly arguing and yelling at each other about who’s on whose side.

“Stop yelling!” Usually the second those words, hurled in utter frustration, leave you lips, you’re aware of just how ridiculous you sound. Yelling at someone to stop yelling is like telling someone to give up smoking, while chain smoking unfiltered Camels. It’s just a bit…hypocritical.

You may know that the word “hypocrite” comes from the world of the theater. In ancient Greece, “hypocrite” was the term used to describe an actor. It literally meant “one who wears a mask.” Over time, it came to refer to someone wearing a figurative mask. In other words, a person pretending to be someone they’re not.

In Scripture, there are really two types of hypocrisy that arise again and again. The first is holding a particular belief and then acting contrary to that belief. The prophet Isaiah condemned the hypocrisy of his day this way: “The Lord says, ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’”

The other type of hypocrisy happens when we judge others or look down on them for certain flaws, when we ourselves are hardly perfect. Of course it’s easy to stand in judgment of others without examining our own lives — and it’s kind of fun! Putting others down makes us feel so much better about ourselves. Jesus said a few things about this behavior — “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” and “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

Public examples of hypocrisy, unfortunately, abound. The family values politician who gets caught up in a prostitution sting. The pastor who preaches dignity for all but preys on children. The celebrity who constantly posts on Twitter about the impact of climate change but takes private jets everywhere. The list goes on and on.

But it would be, well, hypocritical, to point out the hypocrisy in the world and in others without acknowledging our own hypocrisy. And make no mistake, we are all hypocrites in certain aspects of our lives. Whether it’s yelling at your children to stop yelling or claiming to be tolerant of others’ opinions, unless they disagree with you, or encouraging others to donate to causes but not actually donating yourself. 

Jesus spent so much time railing against hypocrisy because he knew that a hypocritical life leads to an unfulfilling and unhappy life. If you are living a life of contradiction, one where your actions are opposed to your values, you can’t help but be bound by internal strife and deep shame. And that’s not what God wants for any of us. God understands that we are imperfect, complicated, multi-dimensional beings. Which is why we are simply invited to shed as much hypocrisy as humanly possible, both for the sake of our own souls and for those impacted by our actions.

So, take stock of your life and look at the places where hypocrisy may be getting getting the best of you. And remember, practicing what you preach isn’t just for literal preachers.

Sep 5, 2019

In Good Faith: Insider Language

In my September In Good Faith column, I write about the secret language all families share and the mixed blessing this can be for faith communities.

Insider Language

“The Danish thing.” If you asked anyone in my family what this refers to, you’d get a confused look. Because everyone knows that “the Danish thing” is the sleek wooden piece of furniture upon which the TV sits in our family room.

“The Danish thing” has been in my family for years. My parents bought it at Scan, a long out-of-business Scandinavian furniture and home goods store in Baltimore, sometime in the 1970s. Originally it held my father’s stereo equipment, prominently featuring his beloved turntable. I inherited it from my mother, a few years after he died, when my wife and I were moving into our first apartment. It’s been part of our furniture menagerie ever since, joining us for four interstate moves and the introduction of various children and pets along the way.

I casually referred to it recently in the hearing of a visiting friend, who gave me a quizzical look. No, “the Danish thing” wasn’t a piece of political commentary referring to President Trump’s recent quixotic attempt to purchase Greenland from Denmark. 

But as I found myself explaining what was meant by my seemingly random invocation of a Scandinavian country, it occurred to me that every family has its own insider language. Almost every household, for instance, can identify and point out their “junk drawer,” that catch-all home to assorted keys, coins, tape, rubber bands, Pokemon cards, half-eaten packages of Skittles, screwdrivers, and phone chargers. 

But this is just the tip of the family-specific lexicon iceberg. These include using pet nicknames for one another, calling the family sedan “the old gray mare,” having unusual names for specific rooms in the house, or referring to that big mixing bowl used for making chocolate chip cookie batter as “that red one.” The words and phrases used by families help form communal identity, creating a tribe-specific vocabulary. As you think about the words of your own family of origin or your current situation, you’ll likely encounter a mix of practical descriptors and inside jokes. 

In the church, we also have insider language and it’s, frankly, a mixed blessing. At one level, calling a cup a “chalice” and a plate a “paten” and the entryway the “narthex,” adds mystery and heightens the sense that to enter a church is to journey into sacred space. The word “holy” means “set apart” and this otherworldly language does just that — it sets apart that which we view as God’s realm.

But this language can also exclude, and that’s the danger. When the church acts like a club rather than a place of open invitation to all, the message of divine mercy, compassion, and hope is subverted. I love the magical, sacred words of ecclesiastical language, but they must be defined and not used as a way to create insiders and outsiders. There’s enough division in this world and we certainly don’t need to add to it.

This time of year many people return to church or take those first tentative steps through the front door of a new worshiping community. It’s incumbent upon me and my colleagues in ministry to be as hospitable as possible. Hopefully you won’t need Google Translator to make it through your first service at a new church. I don’t think we intentionally mean to trip people up, but sometimes we forget that not everyone speaks the same language. 

By the way, “the Danish thing” is looking a bit tired and wobbly these days, and perhaps it’s time to send it off to the great furniture store in the sky. But whatever its fate, hearing that phrase will always makes me smile.

Jul 31, 2019

In Good Faith: The Power of No

In my August In Good Faith column, I write about what might be lost if we stop saying "no" to our children.

The Power of No

“We don’t use the word ‘no’ in our home.” 

A friend of mine recently told me her teenage daughter is babysitting for a family who made
this declaration when she was hired. Shunning the n-word is apparently a hot new parenting trend, as mothers and fathers seek a solutions-based approach to child rearing, rather than a punitive model.

So, at the grocery store, when a child demands a box of Sugary Sugar Bombs cereal, rather than declare “no!” in a thunderous, Zeus-like voice, a parent seeks to engage and turn the conversation into a lesson. “I know you’d really like that cereal, but all the sugar wouldn’t be good for your teeth. Let’s find a more healthy option.” 

Of course trying to reason with a two-year-old sounds like a recipe for a meltdown, but what do I know? My kids are now Sugary Sugar Bombs-eating 18 and 20-year-olds. But then, every generation is amazed the previous generation even made it to adulthood, and every generation thinks the previous generation got parenting wrong. It’s the circle of parenting life. 

I mean, it’s amazing I survived the choking hazards of my play pen. It’s amazing my mother and father survived without car seats and seat belts. And evidently it’s amazing my own children survived the constant barrage of hearing “no.” “No, you can’t have a pet giraffe. No, we can’t trade in the mini-van for a bulldozer. No, you can’t root for the Yankees.”

But I do worry about children for whom the word “no” is verboten. The reality is that life is full of “no” and the sooner you learn to either cope with disappointment or find the resilience to circumnavigate it, the better. 

When it comes to the life of prayer, it’s often said that God offers three responses: yes, no, and wait. You don’t necessarily receive these responses as text messages. More often they are discernible through the unfolding actions and events of your life. It’s difficult when the answer is “no,” especially if we seek something important to us or to those we love. 

But we rarely, if ever, see the big picture of our lives. There’s a giant chasm between the human perspective and the divine perspective, and we can’t always know the broader implications of our petitions. Much of life, you could say, is above our pay grade. “No” is often the answer when it would negatively impact our own lives or those around us, even if we remain blind to the hidden reasons — that’s where this whole faith thing comes in. And when the answer is “no,” the first impulse is often to stomp our feet and yell at God. Yet even a “no” response means that God is listening and playing an active role in our lives.  

“No” is an important part of life and an integral piece of the human condition. Shielding children from the word, won’t safeguard them from the concept. Yes, I understand there are times when parents, especially those of special needs children, must redirect the conversation and avoid using negative terms. And there are times when we could all use some reframing from the negative to the positive. 

Yet, at the risk of sounding like someone who, back in my day, walked two miles to school in the snow, without shoes, uphill both ways, children must hear “no” in order to learn hard lessons that will ultimately allow them to thrive. In the meantime, I have some sugary cereal to eat.

Jul 10, 2019

In Good Faith: Where Are They Now

In my July In Good Faith column, I write about connections to the past through long-forgotten sports stars.

Where Are They Now?

My favorite Sports Illustrated issue of the year came in the mail this week. No, not that
issue. That one comes the week after the Super Bowl, and I’m decidedly not in the market for a new swimsuit. 

I’m referring to the magazine’s annual Where Are They Now feature. For years, Sports Illustrated has been catching up with stars who long ago left the bright lights of the headlines. Some of these highlighted athletes remain in the public consciousness, while others have drifted away as quickly as they burst onto the scene.

I’ve long loved this particular issue, and I always end up reading a lot more of the magazine than I normally do — which, in middle age, has mostly become flipping through the pictures and handing it to my sports-crazed eldest son. 

But this issue’s different. For one thing, Ben hasn’t heard of many of the profiled players. Like most of his contemporaries, he’s concerned with the here and now of pro sports; with the stats and standings and current stars. And I get that this is basically a nostalgia issue, a bone tossed to my generation. When I find the time to sit down with it, there’s always a lot of inner “Oh, yeah! I remember that guy. I wonder what he’s been up to since his glory days?”

It’s hard to know why these stories resonate so deeply. Part of it is voyeurism, to be sure. Who among us hasn’t Googled an old girlfriend or boyfriend? But mostly it plays to the natural longing for connections to our past. If I can learn what a childhood hero of mine has been up to of late, say former Orioles slugger Eddie Murray, I can somehow reconnect to a part of my life that has long been repressed. Suddenly, I’m an 8-year-old sitting in the stands with my late father at the since-demolished Memorial Stadium in Baltimore with a .75 hot dog in one hand and my baseball glove in the other, chanting “Ed-die, Ed-die!”

There’s also a deep sense of humanity that plays out in these articles. During a star’s playing days, we’re mostly concerned with statistics and on-field performance. We rarely stop to consider what kind of person we may be rooting for or against. Players have images, for sure, but these are often highly crafted by agents and public relations professionals. Here, then, is a glimpse behind the curtain, a chance to see someone outside the lines.

There’s something about revealing the unvarnished humanity that reminds us that these aren’t superheroes, but people like you and me, but with particular talents and supernatural hand-eye coordination. Or, from a spiritual perspective, these are all children of God, reflecting all the joys and imperfections of humanity. Some have gone on to find new passions — former Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis runs an award-winning brewery in California — and some have encountered more tragedy than acclaim — William “The Refrigerator” Perry daily battles alcoholism and issues of mental health. 

I think there are lessons for all of us embedded in these stories. We’re reminded that life does indeed go on. Some of us remain prisoners of the past, some of us move on into new and exciting challenges. Most of us remain somewhere in-between. But it’s important to reflect back on our lives, even while looking ahead to the future. We all have various chapters in our lives, albeit not necessarily ones lived out on highlight reels. And we must continually seek ways to stay in the game. 

Jun 17, 2019

When the Music Stops: A Pilgrimage of Death and Dying

This past fall, we held an adult education series at St. John’s on the topic of pilgrimage,
broadly defined. Among the presentations, our associate rector shared her experience walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain; a parishioner shared her journey of addiction and recovery; a group from the parish offered reflections on their recent mission trip experience in South Africa. 

As we were building the series, I told the committee I’d be willing to share a personal story about death and dying, recognizing that such experiences speak to a universal pilgrimage, but only if we couldn’t find someone else to do it. Perhaps not surprisingly, I ended up presenting at one of the sessions.

I’ve decided to share this story about my father’s death, not because there’s a single definitive way to experience loss, but because it is often through such touchpoints in others’ stories that we find commonalities, hope, and inspiration. That’s one of the joys of community, in the broadest sense. 

Why now? Probably because dads in general and mine in particular are on my mind in the aftermath of Father’s Day. Plus, turning 50 last year and losing my dad at 51 is likely cranking up my soul’s introspection machine.

Here’s what I said:

Obviously I’ve walked with a lot of people through death and dying over 19 years of ordained ministry. Some of them have been your loved ones or friends or fellow parishioners. And everyone here, most likely, has had that same experience, of walking this journey with people they care deeply about. But I want to share a personal story, one that impacted my own life and vocational path, and continues to resonate with me, and informs who I am as a person and as a priest. My hope is that you will find resonances and places to connect, but I also recognize that each story is unique and charged with its own emotion — some positive, some negative, some still being worked out. And that’s okay. None of this is ever emotionally neat and tidy. Grief, after all, is not linear.

Over the years I’ve shared pieces of this story from the pulpit. But not in such a full and intentional way as I’ll do right now. Some of you know that my father, Andrew, was a symphony orchestra conductor. The reason I grew up in Baltimore was because he was the associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony. His career had some ups and downs — not because he wan’t a brilliant musician — but precisely because he was all about the music. He was never very good at playing the game; at schmoozing symphony boards and donors and playing politics. He would rather put his head in a score than have lunch at a fancy restaurant with a CEO; or take his boys to a ballgame than be fawned over by socialites calling him “maestro.” 

But put him in front of an orchestra and he came alive, he was a dynamo on the podium, and musicians and audiences and critics loved him.

Around the age of 50 he got cancer, a melanoma. He had surgery, they thought they got it, it went away for awhile, but when it came back the following year, it came back with a vengeance.

From a career perspective the timing was pretty cruel. In the last several years of his life, he had finally made it to the top of his profession — and on his terms — without selling his soul and without sacrificing his family — and was just on the verge of a major international career when the cancer first appeared.

One of the last concerts he ever conducted turned out to be his most inspired performance. It was a live recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (a world premiere of a Samuel Barber choral piece, The Lovers, along with Barber's Prayers of Kierkegaard) and, fortunately, I was able to be there — which wasn’t a given, but I had weekend leave from Ft. Knox where I was spending four months training to be a tank platoon leader — something which has come in handy in parish ministry. 

Professionally, this was the most significant night of his career. Here he was doing a world premiere recording with one of the best orchestras in the world. And he was dying. He didn’t tell this to anyone — no one knew except his family — but somehow he summoned the strength to put his very soul into the music. The recording ending up winning a Grammy Award — something we found out on Ash Wednesday the month after he died at the age of 51.

About a week before his death, my commanding officer called me into his office and told me
I had to pack up and go home. Immediately. I was just finishing up my tour at Fort Knox and so the timing was good in that sense. We had just come back from 10 days out in the field and all that remained were a few more days of paperwork and so, in a very un-Army-like move, they let me just go. I hopped in my car to drive back to Baltimore knowing that my father didn’t have much time left. 

Along the way, my car started acting up and it finally broke down in Flatwoods, West Virginia. I’ll never forget the name of that town, because that’s where I had to spend the night. And there is no more helpless feeling than knowing that your father is dying and you can’t get back to see him. That you are trapped in a godforsaken town named Flatwoods, West Virginia, while the only place in the world you wanted to be was home; that the clock was running down and you were powerless to stop it.

Eventually, I did make it home. My dad was there, set up on a hospice bed in the living room of my parents’ Fells Point house. He was gaunt, physically a shell of himself. His hair was gone. But mostly, I remember his eyes. Until the day he died, they never lost their sparkle. And his mind — the thing he valued the most. He never lost his mind. Or his beautiful spirit, which only seemed to increase as his physical body wasted away.

There was a surreal quality that surrounded the next week. My dad’s sister had flown in from Israel to be there, to help nurse him at the end. They were close growing up, but distance had kept them apart. And this sibling reconnection was inspiring to behold. At night my mother sang hymns and read poetry to him. My brother and I would sit with him and tell him we loved him and share memories, awkwardly sometimes, with great intention and sweetness at others. 

And there was a constant parade of people that came through the house. Not an unruly crowd — that was afterwards. But the important people in my dad’s life. People who came to say goodbye;  people my dad was waiting to see. Until finally, everyone had come. And he slipped peacefully away. 

And then, literally the moment after he died, one of his best friends, who was an Episcopal priest who had visited him regularly, happened to knock on the door. Somehow he just knew. And he prayed with us beautifully and deeply and heartbreakingly.

In the immediate aftermath of his death I remember a sense of relief. And I couldn’t tell at first whether it was relief that my father’s suffering had ended or relief that we no longer had to go on living in this limbo between life and death that had become increasingly difficult. And I remember feeling guilty about feeling relief. But I’ve come to learn that it’s okay. That these two sides of relief are not mutually exclusive. 

What I tried to be was angry. I mean, on the surface of things, my father had every reason to be bitter. Again, the timing was just so cruel. His career was taking off, his children were finally leaving the nest, his 25-year marriage remained the bedrock of his life. And yet life was slipping away.

Someone who had every right to be angry and filled with self-pity was instead filled with peace and joy and love. I couldn’t understand it. And rage and anger at the situation felt good and righteous! But you just couldn’t hold on to these darker emotions in the presence of that serenity.

So where did it come from? This inconceivable and all-encompassing peace? Well, it was faith, of course. Which was not something that came naturally or automatically to my dad. Despite a lifetime of church going, it wasn’t until the last few months that the words he had been proclaiming all those years — in prayers and creeds and hymns — were experienced first-hand as the peace and freedom of true relationship with Jesus Christ.

He had entered into that peace of God which passes all understanding. Amid the pain, he was able to give thanks for the abundant blessings of this life. Despite the seeming unfairness of it all, he was able to be at peace with God. He knew that Jesus was calling him not to a bitter end, but to eternal life.

After he died, as I was in the throes of profound grief and sadness, I knew that I wanted that same sense of peace. Not as something to possess but as something to experience and to share with others. Which in many ways is why I do what I do, and why I continue to seek that often elusive sense of peace, which I know can only come through faith in Jesus Christ.

And as I found myself wondering where Jesus could possibly have been in all of this, it took the dying man himself to make me see precisely where Jesus was. Watching my father’s response, his unwavering faith in the face of death, opened my eyes to the fact that Jesus was just as present with him on the podium, as with our family in those last days, and in his final breath. That’s where Jesus was; right there with all of us. In the tears, in the laughter, in the spark of my father’s eyes even as he neared the end, in the memories, in the grief.

My father’s last words were “Good things are happening.” Which, again, on the surface of things sounds like a cruel joke. But at another level it was unvarnished truth. Because he was entering into that place where, as the burial rite puts it, “sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” And that is indeed a good place to be.