Oct 3, 2015

Kids & Communion -- 10 Things to Tell Them

One of the things I love to do is teach kids about communion. It's an ongoing conversation for all of us and kids are certainly able to relate to it in deeper ways at different times in their lives. Since we don't offer "First Communion" -- having recaptured the ancient understanding of baptism as full inclusion in the community of the faithful -- I do think it's important to offer instruction at various points throughout our kids' lives.

Occasionally I'll encounter a parent who disagrees with the Episcopal Church's policy and believes there should be a formal process for admitting a child to communion. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters do just that and it can be most difficult for parents who grew up in that tradition. "How can they possibly understand it?" they'll ask me as they gaze upon their three-year-old running circles in the parish hall at coffee hour. My response, occasionally uttered out loud, is always, "Well, do YOU? And, if so, could you kindly explain it to me?"

The point is, there is always mystery associated with receiving a sacrament that touches the very heart of God. Divine love is something we are always living into and experiencing in new and life-giving ways. We can never understand it fully, but children often have great insights into the love of God made manifest through Jesus Christ.

And anyway, children may not fully understand the theology of the sacrament but they certainly understand exclusion. Being excluded from the table is a lousy way to introduce children to the concept of Christian community.

While I have a number of topics I like to cover with young children -- some theological, some practical -- here are a few points I always like to highlight.

1. Communion is a holy meal, not a Happy Meal. Although as a holy meal it can certainly make
you happy.

2. Communion is not a snack -- we don't take communion just because we're hungry in the middle of the service. That's what Goldfish during Sunday School are for. It's a meal for the soul, not the body.

3. Communion is not a to-go meal. Finish it at the communion rail. There are no communion doggie bags.

4. There is no "Kids' Table" at church. Everyone, regardless of age, is welcome to receive at the Lord's Table.

5. Communion connects us to Jesus.

6. Communion connects us to the disciples at the Last Supper and everyone who, like us, have followed Jesus for hundreds and thousands of years.

7. Take, Bless, Break, Give -- that's the four-fold action of the Eucharist. Start chanting!

8. A priest can't do this by him/herself. Being a priest is like having a super power you can't use by yourself. Unless you're here, I can't celebrate communion. The priest needs you!

9. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. Through the priest's prayers and your participation, ordinary bread and wine become extraordinary.

10. The word "communion" means connection. When we take communion, our connection, or relationship, with Jesus and one another is made stronger.

Sep 21, 2015

Church Giveaways

One of the best things about baseball -- particularly minor league baseball -- are the creative giveaways. We've come a long way from 50 Cent Beer Night and Halter Top Night (yes, this was a thing in the '70's) but creative enticements remain in ballparks throughout the country.

I've always considered days in the Church Year like Palm Sunday and Ash Wednesday to be the church equivalent. And the spike in attendance on those days, while hopefully due to the profound encounter with the divine, may also have to do with the liturgical giveaways.

With this in mind, here are a few suggestions for more creative church giveaways.  Yes, I consider myself the Bill Veek of the Church. Just stay away from anything resembling Veek's infamous Disco Demolition Night.

Processional Cross Sunday -- Talk about driving the Verger insane, this giveaway will likely turn out like the one and only Bat Day at Yankee Stadium. While it sounded like a good idea at the time, in practice handing out 30,000 lethal clubs to a bunch of drunks in the South Bronx didn't go so well.

Clergy Bobblehead Sunday -- Since your priest/pastor likely has a Messiah Complex anyway, why
not feed into this by creating a personal bobblehead in his/her honor. Who wouldn't want their clergy sitting on the dashboard of their car, quietly bobbing, weaving, blessing, and judging you during your morning commute?

Bishop Bling Sunday -- Ushers hand out replica bishop's rings to the first 150 communicants. Why should the bishop be the only one to show up to church wearing a glorified Super Bowl ring?

Keychain Sunday -- Everyone receives a keychain in the form of a cross that includes a copy of the front door key. Since there are already hundreds of church keys floating around the community (held by former wardens, the rector that retired in 1992, the lady that used to teach tap dancing lessons in the parish hall, etc) why not just give everyone their own copy and own the sieve-like security of most churches?

Foam Finger Sunday -- This isn't actually a giveaway. But most clergy have always wanted to stand at the altar and celebrate the eucharist with two giant foam fingers, in the appropriate liturgical colors of course.

Acolyte Races Sunday -- During the seventh inning stretch (aka the Peace), three acolytes are blindfolded, given robes three sizes too large, handed a flaming thurible, and spun around 10 times. The first one to make it to the chancel steps wins. This is also known as Liability Sunday.

Church Mouse Sunday -- Not to be confused with the St. Francis Day Blessing of the Animals or Bats in the Belfry Sunday, each attendee is given a mouse (live or dead) trapped by the sexton over the previous two months. Added bonus: exterminator line item removed from the church operating budget.

Hassock Sunday -- What's a hassock you ask? That's the fancy name for the ratty kneelers found in many churches. In a variation on 'you break it you buy it,' if you kneel on it, you take it with you. Please. Far, far away. This giveaway is the only possible way the vestry will consider purchasing new ones.

Of course the real giveaway at church is God's grace freely bestowed upon all who enter. In the sacramental tradition, this is made manifest in the bread and wine consecrated at the altar. Body and blood of Christ as a giveaway? Well, it's better than advertising Jesus Trucker Hat Sunday.

Sep 14, 2015

7 Habits of Highly Annoying Clergy on Social Media

Clergy and social media. They go together like, well, selfie sticks and tourists. They might look ridiculous but that's not going to stop them. And occasionally they produce something breathtaking.

My Facebook timeline and Twitter feed are littered with posts by clergy. This makes sense since a) Duh and b) Some of my best friends are women and men of the cloth.

Nonetheless, there are some things clergy post on a regular basis that are highly annoying. Mind you I've been guilty of all of these at various points. So, yes, this blog post is written from the friendly confines of my glass rectory (Biblical reference - ding, ding, ding!)

As I hold up the collective mirror, please know that you're in my thoughts and prayers (religious cliche -- ding, ding, ding!).

1. Posting prayers and/or sympathetic comments after Every. Single. Tragedy. 
We know you care. It's what makes you an excellent pastoral presence in your congregation. But there are some clergy who feel obligated to post banal religious platitudes anytime something bad happens in the news (which is, like, every hour!). We won't think any less of you if you keep some of these thoughts in your daily prayers. Really.

2. Complaining about all the work you have to do during Holy Week.
Yes, you're busy the week before Easter. We're all busy slaving over hot altars with 12 services in four days or whatever. We all have too many sermons to crank out. But you know what? Holy Week is the greatest week of the year -- it's our Super Bowl! If you can't get jazzed about preparing for the Resurrection, despite all it entails, maybe it's time to hang up the vestments.

3. Posting your sermons.
When polled, nearly 90% of drivers believe they are good to excellent at navigating the highways and byways. If you've ever pulled out into traffic, you know this is a ridiculous. The same is true for preachers. Have you ever known a cleric to say, "You know, I'm terrific at running budget meetings but I can't preach my way out of a paper cathedral." No. No, you haven't. And yet when we go on vacation, we here plenty of sermons in the "fair to meh" range, if not worse. Your sermon isn't God's gift to the internet. Sorry. (And, yes, I do have a sermon blog -- though I only share them on the parish Facebook page and Twitter account, where people know the context and my voice).

4. Humble bragging about how many people showed up on Sunday. 
Yes, that's fabulous that you had 682 people show up on Christmas Eve and that you performed eight baptisms on a random Sunday in August. I'm sure Jesus is thrilled as he is depending exclusively on you to usher in his Kingdom. However until you, like the Pope, can sell out of 10,000 tickets to his upcoming mass in Philadelphia in 8 minutes, keep your numbers to yourself.

5. Discussing theological and/or liturgical minutia. 
You may well get your theological jollies by parsing the use/non use of the maniple. But ask yourself, is this doing anything to help make you/the church more relevant and inviting to the world? Unless you were completely insufferable as a seminarian, you presumably have a group of friends you can message about such matters. Use them. For the love of God.

6. Tweeting like a bishop.
A few years ago, several of us got tired of the social media posts of church leaders who had a hierarchical platform but no clue. Thus the #tweetlikeabishop hashtag was born. Any post that proclaims "What a blessing to be with the good people of St. Leo by the Lake this morning" falls under this category. It's a way of trying too hard to be a person of the people; one which has the reverse effect of setting someone apart from rather than within the community. And, no, you don't have to be a bishop to Tweet like one. Believe me. (There are a some bishops who rock social media, by the way. I just wish there were more).

               6A. Selfies with the congregation.
               Please stop. It's not about you.

7. Confusing personal and parish accounts. 
Maybe your parish doesn't have it's own Facebook page? I don't know (get one, please). But I do know that posting multiple pictures of your church's recent Tuna Fish Casserole Cook-Off is irritating  to me and most of your other Facebook friends. I'm not suggesting there be a solid line -- that's the thing about parish clergy, our identities are blurred -- but not everyone on your timeline needs to hear about everything going on in your parish.

Ultimately, this is all about the over-used word "authenticity." Just be yourself. Don't post things because you think they are things clergy should be posting. Post things you're passionate about, things that others might want to hear, things that communicate who you are.

Of course number eight on this list would be over-posting. If you're posting more than about three things a day on Facebook, um, join Twitter and have at it.

See you online!

Sep 10, 2015

In Good Faith: Navigating Rough Waters

In the September edition of my In Good Faith Column, I write about the sometimes rough transition from the lazy days of summer to the rigid routine of the school year. Also, I capsized my kayak -- which is not a metaphor.

Navigating Rough Waters

The comedian Steven Wright once said, “You know when you're sitting on a chair and you lean back so you're just on two legs and you lean too far so you almost fall over but at the last second you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time…”

This time of year can feel a bit like that. It’s hard to get our bearings as we suddenly shift from lallygagging to boot camp. Literally overnight. Or at least when you have school-aged children and the calendar flips from Labor Day to the first day of school. 

Now I realize some kids have been back in school for weeks. I know this because my Facebook timeline has been jammed with back-to-school photos for at least that long. Pictures of smiling young children with their shiny new backpacks. Some even holding signs proclaiming their name, date, and new grade level — thanks over-achieving parents for making the rest of us look bad! As my own boys slunk away to start 9th and 11th grades, I was lucky to sneak a surreptitious photo of their backs.

There are few such dramatic transitions in life than the one from summer to school year. Whether or not we have kids in school, we all vividly remember that movement from lazy days to calendar routine; from hearing the dinner bell summoning us back from an evening of playing with friends to the school bell calling us to the next class. 

Yet much of life is lived in the midst of transitions that take periods of adjustment. When a loved-one dies, it takes time to enter into the new reality without this special person. Or when you start a new job, as excited as you may be, you can’t know everything after the first week.

I went kayaking in Cohasset Harbor with a friend in the waning days of August. It was a beautiful, if breezy, day and our plan was to go under the bridge over Jerusalem Road and get out into the ocean. He’d been out there before and I was promised scenic views of the coastline and the grand houses along the water. Things were going swimmingly until we noticed some white water under the bridge. It looked a little rough but then again we were both ready to attack the current and head out to the open water. Full steam ahead!

Well, things didn’t quite go as planned. In an instant we were both simultaneously dumped into the drink. Visions of Davy Jones’ Locker danced in my head as I scrambled to grab hold of the boat and look for my friend. Once we realized we were both fine (the only thing lost at sea were his sunglasses) and it was just a matter of letting the current take us to a nearby island, we were able to relax and devise a story so our wives wouldn’t laugh at us too much.

The point is, our situations can change in a moment. Sometimes we see it coming — the Tuesday after Labor Day has been looming on the calendar for weeks — and sometimes it takes us off guard, as when a boating trip turns into an impromptu swim.

You do learn some lessons along the way — like not trying to get out to sea near high tide. But anticipated and unexpected transitions are part of life. Give yourself a break and be intentional about easing into them. And know that God is with you at every step, or stroke, of the way.

Aug 13, 2015

In Good Faith: Drive Time

Deadlines have no respect for vacations. Thus, my monthly In Good Faith column was filed from the road.

Drive Time

It occurred to me on the ubiquitous summer vacation drive down I-95 to visit family that there is literally not a single song the whole family can agree on. Forget about genres — that’s a lost cause. But our family of four can’t even agree on one song we all like.

That’s not to say there aren’t any songs we all know. Between us we can remember all the words to the National Anthem and we’re pretty familiar with Happy Birthday.  But finding a single song at least one of us doesn’t despise is apparently impossible. 

This isn’t unusual between generations, of course. Just do a little research on the history of rock ’n roll (Ed Sullivan Show, anyone?) or watch the 1980’s classic movie Footloose starring Kevin Bacon. Every succeeding generation is convinced their music is by far superior to whatever was written before they arrived on the scene.

Here’s how it breaks down in the car: Wife — Madonna, all things ’80’s, and Top 40 (basically anything played by radio stations with “Z” or “Kiss” as the prefix, as in Z100 or Kiss 108). She’s also a big seat dancer which has the bonus effect of mortifying the boys. Eldest teenager — rap, hip hop, lots of artists with the word “Ice” in their name like Ice-T or Ice Cube (fortunately he doesn’t like Vanilla Ice). Youngest teenager — heavy metal, grunge (with a particular emphasis on Nirvana), and death metal. I’m not sure what death metal actually is but I’m sure it would be appropriate to play at church on, say, Good Friday. Then there’s me: blues, classic rock, and Gregorian chant (not necessarily in that order).

The upshot is that on long car rides I give thanks that God created headphones. Sure, I miss the conversation, but it beats the loud complaining about everyone else’s musical preferences. Until Madonna raps a heavy metal song inspired by the blues, it’s probably better this way.

The irony is that my late father was a symphony orchestra conductor. And while he was very tolerant of my teenage preference for Kiss and AC/DC, it’s not as if my family is fighting over whether to play Bach or Mahler. Arguing between Metallica, Taylor Swift, Public Enemy, and the Rolling Stones feels somehow less highbrow.

The good news in all of this is that it leads to conversation about how musical tastes are as individual as one’s personality. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to what inspires us or moves us or makes us think. To me, rap sounds like a car crash, I can’t understand the lyrics in heavy metal, and as for Top 40 I prefer my music to be played by actual instruments rather than computers. This doesn't make me right or wrong but it does contribute to who I am as a person.

So I think there’s a lesson in tolerance embedded in these long car rides. And in reality it’s not all about the headphones for us. Sometimes we go around the car and let each person pick one song. The rule is that no complaining is allowed during the song and then afterwards the person who picked it must describe what they like about it. 

Diversity comes in many forms. Some forms are just louder than others.