Feb 10, 2016

In Good Faith: Seasonal Changes

In my February In Good Faith column I write about the changing (liturgical) seasons and the joy of living life through the rhythm of the Church year. Also, I promise not to bring a mob to your house to rip the wreath off your front door.

Seasonal Changes

I admit it’s hard to think about the penitential season of Lent when Christmas decorations are still up. Drive around town and you’ll still see a fair number of wreaths on front doors and the occasional wilted garland hanging on a fence (it’s easy to spot the fake ones — they’re bright green!). At night, sporadic strands of exterior lights still shine and you’ll spot a few of the optional-but-not-really white lights in the windows of houses on Main Street. 

The twelve days of the Christmas season seem to get longer and longer each year. I mean, by now that partridge is surely getting tired of hanging out in the same old pear tree day after day. If Epiphany (January 6) is the traditional day to take down yuletide decorations then Ash Wednesday (February 10 this year) is the absolute drop dead date. If they make it to Easter they may as well stay up until next Christmas.

But this is not a rubrical rant about when you should take down your decorations. Sure, there are longstanding traditions surrounding the changing of the liturgical seasons but it’s not like I’m forming a mob to come to your house with torches and pitchforks to tear the icicle lights off your front porch. 

The reality is that it’s sometimes difficult to make smooth seasonal transitions. CVS is always about a month ahead so, for instance, it’s impossible to find candy canes on Christmas Eve but you can find all the Valentines Day boxes of chocolate your loved one’s heart could possibly desire.

For those who live into the Church’s liturgical calendar — the marking of the seasons like Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter — it serves as a counterbalance to society’s endless jumping ahead. It bids us to wait and be patient; to anticipate and live in the moment. 

The liturgical year has its own rhythm, one that, when fully embraced, allows us to experience life at God’s pace, rather than our own. Each new season brings fresh opportunities to stop and reflect and meet God and one another through the lens of relationship. Whatever life throws our way, there is underlying joy in experiencing the triumphs and tragedies of life amidst the backdrop of the eternal. 

But there is occasionally overlap between the seasons. Just as we may find that long lost shepherd from our crèche sometime during the Easter season, we may feel particularly repentant during Christmas. Or joyful during Lent. The seasons of our relationship with the divine are not always neat and tidy and so there is sometimes seasonal “drift” that takes place. Most important is to be cognizant of our ongoing relationship with God, even if the liturgical season doesn’t reflect our current spiritual mood.

The season of Lent is the perfect time to renew your faith. Maybe you’ve been meaning to get back to church after a long hiatus. Or maybe you’ve been intending to restore a relationship with a long lost friend. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about attending to your prayer life in a more intentional way.

However this plays out in your life, recognize that it may not be a smooth transition. But most importantly, I bid you to open your heart to the spiritual preparation of the Lenten season. Even if that wreath is still on the front door.

Feb 9, 2016

#VirtualShrove

One of the best things about the Episcopal Church is the number of parishes that host Shrove Tuesday Pancake Suppers. Call it what you will -- Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday -- but it's all about the pancakes.

At my own parish, St. John's in Hingham, Massachusetts, it's one of the great highlights of the year with fabulous food, an intergenerational crowd, pancake games, and the ritual burning of the palms from last year's Palm Sunday service to make ashes for the next day's Ash Wednesday liturgies.

Last year’s Pancake Supper was snowed out. Remember the massive amounts of snow we
got in New England last year? Oh, we do. Throw in a burst pipe in the parish hall, the usual venue for the Tuesday night supper, and you've got the potential for an epic flapjack failure. 

Well, we tried to get creative by holding a Virtual Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. We encouraged everyone, wherever they were, to join in by...eating pancakes and then sharing the pictures on social media with the hashtag #VirtualShrove. It was a lot of fun and all sorts of parishioners participated (even Bishop Gates played along).

We also decided to share the love with Episcopalians everywhere by inviting everyone — at churches or at homes — to share photos and use the hashtag. It sort of went viral (in an internet, not food poisoning way) and It was amazing to feel so connected to so many even while being snowed in at the rectory.

So why not make this an annual tradition? Whether you’re eating pancakes at church or with your family, why not tell the word you’re preparing for Lent? If it leads to some questions about this tradition or an invitation to Ash Wednesday services, that’s a good thing. Or even if it just shows that Christians are capable of taking their faith but not themselves too seriously, that’s an easy win in itself.

Consider this your invitation to participate. How? Eat pancakes! And then post pictures to social media with the hashtag #VirtualShrove.

Oh, and if you're curious as to why it's called Shrove Tuesday? Here you go:
The day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is known as Shrove Tuesday. To shrive someone, in old-fashioned English (he shrives, he shrove, he has shriven), is to hear his acknowledgement of his sins, to assure him of God's forgiveness, and to give him appropriate spiritual advice. The term survives today in ordinary usage in the expression "short shrift." To give someone short shrift is to pay very little attention to his excuses or problems. The longer expression is, "to give him short shrift and a long rope," which formerly meant to hang a criminal with a minimum of delay.  
Shrove Tuesday is also called Fat Tuesday (in French, Mardi Gras) because on that day a thrifty housewife would use up the fats that she had kept around for cooking (the can of bacon drippings for instance). Fatty foods would not be eaten during the penitential season of Lent. Since pancakes were a standard way of using up fat, this day became associated with them. Which is why, of course, so many parishes hold Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers. So this last day before Lent has become the 'feast' to prepare for the time of 'famine' in the desert. 

Jan 7, 2016

In Good Faith: Staying Focused

In my January In Good Faith column, I write about the divine perspective. Mostly because I just got progressive lenses and can't really see.


Staying Focused

Many years ago, when I first shared with a particular friend that I’d be going to seminary to pursue ordained ministry, he immediately said, “That’s great! From now on anything bad that happens to you can end up in a sermon.”

Well, hopefully that’s not entirely true. I try to keep my dirty laundry in the hamper rather than the pulpit. But occasionally things that happen to me end up in sermons I preach or columns I write since they ideally reflect an intersection between real life and authentic faith.

All of which is to say I passed a midlife milestone this week: I’m now wearing bifocals. Sure,
you can call them “progressive lenses” to make me feel better. And while I do consider myself to be a fairly progressive person, I guess this does beat wearing “reactionary lenses.” Plus, no one at the optical store even offered me a pair of rose-colored glasses.

But the term still feels like language meant to soothe the ego rather than reflect the reality of the aging process. Kind of like calling it a “funeral home” instead of “place to warehouse dead people.” I mean, no one actually lives in this alleged “home,” as far as I know.

As I sit in the local coffee shop banging out this article out on my laptop, I’m still getting used to these new glasses. So please excuse any typos. Truth be told, they make me feel drunk — especially on stairs. So please excuse the content as well.

Perspective is, of course, an important theme in life — certainly in our spiritual lives. It is perspective that allows us to embrace an attitude of gratitude. It is perspective that allows us to see the hand of God at work in our daily encounters. It is perspective that encourages us to reach out to those in any kind of need or trouble. 

So the filter, or lens, through which we view the world matters. When we take the time to see life through the divine perspective, new sight lines emerge. The colors of God’s creation become brighter and we’re offered a stunning vista of human hope and possibility. 

Of course embracing faith does have something in common with bifocals. You keep your original perspective while adding a new one — the divine lens, if you will. And while you occasionally stumble, faith ultimately allows you to see even more clearly. Soon enough, as with breaking in a new pair of glasses, this transformed perspective becomes such a part of you that you couldn't imagine life without it. 

I assume it won’t take me too long to get used to these new glasses. Hopefully I’ll be able to see the altar book on Sunday and, if not, I’m sure I can get an acolyte to keep moving it around until I find the sweet spot. And now that I’ve attained this middle-aged rite of passage, I’ll be even more ready for the next milestone. Who’s up for a knee replacement?

Dec 23, 2015

Trolling the Ancient Yuletide Carols

"Troll the ancient yuletide carol. Fa la la la la la la la la." (Deck the Halls)
Now that seems an odd thing to do in this age of internet trolls. Why would you want to undermine/harass/annoy a bunch of well-meaning Christmas carols?

This line from "Deck the Halls" is but one example of word usage from a bygone era that we've been singing for so long we no longer even pause to think about the meaning. Back in the day (i.e. since about the 16th century to "troll" meant to sing merrily and with vigor).

Nonetheless I thought it would be fun to actually troll (in modern usage) a few of the ancient yuletide carols by looking at some of the other strange things we sing this time of year. And, by the way, if you hear someone walking around singing, "Fa la la la la la la la la," you may want to have them committed.

"Lo, he abhors not the Virgin's womb." (O Come, All Ye Faithful)
This may be the strangest wording of all. I mean, was abhorring wombs a thing? Did he abhor all other wombs except the Virgin's? It sure is a bizarre way to say that God chose Mary to bear God's son.

"Don we now our gay apparel." (Deck the Halls)
This one is low hanging fruit. Rather than putting on festive clothing, it seems to evoke that TV show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Remember that one?

"Round yon Virgin" (Silent Night)
Phrasing that simply means "the Virgin over there" always makes me hear Mary saying, "Are you calling me fat?!"

"Veiled in flesh the Godhead see." (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing)
There must be some other way to describe the Incarnation that doesn't make it sound like a gruesome crime scene from CSI: Miami.

"Let every heart prepare him room." (Joy to the World)
Receiving Christ anew in our hearts is what Christmas is about. This line, however, makes it sound like room service at the Holiday Inn.
"Ox and ass before him bow." (Good Christian Men, Rejoice)
It's one thing to have three kings show up with useless baby gifts and bow before you. This just feels...wrong.

"God rest ye merry, gentlemen." (God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen)
This one is odd but it all hinges on the word "merry." It doesn't mean "happy" but rather strong or mighty. Think of "Merry Old England" -- a mighty power, not a bunch of happy Brits. Of course the resting part makes me think of a group of guys sitting in loungers drinking spiked egg nog.

"Silent night." (Silent Night)
 Um, have you ever hung out with a newborn baby? Silent is the one word that definitely does NOT come to mind!

Well, there you go. Enjoy singing these fine Christmas carols throughout the 12 Days of Christmas, odd language notwithstanding. There's actually some profound theology embedded in these ancient carols when you get past the familiar yet archaic language. My prayer is that you will hear them in new and life-giving ways this season.

Dec 22, 2015

In Good Faith: Great Expectations

In the Christmas edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about the fulfillment of expectations and why Mary hoped her son would become a mediocre left-handed relief pitcher.

Great Expectations

Anyone who has ever sat on Santa’s lap knows that expectations don’t always mesh with
reality. As a case in point, I’m still waiting for that go-cart I asked for in 1976. My expectations did not mesh with Santa’s reality.

When it comes to Christmas, we so often set high expectations for ourselves and those around us. We want the perfect tree, the perfect dinner, the perfect family, the perfect gift. And so often our expectations don’t mesh with the reality. 

In other words, you didn’t notice that giant bald spot on the tree when you picked it out at the tree farm, the Christmas goose was overcooked, you can put your entire family in matching pajamas but it still doesn’t mask the dysfunction, and not only is that tie ugly — you don’t even wear them! The hard truth of reality often comes crashing down upon our unrealistic seasonal expectations.

But maybe we’re just placing our expectations in the wrong…Christmas tree stand. Perhaps we need to rethink and reframe our expectations. Expectation is certainly a major theme on Christmas — Mary was expecting a baby, after all. And after hearing that this child would be destined for great things, she certainly must have had expectations about how that would play out; about what this child would grow up to be and accomplish. A lawyer! A doctor! A mediocre left-handed relief pitcher who will make millions! 

Expectant parents, especially first time ones, are enamored with possibility. And as Mary wondered about how this would all unfold and pondered the possibilities in her heart, I doubt she anticipated her child would one day be strung up on a cross like a common criminal. Surely that didn’t mesh with her vision of him accomplishing great things.

And so, while Christmas is about the fulfillment of expectations, the catch is that Christmas is not about our expectations being realized, but rather God’s.

When Christians sing “Christ the Savior is born,” we’re singing of a Savior who expresses God’s love for us in surprising ways. One who came into the world to show us that the love of God transcends all our expectations as it moves from manger to cross to resurrection.

The reality is that the world in which we live can be a hard place. In recent days we’ve been confronted with the effects of terrorism and racism and unspeakable violence both at home and abroad. And it’s tempting to hunker down in our homes with the nice white candles in the windows, drink some egg nog, and allow those visions of sugar plums to dance in our heads.

But if we’re honest, we’re left to wonder “Where is God in all of this?” When so many are hurting in our world, a “silent night” doesn’t seem to do justice to the pain. 

Yet it is precisely into this world that Jesus comes; into the mud and muck of the stable, not a sterile movie set gleaming with fake snow. Jesus entered into the reality of a sinful and broken world — that’s what he came to redeem and save.

So whatever our expectations were, what we receive through the gift of God entering the world in human form, is so much greater. We receive the divine presence in our lives both in times of joy and in times of sorrow; in times of elation and in times of grief. Through it all, God is with us. And that’s the true miracle of Christmas; the realization and fulfillment of all our expectations.

Wherever you worship, whatever you believe, whoever you may be, may your expectations mesh with the reality of God’s love for you. And may you have a very Merry Christmas.