Feb 21, 2018

Parkland Dreamers


It’s an odd epithet. These days, it evokes this country’s immigration debate. But it also conjures up naivety and a lack of being rooted in reality. We hear it used in just such a pejorative way when we read the story of Joseph and his brothers from Genesis. They say to one another, “Here comes this dreamer,” just before they threaten to kill him and throw him into a pit. 

Now at one level, this was literally true. The precocious youngest child of Jacob had a couple of dreams foretelling both his greatness and the future servitude of his older brothers. Sharing these visions didn’t sit well with his elder siblings, who already resented him for being their father’s favorite son.

But the world needs dreamers, visionaries who are able to see new possibilities. People not held back by convention or old patterns of thought and belief. Human beings often get stuck through the power of inertia and dreamers help us break through conventional wisdom to experience stunning, unexplored vistas of dynamic alternatives.  

In a sense, Jesus was the ultimate dreamer. He laid out a vision of hope and peace and transformation. He envisioned a world where justice rolls down like water; where swords are beat into plough-shares; where barriers between people are shattered; where the kingdom of God is realized in our very midst. His words and actions ushered in the possibility of a new world order where the poor and downtrodden are lifted up and mighty oppressors are cast down from their thrones.

There have been some other dreamers in the news this week. Through passion and eloquence born of tragedy, the teen survivors of the Parkland School shooting have offered us a vision of what this country should be. They have shaken the forces of inertia and indecision and have helped all of us re-open our eyes to both the horror and the possibilities that lie ahead. 

Many have pejoratively called these young people dreamers. The implication being that they are na├»ve and they’ll eventually grow up and realize they can’t actually make a difference in the world. 

But I think they can. 

And while many of the state legislators the students met with in Tallahassee essentially patted them on the head and sent them away with platitudes, I am confident they won’t be silenced. I heard a steely determination as I listened to their voices; a commitment to stay in this fight for the duration, along with an invitation to the rest of us to join them.

Yes, there will be pushback and setbacks and defeats. Gun violence and the forces that enable it are deeply ingrained in our country. Dreamers often cause resentment — whether that’s Joseph or Jesus or the young people standing up for an end to the killing. There will always be people who take the role of Joseph’s brothers or Jesus’ opponents or status quo politicians. 

But we can’t lose the dream. We can’t stop looking to the dreamers. Wherever they arise and in whatever improbable form they take, we must help keep the dream alive. Because dreamers are some of the most important voices in any society. Those with ears to hear must listen.

Feb 5, 2018

Vintage Clothing

There’s vintage and then there’s vintage. There’s poking around the Goodwill Store in search of the perfect wide-collared, 1970’s brown polyester shirt for your Les Nesman from WKRP in Cincinnati Halloween costume. And then there’s Martha Washington’s silk taffeta gown she wore as First Lady in the 1780’s that is displayed at the Museum of Natural History. 

Last Sunday I had my first brush with actual vintage clothing. Think Martha’s dress but 200 years older. It was a curious series of events that found me standing at the altar at St. John’s wearing sacred vestments dating to the mid-1500s. But there I was, celebrating the Eucharist in a fiddleback-style chasuble with cloth-of-gold stitching and embroidery reminiscent of the most gifted Renaissance-era European nuns. 

The vestment had been in the family of a parishioner named Betsy Bishop for many years. The story goes that she had an uncle who traveled the world collecting art and artifacts. His collection became so valuable that he could never afford the import duties to have them shipped back home so he stayed in Europe — with his treasures — until his death. Sort of an art collector’s variation on Charlie and the MTA. 

After her uncle died, the vestment was given as a wedding present to Betsy and her late husband Jack, a fitting gift as he was an Episcopal priest. Last year, Betsy donated the chasuble to St. John’s rather than a museum, saying she wanted to see it worn occasionally rather than having it hermetically sealed behind a glass case. After working with a renowned textile conservationist, and promising only to wear it very rarely, we dedicated the vestment in Jack’s memory. 

Several people have asked me what was going through my head as I wore this ancient and sacred vestment, one that had been worn by so many faithful priests over the generations. Honestly, my first thought was “Do. Not. Drop. The. Chalice.” Now, after 17 years in the priesthood, I have yet to knock over a chalice full of wine. But all I could think was, “Well, there’s no time like the present.” 

Once I relaxed and remembered it wasn’t about me — it’s never about the priest up at the altar — I was able to appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was able to let the Church’s ancient liturgy, ritual action that has become part of my vocational identity, take over. In that sense, it was no different from any other Sunday and any other celebration of communion that has taken place over the past 2,000 years. There is bread, there is wine, there is a representative of the Church, there is a gathered community, and there is the divine presence. 

At one point my mind wandered to who else might have worn this chasuble — and where. A mystery in the midst of the wonderful and sacred mystery that is Eucharist celebration. 

Serving at the altar, whether the altar is a makeshift table in a hospital room or carved from Italian marble, always brings perspective. The perspective that others have come before and others will come after; the perspective that we are all connected to something greater, something that transcends time and space; the perspective that despite our limitations and failures, we are destined for glory. 

So, this unique vestment made all the difference and no difference at all. I was glad to wear it and I was proud to be able to honor the Rev. Jack Bishop, a Civil Rights activist who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in both Selma and Boston. Yet it was also — as it was originally intended to be — all about our Lord’s sacrifice. I’m thankful to Betsy who recognized this all along. 16th century vestments do belong in museums but they also, ultimately, belong at the altar. 

Jan 25, 2018

Annual Meeting "Tips"

This may come as a surprise, but the Annual Parish Meeting takes place...every year. Ours is always scheduled for the last Sunday in January or, as we call it here in New England, The Last Sunday Before the Patriots Appear in Yet Another Super Bowl.

As at other Episcopal parishes around the country, we gather for a meal, elect Vestry members, and present the budget for the coming year, and allow people to ignore what's actually being said by handing out a comprehensive report of all the ministries just before the meeting. I always like to present a year-in-review slide show which, I think, adds some color, texture, camaraderie, and humor to what can be fairly dry proceedings.

Annual Meeting week always creates a bit of anxiety around the office -- not Holy Week-type stress -- but there are lots of last-minute reports and details to pull together. The copy machine in the parish office gets ridden hard and there's inevitably a complicated pastoral emergency that arises.

Oh, let's be honest. It's mostly the rector's anxiety. I always apologize in advance during the staff meeting in the week preceding the Annual Meeting. I think most clergy in charge of parishes approach the Annual Meeting with the nagging fear that the Vestry will attempt to invoke the church equivalent of the 25th Amendment. That's the one that allows for the removal of the president from office if the vice-president and a majority of the Cabinet deem him physically or mentally "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." Not that there is a church equivalent, but that's the level of paranoia that gets unleashed.

Anyway, I've had the Annual Meeting on my mind the past couple of weeks and I have a few "suggestions" to make yours more enjoyable for everyone. Oh, and here's an actual tip that we're doing this year: hiring a magician to entertain the kids while their parents attend the meeting. Definitely steal that idea!

1. During the Rector's Report, have the curate sit behind the lectern and stand up after every few sentences to enthusiastically lead congregational clapping.

2. Have the Treasurer present the budget using "fuzzy math" and "voodoo economics." Basically, keep talking in circles until there's a motion to close the meeting.

3. Encourage the Rector, during the dreaded open discussion portion at the end, to "answer" every question like a Bill Belichick press conference: "We're on to next Sunday morning."

4.  Pray for all the trees you killed by printing all those copies of the Annual Report that is also available online.

5. Remember, if you keep the meeting under an hour, there is a brass plaque waiting with your name on it. Sure, it will be attached to the bottom of one of the uncomfortable metal folding chairs people are forced to sit on during the meeting. But still.

6. If the coffee has run out by the time the rector makes it in to offer the opening prayer, there will be no Annual Meeting (which is either a promise or a threat, depending on your perspective).

7. After the meeting begins, lock the doors. Captive audiences are the best audiences.

8. If the congregation spends 20 minutes debating why the candle budget increased by 1.5% last year, there may be bigger issues that need addressing.

9. Don't entertain any suggestion that begins, "Wouldn't it be really great if we made this a Bi-Annual Meeting?"

10. When the same guy gets up to speak, as he has at the last 35 Annual Meetings, and demands to know why we no longer do Morning Prayer on Sunday morning, consider it a motion to adjourn.

In the end, for as much preparation as it takes, I do love Annual Meeting Sunday. It's a gift to be able to hit the pause button amid the pace and volume of parish life and both celebrate the last 12 months while looking ahead to the future. Blessings to all who have upcoming Annual Meetings. May your budget be balanced and your attendance figures be up.

Jan 22, 2018

Upcoming Sabbatical!

As you may know, I'm taking a four-month sabbatical from March through June. Which means I'll be hitting the pause button on parish ministry six weeks from now. I'm excited about this upcoming time of spiritual renewal and thought I'd share a bit about what I'll be doing while I'm away -- especially since many of you will be subjected to the ensuing social media posts. 

What is a clergy sabbatical?
Unless you're in a profession that routinely offers sabbaticals (and I wish every industry did), you may not know why clergy are offered the opportunity to take time away. Here in the Diocese of Massachusetts, our bishops recommend full-time clergy take sabbaticals every five years. They view them as "an opportunity for a time of sabbath [hence the word sabbatical], for a renewal of spirit and a reaffirmation of life with God." Being a priest requires full engagement with heart, mind, body, and soul and renewal is critical to effective and long-term ministry. At various points in his own ministry, even Jesus took time away for prayer and reflection. He returned with renewed energy and perspective and that is the hope for a clergy sabbatical.

When did you last take one?
It's been a decade since I last took one. I was rector of All Saints' Church in Briarcliff Manor, New York (20 miles up the Hudson from New York City) at the time. It was for two and a half months and I referred to it as my "sabbatical on training wheels." We had young kids at home and when people would ask, "Where are you going on sabbatical?" I'd answer, "Um, where exactly would I go? And who would tell Bryna I left?" Basically I spent the time at Coffee Labs Roasters in Tarrytown, drinking coffee and writing my first book What Size Are God's Shoes: Kids, Chaos, and the Spiritual Life. It was helpful to have a short break and I think it's healthy for both priest and congregation to spend some time apart occasionally. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.

Who's paying for this?
For my upcoming sabbatical, I applied for, and received, a coveted Lilly Clergy Renewal Grant to help fund some of my time away. In addition to the monetary award, the lengthy application process demanded that I give some serious, prayerful, and intentional thought to how I would structure my sabbatical. The question at the core of the application encourages applicants to ask the question, "What makes your heart sing?" Thus, in planning my time away, I focused on three of my passions: faith, family, and coffee. The first two were rather obvious. I will tie in the third through another passion of mine: writing.

What will you be doing?
Maybe some people can spend several months navel gazing or star gazing, but I need a project to focus on. So I'll be writing a book on the intersection of faith and coffee titled, naturally, Holy Grounds. This project, a mixture of coffee history (it was discovered by 9th century Ethiopian Muslims and used to fuel their night prayers!) and personal narrative, will be published by Fortress Press in early 2019.

In support of this, I will be traveling to coffee farms in Nicaragua and El Salvador during harvest
season, spending time soaking in coffee culture in Seattle (and catching up with a childhood friend whose lived there for 25 years), and visiting an Orthodox monastery in Pennsylvania where the monks roast and sell their own coffee under the name Burning Bush Coffee.

I'm particularly excited to visit a coffee farm for the first time -- it feels very much like planning a pilgrimage to a sacred site. My guide will be Mike Love, the owner of Coffee Labs (see above) who's a pretty big deal himself in the coffee industry. I reached out to Mike and his wife (and business parter) Alicia asking if they knew of any farms I could visit and they invited me to tag along with Mike on one of his regular visits to Central America. I'm still amazed this will actually happen!

The family portion is important to me as this often gets sacrificed in parish ministry. I will be spending some time with both my boys individually (including a trip to Florida for Spring Training with Ben and a jaunt to Chicago to attend a gaming convention with Zak), with just Bryna, and then we will be taking a 10-day family trip to Europe in June. We'll be going to Rome (touring religious and historical sites) and Amsterdam (pursuing Schenck family history) and soaking in European coffee culture.

For all of these mini-trips, I will be spending the majority of my time in Hingham writing, reflecting, playing, praying, and (obviously) drinking coffee.

What about Lent Madness?
Oh, relax, Lent Madness fans. There is no such thing as a sabbatical from Lent Madness -- the penitential show must go on. With Easter falling on April 1, my sabbatical will overlap with the season of Lent for about a month. It may be challenging to run the world's most popular online Lenten devotion while slogging around the mountains of El Salvador but we'll figure it out. 

So that's the deal. I'm excited about this and immensely grateful to everyone who has and will help make this sabbatical happen. This is a unique opportunity and I'm still, frankly, stunned that this is actually happening. And while it will be hard to be away from people I love, I will look forward to returning with renewed passion for ministry at St. John's and a rekindled and caffeinated relationship with our Lord. 

Jan 11, 2018

In Good Faith: Always We Begin Again

In my January In Good Faith column I write about the commonalities and differences between New Year's resolutions and the spiritual life.

Always We Begin Again

Not to bring up a potentially sore subject, but how are your New Year’s resolutions going? I
mean, it’s been a couple weeks so I think this is a fair question. I’m not asking this to put you on the defensive. For all I know, your new vegan diet is working brilliantly and your six-pack abs have already caused a stir at the gym. Of course, if things aren’t going exactly according to plan, you’re not alone. Apparently only 8% of New Year’s resolutions stick, which is why I pre-empted the whole thing this year by not making any.

As I thought about this annual tradition of making and breaking resolutions, it reminded me a bit of the spiritual life. We fall away from our resolutions just as we fall away in our relationship with God. Every person of faith, no matter how devoted, goes through cycles of engagement and disengagement. Sometimes this occurs around prayer, those conversations with God that offer perspective and relationship. We intentionally set aside time for silence and introspection and all is well for awhile, until the demands of our lives come crashing back in, causing us to stumble.

Sometimes it happens with renewed dedication to church attendance before falling away again. We get out of the habit or something happens in our lives that we can’t make sense of and we decide it’s just not worth it. It seems easier to give up on God and drown out the still, small voice within our souls that gently invites us back into relationship. 

And it’s easy enough to do. Just turn up the volume on your life by avoiding silence, shunning introspection, over-scheduling yourself, staying online, and keeping the TV on. That’s pretty much the formula for avoiding the deeper questions of life.

These cycles of connection and separation don’t make us bad or weak, just human. They also bind us to the generations of saints and sinners who have come before us in the faith. People just like you and me whose faith has fallen short at one time or another.

The difference between breaking a New Year’s resolution and falling away from relationship with God hinges upon divine invitation. The guilt and sense of failure we put on ourselves when we give in to temptation and eat those bad carbs even after we resolved not to, is self-inflicted. In contrast, God doesn’t curse us when we stumble but offers a hand to lift us back up and make us whole. God continually invites us back into relationship; the invitation is always extended no matter what we do or fail to do. Which is an amazing thing and part of what makes God, well, God.

One of my favorite quotes from St. Benedict, the 6th century father of western monasticism, is “Even when we fail, always we begin again.” We will fail; we will fall. That’s not a question. But each stumble is an opportunity to begin again and renew right relationship with God. That hand with which God offers to lift us up is always extended in invitation. God waits patiently and eagerly for us to return.

So, perhaps you’ll resolve to draw closer to your faith this year. Or at least start asking some deeper questions about the world around you. No one has all the answers, of course, but every faith community helps us see the divine presence in our midst. And if you stumble along the way? That’s fine. Because “even when we fail, always we begin again.”