Friday, February 5, 2016

Lent Resolution Nonsense

This Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, we transition from the season of Epiphany into the season of Lent. (Because the date of Easter is so early this year (March 27!), and because Lent begins 40+ days before, Ash Wednesday comes early this year -- it's this upcoming Wednesday, February 10th).

So it's a good time to make our Lenten resolutions, starting by asking ourselves, "When it's Easter Sunday and Lent is over, how will I know if my Lent has been successful? - how will I know if I've had a 'good' Lent?"

A good Lent starts with good Lenten resolutions: self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, and reading and meditating on God's holy word.

I hope you don't buy into the nonsense that we should only "take things on" instead of "give things up" for Lent.

It's nonsense because it's a false distinction: on the one hand, to "take something on" is, by definition, to give something up. If you take on daily Bible reading, you're giving up daily web-surfing or television or an extra half hour of sleep. If we take on self-examination, we're giving up self-indifference or self-cluelessness. If we take on repentance (reversing course) we're giving up an insistence to continue along the same self-destructive path we're on. If we take on prayer, we're giving up worry and ingratitude. To take on reading and meditating on God's holy word is to give up a myopic world view where today's sins and sorrows and stresses seem unique.

And on the other hand, because nature (and your soul) abhors a vacuum, to "give something up" is by definition to take something on. To give up alcohol (anesthesia) is to take on sobriety and to feel, for 40 days, the full range of our emotions -- higher highs and lower lows. (Which is scary, particularly if we've been numbing our emotions for decades; no wonder we reach for the bottle and continue pretending we don't have a problem.) To give up sugar (or dairy or meat or other fats) is -- because we seem hard-wired for pleasure -- to take on fruits and berries, or cooking new recipes, or trying that new vegetarian restaurant. God spare us a lugubrious Lent.

God spare us a lugubrious Lent because Lent is about more than rules, or even new inspiration. In the light of the Transfiguration, the Gospel story we hear this Sunday, your Lent and my Lent will be a success, if by the end of it, our faces glow: our countenances change.

Our countenances change when we spend more time in the loving, "do not be afraid" presence of God: more time in prayer, worship, and serving others.

So our Lent will be a success if, by Easter Sunday, we act differently and look differently, not because we're still resolving to act and look different...but because we ARE different; we're metamorphoĆ³-ed: transfigured. Transformed.

What are you giving up, and therefore taking on, this Lent? Comments welcome.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

What would turn an adoring congregation into a murderous mob?

In Sunday's gospel, Jesus reads some scripture, says a few words, and an adoring crowd suddenly turns into a murderous mob.

What would turn an adoring congregation into an angry mob?

Some of you may remember I shared with you an essay that I had run across, which asks us to think for a moment about mathematical set theory.

You remember in geometry what "sets" are: sets are groups of things that belong together. A "closed set" is defined by a border, a line. Everything that is inside the line, border, or boundary belongs to the set. All that is outside the line, border or boundary does not belong.

An "open set" however, does not have a boundary - it is not defined by a line or a border. Rather, an open set is defined by a thing's relationship with the center. All that is moving toward the center belongs; all that is moving away from the center does not.

In open set theory, you can still determine what belongs in the set and what does not belong to the set, but not by looking to see what side of a line they are on: you must instead determine overall direction.

Apply this to the church. [1]

"Closed set believers have a 'territorial' concept of God's kingdom." It is enclosed within a boundary. "You become a member by crossing the boundary in an act of conversion. Once you are inside the territory, you had better be careful not to cross the boundary again."

Open set believers, on the other hand, define membership by movement toward or away from Jesus Christ as the center.

"There are still those who belong and those who do not belong, but you can't separate them easily, let alone state who is in and who is out once and for all. Those who appear to be close to Christ may be moving away from him, and those that seem far away may be heading toward him."

Instead of putting so much emphasis on a conversion process, what matters is what C.S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianity -- that choosing God is an ongoing process, and that all of our choices add up to a direction towards from or away from God.

Do you see how this helps us make sense of so much going on not only in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, but in the world?  

"for closed set believers, how one defines the boundary is crucial." Where one "draws the line" determines, for them, the nature of the territory within.

"A boundary-defining issue need not be central to the faith, but as 'the border-crossing,' it is taken as the litmus test of whether one accepts the central matters of the faith or not" - whether one is orthodox or not, whether one is traditional, bible-believing, or not.

(And so it is that a single issue - like sexuality - issues not very central in scripture or in other ages - can become so highly contested., with all the hysteria and venom. From  the point of view of closed-set believers, the integrity of the [border, line] boundary  is crucial. If it is breached, the entire territory within is under threat. [What's next?!?  Anything goes!] "And so any concession on the boundary issue is seen as threatening the integrity and even the existence of the whole Church."

"Borders require policing, and policemen. In [the world we live in] fixed borders will always appear to be under siege because people will always be bumping against them. So the closed-set model will [sees] a changing world as a threat - because it is a threat, to...borders.

Open-set believers are not as concerned with defense of borders as they are with discernment - they scan the crowd to see what direction people are moving, as individuals [as a community.]

They still intervene, but having no borders to police, they intervene, not as policemen, but as shepherds - seeking to direct the flow, towards Christ.

Their kingdom map - who is in, who is out, is [not static, but dynamic], a matter of hunches and possibilities rather than certainties. For open-set believers, no single issue is enough to determine the fate of a person or the Church."

Now here's what's very interesting: Closed set and open set believers cut across liberal and conservative lines: "liberals or conservatives can get very defensive about single-issue boundaries and protect them with militant certainty,"

Just dare to not tow the liberal line on pro-choice, or gun violence, or the environment, and you'll find yourself being treated by the camp as an outsider, expelled from the company.

Just dare to not to tow the conservative line on taxes, or abortion, or gay marriage, and you'll find yourself being treated by the camp as an outsider, expelled from the company.

Here's the good news: on the other hand, "open set" liberals OR conservatives can have very strong opinions on overall direction, but be filled with a kind of joyful flexibility, not having the need to make rigid judgments or pick battles. 

But here's what's problematic: each of these mindsets offends the other, as "Closed set people think open set people are unprincipled or weak because they will not stand and fight, and open-set people think closed-set people are intolerant and controlling."[2]

Doesn't that help make sense of so much that is going on, not only in our church, but in our culture in general?

The further good news is - as we'll hear in Kelly's homily this Sunday and explore together in our "The ABCD and E's of Faith" class - these two approaches to faith and life have clashed for centuries. And for centuries we've had scriptural guidance -- and church tradition and our reason to help us make sense of that scriptural guidance - to help us.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Surreal Joy

It's a surreal joy to see a review on of my book. Never gets old. And they say reviews help a lot, so if you have read Slaying Your Goliaths: How God Can Help, and liked it, please to to and review it! 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sex, Episcopalians, Anglicans, and For Christ's Sake Can't We All Just Get Along?

I want to offer some thoughts about the recent controversy that has The Episcopal Church[1] and the Anglican Communion back in the news: the fact that Primates (chief bishops of various provinces/national or regional churches) of the Anglican Communion, gathered in Canterbury, England last week released a report that seeks to place temporary sanctions on The Episcopal Church, mostly because of our stance on gay marriage.

I encourage you to read the report yourself in context, but on the (not certain) assumption the Primates have the authority to do what they did, and their action takes effect, The Episcopal Church will been barred, for a period of three years, from full participation in certain Anglican ecumenical and interfaith bodies, “and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion,” it can’t take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.

At first, I wasn’t going to say or write anything about this recent controversy, because so much has been written by so many others. (See, for example, here for words from our own Presiding Bishop, and here for some perspective from Andrew McGowan, the Dean and President of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and here for a Religion News Service article or here for an article from Episcopal News Service.)

Plus, I make it a point NOT to weigh in on the “hot button issues” of the day and I try not to chase headlines in my preaching. As the theologian and preacher Karl Barth wrote, “all honor to relevance, but pastors should be good marksmen who lift their guns beyond the hills of relevance.” It’s the chief pastor/Rector’s/preacher’s job, I believe, to put controversies of the day in context -- in their wider cultural and historical context, but especially in their scriptural and theological context. It's a real, but rare value: reducing the breathless hysteria of getting caught up in “Today’s Great Controversy.”

But when I sense that I have a fresh perspective to add, one that may help people put a controversy in context, I'll weigh in.

And so -- with my apology in advance for not having the time to write something shorter -- here goes:

Let’s not be squeamish: the real issue for those opposing The Episcopal Church’s agreeing, in 2003, to the Diocese of New Hampshire’s election of The Rev. Gene Robinson as their bishop, and the real issue for those opposing the Episcopal Church’s current support of gay marriage, is not a clergy person's or a gay couple’s unalterable characteristics (their orientation) but whether or not gays and lesbians choose to act upon that orientation – their behavior.

What I find fascinating about this whole debate is that no one -- not even the most “conservative” or “traditionalist” Christians among the breakaway Anglican leadership -- argues that gay people, per se, should be prohibited from receiving the sacraments of the church. It may happen, but I've never heard of anyone's seriously and publicly objecting to someone's being baptized or receiving Eucharist/Holy Communion or being confirmed or making one's private confession or receiving unction/anointing with oil at times they are sick or dying (I'm leaving out Holy Matrimony here deliberately -- we'll get to that in a minute) just because that person's sexual orientation was gay or lesbian instead of straight. And the same goes for those being ordained as Deacons or Priests (and then, when properly called, being elected and consecrated as Bishops). Nearly everyone (in the Anglican Communion at least) agrees that these spiritual markers in our faith journeys (except Holy Matrimony) are available to any otherwise qualified celibate gay person.

In other words, near as I can tell, no one, when pressed, objects to gay people, per se, being priests or Bishops (and arguably, there have been gay priests and Bishops as long as there have been priests and Bishops)  -- as long as those gay priests aren't “practicing” gays. (And -- in the case of the breakaway Anglicans in the United States as well as Anglicans in most parts of the Anglican Communion -- if those non-practicing gay priests feel called to be Bishops, they also better be male, for it's a sad fact that while The Episcopal Church and The Anglican Churches in The Church of England (UK and Ireland) and in Australia, Canada, Cuba, India, New Zealand, Swaziland, and South Africa no longer prohibit women from being elected as Bishops, the other branches of the Anglican Communion still do.)

So the objection to Gene Robinson as a Bishop was not that he was gay, it was that he was openly gay. That he didn't feel called to the (admirable) life of a celibate person, or the (understandable, but tragically sad) life of a closeted gay person, but instead, he felt called to live life as an unapologetically openly gay person; that he had the temerity to come out of the closet; that he didn't see anything wrong, immoral, unfaithful, unorthodox, or un-Christian with being a gay man who “practiced”  being gay.

Thus the concern that conservatives express (as in this statement by GAFCON) is NOT over The Episcopal Church’s permitting the “ordination of homosexuals,” but our permitting the ordination of those in “active homosexual relationships.”

Thus the prohibition on ordination in ACNA's Constitution and Canons is NOT on “homosexual persons” but rather on those “who engage in homosexual behavior.” (Had ACNA been inclined to prohibit gays, by definition, from ordination, they would have said so: that same Constitution and Canons document explicitly prohibits women, by definition, from becoming bishops in that Church.)

So let’s be honest: in the gay ordination and gay marriage controversies, including this one, what is at stake is whether there is anything wrong with the sexual activity of gays and lesbians.

You see where the “conservative” stance would lead us?

It would lead us into bedrooms. It would lead us into church authorities defining who our “active,” verses our “inactive” gays are -- all based on the premise, rejected by The Episcopal Church and others, that there is something sinful or inherently wrong with that “activity.” The Episcopal Church rejected that premise in favor of an expansive scriptural interpretation and theology, a scriptural and theological interpretation that both gave grounds for and led to our full inclusion of gays and lesbians in all aspects of church life.

Breakaway Anglicans, worldwide Anglicans, and other parts of Christ's Body the Church are of course free to set any of their own policies they choose, and most of the time it's little to none of our business, as Episcopalians. But when it comes to asking (and then presumably following up on) which members of our church are “practicing” or “not-practicing” what we believe is their God-given sexuality, well, that's just not a direction The Episcopal Church is going to go. 

And here's why: The Episcopal Church, along with other advocates of gay marriage claim the important thing about marriage equality is, from a secular perspective, “equal dignity in the eyes of the law” and that what matters about marriage from a theological and social-construct perspective is that “it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family…that two people become something greater than once they were.” (That, in addition to the scriptural/theological rationales above.) Opponents of gay marriage say all these factors of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family are necessary, but not sufficient: the sex in question, if it is to comport to “the” teaching of Holy Scripture, they say, must be between a man and a woman in a lifelong union, and any expression of sex outside what they claim is “the” biblical norm (which, is has to be said, is really "a" biblical norm) is just that – outside the biblical norm -- and cannot in good conscious be blessed.

My point is this:

If I'm right -- that what is at stake in these issues is the matter of the morality or lack thereof of sexual behavior, not sexual orientation -- then in wrestling with the issue of sexual behavior, gay or straight, a common saying, often attributed to St. Augustine, should set the tone:

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

What that saying forces us to do is acknowledge that there are two kinds of matters facing the church: essential matters, and non-essential matters.

I do think that in certain “essentials” of the Christian faith -- those things God has revealed and the church universal has received -- there should be unity. What are those essentials? Well, we can start with the Apostles Creed, confessing faith in God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinitarian formula is the basis for our baptismal covenant, and a foundation of our faith.

We can then move to the Nicene Creed, which emphasizes to a greater degree the redemptive work of Jesus Christ: that “for us and for our salvation,” Jesus became incarnate, suffered death, rose again, ascended into heaven, and will come again in judgment of the living and the dead.

The universal church quickly adds to this list another essential: our belief that Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation. Episcopalians and other Anglicans, as well as Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and other churches would want to add the sacraments of baptism and Holy Eucharist, but even here -- even with something as basic as baptism and Eucharist -- the debate would be engaged as to “by whom, how often, and in what form,” and there we’d be in the realm of “important but non-essential” matters.

Is sexual behavior and marriage/the sacramental rite of Holy Matrimony an “essential” of the faith or a “non-essential”? That itself is a matter on which Christians of good faith can disagree. (And over the years, I've heard people from both sides argue as if it is an essential element of the faith.) 

I'm not sure it is, but to say that sexual activity is a “non-essential” matter is NOT the same thing as saying it is “non-important matter.” Clearly, what kinds of sexual behavior are good, holy, and life-giving, or bad, sinful, and exploitative is a legitimate and important matter for the church to discuss, and to give direction and guidance upon. Important matters such as these deserve the church’s prayers, attention, and serious debate.

But “important matters” are not the same thing as essentials, and precisely for that reason, we ought to be able to continue to agree to disagree about them, without unraveling the church.

What does have the potential for unraveling the church, however, is the way we go about disagreeing with one another.

That's why the third aspect of that saying is, “in all things charity.” 

The most famous passage on “charity” (love) is of course the thirteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians.

Remember that there is not much about modern culture that could not have been said of Corinth. Much of I Corinthians is explicit, stern instruction and direction, challenging the church’s litigiousness, complacency, irreverence and pride. Paul minces no words.

But then Paul says, if we are the most eloquent people in the world – if we have all prophetic powers and knowledge, and all faith -- but do not have charity (love), we will sound to the rest of the world like “noisy gongs or clanging cymbals” – the screech of fingernails on a blackboard. 

The love of which Paul speaks – the charity we are to have in all things -- is, in Eugene Peterson's paraphrase, slow to lose patience, looks for ways of being constructive, does not try to impress, does not gloat, is not irritable or touchy, and does not keep score. 


In essentials, unity. 

In non-essentials, liberty. 

In all things, love.

And, finally: how?  
How do we love one another?

I remember years ago,when this issue was raging, The Rt. Rev. Francis Gray, then Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Virginia, offered eight guidelines for how faithful Episcopalians can remain in communion with each other while disagreeing on potentially divisive issues.

These guidelines are applicable not only for this current worldwide Anglican controversy but for our own, more local Episcopal-Anglican ones. They're even pretty good guidelines for congregations and vestries as we navigate our own local controversies.

Here they are:
  1. Avoid pejorative labels,
  2. Assume the other person wants what is best for the church,
  3. Do not analyze the psychological or spiritual state of others,
  4. Find ways to work together,
  5. Keep to the issues,
  6. Pray,
  7. Stay in contact, 
  8. and most importantly, remember who is in charge: God.[2]
Imagine the impact that would make, if more Christians took those eight guidelines more seriously. 

They would know we are Christians by our love, by our love.

Again, a lengthier essay than normal, but if you've gotten this far, I trust you've found it useful, or at least interesting. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comment fields below: what do you think? 

[1] The Episcopal Church (TEC) is the United States-based member church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It is a Christian church divided into nine provinces and has dioceses in the United States, Taiwan, Micronesia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, as well as the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe and the Navajoland Area Mission. The current Presiding Bishop (Primate) of the Episcopal Church is the Most Reverend Michael Curry. In 2013, The Episcopal Church had 2,009,084 baptized members, of whom 1,866,758 were in the United States. In 2011, it was the nation's 14th largest denomination.

[2] The Virginia Episcopalian, March/April 2004, p. 8

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Jesus' baptism, and ours

A sermon preached the First Sunday after the Epiphany:
The Baptism of our Lord  (January 10, 2016)
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector
The Falls Church Episcopal, Falls Church, Virginia

Today is the day set aside in the church year to remember Jesus’ baptism, and therefore it’s a good chance to think about baptism in general. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all have an account of Jesus’ baptism, and there are subtle but important differences. Today I’d like to look at two differences that jump out at me from Luke’s account of the baptism.

First is how it begins: “the people are filled with expectation and questioning in their hearts whether John (the Baptist) might be the messiah.”

It’s human nature to be filled with expectation and to wonder if someone might be the messiah, the savior, the one who will deliver us from our troubles, fix things, restore things, put things right.

As you know, I don’t often get political in my sermons and I never get partisan. But as the election cycle starts gearing up, it’s worth noting that this morning’s gospel reminds us of a timeless truth about human nature: to be filled with expectation and question in our hearts whether someone might be the messiah. Just look at campaign slogans of the current batch of presidential candidates:
·         Heal Inspire Revive
·         Reigniting the Promise of America
·         Make America Great Again
·         Rebuild the American Dream
·         Defeat the Washington Machine, Unleash the American Dream
·         A New American Century
·         A Political Revolution is Coming

There’s always a hope that there is someone who will lead us out of our difficulties; there’s always a choice we need to make.

When the people wondered if John the Baptist was the messiah, he answered them by downplaying his role and deflecting attention away from himself to another: “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming, I’m not worthy to tie his shoes. He’ll baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire.”

And so we’re reminded each time there is a baptism: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace in love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?”

Maybe it’s helpful to think in terms of “givens” and “variables.” Recall that the “given” is the known, the fixed thing, the certainty. The “variable” is the thing that’s liable to change, something that’s shifting, varying.

I think that it’s a “given” in human nature that we have a god in our life. The variable is who, or what that god is.

To put that another way, I think there’s no such thing as an atheist, if Atheism is defined as a lack of belief in gods. What I mean by that is we all have something driving us – something or someone at the center of our hearts, some core central belief, or belief system. We may not call that something or someone a “god,” and those other things “idols,” but that’s only a matter of vocabulary. The question is not so much, “Do I believe in God,” but “what, or who, is the god (or what are the gods) I believe in, put my trust in, and what, or who, are the idols I put my trust and faith in?

We are filled with expectation and wondering who the messiah, our savior, our god, might be: hard work? Better education? A politician? Working harder? The winning lottery ticket?

There’s always a hope that there is someone who or something that will lead us out of our difficulties.

There’s always a choice we need to make. And so that’s why, on this feast day in the church year called “baptism of our Lord” and during the season of Epiphany when we’ll use the baptismal covenant each Sunday, each time there is an actual baptism we hear the questions asked of parents and godparents and of all of us? Who, or what, is your “given”?

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? (or to whom, or what, do you turn?)

Do you put your whole trust in his grace in love? Or is part of your trust in someone or something else?

Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? You have a Lord you follow and obey…that’s the given…the variable is, what, or who? A small-g-God who asks more and more from you and gives back less and less, or the Lord God who is the only god who loves you back, and gives back more than you can ask or imagine?

By the way: nothing against the Nicene Creed – I believe every word – but part of the reason I like using the baptismal covenant is that it answers the “so what” question…the Nicene Creed is all about what we believe, and in going directly from his incarnation to his suffering and death, has no mention of Jesus’ ministry – his teaching, his miracles, his healing people -- and it makes no mention of what difference “what we believe” makes in our life.

In the baptismal service, on the other hand, we say what we believe and then we immediately get to say what difference that makes in our life.

And we have a lot of work to do to keep the promises we make: to continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers, in persevering in resisting evil, in  repenting, returning, in proclaiming by word and example the Good News of Christ, in seeking and serving, in striving for justice and peace, and in respecting (and insist on the respect of) the dignity of every human being.

That brings me to the second thing I noticed about Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism.

Jesus was praying after his baptism. That’s when the heaven was opened, and Holy Spirit descended on him, and a voice came from heaven, “you are my son, the beloved, the one I love, with you I am well pleased.”

Do you hear the echo of Isaiah, “Thus says the Lord, he who created you: do not fear…I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. The rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fires of life, you will not be burned; the flame will not consume you. I am the Lord, your God! The Holy one, your Savior…I give…to you because you are precious in my sight, and honored. And I love you.”

You are my son, whom I love. You are my daughter, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.

You are my son, whom I love. You are my daughter, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.

You are precious in my sight. I love you. With you I am well pleased.

We need to be filled with those words. We as individual Christians and as a Christian faith community. We need to start our day, our meetings, our decision-making processes not by immediately jumping into them, but first pausing, in prayer.

Years ago I was on a spiritual retreat, and I met each morning with my spiritual director, a Jesuit priest by the name of Bernie Bush. Several days in a row I told him how much I loved Ignatian spirituality because it was so ACTION oriented, it wasn’t, I said, one of those naval-gazing, contemplative practices. It got you out there in the world working.

Fr. Bush smiled, and said, “whoa, whoa, whoa, John…just a second.” Then he said these words:

Sitting still, just doing nothing, just contemplating, praying, will accomplish a lot more than activity, because it is in times of silence, retreat, and contemplation that we align ourselves with God’s purposes.

Then your actions –
the ones that flow out of that quiet –
will be like the deep canoe paddle stroke,
changing direction with minimal effort,
verses the day and the life
of a hundred quick energetic strokes at the surface.

You must believe this.

So whenever you find yourself unable to rest…
unable to just be…feet tapping, agitated, ready to “just get out there” it’s a major warning sign that you are not in tune with God.”

So, yes, 

  • there are a lot of competing voices out there vying for our attention and affection and dedication, and it’s human nature to be filled with expectation and to wonder who, or what, might be the messiah, the savior, the one who will deliver us from our troubles, fix things, restore things, put things right. 
  • And God is beckoning, cajoling, recruiting, commissioning, empowering, and using us to establish his Kingdom here “on earth, as it is in heaven,”
  • And we have a lot of work to do to keep the promises we make: to continue the apostles teaching and fellowship, breaking of bread, we need to persevere, repent, return, proclaim by word and example, seeks and serve, strive for justice and peace, and respect, and insist on the respect of every human being

But all that starts by asking ourselves who, or what, will be our Lord and Savior as we do that.

And we get the answer to that question –

And, like Jesus,
we get the strength and courage and Power from the Holy Spirit to go forward with it –

in prayer.  


Why I'm not buying a Powerball ticket (but will buy a Mega-million one)

I don't have anything to say about David Bowie, so I thought I'd write about the other event people seem to be captivated by, and that's the billion-dollar Powerball lottery.

After prayerful consideration -- really, I considered it, while praying -- I decided I would NOT buy one.

It's not because I hate standing in lines, or because the odds of winning are so horrible. I believe in miracles. And despite the odds, someone (or now, likely many someones) will eventually win this thing. 

And yes, I do realize that even though the odds are nearly impossible, the only way of guaranteeing one can NOT win is by not buying a ticket. 

And that's exactly why I'm not buying a ticket.

I've decided that I honestly, sincerely, do not want to win that much money.   

Now lest you think I'm some holier-than-thou, Zen-like, Ghandi-esque or Ignatius of Loyola-esque person who is perfectly content with my already richer-than-most life -- someone who doesn't dream of having even more wealth, and of all good and fun things I could do with it, let me hasten to add: 

I sometimes buy Mega-million tickets. I even bought a Powerball ticket a few weeks ago, before the prize amounts got so big. That's because -- God forgive me -- sure, I would love to win (or earn) a million or even a couple million dollars.

But -- sorry Philosophy 101 professors -- there IS a qualitative change with a quantitative increase. The quality of the winnings -- the quality of life (or lack thereof) -- does change once the dollar amounts of the winnings get beyond a certain point. I don't know where that point is, but I do know hundreds of millions of dollars is beyond it.

I do not presume to judge anyone else who has decided they want that much money, but for me, I have decided I really do not want the changes that a billion dollars (or half a billion dollars, or a hundred million, or even tens of millions of dollars) would bring. 

That's because it's a fact that winning several hundred million dollars -- even if you give 99% of it away -- would change your life forever. 

And here's the thing:

I realized, in praying about this, that I LIKE my life. I really do. 

Actually, I love my life. 

I love my job. Not all the time, and sure it has headaches and hassles and stresses and sure, it'd be fun not to have to work, or to just do the work I wanted to do. But overall, I love my job. 

I love the house we live in. Sure, it'd be nice to own our own home, or a retirement home on some beach. But I love our house. 

I love the town we live in. Sure, it'd be nice to live in Siena, Italy for a while, or go on long vacations. But I love the city we live in. 

I love my friends, and I love the fact that the reason my friends text or FB message me or call me or ask to get together, is because they seem to actually like me and my company (or, equally possible, they like my wife and her company so much they're willing to put up with me).

I love my relative anonymity, and privacy: my wife and I can go grocery shopping, or to a movie, or to the local pub, and usually neither of us are recognized by very many people. Sure, I want my Slaying Your Goliaths: How God Can Help new book to take off, and I want to be invited to book signing parties and to conferences and retreats and to travel the country speaking about it, and I even dream of all that leading to being on a television talk show or -- heart be still -- the guest of Krista Tippett on her On Being radio show so my book could take off exponentially and that many more people could be reached through my writing. But it's the writing I want to become famous, not me, because overall, I like my relative anonymity, and privacy.  

Winning the Powerball would change all that.

It'd change my job; we'd likely have to move; it'd stress our friendships. And I'd be famous, not for my writing or the ideas and passion I share, but for being "That Multimillionaire."

In other words, winning the Powerball lottery would change my life.

And while I'd love to accentuate, and improve, and make changes IN my life, I don't want to change my life. I love it, pretty much the way it is. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Slaying Your Goliaths

I'm super excited to say that yesterday (January 7th),  Forward Movement, a publisher best known for Forward Day by Day, a daily devotion providing meditations on scripture readings, has started marketing my first book!
The purpose of the book is to make the Bible -- specifically the David and Goliath story -- real. I wrote it to be a practical, "God-help" book (as opposed to a "self-help" book) that helps readers see how God can help them, like David in his battle with Goliath, overcome their seemingly impossible odds.

Two, while I share, in the book, some of my own my own personal struggles to face and overcome various "Goliaths" in my life, it's also very much a book about the faith community I currently serve as Rector: The Falls Church Episcopal. Almost every chapter features "sidebar" stories about the giants this faith community has faced in its recent history.

When I first started writing the book, I hadn't intended to take things in that direction, but as I was working with the publisher last year near, they kept encouraging me to tell The Falls Church's remarkable story. And so I did. And I think the book is all the more interesting for it!

I hope you agree. I hope you buy  it, read it, and let me know! It's now available for purchase directly from the publisher, or through Amazon in paperback and Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and iTunes.

It's such a thrill to have a nearly life-long dream of being a published author come true. But what is truly more thrilling is to get emails or comments or reviews from people whom my God-given writing has touched. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Christmas" hymns during Advent -- a source of angst among many clergy and worship planners

"Christmas" hymns sung during Advent seem to generate a large amount of angst among my fellow clergy/liturgy planners.
Some people balk at the idea of singing "Christmas" hymns during Advent. And I'm the first to admit -- and have admitted repeatedly -- that I am a recovering Advent Purist myself. 

But here's the thing: if you take a close look at the hymn texts - what is actually being sung, what is actually being proclaimed, theologically, in the words -- you could make the argument that the assignment of a hymn to the "Advent" or "Christmas" section of the hymnal may have been somewhat arbitrary.

Here's what I mean: some hymns found in the "Advent" section of the 1982 Hymnal mention the birth of Jesus as an accomplished historical fact, already having happened. For example, in Come Thou Long Expected Jesus, (Hymn #66), we proclaim,

Born thy people to deliver/
born a child, and yet a king/
born to reign in us for ever/
now thy gracious kingdom bring.


"Now"?!? Whoa, isn't that a Christmas hymn?!?

And at the same time, some of the hymns that happen to be in the "Christmas" section have more of the traditional "Advent" tone of penitence, anticipation -- and even the second coming. For example, in “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (Hymn #89) we sing,

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not
the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife
and hear the angels sing!
For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophets seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years
shall come the time foretold,
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendors fling,
and all the world give back the song
which now the angels sing.

My point is that the 1982 Hymnal, like all liturgical resources, is a good servant but a horrible master. 

With thought and effort --thought and effort that Rev. Kelly, Julie, and I give weeks ahead of each Sunday as we plan the liturgies -- it's possible to choose hymns that unapologetically joyfully anticipate (and on this Sunday, only four days from Christmas Eve, even give us a taste of celebrating Christmas) while at the same time not prematurely pulling out all the stops prior to December 24/25, the date the church picked on which we can actually start celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Jesus.

Let me be specific: at 9:00 a.m., (in the Main Sanctuary), we hold a children's pageant. This pageant, which is based on the Godly Play Advent story, helps us appreciate several different journeys to Bethlehem prior to the first Christmas. The congregation will watch and listen as we hear the story of the ancient prophets who pointed to Bethlehem, followed by angels’ visitations to Mary and Joseph and then yes, shepherds and magi, who all undertook their own journeys to Bethlehem. The pageant stops just short of the birth of Jesus to allow us to reflect on the ways that we, too, are on our journey to Bethlehem as we prepare for our celebration of Christmas.

And specifically in regard to our 11:00 service (in the Historic Church), you may find it interesting how we try to strike a liturgical and theological balance: in a service of seven lessons and carols, we will unapologetically hear the lessons that tell the Christmas story. While we will sing some hymns from the Christmas section of the hymnal, the service is not a full-throated celebration of Christmas quite yet. For instance, we start with an Advent hymn (#74), and we pull back after the lessons and carols with another Advent hymn (#59). This still being the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we refrain, until Christmas Eve, from going all out and singing such hymns as "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Silent Night," "Angels we have Heard on High,""Joy to the World," etc.

I realize that in planning worship services, it's impossible to please everyone. Compromises tend to give everyone something to like, and dislike. Some of you wonder why we exercise any restraint at all, and don't go all out during all of Advent. Others of you believe we're capitulating to the culture, and would prefer we were Advent purists. I don't fool myself into thinking we've got the perfect solution to joyfully anticipating Christmas. But I do hope that by sharing the rationale, you see that what we're doing is not happenstance, but rather carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully -- and most of all, evangelistic-ally thought through: how do we share the "good news of great joy" which the angels proclaimed that first Christmas, during this and every Advent and Christmas?