Thursday, November 12, 2015

Between Veterans Day and Thanksgiving Day...

As I write this (Thursday evening) I'm still on a bit of a high from a full-of-wonder evening last night, when Mary and I hosted, at the Rectory, a Veterans Day dinner.

We were delighted to welcome 35 people for dinner -- veterans and their spouses, plus volunteers who were enthusiastic to "serve those who served" in this way. 

After our meal, and over dessert and coffee, I invited each veteran, beginning with the most recent and working our way back to the most senior, to stand, say their name and branch of service, their time served, and then to share one story.

As we listened, we received a mini history lesson in the armed conflicts of our nation. It started with a parishioner who fought in the Battle of Fallujah in 2004. It ended with a parishioner who, as a senior in high school, was on his way back from a Christmas pageant rehearsal on December 6, 1941 when he switched the car radio on and heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, forever altering the trajectory of his life. In between we heard inspirational and poignant stories of virtually every war and conflict our nation experienced in the 60+ intervening years. 

As I shared in my "The Best Posture of this Country" sermon in early September of this year, my mother, a Bulgarian, was liberated by Patton's Third Army during World II, and immigrated here under the Displaced Persons Act which was passed by the United States Congress in 1949. Which is at least part of the reason that a) I look for ways to honor and thank veterans and b) I will always speak out in defense of immigrants and refugees -- the "tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breath free" -- people whom our country, when it is not sinking into demagoguery and fear-mongering, has long welcomed and benefited from.

As we transition from Veterans Day to Thanksgiving Day, I give thanks for those who took their turn in years past standing watch, and for who do so today. I also give thanks for those who -- following the consistent command of God in Holy Scripture -- welcome the stranger and open their hands wide to the needy and poor.

Between Veterans Day and Thanksgiving Day, may we not take our freedom, safety, and good fortune for granted, and may we translate our feelings of gratitude into concrete actions of thanks-giving and generosity.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Advent, Joyfully Anticipating Christmas, and singing "Christmas" hymns during Advent

As the church is about to start the season of Advent, it reminds me that part of our call, as the church, is to be, this time of year, a voice crying in the consumer-orgy wilderness. 

I think the church has a responsibility to be counter-cultural. Someone needs to point out that, contrary to what Best Buy commercials teach, buying electronics is not the way to get people to love you. And someone -- it might as well be the church -- should point out that contrary to what Zales commercials teach, giving expensive jewelry on the morning of December 25th does not make up for one's being an emotionally distant jerk the other 364 days of the year.

But here's the thing: the danger the church runs into is coming across as grouchy spoil-sports. That's a huge irony, because the season of Advent SHOULD be a season of joyfully anticipating Christmas. 

Unfortunately, though, it seldom is, at least not the way most Episcopal church's observe it. 

I've come to believe that Advent -- at least the way it's customarily observed -- doesn't do a good job conveying joy, or anticipating Christmas. That's because we've inherited a dour "anticipation of the Second Coming," almost penitential season that is (ironically) completely out of whack with the holy day it supposedly prepares us for. 

There's a brief little seasonally-adjusted prayer called a "proper preface" said during our celebration of communion. During the season of Advent, here's what it says. (The emphases are mine. Which is the whole point -- the emphases!)

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear REJOICE to behold his appearing.

In other words, because of God's "first coming" in Jesus (on that first Christmas), the "second coming" (and God's judgment) is not only NOT something that will be a source of shame or fear, but it is something we can REJOICE in.

The real purpose of Advent, I've come to believe, and want to share here again, is to help us joyfully anticipate Christmas.
Each of those three words - "joyfully," "anticipate," and "Christmas" are important.

I'll come back to "joyfully" in a minute. First let me say something about Advent being a season of anticipation...a season of sharing in pregnant-Mary's expectant waiting.

I am still very much on board with the idea that Advent is not a time to prematurely celebrate Christmas. Rather, the church invites us to count the days. (Advent calendars and Advent wreathes are great for that.)
However, where I have changed my mind from my former "Advent-purist" self, and where I now differ from some of my friends and colleagues who remain Advent purists is this:
What the lessons and sermons during this season ought to anticipate is Christmas: the "first coming" or incarnation of Jesus, and not (as most of the lessons appointed in the Lectionary and as some Advent hymns would have us concentrate on) the second coming, or return, of Christ.

Emphasizing the "second coming" might have been appropriate in an age of Christendom, when people in the general culture had an understanding of Christianity. Now days, at least in the Northern Virginia region culture, preachers/churches have enough of a challenge attempting to tie what the wider culture celebrates as "the holidays" to the specific Christian holy day called "Christmas," not to mention the challenge of reminding people (or informing them!) that the day called "Christmas" is about a celebration of the birth of Jesus (i.e., is not only about gifts).

Christians come across as dowdy...frumpy...hopelessly out of touch with the people who are in our pews Sunday after Sunday when we cross our arms and refuse to hear those wonderful stories leading up to the first Christmas: the stories about Elizabeth's and Mary's 
becoming pregnant, Joseph's doubts, and the journey to Bethlehem, to name three.

It strikes me as haughty to complain about hearing Christmas music before December 25, and only allow ourselves to pull these remarkable, powerful hymns out of deep storage at the exact time when most of our supposedly less-enlightened congregation is sick to death of them, because they've been hearing them everywhere else since Halloween.

When we insist on the old, "mini-Lent" observation of Advent, we are the only people -- as Christians - who are NOT talking about Christmas and singing "Christmas" hymns* at the exact time when we have the culture's fullest attention. Combine that with the often-accompanying self-righteous attitude of "oh come on, it's not Christmas yet!" and we come across as little more than dour, frowning, spoil-sports. 

And that is, at the very least, bad evangelism.

Which brings us to the first part: Joy.

I'm convinced that Advent should be a time that joyfully anticipates Christmas.

My primary and most serious objection to thinking of Advent as a "mini-Lent," or penitential time is a theological objection: namely, the customary approach to Advent is scripturally and theologically inconsistent with the day it supposedly prepares us for: the Incarnation.
You know, Christmas.

Again, as the proper preface says, one of the consequences of Jesus coming the first time (that first Christmas) is that "when he shall come again," "we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing."
In other words, even Jesus' second coming -- even the final judgment (were it really appropriate to concentrate on that during Advent, and I don't think it is) is supposed to be, for us, NOT an occasion of shame or fear, but an occasion of rejoicing.

How much more, then, should our anticipation of Christmas be an occasion of joy?

We need to be reminded that Jesus' incarnation is announced in the Bible as "Good news of great joy."

That is first thing that is said in the angelic announcement.

As the author Steve Backlund writes,
The angel did not say, "I bring you news of a teaching that I hope you can follow," or "I bring you news that Jesus is coming; and boy, is He mad!" but no, the message was, "It's time to celebrate! God is doing what you couldn't. He is making a way where there was no way. You are being saved from the curse, rejection, shame, punishment, poverty, sickness; and from performance-based living. The door is being opened to eternal life; intimacy with the Father, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and so much more. It is incredible, joyous news!"

That is the message of Christmas.

So again, while waiting and watching and anticipating...while avoiding the overt celebration of Christmas and certainly while doing what we can to resist the consumer-orgy-nature of the way the popular culture observes Christmas, what we'll be doing at The FallsChurch Episcopal during Advent is






*I'm adding here a footnote on "Christmas" hymns sung during Advent, because this seems 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. But if you take a close look at the hymn texts – what is actually being said, 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 well have been somewhat arbitrary. 

Namely, 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.

"Born"? "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 spendors 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 some thought and effort, it's possible to choose hymns that unapologetically joyfully anticipate Christmas while at the same time not prematurely pulling out all the stops prior to December 24/25, the date the church has set aside to actually start celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Jesus. See more at "Advent Purists are Well Intentioned Killjoys" here

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Out of the blue, my wife sent me a quote, 

"It's not happy people who are thankful. It's thankful people who are happy." 

That made me remember one of my favorite quotes:

Apparently Thich Nhat Hahn is on solid psychological ground here: check out this article in Scientific American.

Be thankful to be happy.

Smile to have joy.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The "Elf on the Shelf" War on Christmas"

It's only the second day of November, but already I've had a couple of conversations with parents of young children about the theologically obscene "elf-on-the-shelf" trend. Which is now more than a trend.

As a parent of what were once three young children, I do understand the temptation to find some way to leverage good behavior during this time of year. But speaking as a pastor and priest, "elf-on-the-shelf" is about as bad a theology around Christmastime as you can get.

So, while I may be a voice crying in the wilderness on this topic, I thought I'd re-share a blog post I wrote a few years ago titled "The Elf on the Shelf's War on Christmas." Comments welcome.

"Jesus came to start a movement, and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement"

Our new Presiding Bishop starts out with this reminder: 

"Jesus came to start a movement, and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement." Definitely worth watching this: 


Sunday, November 1, 2015

What Keeps Us From Praying

Praying Like Bartimaeus
A sermon preached October 25, 2015
The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector, The Falls Church Episcopal

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46-52)

As those of you who were here last week know, the passage just before this one in the Gospel of Mark is where James and John approach Jesus and say, “we want you to do whatever we ask of you,” and Jesus says, “what is it you want me to do for you?” and they respond that they want places of honor.

I’ve come to think that James and John actually model a good (or at least sincere) way of praying: tell God what you want, even if what you want isn’t exactly a model of purity or holiness, even if what you want is selfish or materialistic – pray honestly, because it’s not as though God doesn’t already know those things about you, it’s not as if there’s a part of us that God doesn’t know about…might as well get that all out there where God can work with it.

So if last week’s gospel encouraged us to pray “James and John prayers,” this week we’re encouraged to pray “blind Bartimaeus prayers.”

To set the stage: Jesus, his disciples and a large crowd are leaving the city of Jericho. Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, is sitting by the roadside. When he “hears that it was Jesus of Nazareth,” he starts to shout out “Jesus, son of David [honored one, anointed one], “mercify me!”

I say “mercify me” because as a biblical commentator[1]  has pointed out, there’s not really a good English translation of what (“eleeson me”) Bartimaeus is shouting out: “have mercy on me” sounds like he’s asking Jesus to be kindly disposed toward him,, not to judge him harshly, or simply to feel mercy or pity toward him.

[Ann Lamott says there are three essential prayers, help, thanks, and wow. That almost all our prayers can be simplified or summarized in one of three words: help! Thanks! And wow! We ask for assistance from God: HELP. We express gratitude – THANKS, and we fee awe, or we savor life’s events: WOW, help, thanks and wow, three essential prayers.

So here’s a good example of the first kind of prayer, a “help” prayer. When Bartimaeus says “have mercy on me” he’s not asking Jesus to feel a certain way toward him, he’s asking him to do something for him, and so a better translation is probably “help me!” except the Greek is apparently very informal and colloquial, so what Bartimaeus is saying is more like “Jesus, Son of David, do your mercy thing for me!”  

What happens next?

“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” 

I find that fascinating.

Many people…not “just then, someone, one or two people from the crowd tried to hush Bartimaeus” (shhhhh), but “many sternly ordered him” to be quiet. A polite translation of “lots of people told him to shut up.”

But Bartimaeus refuses to shut up, and cries out even more loudly, “SON OF DAVID DO YOUR MERCY THING FOR ME!”

If you pray “James and John prayers” -- if you tell God what you want, even if what you want isn’t exactly a model of purity or holiness, even if what you want is selfish or materialistic – at first it’ll feel weird, strange…because we’ve somehow picked up the notion that prayer should be formal, or done in a certain way, or be filled with holy thoughts…and so –when we pray honestly, at first it feels strange.

And if you pray the Bartimaeus prayer – if we shout out to God, “help me, do your mercy thing for me!” – if we go to God on a daily, hourly basis for help, if we cry out to God for help, then don’t be surprised if “many” voices – internal and external -- start telling you to shut up.  

Because there are a lot of competing voices to our calling out for help:
  • there’s the voice of pride that says, “I don’t need help…I can handle this on my own,” and the voice of denial, “Things aren’t so bad. It’ll be all right.” When you hear those voices, it’s important to cry out even more loudly, “Oh, I DO need help! I can’t handle this on my own, things ARE bad or could get worse, I need help. Help!
  • There’s a voice of skepticism that says, “who is it you think you’re yelling out to anyway? Does God really exist? Aren’t you just talking to your imagination? Doesn’t God have bigger problems than yours to worry about?” When you hear that voice [sternly ordering you to be quiet], cry out even more loudly, “God, you are mystery, incomprehensible, beyond my understanding. J But that doesn’t mean you don’t exist, or don’t care. I believe. I believe you are up there, and in here: I believe you are

o  below me, supporting me,
o  ahead of me, guiding me, 
o  above me, watching over me,
o  behind me, pushing me forward –
surrounding me with your care and support, enveloping me with your love. So please, mysterious but very real God, help me.
  • And there’s an evil voice that says, “well, even if God does exist and does care, he’s mad at you…disappointed in you…you’re in trouble, because God has seen what you’ve done and disapproves of you.” When you hear that voice  [sternly ordering you to be quiet], recognize it as the voice of the Adversary, the tempter, the Devil, Satan – and cry out even more loudly – shout! – “I don’t know what Bible you’re reading or where you got that from, but the God I know in this Bible and the God I’m reminded of each week at my church is a God of goodness, kindness, forgiveness, love, and mercy, who makes that goodness and mercy known – God is described as a forgiving father rushing out to embrace the prodigal son, a God who not only is not turned off by me when I turn to him but who is delighted, who throws a party, who speaks of angels rejoicing in heaven…believe in that God and say “do your mercy thing for me, God.”

Because what happens when Bartimaeus persists?

Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.”

To the point that the God we worship – the God made-known-in-Jesus – is merciful and kind – freeze-frame this scene for a minute and look at Jesus’ reaction to those in the crowd who are telling 

Bartimaeus to be quiet. He stood still and said “call him here.”

What’s Jesus reaction to those in the crowd who are being indifferent and even hostile to someone in need: he doesn’t scold them for telling him to be quiet. He doesn’t shame them by comparing 

Bartimaeus’ faith to their hostility.

He stands still, and says “call him here.” It’s a very subtle moment in the scene, but important: Jesus could’ve gone over to where Bartimaeus was sitting. Or he could’ve spoken directly to directly to Bartimaeus and said “come here.”

But he stands still. He speaks to the crowd, overruling their order with one of his own: “call him here.” You see? He makes them the disciples they want to be. He gives them something to do. And you see the change in their demeanor?

They call the blind man and say, “take heart, cheer up, courage…don’t be afraid.”

He throws off his cloak and comes to Jesus…
…and although he can’t see Jesus, he hears Jesus ask him,
“what do you want me to do for you?”

It’s pretty obvious that Bartimaeus is blind, but Jesus asks, God asks us to articulate our deepest desire anyway, name it, say it out loud.

“What do you want me to do for you?”

What do you want God to do for you?
What do you want God to do for you?
What do you want God to do for you?

Bartimaeus  says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

Let me see again.

What do you say?

What’s your cry? What’s your heart’s request? Where do you need help? Where do you need mercy? What would you like to see again?


[1] [A.K.M. Adam, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4, pg 215]

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Kingdom of God, Shifting Perspectives

A parishioner recently shared this video, titled "Assumptions."  It only takes 43 seconds to watch:

As soon as I watched it, I said, "well, THAT'LL preach!

Here's what I mean: one of the most important roles of Christian faith is to help us shift our perspective.

What if 20 minutes spent daily in prayer caused us to have these 43-second shifts in perspective all day long, every day?

What if daily bible reading helped us realize, over time, that that which seems large and looming in life may, in fact/God's Kingdom/reality, be quite small?

And that which seems remote and insignificant may, in fact/God's Kingdom/reality quite large?

What if current events were the "forced perspective" of the chair? What if acts of service to others were the second cup and saucer?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Praying, Honestly

In the Gospel we hear this Sunday, James and John come to Jesus and say, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."

When Jesus says "what is it you want me to do for you?," they tell him they want to sit at Jesus' right hand - to have places of honor in heaven. So usually, when you hear a sermon about this passage, or when you read any commentaries about it, James and John don't come off so well.

Usually, the line of thinking/preaching goes, "How dare they! How selfish! How inconsiderate; how egotistical." Or at least "how clueless."

And according to that way of understanding the passage (an understanding I've had almost my entire ministry, I must admit), Jesus is seen as sharing the anger or frustration that we're told the other ten disciples have toward James and John, and his tone toward James and John is seen as scolding.

But nowhere does the text say Jesus was angry with James or John.

And the Bible does not give us stage directions (i.e., "Jesus [scolding, in a stern tone] 'You do not know what you are asking.'")

So instead of piling on, I'd like to give James and John a break.

After all - re-read the passage - Jesus does not tell them their desire for greatness is itself bad.

He does not say, "you should not seek to be great. Your desire to be first is bad."

Instead, he redirects their notion of greatness. He says (essentially), "your notion of greatness and God's notion of greatness are different. You want to be first? Good, be the first person to serve. Be the first person in someone's day to say "you need some help with that?, can I help you?, is there some way I can be of service to you?"

In other words, Jesus meets James and John where they are, and pulls them to another place.

And so I think that James and John actually model a good (or at least sincere) way of praying: in our prayers, we should tell God what we want, even if "what we want" isn't a model of purity or holiness. 

You see, it's not as if God doesn't already know what we want -- as the first part of the Collect for Purity puts it, God is a God unto whom ALL [of our] hearts are open, ALL desires known, and from whom NO secrets are hid." 

In other words, God already knows our deepest desires. 

So go ahead and pray for whatever it is that you think you want: in fact, I'd go so far to say that it's better to pray for something bad, selfish, or greedy on a daily basis than not to pray at all on a daily basis, because if we keep going to God on a daily basis, our relationship will be strengthened, and -- as the second part of the Collect for Purity puts it -- God will "cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit." God will meet you where you are, and pull you to a different place. And over time, we'll find that our desires have changed into things that aren't bad, selfish, or greedy, but good, serving and giving. 

So hear God ask you: "What do you want me to do for you?" and answer God, honestly.