Monday, March 25, 2019

2019.03.24 Why Church?

In Lent we’re invited to reflect on things that matter, not on every little sin we keep on committing and committing—and once again commit. I define sin simply as whatever separates you from the goodness of God —in God, in yourself and in your neighbor. One of my sins is to be too pushy about my considered opinions, most all of which I adore and consider indispensable

This morning I told my beloved spouse that, although I’d exercised my senior exemption from fasting, I decided to fast from being ornery and bossy toward him. He said: “Don’t do that. I won’t know you’re here.” We laughed.

When one of us gets too high-falutin, the other fights back defensively, and BOOM, we’re disconnected. Then we confess and laugh and kiss, and BOOM, we’re reconnected—over and over. 

One of the things we tussle about is the Church. We have both been professional “churchies” for years. The Church seems, in many places right now, to be failing, or are we failing it? We do not settle our questions of course, but we go to Church regardless. Why? What IS the Church? What is it for? What is its unique raison d’etre? How is it different from so many things that call for our attention, some of which we’d rather be doing?

I’d like to say the Church exists to offer forgiveness for the repetition compulsion called sin. But every family knows and often exercises that function well enough. Why Church?

Is the Church about social justice?—all the rave just now. Well, in part, but not really. Anyone who is civic-minded and inclines toward activism for good causes does social justice. It’s central to the current penchant for humanism—the new true religion. Why Church?

Is the Church a building—preferably on Main Street front and center? Partly, yes. It is easy to get attached to a lovely setting, one in which you have felt safe, have experienced the love and grace of God, not to mention the pastoral care of a priest, many prayers, and those colors sparkling in the sun through stained glass. But God is not a building, though God may be felt in a building. On a religious retreat years ago, I sat enjoying a good meal. Suddenly I looked at my watch and realized I wanted to get to the chapel before dark for my meditative prayer time. I thought “I’m late for church.” Immediately, I laughed at myself, realizing: I AM in Church. And the Church is in me.

Is the Church for community?  Well, yes, but not really. We can find community in many ways, and people do because it’s naturally human to make and gather a community of concern and a team to pursue mutual interests and activities—to belong. Twelve-step recovery communities are an excellent example of intentional communities of support for wellness.

Why Church? 

My answer is that the Church is unique because the Church worships: shows reverence and adoration for a deity, a power both beyond and within ourselves, either individually or collectively. The Church is the BOOM. It offers structured liturgies, rites, rituals practices that re-enact the basic passages of human life—connected in God. I speak of the Christian Church but I know all religions offer similar rites, rituals, sacraments across a lifetime.

In Church you ae lifed—birthed in a font-womb, baptized into God with Christ.

In Church you are fed, brought to a long dining table-altar with the rest of your family. You may be an infant who doesn't take solid food so the priest blesses you; sometimes a tiney fingertip of wine is placed into your mouth. You sleep like a baby—well fed.

In Church you hear lots of music—lullabies cradle you and zestful praise awakens you. You learn some songs yourself in a choir.

In Church you absorb the divine into your flesh—over and over again.

In Church you get to pray, silently or aloud, feeling your sins and sorrows—getting forgiven over and over. You get to say I am sorry and I love you to God and to other worshipers, silently or aloud. Sometimes you get a hug.

In Church you are remembered after you die with prayers, hymns, and sweet words that soak your soul in the security of eternality.  No one forgets you. Neither does God.

In Church you re nurtured from birth to death in wonder, love and praise—over and over.

That’s why Church. Worship is as important as other things you do to take care of yourself. All living things in Nature worship without much help—naturally. We humans? We’re more needy and complicated—mysteries on our own. BOOM, we need Church. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

2019.03.17 Mixed Mood Management?

To balance a mixed mood is arduous, precarious—and yet.

I should be writing about St. Patrick, noted for pubs and miracles and shamrocks, but I’m not in the mood. Oh, I have nothing against this British-born patron saint of Ireland or green clovers, nor his day filled with parades, green cupcakes, and whiskey-induced joy. What does irk me is the one-sidedness of the way some of us Christians, or Americans, or Bostonians overplay the upside at the cost of ignoring the downside. Call it cheating the wholeness of the Holy.

I get it. Joy is more fun than pain. Still: both are real and both are godly and both belong together.

As to St. Patrick, it helps me to remember his beginnings as a lad of sixteen, captured by Irish pirates and taken into slavery to care for animals. That’s enough to know in order to balance things out, stabilize the mood swing option, and acknowledge that sainthood can arise within post-traumatic-stress syndrome.

Much of the time we worship in communities in which the mood is mixed, not unipolar. This is why we have carefully detailed liturgical seasons to observe—different colors, prayers, and moods—to make sure we honor all the vicissitudes of human life. Call it the wholeness of the Holy.

In my parish of the moment we are in mixed-mood mode. The rector of nearly ten years is leaving within two weeks. We feel naturally sad. On the other hand, we feel naturally joyous because he is leaving for celebratory reasons: his spouse has been elected to be bishop in another diocese. We want to rejoice, and we want to make room for sorrow too. We are in mixed mood.

The poor rector himself has been making strenuous efforts to pump the community full of trust, faith, hope, and love.—parting gifts. He is not dishonest in doing this, and the mood is mostly up. Nor is it wrong or even phony to keep the mood bolstered. How hard it is to have somber feelings and be upbeat at once. I was administering the sacrament of healing prayers today. At least twice the number of people came to request healing prayers. They focused on personal needs of course, all true and sincere, yet I wondered if the small numeric surge had to do as much with the underside of the general mood-mix as it did with their particulars. I don’t know. I only know that I felt spiritually enlarged, suddenly grateful, for this space to let down.

I was equally grateful for today’s anthem, for the beautiful poetry of John Donne (1873-1631), English poet and cleric.
-and for the authentic way the small choir sang it. It leavened the mood with wisdom.


Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
Swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

2019.03.10 Getting "Woke"

Today is Gillian Brakeman Colbath’s  23rd birthday. I remember how miraculous it felt to be present the day my oldest daughter brought forth her oldest daughter. Potentiation. Creation. Woke!

Dear Gillian, I remember when you were 7 you sang a solo on stage all alone—a song learned at camp: “Down by the River to Pray.” I remember you taking the lead in the play “Annie Junior”—little orphan Annie singing “Maybe” in your brand new red dress with the white sash as she dreamed. And hearing your mature adult voice sing as you played your guitar to the Joplin song: “Me and Bobby McGee.” I got “woke”. Most beautiful precious Gillian, I know one day you will sing your own perfect love song to yourself.  You are beloved. I love you. Grammy. (Photo of Gillian, Grammy and Auntie Jill, also with a wondrous singing voice)
According to biblical story, Jesus and his disciples got “woke” on the Transfiguration Mount; the brightest big-bangiest light they’d ever seen shone on them, and Jesus lit up like a firecracker. Have you ever seen someone light up with insight, song, love, whatever? It’s biblical, honestly. 

My “woke” story isn’t as grandly biblical. I was forty, feeling like a mid-life “first-grader” in my first course: The Scriptures of the Old Testament ,at Yale Divinity School in 1978. I didn’t know much about the OT, because, until the advent of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, readings from the OT happened only at daily Morning and Evening prayer, not at the Sunday Eucharist.

The Old Testament! My adolescent impressions, formed from reading the whole bible in seventh grade (when else?), were that the OT was hot and sexy and murderous. Hence, I could hardly wait to find out more. In seminary it was required, and soon we’d be hearing it every Sunday in church, along with a reading from one of the many epistles, most of them Paul’s, and a gospel reading from the New Testament’s big 4: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—specialists in the life of Jesus the Christ.

I sat on the edge of my chair, in a huge lecture hall, my notebook opened out on the pull-up desk, and my pen poised to write down every word I heard. I never wanted to be any place as much as I wanted to be here right now, ready to study God in OT.

The professor entered and mounted the podium. The room hushed.

“In the beginning, God potentiated . . . “ he began in sonorous tones. 

I wrote that down. I knew this once-upon-a-time story: God creating to the point of divine ecstasy, every living thing—even mosquitoes.

For big required courses like this one there were weekly lectures and also smaller classes called sections for which we wrote papers, and where we got to ask our questions and discuss. The sections were led by teaching assistants (TAs), usually graduate students earning their keep. That’s when I met Jim Echols. I bet he was younger than me. He was tall and lean with an afro so significant it looked as if it could topple his head. We could call him Jim. I loved his sense of humor, his mild, slightly amused manner, and his willingness to entertain any and all argument, chief among them biblical inerrancy, which most of us, including me, had confused with biblical literalism. I still wonder.

Just last week I read in the Christian Century Magazine that Jim had died at age 67 of complications after a fall at home. You don’t get a big obit in this magazine unless you have some religious clout. I felt sad. Jim Echols helped me get “woke.” I remember him well.
According to his obituary, Jim did accomplish big stuff. He was an ordained Lutheran pastor, a Rev. Dr. no less, and the first African American scholar to serve as the Dean and President of  an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) seminary in Philadelphia, and a retired ELCA pastor, having served many parishes along the way of his career in theological education. Jim grew up in Philadelphia. At Yale he was studying psychology, religion, theology, and the church and culture, earning his PhD among a string of other degrees. 

Formation seemed to have been a passion for Jim. He did much work to support and promote high-quality continuing theological education. He would have been a fan of the Education for Ministry (EfM) program in which I have been involved at many levels for 35 years. Another connection I discovered was that Jim, like me, encouraged interfaith relations, helping to create a Center for Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice at the Lutheran seminary.

So my fondly-remembered TA in OT was a rock star. A professor emeritus of church and society and urban ministry at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago where Jim was president from 1997-2011, called him “a giant in the world of theological education . . .who stirred many people of African descent to aspire to be faithful in their service in the church and the world.” I bet I intuited that way back when I was a green seminarian falling in love with OT and getting “woke.” 

Dear Jim, I am so proud to have known you for such a short time at the beginning of my own theological education. You helped me love the OT and find the grace of God in the oddest of places. I remember when I wrote my final exam for the OT course, I got carried away and wrote in my little blue exam book:  OT LIVES!!  You added a big red exclamation point right next to mine. Thank you. You helped potentiate me. Call it “woke.”

Sunday, March 3, 2019

2019.03.03 Annual, Annual, Annual—Perennial

The annual meeting of an Episcopal parish church can be an occasion for groaning and dread among parish leaders. Our own parish annual meeting this year was quite different from the usual saved-up and savored gripe session.

First, it happened later than usual, because of the rector’s three-month absence as he healed from an accident, followed  immediately by the election as bishop of his spouse—an obvious move out of the diocese for the bishop-elect and our rector. The result of all this was that the annual meeting, frankly, left little room for more than business (confirm a budget and elect officers), kudos and appreciations, and a few well-bestowed gifts.

The normal tenor of many a parish annual meeting, and I’ve seen my share, wasn’t present. I’ve learned to expect:
    -long-held complaints, aired annually for their own sake
    -the annual question from the annual questioner who protests the parish’s annual assessment for diocesan ministries, read, poor-little-us, followed by the same explanation—it’s your taxes, get a grip!
    -what’s a bishop really worth—we only see her or him annually at best, and even then, we have to put on the dog with a super duper coffee hour
    - contesting a slate of officers with the secret wish that you yourself would be nominated by acclaim
    -self-nominations from the floor, which instigates a challenge, requiring a lengthy debate
    -endless budgetary petty picking like why do we spend so much on envelopes? 

All too often the loudest annual-only complainers are those who rarely attend on Sundays, seldom help with parish fund raisers or attend other annuals, like the fair, the rummage sale, Easter. I exaggerate for humor’s sake of course—but not too much.

Honestly, I was grateful that there was no petty tedium this year. Perhaps that’s because we have extremely capable and efficient parish officers and a treasurer who knows how to “treasure” money properly. Perhaps it’s because people were caught up in their own anger and uncertainty, reversal of expectations, fear about the future, pain at the thought of more change, trying to feel joy for the bishop-elect—and yes, plain old abandonment. I don’t know. I do know that I felt more sure than ever I have that this small community will thrive, financially and spiritually and that it will not be by some grace-in-the-sky miracle, but because of the Spirit’s lithe and effective use of our own focused efforts and gifts and prayers.

Lent and buried Alleluiahs aside, we are in Easter now. NOW.   

Henceforth therefore, I will think of Annual Meetings as perennials—Lilies or my favorite black-eyed Susans.

Perennials are enduring, recurring, and apparently infinite. Perennials symbolize hope. They are faithful. They show up. They are like us. Like the Church that goes up and down and dies, not quite, and returns again ready to bloom. Why? Because we keep on planting—day by day and year by year. We sing perennial hymns. We pray perennial prayers and variations thereof, generation to generation. We keep on doing what our founder insisted on—over and over and over—because we are perennials of hope, no matter what.

P.S. I cannot help but add this stunning metaphor the Warden used to describe the parish church. He said "We are getting this stagecoach moving on time and up to speed." Stagecoach? Yippee Kayay!😂😃