Saturday, May 29, 2010

Memory, Gratitude, Responsibility

O Judge of all the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 839) 
The prayer above is one I find particularly appropriate for Memorial Day weekend. It begins by acknowledging that God is judge of all the nations and therefore every nation (including our own) is accountable to God. Matthew's gospel reminds us that the nations will be judged first and foremost on how they cared for (or did not care for) the poor in their midst. For me this serves as a reminder that patriotism is a penultimate good, not an ultimate one. (As such it can be manipulated by scoundrels to become idolatrous if we are not vigilent.) But as such, we are right to be proud of our homeland, "the country where my heart is" as Georgia Harkness puts it in her poem, "This is My Song." We are right to notice how blue our skies are, even as we are reminded that skies are blue in other lands too!

From there, the collect calls us to memory, gratitude, and responsibility. First of all, we remember on this Memorial Day weekend those men and women who "in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy." Their lives of service, their willingness to lay down their lives for the sake of something bigger, evokes in us grateful hearts. Those who have given the ultimate sacrifice deserve our humble thanks.

But if it stops there, it seems to me we do not fully honor their memories. The second half of the prayer goads us to live in such a way that does honor to their memories. We cannot talk about freedom without discipline (or for that matter about discipline without freedom.) True freedom is not the "right" to do whatever we damn well please; that's anarchy. Discipline without freedom, however, is facism. Those who serve in the Armed Forces understand this connection; so, too, do disciples of Jesus Christ.

So we continue to engage in this dance toward freedom and justice and peace--pausing this weekend in between grilled hot dogs not only to remember and to give thanks, but also to ask the harder follow-up question: how can we live our lives this week, in ways that honor their sacrifices?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Love and Marriage

In March, I celebrated my forty-seventh birthday. Today, Hathy and I celebrate twenty-four years of marriage. One need not be a math scholar to notice that we have spent more of our lives married than single, which I have been finding a rather interesting thought to ponder today.

In my work as a pastor I have an opportunity to officiate at a number of weddings each year. When I was younger I complained a lot about this work, mostly tongue-in-cheek. At funerals and baptisms it is clear what the priest is supposed to do. But there are usually a lot of chiefs at weddings and competing interests and too often the religious dimensions aren't necessarily everyone's top priority. But over the years I've found this aspect of my work to be more and more of a joy.

Even so, most couples (including the young couple above) have no idea what it is they are getting into when they say "I do." What I've discovered over twenty-four years is that it takes some luck and a lot of grace and forgiveness to make it work. Overall, we've had it relatively easy. We've been blessed with a lot more better days than worse ones, while we may not be rich we are certainly not poor, and we've been pretty healthy all things considered. Good times make it easier to love and cherish our beloveds, perhaps, than hard times.

There is a line in the prayers offered at weddings that I truly love and everytime I hear it prayed at a wedding I love it more: Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy. (BCP 429)

I am very grateful that for more than half of my life - through times of need, perplexity, sorrow and joy - I've had my best friend by my side. Here's to the next twenty-four!

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Recently I took note of a rather innocuous comment to a friend's Facebook status. (My friend happens to be an Episcopal priest, but could just as easily have been an involved layperson of any denomination. Her parents simply noted, "we'll see you about 1 p.m; we have coffee hour after church.")

For people like me (or anyone raised in Lake Wobegon) this statement requires no explanation. Mainline churches serve coffee after church - volunteers sign up to do that - and my friend's parents were on duty this weekend in their congregation. End of story.

Except that I am aware that increasingly we live in a world where statements like this really do need explanation. Many people would not know what this means. This sounds a bit crazy to church people but only recently I had someone ask me what exactly a "potluck supper" is. My point is not at all judgmental on either side of this - it is simply that there is a vocabulary and a whole set of customs and practices (far more serious in many ways than coffee hour or potlucks) that increasingly require interpretation.

Here, of course, is where the Holy Spirit comes into play. I noted in my sermon this weekend that unlike Christmas and Easter, the Church gets it's prayer answered on Pentecost -we have no cultural adaptations to be navigated. One should be careful what we pray for, because even many Christians come into Church this weekend without knowing it is Pentecost. (It seems without displays in our grocery stores, drug stores, and malls to remind us, as we have at Christmas and Easter, we are a bit forgetful.) Nevertheless, the Spirit comes to make communication (and community) possible - for us to speak and be understood, for us to listen and to understand one another.

It seems to me that unlike Christmas and Easter, when the Church is competing with all kinds of positive and negative cultural practices, we are quite on our own this weekend. And yet--and this is the great paradox--the Spirit is not our own. The Spirit, like the wind, blows where She will. The Spirit cannot be contained by the Church. When we speak of Pentecost we are being reminded that God's Spirit is sent to renew the face of the earth, that God's Spirit is at work in God's world and among people who have no idea that today is Pentecost.

Strangely, I think this is good news on many levels. Among other things it is a reminder that we are not in charge. Christians have a mission and responsibilities in the world but the Spirit of God is at work not only through us but sometimes in spite of us. The Spirit shakes things up when they need shaking, and settles things down when anxiety is high. In short, the Spirit refuses to be managed or domesticated.

I love the Church profoundly, for all of its giftedness and all of its challenges. I love Church people, and speak their language; it's my own native tongue. I can say "please sign up for coffee hour in the narthex" and not feel that requires any explanation! I can remind people to wear red to church and assume most of them understand why.
But I am also glad that God the Holy Spirit comes to make the world, and the church that is called to serve the world, more interesting, more multi-lingual, more multi-cultural, and just a lot more fun.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Stewards of God's Good Creation

A friend of mine, a priest, recently posted a request on Facebook asking for guidance in how to pray for the situation related to the oil spill in the gulf. It was a sincere request and most of her friends posted some serious and good responses about wisdom and stewardship and of course for prayers for those whose lives have been affected by this terrible tragedy. I went a different route, and (mostly) tongue-in-cheek suggested a prayer that might begin, "O Lord, smite those greedy executives who cut corners in order to make a buck..."

Now in all seriousness, I wish no harm on anyone. And I wasn't in the room when decisions were being made about this particular project. I don't know for sure which executives or government officials are to blame; and it's hard to get clarity around that in the midst of all the finger pointing. The special investigators can sort all of that out eventually, but one thing is clear: you can't put toothpaste back in the tube. There may be lots of lessons to learn but that will begin with getting the facts right, and that may take some time.

But by all accounts, this was not an "accident." And it is blasphemy to call it an "act of God." It was caused by human sin and greed and arrogance and negligence. Some of the blame may in fact belong to our government for failing to adequately regulate and to hold BP accountable for the regulations that are in place. In a democracy that means some of the blame belongs to the people who elected people to serve who have no interest in doing anything except protecting the interest of corporations.

In the meantime, the theology may be much easier to sort out. Here is what I do know: prayer is not magic. It is naive and foolish to pray for God to "fix" that which we break. If a child gets a new toy and smashes it to bits on a rock and then asks his parent to make it all better, most good parents recognize that it's a mistake to go out and buy a new one. There are consequences for actions and God's grace and mercy don't negate those consequences. Perhaps the prayers we need to begin with are not intercessory prayers, but prayers of confession for the things we have done, and the things we have left undone. This oil spill was not a "natural" disaster. It's a human problem rooted in the very old-fashioned sin of greed. It is a reminder that one cannot serve both God and mammon.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Apatheia and Acedia

Years ago I read two incredibly important books on desert spirituality. The first was Alan Jones' Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality and the second was Belden Lane's The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. These two books have continued to shape the way I pray and think about the spiritual life in general and practice ministry in particular. In the May 18 issue of The Christian Century, an article by Lane entitled "Caring and not caring" reminds me why this is so.
In this article, Lane explores two very different kinds of indifference, apatheia and acedia - both rooted in the experience of the desert mothers and fathers of the early centuries of the Church's life. Apatheia is rooted in the experience of the desert itself and the wild fierceness of it's unforgiving harshness. The lack of water and food strips life to its bare essentials and it is that stripping down (not only for the desert Christians but one could argue for the Hebrews who wandered for forty years in Sinai many centuries earlier and for Christians who embrace the practices of Lent to this very day) that reveals what matters and what doesn't. We need to learn how to be indifferent to what is in the long run unimportant. So much of our worrying and bitterness and anxiety is about stuff that really doesn't matter. Apatheia is about learning to not care. This includes, as Lane reveals in his article about himself, worrying about what other people think about us, and the need for their approval. Of the desert Christians, he writes: "They went to the desert to learn not to care about what was unimportant, so as to begin to care about what really mattered." This leads, however, to the second kind of indifference - the temptation to acedia, an unholy indifference that obliterates any spiritual desire whatsoever. If we are not careful with our lives, we can get stuck in routine and flounder "in a self-absorbed paralysis of spiritual boredom." We can stop caring about anything at all. Wisdom of course, is found in discovering both how to care and not to care; in discerning what matters and what doesn't. Ultimately Lane reminds us that the wisdom of desert spirituality and all Christian prayer is to foster agape love. And so this line, which I think is worth pondering: "Apatheia is the ability to ignore what impedes our progress on the spiritual journey, acedia is the deadening lassitude that strikes when we're alone in the heat of the day, and agape is the freedom to love that is made possible by the one and destroyed by the other." Good stuff, I think - with so much to ponder.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Wendell Berry - The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Rogation Days always seem to lead me back to my favorite mad farmer; this is from Wendell Berry - The Mad Farmer Liberation Front:

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Beating the Bounds

Rogation days are the four days set apart for solemn processions to invoke God's mercy: April 25 is known as the Major Rogation and the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday preceding Ascension Day (which this year falls on May 13) are called the Minor Rogations. The Latin word rogare means "to ask," and is a reference to John 16:24: "Ask and ye shall receive. " These days may have originated in France after a series of natural disasters had caused much suffering, and the Archbishop led a procession of people around their fields to pray for God's protection and blessings on the crops that were just beginning to sprout. The idea took hold and the custom spread around Europe and became especially popular in Great Britain. A common feature of Rogation days in Victorian England was the “beating of the bounds” – a procession led by the minister around the boundary of the parish, asking for God’s protection in the year ahead.

We don't "beat the bounds" at St. Francis but I sometimes like to imagine what it would mean for us to take this custom quite literally. For me it is a reminder first of all that even when we use the words synonymously, a congregation is not the same as a parish. A parish is more like a county, as in Louisiana. John Wesley said "the world is my parish." If we were to "beat the bounds" at St. Francis this week what would we see? We have parishioners who drive more than a half hour to be in church: we'd have to walk from the streets of Worcester and around the five Wachusett towns of Holden, Princeton, Paxton, Rutland and Sterling to places further afield like North Brookfield and Hubbardston and Barre. What would we see happening in the world around us? Where would we see God--and the need for God's healing and redeeming love--in the homes and schools and businesses we would walk by? How would our sense of mission and even our own identity be changed by such a procession beyond the walls of our congregation?

In New England we are getting close to the time when people can begin to plant seeds, although the surprising cold of the past two nights is a reminder of why it is wise to wait until Memorial Day to do that. We would pass struggling family farms. My reading of those first chapters of Genesis and the whole of the Christian tradition, including our patron from Assisi, is that stewardship of this good earth and support of sustainable agriculture are inseparable from living the Christian faith and life. How would our awareness of this vocation change if we talked along the way with the farmers who are trying to be faithful to the land and to the generations that will follow us? Maybe next year I need to be more on top of this and not simply do a "virtual" walk but a real one!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Acts 16

In today’s reading from the sixteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we are told of a vision that Paul had during the night. It’s not clear whether this was a dream he had while in REM sleep or if it’s one of those nights that he just can’t get any sleep - so he’s tossing and turning until he has a vision. These things are notoriously difficult to pin down, and sometimes in that semi-conscious state between sleeping and waking it’s not always clear even to the one who has the vision. Either way, there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us. What is clear is that Paul takes this vision to be the work of the Holy Spirit.

Now Paul has a choice the next morning at breakfast. He can keep it to himself or he can share it. He can analyze it to death, and if he does it may eventually seem crazy to organize his life around such a flimsy piece of evidence. But Paul trusts that this is how the Spirit works. (Maybe he had just finished reading Malcom Gladwell's Blink!) Paul trusts his instincts in the same way that Peter does when he has that vision of the sheet with all kinds of non-kosher foods coming down from heaven and the same way that Philip does on the road to Gaza when he goes up to a strange Ethiopian eunuch to engage him in conversation.

Once Paul does start to talk about his vision, those who are with him also have the same choice: they can choose to ignore him or they can listen to this vision and interpret it as the Divine Lure. His vision doesn’t have to become their mission until they say so. What is interesting to me in what follows is to pay attention to the pronouns. When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. Clearly there is a lot that is unspoken here about that process, and I always find that to be a bit frustrating when that happens in the Bible. In another place in Acts the phrase is used, “after no small amount of dissent…” It’s a clue that we don’t get a play-by-play in Acts, which is more like the accumulated minutes from a year’s worth of vestry meetings. The word “discernment” isn’t used in Acts 16, but clearly that is what has to transpire between Paul’s vision and the community’s response to in fact go to Macedonia. There needs to be a level of trust—both in the ways of the Spirit and in Paul’s ability to be tuned in to those ways—and some honest conversation. I imagine at least one person in the community might have said, “Paul, are you sure you had that vision? Are you sure it is of the Spirit? Maybe you just had some bad lamb or too much caffeine last night!”

How do we know what is truly of God’s Spirit and what is our own projection or own desire and even confusion? What the narrator in Acts doesn’t tell us is how they discerned that this was of God—simply that they trusted Paul’s vision and they went to Macedonia. They took it as God’s initiative and they went with it:

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

You don’t have to be a great Biblical scholar to recognize the name Philippi, a “leading city in the district of Macedonia.” If you sit down and read Paul’s letter to the Philippians in your Bible it will provoke your inner Paul Harvey to fill in the blanks on “the rest of the story”—namely that this encounter we heard about with Lydia and her family that leads to their baptisms is the beginning of a new congregation—the roots of the Church in Philippi. And it all began with a dream Paul had of a man in Macedonia saying, “come and help us.”

Friday, May 7, 2010

Seven Seconds in the Bronx

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is one of the most important books I've read in the past decade.

And it's worth it just for the one chapter entitled "Seven Seconds in the Bronx," an exploration of the tragic killing of Amadou Diallo on February 3, 1999. (Although I think it would be impossible to read that chapter out of context, since Gladwell's argument is a sustained and complex one that builds on its way toward that chapter.)

No one who has known me for more than five minutes is unaware that I'm a big Bruce Springsteen fan. And his reflections about that night in the song, "41 Shots," remains powerful for me. I was in New Jersey one night when Bruce performed this song and I heard hard-core fans - cops and friends of cops and friends of friends of cops - booing "The Boss." They just didn't want to hear it. Bruce's song raised questions and awareness but as analysis, his conclusion suggests blatent and conscious racism as the root cause of what happened in that seven seconds in the Bronx: "you can get killed just for living in your American skin." The argument then becomes about whether or not those cops were racists, which locks us into old arguments and probably doesn't help us to better comprehend what really happened. (In fairness to Bruce, when "the poets down here don't write nothin' at all but just stand back and let it all be" we are all diminished.)

Bottom line is that Gladwell moves way beyond that impasse to a serious and detailed analysis, suggesting that there is much to learn about the relationship between our brains and fear; the way that we take in information in the blink of an eye, and what we then do with that information. It strikes me that he gets us much closer to the truth and the closer we get to the truth the more likely we are to learn something new and to make real changes that have the potential to save lives. It's a book I have to keep thinking about, and one I commend to those who have not yet read it. Facinating stuff.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Why I Am Spiritual AND Religious

I have been thinking a lot lately about people who like to say, "I'm spiritual but not religious." Now I should say that I usually like these people - sometimes very much - who are often (but not always) twenty or thirty years younger than I am. Sometimes when I ask them what they mean by this, they don't have a very good answer. But I've realized that much of the time they implicitly or explicitly tend to make "religion" a synonym for some of the following words: dogmatic, certain, preachy, institutionalized.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Church which is, on the one hand, the mytical Body of Christ but on the other hand often doesn't act that way. In spite of it all, however, for me those who claim that the root meaning of the world "religion" comes from two Latin words that mean "to bind together" or "to connect" are on to something quite profound. Spirituality, or better still, spiritual practices, are personal. (Which is not the same as individualistic!) Spiritual practices are about finding ways to be in the presence of God by reading scripture and saying our prayers and being still enough to listen and meditate. All good stuff.

But religion is, for me, about community. It's bigger than what I do to feel closer to God. I am spiritual because I yearn to be part of something bigger than myself; I am religious because it is a way of life that makes me more fully who God means for me to become. I am spiritual because I am trying to be God's beloved; I am religious because I am called to love others.

One of the most important books I've ever read that addresses this issue is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together. Whenever I feel like it would be a whole lot easier to be spiritual and not religious (which it no doubt is) I re-read this little book, addressed to the underground seminary in Nazi Germany at a time when the world very much needed the Church to be something much more than "spiritual." The chapter that I find most important is the one on community. "The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer," he writes. It is a gift of grace, and the only proper response to such a gift is thankfulness. And then this: "we are bound together by faith, not experience."

Which I take to mean this: life together ain't easy. It's in one sense a whole lot easier to be spiritual than to be bound up with others in love, especially others we don't necessarily like very much. It takes an act of faith to commit ourselves to being bound up with one another. But it is only in so doing that we find our true purpose: and together we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine on our own. Just because it's hard, doesn't mean it isn't good.

But again, some of this comes back to defining terms. I heard someone say yesterday that one reason that so many from the west find Buddhism so intiguing is that it is presented as a way of life, rather than a set of beliefs. Too often, religion in the west generally and perhaps among Christians in particular has been presented as a set of beliefs we need to affirm in order to be in. If that is what religion means, then I get why so many would prefer to be spiritual without the "trappings" of religion.

But Jesus told people to take up their cross in order to follow him. The earliest Christians were known as people "on the Way." The old language of the Church speaks of a pilgrim people; today we may speak more of our spiritual journeys. But the point is that Christianity IS a way of life. It is a way of life together with others. That's why I'm trying to be spiritual: because I am religious.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

More Mary Oliver

This comes from Red Bird: Poems by Mary Oliver.

The poem is called "Sometimes" and it includes some gems, including this one:


Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.