Friday, July 30, 2010

Graveyard Songs

The parish I serve, St. Francis Church, was founded in 1946. Over the past fifty-six years there have been 288 funerals from our parish. I know this because Episcopalians are meticulous bookkeepers and all Baptisms, Marriages, Confirmations, and Burials are recorded, along with every service. That's a little more than five funerals a year. As the fifth rector of the parish I've done more than my share, as of last week seventy-four of them.

This year has the potential to be a bit of an outlier: already we've had six funerals and there are five months left in the year.

Some people think that if you are ordained you must get used to dealing with death but that has not been my experience. In fact, I often remind people when I am helping them to plan for the burial of a loved one that grief is cumulative. Sometimes we lose someone we love, and then a job, and then maybe our marriage falls apart and we handle it all, by outward appearances, with grace. And then the cat dies and the tears begin to flow. I tell people that is not because we loved the cat more than those other things, but because grief accumulates and sometimes it is the last straw that finally breaks us.

I don't feel like I'm about to break, but burying people has never become automatic for me. Not only do I remember those other seventy or so funerals I've conducted over thirteen years in Holden, sometimes with great detail; but of course my own grief is also opened up again each time I walk this road with others.

My father died very suddenly and unexpectedly when I was a freshman in college. It was a difficult time not only for me, the oldest of four children but for my whole extended family. My grandparents lost a child. The community lost an elected leader. Since that time I've never had a grief quite so large. Hathy and I have buried all of our grandparents since then, but our remaining parents and step-parents are all alive.

My own sense of vocation as a priest is inextricably bound up with the death of my father. I don't know why some people grow closer to God in times of loss and others lose their faith; it is a mystery to me. But at every funeral we offer this prayer of petition for those who mourn: " graciously with [this family] in their grief. Surround them with your love, that they may not be overwhelmed by their loss, but have confidence in your goodness, and strength to meet the days to come." (BCP 494) I believe that death puts us into one of those "thin places" where many of us do discover, or rediscover, God's goodness and love. At least it was that way for me.

Moreover, because death raises the ultimate questions, it ultimately raises the question about how we will choose to live our days. Death does bring loss and grief and hurt; but even at the grave we make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. For Christians, this Easter claim is not about immortality of the soul nor about how the person we loved will "live on in our memories" but about the bold, scandalous, almost crazy insistence that we believe in the resurrection of the body. That if Christ has been raised, then we shall be also. Therefore life is changed, not ended, when our mortal bodies give out and return to the dust...

I don't pretend that is an easy thing to believe or understand. But I am pretty sure that I never feel more like faith matters than standing at the grave trying to make a song, even if that song sounds like the blues. It changes everything else; or more accurately, everything else needs to be seen through this lens. Baptism, which is about dying to self in order to live in Christ. Marriage, which is about vows "til death do us part." Raising children, finding meaningful work, tending to relationships...reflecting on death brings us back to life. As my favorite film of all time puts it, we can get busy living or get busy dying; it seems to me it is only in facing the reality of death that we become free to choose the former.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday, July 25

5:50 a.m. - Prayers in the Memorial Garden for ten members of our youth group and two adult chaperones headed to Rochester, NY for a week-long mission trip.

9:00 a.m. Holy Eucharist with the Celebration of Holy Baptism

10:30 a.m. Pre-marital counseling session.

1:45 p.m. Prayers at Miles Funeral Home before calling hours - funeral tomorrow

2:30 p.m. Anointing of a parishioner at home with hospice

4 p.m. Church league softball v. the Lutherans!

6 p.m. Social event at the home of parishioners

The agenda for this day is not typical but neither is it completely atypical either. What I love about being a parish priest is that while I firmly believe that all ground is holy ground, there are more opportunities for clergy to be aware of that because we are involved in these important life-moments from birth/baptism to death, with all the stuff in between, from marriage to mission trips and fellowship opportunities. Funeral directors and hospice care people deal with death more. ObGyn docs and nurses deal with more birth. But I know of no other job that gets to see it all in the span of one twenty-four hour period.

A lot of clergy complain about how busy they are. I try not to fall into that trap. Many lay people really don't know what we clergy do with our time; because unless they are in the midst of baptism or marriage or burial or mission they may not see us for more than an hour a week. So if they only see us one hour a week, that must be when we are working...

The truth is that I wouldn't be very good at a 9-5 job and I'd hate being a commuter. One of the things I like is that there is a fair amount of flexibility in most weeks, although death is beyond all of our control and all of our carefully planned schedules. With all due respect to the Peace Corps, I think parish ministry is the toughest job you'll ever love. I am grateful because for me, at least, it helps me to live into my faith and days like today remind me of why I'm so grateful that I am called to do this work.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pronouncing Blessings

This, from Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. The last chapter is entitled, "The Practice of Pronouncing Blessings," which BBT encourages everyone to do, not just clergy-types:

"The next time you are at the airport, try blessing the people sitting at the departure gate with you. Every one of them is dealing with something significant. See that mother trying to contain her explosive two-year old? See that pock-faced boy with the huge belly? Even if you cannot know for sure what is going on with them, you can still give a care. They are on their way somewhere, the same way you are. They are between places, too, with no more certainty than you about what will happen at the other end. Pronounce a silent blessing and pay attention to what happens in the air between you and that other person, all those other people."

If there is a theme in this book, perhaps this is it. To see people, to see the world. Earlier in the book she talks about the sixteen-year old kid at the grocery store who crushes her carefully chosen shitake mushrooms with canned goods. But when she engages the kid she realizes he really isn't doing that to be rude to her; he is just clueless about what those strange things even are!

It's not all about us. This book is hard to categorize: is it about prayer, theology, religion, or life? I think the answer is yes. And it's a blessing to read.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Knock. Seek. Ask.

It's midnight, and your cell phone rings. You jump out of your skin worried that something terrible has happened. But it's only your next-door neighbor. "Oh, did I wake you up" he sheepishly asks? "Sorry, I didn't realize it was so late."

He explains that an old college friend dropped by unexpectedly and they have run out of beer and, well, it's late. (But I didn't realize how late, sorry!) "Any beer and pretzels over at your place I could borrow?"

You've had a long day and you have an early morning meeting and you can't believe he is bothering you with this. So you hang up, roll over, and try to get back to that very pleasant dream you were having. But a few minutes later your door bell is ringing and reluctantly you get out of bed. You hand over the Sam Adams and the pretzels and tell him to have fun.
(Luke 11:5-8, with some artistic license)

I love it that when Jesus does theology he doesn't need words like eschatology or soteriology or hermeneutics. He speaks out of the experience of everyday life: he finds fodder for doing theology wherever a woman is baking bread, or a foreigner acts like a neighbor, or a friend knocks on your door at midnight.

Jesus is talking with his disciples about prayer and here the point is, I think, the same one made when he talks about the unjust judge and the persistent if annoying widow who will not go away. Our prayer is too often anemic. Jesus insists that we not be afraid to knock, to seek, to ask. We have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

Friday, July 16, 2010

What Do These Stones Mean?

In the fourth chapter of the Book of Joshua, Israel sets up twelve stones at Gilgal, taken from the Jordan, to help them to remember who they are and what has transpired for them over the past four decades. Twice (at verses six and twenty) the issue is raised about what to tell the children when they ask what these stones mean. The answer is to tell them the story.

I am spending this week on vacation with my extended family, where stories are told again and again over dinner. The stories take on a life of their own over many decades now of being told and the next generation hears the stories told about parents who were (unbelievably) once as young as they are now. They have heard the stories many times.

Families, and faith communities, exist in order to keep the stories alive. We get mixed up whenever we begin to think the "stones" are an end in themselves. The stones are "outward and visible signs" - literally a kind of sacrament - meant to generate a narrative that tells us who we are.

In the congregation I serve, I am surrounded by reminders that the Church has not taken this imperative very seriously over the past fifty years or so. Often our children are being taught things in Sunday School that their parents either never learned or have long since forgotten. Ironically, it is very often the children who are needing to tell the parents what "the stones" mean. And sadly, this sometimes is accompanied with feelings of guilt or shame.

The Church doesn't need a quick fix, a new program for church growth, a new bowling alley or gym. We need to remember the stories and if in our time it means the children are to teach the parents, then so be it. We have our work cut out for us.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Go Fly A Kite!

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the first holy thing in all of creation was not a people or a place but a day. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Heschel called that seventh day "a palace in time."
Keeping Sabbath is difficult for me. As Barbara Brown Taylor reminds Christians in An Altar in the World, the Sabbath in the Bible (both Testaments!) is from Friday sundown until Saturday sundown. Sunday is "the Lord's Day" - a little Easter - the day of resurrection; a very important day for Christians but technically not "the Sabbath."
In any event, keeping a full twenty-four hour Sabbath on Saturday OR Sunday is an impossibility for me given my vocation. Saturday is a day for doing a variety of errands at home and occasionally finishing up a sermon by 5 p.m. when we have our first weekend Eucharist at St. Francis. Sunday is usually filled with not only church but various meetings and church obligations. Monday is my "day off" from Church and I'm pretty faithful in keeping it as such. In the past it has been my Sabbath. But over the past few years it's been a teaching day at Assumption College and the day I devote to preparing for the entire week. I justify this by saying that devoting Monday to college students is life-giving for me; and it is. But it is not Sabbath.
So I have plenty of room for improvement in that area. But what I am much better at doing is taking time in the summer - both in and around Holden and by getting away - that is in its own way Sabbath-like. I understand the virtues of having Sabbath every week. But in the absence of getting that down perfectly, it helps at least to create a "palace in time" each July and August - first on the Outer Banks in North Carolina and then on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. Each of those times include extended family: the former with my family-of-origin and the latter with Hathy's. Unlike some people whose vacations are filled with things to do, our vacations are a lot like a Seinfeld episode: they are vacations about nothing. Literally they are about no-thing. Just time and space with no agenda.
We are beach people and just the sound of the water hitting the sand restoreth my soul. We are food people and just beginning to think of the "rotation" for this year - my brother will cook for twenty-one on Sunday night, each of my sisters and my step-father and mother will take their turns. I'm thinking we will serve brisket this year...
I will read more and watch less television this coming week. I'll sit and talk after dinner or play a game, with no meetings to attend. I probably will not literally fly a kite myself, but I'll thoroughly enjoy watching the kids who range from nearly twenty to five do that. It will truly be "a palace in time" and a reminder that time is a gift from God and rest is good for the soul. We live in a culture that sometimes makes us feel like we need to apologize if we are not crazy busy. I know people who get two weeks of vacation and don't take that. I get four and savor every minute of it. I look forward to having no thing to do this week, which allows me simply to be the person God created me to be.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Living with hope in a fearful world

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25)

For those with apocalyptic leanings, it seems apparent that we are increasingly surrounded on all sides with signs of endings. The Church seems to be falling apart, at least church as we have known it over the course of the past hundred or so years in North America. This creates no small amount of anxiety, perhaps more at the top layers of authority than in the pews.

The images from the Gulf, the wars and rumors of wars, weather patterns apparently caused by global warming all provide fodder for those who try to interpret the signs of the apocalypse.

Today's epistle reading from Romans suggests another perspective on "the sufferings of this present time." St. Paul suggests that we learn to see difficult challenges as we would labor pains. Now I know that such an image is frought with danger given Paul's reputation (deserved or not!) as something of a chauvinist. Nevertheless, labor pains do in fact lead to birth and even a man knows that. They lead to new life even when there is great pain.

Are things falling apart, or are they being made new? There is a wonderful prayer that is prayed at ordinations in the Episcopal Church which includes these words: "...let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new..." (BCP 528) If we believe that, then we live with hope. If we believe that then we stand tall in the midst of a fearful people. Hope isn't about what we can see or measure or prove or argue. Hope is about waiting with patience for what we cannot yet see, knowing that whatever else Easter means it surely means that God brings new life out of death. That isn't a once-upon-a-time story, but rather a claim that goes to the very heart of who God is - and who we are called to become.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Independence Day

I really do love being an Episcopalian! Don't get me wrong - I'm deeply committed to ecumenism and celebrate the rich diversity of Christian faith and practice. I know I am a Christian first, and that Episcopal is the modifier of that subject.

Still, I really am glad to be an Episcopalian! Some Christians feel that extemporaneous prayer is more "authentic" (more heartfelt?) than written prayers. I suppose that is a matter of opinion, but in my experience good extemporaneous prayer is very rare. It follows its own formulas and at least in my experience has its limitations - not the least of which is that when most of us speak before we think our theology is at best shallow, and at worst, well, pretty awful.

That isn't to say that there isn't a place for such praying. It is simply to say that I am not not to be numbered among those who find written prayers to be "cold" or not "religious" enough. Usually written prayers represent some level of redaction and communal work over time; they can be pondered and when prayed enough times they can be learned "by heart" - which I don't see as a negative! When the disciples asked our Lord himself how to pray, after all, he didn't say "just say the first thing that pops into your head!" He said, pray like this: Our father, who art in heaven...

This blog entry is not really intended as a defense of written prayers. But it is by way of saying that for me The Book of Common Prayer is an incredible gift not only for Episcopalians but for the wider community of believers as well, and too often taken for granted by Episcopalians and unknown by other Christians. As I reflect on the Fourth of July weekend and try to find a way to pray my way through it, I find myself returning not only to the collect appointed for Independence Day (BCP 242) but even more significantly to the prayer found on BCP 838, "For the Nation," which goes like this:

Almighty God, giver of all good things; We thank you for the natural majesty and beauty of this land. They restore us, though we often destroy them.
Heal us.

We thank you for the great resources of this nation. They make us rich, though we often exploit them.
Forgive us.

We thank you for the men and women who have made this country strong. They are models for us, though we often fall short of them.
Inspire us.

We thank you for the torch of liberty which has been lit in this land. It has drawn people from every nation, though we have often hidden from its light.
Enlighten us.

We thank you for the faith we have inherited in all its rich variety. It sustains our life, though we have been faithless again and again.
Renew us.

Help us, O Lord, to finish the good work here begun. Strengthen our efforts to blot out ignorance and prejudice, and to abolish poverty and crime. And hasten the day when all our people, with many voices in one united chorus, will glorify your holy Name. Amen.