Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lent according to Mitch

His name is Mitch.  He is married and working on a dairy farm near Indianapolis.   We were introduced by another student.  They knew each other from their summers as leaders at Boy Scout Camp.  I baptized him at the Episcopal Center @ UGA early in his time as a student.

Each year after Mitch's baptism he became more and more important to the student community as a leader and in a more meaningful way, as a prophet.

He always asked really good questions.  He always wanted things not to just make sense but for the end result of any decision to be just and fair.

Mitch taught me how to "do Lent."

You may already know that I'm not inclined to work too hard on giving things up for Lent.  I've so seldom found "a thing" that once given up didn't return into my life and in a few cases trivialize all that my Lenten discipline had intended.  Every time I've given up a food or confection -- coffee and chocolate come to mind -- I've binged on those same items as soon as the egg hunts are started.

For me Lent is better used to grow into more prayer, more study, more of those things that help me in my life of faith.  So I take on things for Lent that are most often churchy and that require a continued commitment once the forty days are over.

What I learned from Mitch was that my Lenten disciplines could -- perhaps should -- help make the world a better place.  At the very least I should learn something from them.

The lessons I learned from Mitch started the Lent he decided to go bare-footed.  Yes in the dead of a fairly intense and lingering winter Mitch took his shoes off.

He made some reasonable adjustments, one was to leave a pair of shoes at his work place so that he could continue his employment.  They would have fired him otherwise.

He made a concession to the group on those few occasions when we decided to meet together at a restaurant or bar.  That is from where the name Theolatte´ came.  We would meet at an Athens coffeeshop and discuss our spiritual lives and the issues of the days.

I gave him a pair of flip flops that he could carry in his book bag so he could enter when the sign said, "No shirt? No shoes? No service."

We learned so much as a community from Mitch's bare feet.  Especially when we saw one of Athens' homeless in the same state, not by choice.

The next year Mitch kept all his garbage to himself.

If a food item came in a bag or a disposable container he carried that refuse with him for the rest of the forty days.  Thank goodness he learned how to minimize his exposure especially to the waste generated by fast food restaurants and super markets.

Think of how many ketchup packets are thrown away unopened!

By the end of the season he had learned to avoid many places and customs we as quintessential consumers never second guessed.

Mitch's Lent was for Mitch AND because he did not hide his efforts was for us as well.  We learned so much from his bare feet and stuffed sack.

Can our Lenten disciplines teach us as much?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Rehearsing Ash Wednesday

The dynamic of our lives as a people baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a remarkable thing to be done as well as to be said.  It is not just a thing we assert.  Yes, we do recite the Nicene Creed's version of that claim and all that goes with it in that embellished trinitarian hedge.

But more importantly we DO the things that our mouths profess.  Or more correctly, when we do those things in worship that our mouths profess in creeds and hymns -- in particular those things in worship like baptizing, breaking bread, sharing a cup, confessing, anointing, confirming, marrying, or ordaining -- we are rehearsing. We are doing within the confines of a community of faith those symbolic actions that we hope will take shape in our lives outside the walls on 338 Academy St.

About the rehearsing: Sunday worship is so much of what we do together, it has almost become an idol.  Too many of us, myself included, will let Monday be free from those concerns and claims we have just asserted and heard and those actions we have just practiced less than 24 hours prior as if NOT doing them is our reward for having done them symbolically on Sunday.

So the best we can claim about our Sunday gathering is that it is a rehearsal for the rest of our lives. In worship we are acting out in a hopeful pattern of entrance, offertory, silence, consecration, and dismissal our desire to join in brokenness and death the one who was raised and gloriously holds the promise of our resurrection to life, eternally.

The Ash Wednesday service is also a rehearsal.  We are doing something symbolic in kneeling to confess and while in that descent marking our bodies with a reminder of who we really are.

"Remember that you are dust," we say and the words perform through us.  And so you will hear it said, we "do" ashes.  Of all the symbolic actions done in our liturgies nothing challenges us like the imposition of ashes.

The challenge really comes later when we go out of the church's doors with a cross smudged on our foreheads and we no longer have the comfort of what we are doing being only a rehearsal.  I remember how awkward it felt to watch Stephen Colbert on TV, his forehead well marked.

It is not enough to dismiss the gospel for the day as ironic when it includes Jesus' command to us to wash our disfigured faces so as not to make a show of our piety.  We must admit that in order for what we say to be substantiated by what we do shows of piety or telling people we went to church or even telling them that we will pray for them are not enough.

We all know this already.  How many times in your own life have you heard someone you love say, "'I'm sorry' is not enough"?

By extension Lent is also a rehearsal.  40 days of practice.  40 days of holding together our words and our actions.  40 days of holding together what we do in church and what we do in the world.   40 days of rehearsing for a life of confession and humility and hope.  40 days of remembering that we are the dust for whom He became all dust.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Going with the Flow

One of the ways I've understood my life in ministry is to compare it to surfing.  (Full Disclosure: I am not a surfer.  I can barely keep my balance while singing from the hymnal and processing into and out of worship.)

Klutzy as I am I understand the dynamic relationship between wave and "runner."  In order for a surfer to be credited with a quality "performance" the wave has to present itself both as something beautiful and challenging.

Most of us are impressed with mountainous walls of water dwarfing the surfer in fast descent.  Some are keenly interested in the intricate trickery surfers will perform when the waves are not so dominant.

And every so often there are those incredible moments when surfer and wave seem to find each other and then . . . magic!

Can you see how the metaphor works to identify the relationship between priest and parish?

You can nearly equate each "big one" with those big Sundays and Holidays in the church calendar with the Sunday after Labor Day, All Saints', Advent AND Christmas, Shrove Tuesday/Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Holy Week/Easter, Pentecost, July 4.  Each occasion is like a wave that rushes us through, after which we must turn back to paddling and preparing, planning and positioning.

My sense especially this time of year, is that we're about to start paddling out for the next big run that is Holy Week and Easter.  Indeed, Lent with its intentionality and aspiration, it's structure and regimen is like heading out to catch the next big one more than any other part of our liturgical lives.

Nothing characterizes the time between waves like paddling.  Just plain ol' stroke after stroke.  Into the water goes our right hand and our left, our right and our left.  The Lord be with you, and with thy spirit. The Lord be with you, and also with you.  Let us pray.

So this year let's let Lent be for praying, more than anything else.  Prayer that is constant, like the strokes that carry the surfer out even over smaller waves that are disruptive and often still tempting.

And the next thing you know its Palm Sunday.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Beloved-ness, Revisited

In 1965 my dad, a Baptist pastor in Anderson SC, joined with several of his white colleagues and invited the ministers serving the largely black congregations to join in hosting the annual community Thanksgiving service.  This event was held at the largest public auditorium in town, a multipurpose gymnasium everyone knew as "the Rec Hall."  

My knowledge of the details is sketchy but I think what happened next was a majority of the Board of Deacons at our church, Boulevard Baptist did not agree with this decision and moved to hold a separate event.  My dad declined to participate.  

In January of 1966 at the annual business meeting of the church my dad tendered his resignation and by June of that year we were out of the parsonage and the only neighborhood I had known and within a year out of Anderson.  

I was only 12 years old at the time and not fully aware of all the reasons for our move.  None of my siblings liked it.  I'm pretty sure only my older siblings had a complete enough picture to understand how courageous my dad had been and how much of a sacrifice my mother had to make in her support of him.

I will do more research on those events, including searching for what I've been told was an editorial in the local paper calling my dad "a communist."

That was 50 years ago. I'm so glad that I have come to know more about those days and my dad than I knew when we drove out of Anderson for the last time.  

That history is joined by the significant contributions of the Episcopal priest in the little town in Virginia to where we moved.  Father Montague opened his EYC to Tappahannock and helped as much as anyone to diffuse the tensions encumbant to the federally enforced ending of segregation in a southern school system.

IDYG -- Inter-Denominational Youth Group -- was formed and together black and white and Native American teens worked and played and performed and eventually led our school, the only high school in the county, into a fairly happy and harmonious version of community.

Based on how we've continued to love each other I'm confident in calling those friendships a beloved community.

So here we are in 2016 and our governments have done most of their part in dismantling the structures that divided us by the color of our skin.  Seems almost trivial to ask but remember the water fountains in public buildings?

I still believe in what my dad did.  I believe in what Father Montague did.  What can we do that our children one day will believe in and recall with pride.  

I saw a quote in my web browsing recently.  It went something like this "the only bankers who go down in history got caught."  

Will it be enough to "keep the economy going?"  To put down ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Queda, etc.  (If you need a list go here https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_terrorism). It might.

But how can we stand on those as accomplishments of our age while the evolution of racism and prejudice continues to make it so that, for instance black clergy still wait on invitations to join in community wide worship?  Read carefully here, their waiting implicates many more than just them.

I'm thinking we should get caught, caught doing the right thing, the good thing, the things of a beloved community.    

Finally, forgive me for writing in a way that may feel like an indictment of people who've really done no wrong, who are themselves just trying to get by.  But please let me ask again because it shines a light on our situation so clearly.  

Will fighting the fights or causes given us by our creditors and our news corps and partisan affiliations and ALEC guided politicians be the things that get us caught and make the histories our children must remember?

This is not a simple matter. I don't think it was simple 50 years ago.  We have a lot on our plates and the "new racism" has to share space with so much.  

So maybe I can say this, I will do my part as an American citizen and Christian-trying-to-be-faithful in this world of complication, entanglement and opinion but I believe I honor my dad and Father Montague -- and dare I say, Jesus? -- more when I say I'd rather get caught trying to build the new beloved community.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Good News of Change

I am still basking in the glow that was our annual parish meeting.  Fellowship has its benefits and being together to celebrate and look ahead added an excitement to the gathering.  Good food, good people, good news to share. Add those together and you have the good meeting that we had.

It occurs to me that our good news played a particular role in producing our good meeting.

Yes, we have good numbers: 70 pledges yielding $162,146.00, more distributions through Outreach than ever before,  9 transfers into membership, 4 confirmations, 14 reaffirmations. There's more in the printed Annual Report.

But our "good news" was more than the "numbers going up."

Perhaps most significant in our good news was the several ways in which we are managing our changes.

You know that old joke about how many Episcopalians it takes to change a light bulb?  Change the light bulb?  My grandmother gave that light bulb to the church!

We have learned to move into new models for leadership and function and that is good news.

We have changed to a new way of finding leaders for the Altar Guild.  No longer does the priest's appointment "enthrone" or "subject" one (in)to that responsibility.  In some churches Altar Guild chairs NEVER change occupants.  In others the lack of transition increases the isolation and perceived dictatorial function of the one who leads.

Our story was not that severe but the call to change was clear. And so we did.

I cannot thank Julie Jenkins (and Genia Bennett before her) enough for giving so much love and attention to the altar and with it the chancel and church in their years of service and leadership on the Altar Guild. 

At this annual meeting we announced the co-chairing of the Guild by Gertrude Rainwater and Mary McCauley.  Their terms of service designed to overlap so that next year we'll elect Gertrude's successor and Mary will continue for another year and on and on.

That good news was well received and recognized quickly by some as pointing beyond itself to the good news that the good news was made better by being the news of healthy transition.

Change the light bulb? Ha!  We can do that and more.  Not only do we have new leadership we have a new system for calling forward the next generation of leadership.

Word is that as soon as he found out about Julie's handing off, Rick Crown asked her "How did you do that?"

Maybe our good news is closer to that moment in Jesus' ministry when he was criticized for collecting grain on the sabbath to feed his disciples.  Maybe we have learned something about how embracing and managing change can better indicate the understanding that "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath:" Mark 2:27.

We are learning that we are a church that is more than our numbers.  We are learning to trust each other.  We are learning that God is calling us to become something we have yet to become.  That's good news!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Casting Lots

CANON 14: Of Parish Vestries 
Sec. 2. Except as provided by the law of the State or of the Diocese, the Vestry shall be agents and legal representatives of the Parish in all matters concerning its corporate property and the relations of the Parish to its Clergy. 
Sec. 3. Unless it conflicts with the law as aforesaid, the Rector, or such other member of the Vestry designated by the Rector, shall preside in all the meetings of the Vestry. 

I've quoted these entries in Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church because they are worth our remembering as we plan to gather in our Annual Parish Meeting and elect three new vestry members from those qualified to serve.  

That we are an "above the average(s)" county seat parish in a southern state brings a certain shape and expectation to this process of choosing lay leadership.  

Were we a colonial parish of the Diocese of Virginia the priest would hardly be involved, if at all.  Or if we were a large parish inside modern Atlanta's perimeter the rector would have scheduled appointments with anyone of six or more parishioners under consideration.  

In one parish in our Northeast Georgia Convocation those interested in this call to serve attend a retreat BEFORE the election, determine their desire to continue, and if so have their names drawn "from the hat" to be voted in through acclamation. You could say they've insured the election will not be a popularity contest.

Theirs is much more like the method for choosing Matthias to fill the spot previously held by Judas of the twelve apostles. 
Acts 1:26   And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
The way in which the remaining eleven came to this "casting lots" included a kind of vetting that made Matthias or Barsabbas the two best from which to choose.  Much like our convocational partner parish they avoided a beauty pageant or popularity contest.  

We have done some vetting in our setting and there has been a lively dialogue with myself and vestry members inquiring of those who might be willing to stand for election.  

Some were first approached by vestry members, some by me and some volunteered to stand.  Each brings a strength to share in leadership and discernment for our parish.   Not all were qualified.  That's by way of another set of standards ordered by our church-wide canons AND diocesan canons.  

Each of the potential nominees HAS had some conversation with me.  But I am proud to say that our circumstances make it so that those whom we elect will be members of Advent's vestry not MY vestry.

I like that about who we are as a community of faith.  No matter who we might think God wants us to elect we can always proceed with the confidence that God can bless OUR choosing. 

And just for the record, according to church canons Matthias or Barsabbas would not be eligible for election.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What child is this?

I wrote last week about the importance of incarnation as a fulfillment of God's saving us from death.  I want to push a little into that idea in the hope that we can demythologize and re-apply much of the nostalgia that shapes our attention to the "babe in the manger."

I want to identify the nostalgia but not eradicate it.  There is an important aspect of innocence that night in Bethlehem that needs  a new recognition.  Just as much, it needs balance.  We need to sing "Away in a Manger" and then we need to ask, "why a manger?" We need to sing, "O little town of Bethlehem" and then ask, "why Bethlehem?"

Part of the mythology that would inform our first answers blends together separate Gospel accounts into every character's piety being the same.  Shepherds, wisemen, Joseph even the animals seem to be frozen, almost afraid to "mess it up."

Not a bad choice.  But it is important for us to let each character, each class of character show us more than our dainty crèche sets let us see of their varieties of responses.  

Warned in a dream the wise men go home by another way because of the threat of Herod's violence.  The shepherds understand their unusual inclusion at least as a mild indictment of a world where economic violence castes people into the haves and have nots, the ones expected to speak and the ones expected to stay quiet and out of sight.  It is exactly that they are the ones to share their having heard the angels sing which triggers Mary's pondering.

The world into which Jesus is born is broken, no more or less than today.  Like much of our world it is one way or another fixated on violence, death and sacrifice as the system to set things right.  Even much of the expectation that a Messiah would come is described in terms of war and violence, of political power and heroic actions.

The world wanted a good bully to beat the bad bully.  It will be later in Luke's gospel on the road to Emmaus that we read the story of hearts changed to understand the law and the prophets in a new light other than the one of Isreal's getting even. 

But it takes a baby being born and living and learning and leading and then challenging the very lessons he had learned and the very leaders his people had chosen to save the world that is lost and broken in darkness and violence.

It takes the new light of the incarnation of one who dies and is raised -- first displayed from a manger in Bethlehem -- to tell the story of things being set right by means other than a violence endorsed by God. 

No more bullies.

No smiting, no armies marching, no zealous insurrections.  Just a silent lamb, a light in the darkness, an innocent child born in an obscure village who saves the world.