Thursday, April 19, 2018

A transition done well

UPDATED. As the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem prepares to elect a new Bishop, it seems like a good time to reflect on where we've come in these past four years. 

Right about the time I was coming out of seminary and entering parish ministry there was a show on television called “The A-Team.” As television went, it was pure brain candy.  It was all about four guys, all veterans, who were on the run from the Army and who would go around helping people in trouble. Every week they'd save the day through a combination of cleverness hi-jinx and, well, explosives.

At the end of every episode, the leader of the team, played by George Peppard, would look at the results of the justified mayhem, and smile while clenching a really big cigar in this teeth and say “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Me, too.

Sometimes, when I was a brand-new priest, I’d repeat that line when, against all odds, something we did in the church actually worked. The important thing when a plan comes together is that it is rarely, if ever, one person doing all the work. It is the work of a community. Of, ahem, "a team," so to speak.

As we stand in that prayerful space between walkabouts and the election of our ninth Bishop, I find myself saying that phrase again and again. I think it is a good moment to look back on the transitional period we have just come through and reflect on where we’ve come as a diocesan community, and enjoy how it all came together.

To tell the truth, we did not start this transition out on the best of feet. Relationships were strained, especially among the clergy. And because of that, people tended to pick sides and, if not point fingers, at least grumble a lot. Operationally, things were working but they weren’t happy. We did not lack for diagnoses or possible solution. We did lack long term vision and were unsure of what our resources were. To coin an oft over used (and misunderstood) phrase, we were an anxious system.

When things get like this, the big risk is to look for people to blame. That usually falls on the guy in the “big chair.” Harry Truman was not being naive or an autocrat when he put the sign on his desk that said “The buck stops here.” But when the temptation presented itself to seek blame and form up firing squads, I found myself reminding folks that if this is where we wanted to go, then we’d better find ones that could shoot in a circle.  

It is also tempting to look for quick fixes and this was not the time for that. When this process started, I was the President of the Standing Committee and the choice before our group was to either move directly into a search or to take some time to reflect and recollect. 

Another choice was to pretend there was no problem, kick the can down the road, and wait for the next bishop to solve it. How many organizations--I am thinking of you, parish churches-- have done that before? And how well did that work out?

For me, the choice was clear but not simple. As we on the Standing Committee talked with lay and ordained leaders around the diocese, the consensus grew that we needed to make some space for ourselves. But the momentum was already in place towards just diving into a search and finding the next bishop ASAP. One day the FedEx guy delivered a big box of notebooks and all the materials that a diocese gets to prepare for an episcopal search. As we started going down the checklist, taking the necessary steps, and having the meetings and regional gatherings to start a search, my gut was telling me that we weren’t ready, and in talking with other lay and ordained leaders, I learned that I wasn't alone.

The good news was that we, as a diocese, were not the first to experience this malaise and to need to do this kind of work. There was another place in our province whose experience we could draw upon even though the political and canonical landscape was different. 

Before the Episcopal Church had this canonical provision called a "Bishop Provisional," the Standing Committee of my former diocese of West Virginia, called a retired bishop to come to be their “interim bishop.” In those days, the Standing Committee retained the full reigns of ecclestiastical authority, but he was our bishop and set about the work of healing. 

Lots of dioceses today have Provisional Bishops, but we were looking for something more. This was about much more than croziers and confirmations. 

But you only know what you know, and we were just about to look for a retired bishop to hold down the fort, when I found myself one day brainstorming (and worrying and wondering) with the then-Suffragan Bishop for Pastoral Affairs, Clay Matthews. I don't remember how it happened, but the idea was floated that we might try partnering with another nearby diocese and sharing their bishop to address some of the structural and adaptive issues we were talking about. We kicked around ideas  about how this might work.

Eventually, we decided to invite a young (but not new) bishop in Northwestern Pennsylvania to come and serve part time as our Bishop Provisional. Later on, in March, 2014, I said this to the Diocese of Bethlehem before we elected Bishop Sean Rowe to be our Bishop Provisional:

I gotta tell ya, when the idea of having a provisional bishop who would remain a diocesan bishop was first floated, I remember thinking (if not saying) “what? Are you nuts?”

But when we looked at the wish list that the Standing Committee created from the input you brought to us last October (2013) and that the clergy helped us created last November… a bishop who would lead collaboratively, who could help us heal our injuries and rebuild a sense of trust, who thinks about the church in different ways… I found myself, and I believe the rest of the Standing Committee, began to say “yeah. Yeah! This might work!”

So the vision grew. Instead of just finding a person to fill a job, to hold things down while we found our next bishop, we began to think bigger and bigger. 

The more we talked, the more we dreamed. And the more we dreamed, the more our vision grew.

What if our two dioceses entered into a ministry partnership? There are things the Diocese of Bethlehem does really well. Among them was communication, global mission (for example, our unique and amazing partnership with the Diocese of Kajo-Keji in South Sudan), stewardship, the varieties of outreach around the diocese, Christian Formation both in the parish and for laity in the Diocese, and the way we attend to the connection between liturgy and formation and mission. We were already a diocese of creative thinkers and experimenters. 

At the same time, the Diocese of Northwest Pennsylvania understands small churches really well. They are  a group that thinks about and raises up lay and local clergy leadership, creates partnerships between local congregations (both Episcopal and other traditions) in new ways. They learned how to do a lot with very little. They had also navigated some very tough waters in a forthright and creative way. They were a diocesan community that was willing to experiment and to try something new. 

A priest from the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, Adam Trambley, said at the time
"I thought it was a kind of challenge that was just out of left field enough and just hard enough that it was probably of God.”
We felt that we might work together in new ways. We just had no idea what it would be like or how it would turn out.

But the experiment was important and not just for us. The Episcopal Church has around 110 dioceses in several countries. Every single diocese must repeat certain structures as if they are only show in town. There is a lot of repetition of structure and not a lot of collaboration. We have the biggest legislative body this side of China, but not a lot of experience in matching resources. 

For example, where I minister, in the very southeast corner of our diocese I am shouting distance from eighteen nearby parishes, a third of them in three other dioceses all within a half-hour drive or less. What is the “boonies” in those dioceses happens to lie right next door to the spine of our own, and yet we act as if the others parishes in these other dioceses don’t exist. When our parish attempted to start a Spanish speaking congregation, we got great support from both 815 and our own diocesan staff but were unconscious of the tremendous experience nearby if it weren't for those pesky diocesan and provincial lines. The Delaware may as well have been a wall instead of river, in terms of lost mission potential.

By partnering with Northwestern Pennsylvania, and by taking the time for a creative transitional period, the dream was that we, as a diocese could form our own vision of ministry into which we could invite the next bishop. Instead of just holding down the fort, our hope was that we would provide the vision to the next woman or man sitting in the big chair, instead of depending who ever that might be to have all the answers and tell us what to do.

Our hope was that in our Episcopal search we'd be inviting to someone to come and join us on our adventure.

But first, we needed to move beyond the relatively short season of exhaustion and hurt feelings before those dynamics became hard-wired and habitual. But instead to build on the good work that was left to us by both Bishop Paul Marshall and his predecessor, Bishop Mark Dyer. We were blessed because we had a living history and memory of experimentation and innovation under those leaders, and this was precisely the moment when we as a community needed to pick up that tradition and use it.

Of  course, not everything went according to plan. But that’s okay because generally speaking there was no plan. We were learning as we were going. Sometimes things were very bumpy and uncertain.  We had some distractions along the way. For one thing, we had to do an audit that ended up going back seven years, and that led us to do the work of getting our financial and administrative house in order. 

But the main thing was always the main thing, and that was to re-knit our relationships and together develop a vision for ministry. The Diocesan Pilgrimage was essential in accomplishing this. Instead of doing a massive strategic planning process, we did over a year of prayer, study, reflection and, significantly, attempting to develop partnerships between parishes, often ones that never worked together before.

While the formal Pilgrimage period is over, it is still bearing fruit. In my own parish (Trinity, Easton), for example, the partnership between us and St. Mark's and St. John’s Parish in Jim Thorpe that began during our Diocesan Pilgrimage and is still growing and expanding. Through participating in diocesan events and utilizing other resources like the RSCM-King's College Course, we have a deeper relationship with the Pro-Cathedral and other parishes to the north and west. The parishes in the Lehigh Valley are learning to work together and it has become almost holy tradition that we share Ascension Day services together at the Cathedral.

In addition, patterns of living established well before the transition still function organically. Every week, many of the clergy from the Lehigh Valley still meet for breakfast, as do the clergy in the Wyoming Valley, and the regional Bible studies occur under local leadership forming patterns of living that are right for each local region.

When I was in West Virginia, the diocesan staff was small. Maybe four people and a cat. We in Bethlehem don’t have the cat, but our staff is smaller than it used to be. This change was not just about money. Through it, we have learned how to distribute and share executive leadership around the diocese. Diocesan committees are learning how to function better and to be centers of leadership. Doing it this way actually takes more work than the old centralized executive model that we saw in the 1980’s and 1990’s across the Church, and is probably less efficient, but the pay off in participation, the tapping of resources that might otherwise be missed, and experimentation is very big. I believe we have set the table not only for our next Bishop but for all of us.

Mid-way through this process, my time on Standing Committee ended and I moved from being at the center of all this action to an observer. As much as it made my palms itch at times, it was important for me to learn how to let new leaders finish what we started. It was important for us as a community to learn how to make important transitions normally-- to stop think of transitions solely as endings-and-beginnings but to think of them as signposts along a continuous process. Generally speaking, the newer leaders saw things with new lenses, solved problems we didn't see, and kept the ball rolling.

But, both as a participant and and as an observer, this transition has revealed that the changes we envisioned at the start of the process were right on the money. Many people share the credit for the imagination and chutzpah to do what we as a diocese has accomplished. We have moved from one kind of stability, into to a period of volatility, and now we look forward to a new stability. I believe that we have developed new skills, new energy and vision along the way that is deeply seated into our community. We are connected to our past, deeply present in this moment, and looking towards an expectant, faithful future. 

We are coming to the end of a process of prayerful, working discernment. In just ten days, we will elect a new bishop. But getting here meant a lot of effort, heart, conversation (and controversy) and hard choices. None of us could have done this alone. God gave us the right people in the right places at the right time and this has allowed our time of episcopal transition to unfold in the way it did. This time allowed us to regain our innate strengths, build on the great gifts and work of our past, and regain-- no, develop new!-- trust in one another. 

I believe that this was pretty much the outcome we were hoping for four years ago when the Standing Committee met with Bishop Matthews to decide how were going to proceed. We just had no idea how exactly we were going to do it or what it would be like.

The journey was an act of faith made real. We’re not done, but before we jump into the excitement of the next era of our common life, it is good to take a moment to smile, take a puff on our big cigar (or our candy cigarette), and muse in thanksgiving to God, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Ethics matters

When I was a kid in elementary school, I went to a revival geared to children. Mainly because I wanted a friend of mine, the only son in a family of eight children, to win a bicycle for bringing as many kids as he could to the meeting. And part of that experience meant memorizing this passage: John 3:16, the best known verse in the whole Bible, beating out even the 23rd Psalm. It is so popular that people paint the reference on poster boards to wave at cameras during sporting events.

You probably know it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all that believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
But think about it. It took me a long time to realize this, but wasn’t it odd that I was effectively bribed to go to a revival meeting so that my friend could win a bike? Looking back on it, it was a strange, backwards, lesson in everyday ethics.
Well, as I grew up and matured in my faith, I came to think that maybe I had memorized the wrong Bible passage!
John 3:16 is the slogan-passage for many Christians, describing for them the core of Christian faith. That’s the problem with simply reading the Bible by the numbers. Because that’s not how the book was first written and the numbers tempt us to forget about the rest of the passage and its context.
If they were going to make me memorize a Bible reference, it should have been John 3:17 which says: “Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order than it might be saved through him.”
In other words, the whole point of the chapter in John describing Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in the dead of night, is that God’s salvation is not about “me” but about “we.”
Many Christians focus on the personal part of the passage: “…all that believeth in him…” part in verse 16 but the real story is at the start of the passage is that God loves the world, and in verse 17, that God’s chief goal is the reconciliation of the whole world.
We have tended to reduce salvation, and everything that goes with it—sin, redemption, holiness of life—to a personal, once-and-done, relationship with God alone. But the point of salvation and the purpose of holiness is we followers of Jesus participate with God in the saving and healing of the whole world!
Jesus says in today’s Gospel that the Son of Man must be lifted up, referring to the event described in our first lesson when Moses instructed the people of Israel to take their eyes off the snakes biting their heals (and to stop worrying about all the things they were complaining about) and keep their eye on the snake Moses lifted up on a pole. Don’t be distracted, they were taught, keep your eyes on God, on what God has both done and is doing. As they used to say in the civil rights days, “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
We are taught to look up and focus on Jesus, our crucified and risen savior. Don’t go for the cheap and easy win. Our ethics matters.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but recently some Christian leaders have decided that the public ethics of our leaders does not matter as long as these leaders “win” on “their” issues. After years of being "the moral majority," they are giving "mulligans" for behavior that not so long ago would have given them apoplexy.

I must admit that I am stunned by this. If for no other reason that the sheer irony of it all! Because giving our political leaders "mulligans" in the name of political expediency  is exactly the kind of convenient, pick-and-choose, religiosity that Jesus speaks to in the third chapter of the Gospel of John in the first place!
The Gospel lesson tells us that God’s saving love is for the whole world which means that God desires all people to live in the light of his grace and love. God’s saving love is contagious. We live in the light, and that’s how people know—through our deeds of healing, our works of mercy, and acts of care—that God’s saving love is for everyone.
A long time ago, I learned about how God’s reconciling love shows up every day in a very odd place. Not in a revival meeting or in a church, but during my first and only foray into local politics as a member of a zoning and inland wetlands commission for a small northeast Connecticut town.

It was, all in all, pretty dull stuff. But I learned a couple of things very quickly. When you serve on this kind of board, people who want to build houses, or condos or a strip mall will want to do nice things for you. Lesson number one was don’t let them! No matter how nice they seem, just say “no.” You did not want to hear your name on the local radio station saying that you voted a certain way because some nice person bought you a pizza or changed your oil for free!
The second thing I learned was that one could not meet anywhere with any more than one other member of the board, or for that matter with the first selectman (the mayor) and other elected officials unless one posted a notice and called a meeting. This was because of our state’s sunshine laws, designed to prevent secret, backroom deals.
When you live in a small town, a sunshine law can be a real pain in the neck. It got to be joke. Meet another commission member in the supermarket line and we’d ask each other “Is this a meeting?” But it also drove home a point: when doing the public’s business, everything had to be in the light. It had to be accountable and accessible. This did not mean that everything did was always right or that we were any wiser. Sometimes the rules made deciding even simple things a whole lot slower, but it could not be in secret!
It taught me as an adult something I first learned in that revival I went to as a kid, that ethics is a full-time job. That what we do when no one is looking is even more important than what happens when people are watching.
Looking back on it, I see this experience as a metaphor for the Christian life. We are people live in the light.
What does it mean to live in the light?
It means that we direct ourselves towards God in all we do.
Living in the light means that we are honest to ourselves and to those around us about ourselves: that we are imperfect and often ignorant, and we are stubborn and sometimes afraid—these are signs of what we call ‘sin.’ But in living in the light, we are aware of not only where we fall short but also where we are growing.
To live in the light means that what we do as Christians reflects on our relationship with God. When we lose our temper or judge a person harshly, we show off where we need to grow. When we show mercy, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and do a kindness for another, we show that we are giving ourselves over to God.
Living in the light means that we watch out for, and don’t fall into, the tendency of the world for quick fixes, slogans fit for a hat, or simplistic answers to complex problems. When society wants to build barriers to justice or opportunity by reason of gender, or race, or class, we resist it because in the reign of God, there is no pay to play.
There is a transparency in our living in the light: people see us as we are and as we are becoming. Living in the light means leading with what gives us strength and hope.
Living in the light also means that we cast light on others. So, when we call out the best in others, we are living in the light and them to live in the light as well.
When we speak truth to power, we are calling people out of the darkness and into light.
When we care for a person in need or in pain, we shed light on where there was ignorance, or violence or the darkness of sin.
Over and over again, whenever we bring hope to where there was despair we are people who project God’s light into people’s lives. And so we live out God’s will that the world not be condemned but saved through Christ.
Look again at today's scriptures: whenever we look down, focus on the swirling mess around us, give into the culture of win-at-all-costs politics, when we give into fear of the other, we die. 
When we give in to the temptation to make our relationship with God so a private matter that it is never discussed or mentioned out loud, we are in fact succumbing to fear and choosing to live in darkness. But because we have through our faith and baptisms taken on Christ and live with him through our sacramental and community life, we live in the light. And that light transforms us, makes us whole, and most of all, brings light, healing, and life to the world we live in.
Ethics matters because our everyday dealings, at home, at school, in business, and in our civic life, matters. Ethics matters because we followers of Jesus live in the light and this is how we carry Christ’s light into the world. 

From a semon preached on Sunday, March 11, 2018, The Fouth Sunday of Lent, year B at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, Pennsylvania.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Approaching the Morgue in Search of Life

I know it’s still Lent, but let me tell you an Easter story.
A long time ago in a hospital far, far away, I was a chaplain where the Sisters who ran it were very intentional about communicating their Catholic mission and identity. My former pastoral care department did many activities during Lent and then late on Holy Saturday decorated the hospital lobby, public spaces and chapel for Easter. It was the job of the On-Call Chaplain over Easter weekend to transform these spaces from the austerity of Holy Week to the festivity of Easter.
The first time I had to do this, I came back to the hospital very late Saturday night after attending a local parish’s Easter Vigil. The job included putting up the white hangings in the Chapel, changing the veils on various crosses around the building to white, and putting out Easter lilies and tulips in the main lobby, the chapel and a few other places. We ordered lots and lots of flowers.
I commandeered a handcart and, along with other chaplains and some volunteers, started my rounds.
Only a day or so before, we Chaplains along with many folks from the hospital community had walked these halls in a special way. We did The Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Instead of being in a chapel, these Stations were scattered throughout the building—we went to places where people met suffering, pain, hope, fear, loneliness, death and new life. These stations were the places where people ministered to human frailty sometimes with awesome technology and just as often with compassion and simple touch. These were the places where divine healing met human need in everyday ways so often that, if you weren’t careful, they would became mundane.
These were the places Jesus walked. The cross stands at the intersection of brokenness and hope. And when Good Friday comes, we will walk with him to places where suffering and compassion could not be plainer.
Anyway, back at that hospital, when it came time to get those Easter flowers, they were gone! When I went to where I saw them delivered, they were not there! Where’d they go?  After much searching, I called security.
The guard was expecting my call. He said, “I’ll show you.”
We met and took the elevator to the basement. We turned a corner and walked down a long dark hall in the oldest wing of the hospital. We turned a corner to an unmarked door. The guard sorted through his wad of keys and opened the door. We entered the morgue.
Just before he turned the knob, he said to me “Don’t worry, Chaplain, there was a body in here tonight but now it’s gone.”
He was right. When he opened the door, there was no dead body. But there were flowers! Everywhere there were lilies and tulips, covering the examination table, the counters and even in the walk-in cooler! A place of sterility was filled with color! The medicinal “laboratory” smell was overcome with the perfume of blooming flowers.  A place of death had become a nursery.
It turns out that the housekeepers had brought the flowers to the morgue because they thought they’d keep longer in the coolness of the morgue. “I hope you don’t mind,” the guard said.
So that’s my Lent and Easter story, or at least one of them.  What’s yours?
Let me tell you another story, this time a Lenten story. 
I spent Ash Wednesday in quiet and made it a media-free day, on purpose. I wanted to spend the day in contemplation and then end it with the Trinity community at the last Ash Wednesday liturgy of the day. I preached. We shared ashes. We confessed. We prayed, and then we broke bread and poured out wine. It was only at the back door that learned of the killings that afternoon in Parkland, Florida. 
The shock between the quiet of the day and the news of that violence was like a tear rending our hearts. 
Death has been in the news a lot lately. We think about those seventeen murdered students and teachers perpetrated by a young man with a powerful gun. We think about the people who were killed in Las Vegas by another angry man who set up a snipers nest overlooking an outdoor concert just a few weeks before that. We add them to the list of the many mass killings in schools, churches, and public places over the last few years. Not to mention the war, the crime, the sexual abuse, and the violence that infect our world. We live in an age of fear—from terror to values, our culture shows itself dominated by fear.
These are dark places in our collective soul, and we fear that they may overwhelm us.
We have a lot to repent and death is closer than we think.
As we move through Lent, we look into our hearts and find our empty spaces and deep longings. In a few weeks, we will walk with Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, and experience with him the betrayals, the abandonment, the suffering of so many of our relationships, but we also walk with him as he discovers care and mercy on the way of the cross. Each week as we walk the Stations, we experience how a woman cared for Jesus, how Simon carried Jesus’ cross, how Joseph donated his grave, and Mary and the other women waited and walked with him, even in their tears.
We are only about a quarter of the way through that Lenten journey that is preparing and leading us to Easter: The cross and empty tomb show us that all these dark places are no longer homes to death, but have become a nursery for new life. The Gospel of Mark tells us that the women found the empty tomb and ran away, startled and afraid. Matthews’s account and Luke’s both tell of angels meeting the women. The Gospel of Luke tells us that an angel asks the women “why do you seek the living among the dead?” John’s gospel tells us that Peter and the beloved disciple run to the tomb and they peer in and found nothing but bandages.
In all these Gospel accounts, we discover that a place that had been reserved for death had become a home to life. I love to tell the story of the lilies in the morgue because it reminds me of just how, in my own experience, life has shown up in what had been empty, dead places.
But first, we have to confront and experience the fear, the loneliness, and the death.
Our Lenten fast, Holy Week journey, and Easter discovery must lead us to pray, work, and advocate for a world that is not defined by fear, or disrupted by violence, or placated with empty condolences.
We have a lot to confess, and much to repent from, and as we journey to the Cross. During this Lenten journey, we discover that Christ is with us. In his passion he is removing the barriers to new life, making renewed relationships possible, and makes justice roll down like a river.   
Lent takes us into the depth of human sin and pain. Easter shows us that we will find life in unexpected places; that the Risen Christ will show up in places we thought were reserved for the deepest hurt—a healed emotional wound, a renewed relationship, or perhaps a kind word or generous act that we neither expected nor deserved. It is like finding life where we expected only death.
May your Lent be holy and prepare a space in your heart and living for the Crucified and Risen Jesus.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

This is no time to be cute.

When I was a kid, I was taught to sail a boat. It was at a summer camp off the Penobscot Bay in Maine, and we learned the basics of sail-handling, working as a team, and navigation. It was great fun and it was also no time to fool around. One could get clonked on the head by the sail when coming about, or fall in the water, or burn your hands on the line. It was a blast, but one of the lessons I learned at nine years was focus on what one was doing. To be present, attentive, and disciplined.

As one of the wise “old” college-aged camp counselors would say while navigating the sail boat across the bay, “this is no time to be cute.”

I am remembering that lesson because this is one of those strange years when Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day and when Easter is also April Fool’s Day. This is no time to be cute.

One must tread carefully on Ash Wednesday, because what is called up on this day most centered on penance is at once deeply personal and at the very core to our being and identity. We are acknowledging that we can’t go it alone. We recognize our limitedness. Together we will stare into our mortality. We will face the fact that we are broken. We will recall, I hope, with sadness and chagrin how we mistreat each other and the evil that we do. Ash Wednesday is all about sin.

There. I said it. Ash Wednesday is all about sin.

There is nothing cute about it. But it is very necessary.

And if it feels hard or scary to enter into, it's because the process we are invited into is both. What we are dealing with is both immediate and eternal, a grace that we don't earn but always learning to live.

I have to admit that it took me a while to warm up to the idea of mimicking basketball brackets to think about saints and the nature of holy discipleship as we move through Lent. It's a balancing act, for sure, popularizing contemplation. What we don't want to do is to fall into the temptation to mute the depth, the hurt, the pain, and the implications of human sin with an excess of cleverness.

When I was a clinical chaplain, we'd take ashes around our hospital to patients and their loved ones keeping vigil, This was punctuated by a liturgy in the chapel, and accompanied by an act of confession, absolution, and prayer at each bedside. I was always fascinated that even in the most American Protestant town as you could find, where this hospital was, everyone wanted "in." People would walk up to us and ask for "their" ashes.

Last year, I tried my first "Ashes to Go" at the local park-and-ride and I felt myself leaning over the precipice of the cute. Doing this in the hospital and at the bus stop was, well, different. One was for the sick, and the other was for the busy.

There is a tension between taking pastoral ministry and the Gospel to where people are and the place where it gets cutesy, covering over the rough, uncomfortable spaces. I suspect that this was one reason that Martin Luther got so riled at Tetzel five hundred years ago.

So, I would hope that we avoid the temptation to get cute and draw heart shaped ashes on each other’s heads on Ash Wednesday instead of the smudged cross or to distribute candy along with the Sacrament. And, come Easter morning, it will be interesting to see how we use the most obvious punchline ever handed to every preacher on the planet, but we should probably leave the joke to the professional comics.

Giving in to the temptation of the cute distracts people from the core task of Lent, Holy Week, and the Triduum: that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).”

We will also miss the irony that while the world is passing out chocolates or playing pranks, it is also revealing-- and trying to cover over-- our deep need for love, our brokenness of heart and spirit, the depth of our division and loneliness, and our powerlessness. One day, the world will be dripping with sentimentality and on the another, crazy with cheap tricks. And on those very days, we will know precisely where the discomfort comes from and can offer God's answer to it.

That doesn’t mean we can’t use the days to talk about what’s really going on. We should never pass up the opportunity to speak about God’s love for us in the person of Jesus. After all, everyone else in the room will be noticing the coincidence along with the preacher. But this is not a moment for cuteness, it is moment of humility. And six week and a half weeks later, it won’t be a time for pranks, but for awe.

God loves us, and through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God is going to the depth of human sin, and into the reality of the human heart, the contrast between what the world values and how God responds could not be plainer. Underneath secular Valentine’s Day is a search for connection and love. And certainly on the first day of April we will discover again that in the resurrection God has turned human wisdom into folly and what will seem foolish to the world is God’s gateway to life.

It might be a good time to crack open the forgotten Inkling, Charles Williams, and think about how romantic love points us to divine love. There might be a chance to think about the contrast (and tension) between God’s foolishness and our own.

See? There’s plenty to contemplate without resorting to heart shaped candies with clever sayings or lame pranks in the hope that we will seem cool. We don’t need to belabor the irony to get the joke.

As for me, I plan to transfer the feasts. We Episcopalians are pretty good at that. I will take my beloved out the weekend before Valentine’s Day, and I will save the foolishness for after Easter dinner (and the liturgical nap).

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Odd Three Days

If the period from Maundy Thursday through Good Friday to the Great Vigil of Easter can be called "The Great Three Days," then maybe the series of observances from All Hallow's Eve, going through All Saints Day, and then ending with All Soul's Day (or Faithful Departed), might be "The Odd Three Days."

Look at the arc of the story. It starts with ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties and things that show up on your doorstep asking for candy, and then it ends with two feasts focused on the dead: All Saint's, remembering all those holy people who don't get their own holy day; and, All Soul's or All Faithful Departed, where (depending on where you land on the universalist spectrum) we remember all the faithful (baptized) who have died, even if they weren't all that saintly, or everyone who has died regardless of their fitness for the Kingdom.

At any rate, what we are doing is recalling those who have died while at the same time thumbing our noses at death.

Back on April Foole's Day, we made fun of Kings, Queens, Bishops and other clergy, the wealthy and the celebrity, and anyone who thinks themselves important.

Yesterday, on Halloween, we made fun of devils, demons, ghosts, goblins, and monsters. We looked death in the face and laughed.

Halloween stores and parties aside, secular society does this very nervously. That's because most people don't get the joke.

The reason that we followers of Jesus can put on make-up and join the mockery is that by reason of Jesus' incarnation, death, and resurrection God has defeated and put to flight the ultimate power that sin, death, and the grave have over us. Our bodies may die, but the spiritual power of death no longer has any hold over us.

We might be tempted to think that when are praying for our deceased loved ones that we are pleading that God might give them a break from the torments of purgatory or hell. This kind of fear, combined with clever fund-raising, is one of the things that sparked the Reformation 500 years ago. But, in fact, what we are doing is joining with all those everyday saints and souls from all time and every place who, as we heard in today's reading from Revelation, have gathered around the throne of the Lamb and together we sing "Alleluia."

During this Lesser Triduum, these Three Odd Days, we look at the expanse of the church year now winding down, gear ourselves up for how God will wrap up history and fill all things, reflect on the coming of winter, and remember all the ways that God has shown up in the lives of ordinary people--especially in the ones we love but see no longer-- and we discover once again that God in Christ has swallowed up death forever.

The saints and souls we pray for, those near and dear to us, and those known to us only in name and story, are--just like us-- going from strength to strength in the life of perfect service.

These "three odd days," this lesser triduum, may seem like we are whistling past the graveyard, but why settle for whistling when we can sing?

We are able to sing as the Apostle Paul did to the Corinthians; "Where, O death, is your sting...? ...Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!"

We are, in fact, living in a new creation where the power of death, the power to separate us from God, each other, and creation, has been defeated forever in Christ's life, death, and resurrection.

Homily for The Feast of All Saints, November 1, 2017 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, PA.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

When thoughts and prayers are more than just thoughts and prayers

As a parish priest, I am in the business of “thoughts and prayers.” 

We hear that phrase gets tossed around a lot. Especially after a mass casualty incident, whether it’s a hurricane that decimates Puerto Rico or one perpetrated by a man with as many guns as he can buy and modify and who kills nearly five dozen people in just a few minutes.

And we’ve heard many people rage in frustration that all our leaders seem to be able to offer are “thoughts and prayers.” I have heard many people rightly dismiss that phrase as nothing more than an empty, distracting platitude.

The popular mind has a point. It’s not just annoying. The misuse of “thoughts and prayers” does real harm to both thought and prayer.

For one thing, when confronted with traumatic news, especially when it is repeated over and over again from every possible angle, and when it intrudes on us from every which way, the last thing we want to do is think about it! Which is why when, in moments like this, we say “you are in my thoughts” we are not telling the truth.

The truth is that we want to keep the trauma as far away from us as possible in any way we can. So in order not to feel overwhelmed by all the news, we put the shooter, all his victims, and how they died or were injured as far from our thoughts as possible. We can do this when we are far away from the event, or when it has not touched us or someone we care about. On some level, we all know trauma when we see it, and so if we can we reach over and change the channel, if not the “off” switch.

Don’t feel guilty about that. From our safe distance, we can turn it off. The actual victims and their loved ones would dearly love to.

As for prayers, the truth is that most of us say it, but few of us do it. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t, it just that it does neither us, nor the victims, nor their loved ones, nor, for that matter, prayer, any earthly (or heavenly) good to reduce prayer to “good wishes.”

Certainly, we want to wish the victims and their loved one well. And we certainly want God to embrace, comfort, and strengthen the injured and bereaved. We want to dead to be cared for with dignity, and—if we are people of faith—we want them to be embraced by God.

If our “thoughts and prayers” do not inform what brings meaning, hope, and purpose to our living it is not doing us any spiritual good.

And if our “thoughts and prayers” are not urging us to act not only more mercifully, but more firmly towards the end of violence, the curtailment of easy public access to weapons of mass-murder, then our “thoughts and prayers” will do us no earthly good.

Our “thoughts and prayers” require discipline and work if they to do any earthly or spiritual good. They must be formed in the context of a community that takes faith seriously, and which—even on a secular level—takes seriously the hard work of ethics, accountability, and relationship.

Without that kind of community, then our “thoughts and prayers” can become the occasion for evil. Even the Las Vegas gunman has his own thoughts and prayers… but they were apparently tuned for evil.

Fr. Anthony Clavier noted that 
“People are trying to diagnose what was wrong with the Las Vegas killer. His brother says he had no religious or political opinions. His life centered on beating the odds at the casino and amassing money, property and weapons. There seems to have been no altruistic impulse motivating his life. In Christian terms he was open to evil, and had no built in responses to counter its malevolence. This horrific event should remind us all that the discipline of daily prayer for the world, the church, the poor, the suffering, our friends and families, and lastly ourselves, in that order, is vital if we are to be protected from evil in all its seductive and self-serving reality.”
If we do not want to feel helpless in the face of that kind of evil; if we do not want to return that kind of evil when it falls upon us; then we need to turn our thoughts and prayers in more than a distancing mechanism. It must rise above kindly meant platitudes.

In undertaking the discipline of prayer, we will find ourselves motivated to action.

Our prayer must cause us to stand up to evil, to no longer accept platitudes, and confront the impulse to return evil for evil. We must name and confront those who would exploit our fears for profit and turn our hapless “thoughts and prayers” into a market for more and bigger firearms. Instead of giving in to our fears, our thoughts and prayers should open us to the power of God to confront and name evil, care for the victims of evil, and call upon our society to turn from platitudes to action.

Our “thoughts and prayers” must lead us to act for peace and justice. Our “thoughts and prayers” must move us to demand an end to violence and the propagation of the tools of violence for profit.

Our thoughts and prayers must end the hypocrisy of making firearms easy to buy and a prize worth keeping, while making quality community mental health hard to obtain and shameful to use. If our “thoughts and prayers” do not lead us out of fear and into action, compassion, and community, then they are nothing more than empty words. 

As one in the business of thoughts and prayers, I look for these to become the catalysts for community, action, and change. If our thoughts and prayers lead to changed hearts and compassionate, functioning communities, then they will become compassion that heals and faith that looks forward. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

On the Roles of Vestries and Clergy

The Vestry is a learning, praying community of spiritual leaders
who oversee, plan and guide the ministry of the parish.
Background note: This was originally posted on the list-serve of the Diocese of Bethlehem, then known as “Bakery," in response to a conversation thread about the role of the clergy, Vestry, and congregation (through the congregational meeting). I cannot remember what the original situation was, except that what was being discussed was a lack of clarity among the members of the Vestry and, perhaps, the clergy of a parish as to the proper role of the Vestry. This lack of clarity was apparently causing a persistent “pinch." 

I wrote this post because the thread revealed many questions about the appropriate roles of vestry, clergy, and congregation in an Episcopal parish, which I found to be fairly common in the many parishes I've served and in others that I have come across. 

Canon Bill Lewellis published this on the blog DioBeth newSpin on August 24, 2014.

There is a tendency in this country to run Episcopal Churches according to a congregational (where the whole congregation makes decisions) or a Presbyterian model (where elected committees and officers make the decisions) and in both these the clerics find themselves in the role of preaching consultants or maybe as the hired help. Sometimes, in the name of promoting lay ministry, the cleric sets aside his or her appropriate role. Other times, the Vestry (or maybe one of the officers) has taken on the corporate, material needs of the parish to the exclusion of the pastoral, spiritual, and mission work of the congregation. The situation you described is apparently one where the lay leadership seems to have fallen into one of those models to bad effect. It is not an uncommon problem.

There is an equal tendency to organize Episcopal Churches along Roman Catholic lines, where the priest is in total charge and the vestry and lay leaders exist solely to raise funds, maintain the property and carry out the priest's vision. This can have the effect of holding lay leadership back from taking their full place in the life of the church. 

We Episcopalians, on the other hand, strive for that elusive via media.  Unlike our Catholic or Reformed sisters and brothers, we assume a partnership between clergy and laity. In the Episcopal Church, the congregation elects the vestry to work alongside the Rector as both partners in and leaders of ministry and mission. This works on two axes.

The first axis is procedural. The Rector has complete use of the property for mission, and complete oversight over worship including music and has final responsibility for Christian formation.  The Vestry has control over the purse strings, and yet is canonically charged to see to the materials necessary for the worship and mission of the church. That "check and balance" suggests that the process works best when the parties work together as partners.

The second axis is pastoral or theological. We assume in the Episcopal Church that vestry members share in the spiritual and pastoral leadership of the parish with the clergy. We don't specify this in the canons but best practices show us that Vestry members who attend worship regularly, give proportionally and sacrificially to the work of the church, and participate in both the formation and outreach of the parish will make the best vestry members. A well-functioning Vestry grounds their deliberations and decisions in prayer and study.  Vestry members share in the spiritual leadership of the parish along with the priest.

So the mission of the parish belongs to both the Rector and the Congregation through the Vestry. In our tradition, it is the Vestry and the Clergy working in concert that oversees, directs, manages, and envisions ministry.  And we do this in concert with the community of the diocese through the ministry and oversight of the Bishop. 

The Rector is not an employee of the congregation but is called to the congregation. The call is made and ratified by both the Bishop--who is the chief pastor of a diocese--and the Vestry. While the Rector has tenure, she or he still represents the Bishop to the congregation, just as the congregation is the living presence of the diocese in the community. The relationship in a parish is a three-way covenant between bishop, priest, and vestry. 

The rubrics and content of the celebration of a new ministry in the BCP describes this relationship very clearly.

When there is no resident Rector, the Bishop fills that role. The terms "vicar" means "representative" and in a mission church, the vicar represents the Bishop who is the Rector of that parish. In parishes that have priests-in-charge, the same applies. The difference is that missions are generally not self-supporting parishes while congregations that have priests-in-charge are generally self-supporting but without a Rector. 

The idea of a priest-in-charge is a fairly new creation of General Convention and (if I am not mistaken) was intended to give canonical authority to interim clergy, who have been utilized in the Episcopal Church for many years but, before this canon, were less than rectors but served longer than supply clergy. While the canon has solved some problems, there have been other applications which have sometimes worked well and other times not so much.

More and more, the Priest-in-charge canon has often been used to shorten the search process...a priest-in-charge is appointed by the Bishop with the Vestry's approval of a letter of agreement; and, if all goes well, then the Vestry might nominate and elect that person as Rector. There is considerable debate about the utility of using this canon in this way since, generally speaking, interim pastors do not become Rectors, but many Priests-in-charge do. In any event, the status of a priest-in-charge is similar to that of a vicar: they represent the Bishop (who is Rector in name or in effect) and serves at the pleasure of the Bishop. With both the Vicar and Priest-in-charge, the appointing authority is the Bishop and the person is not "called" in the same sense as a Rector.

Using long term supply, especially without a specific letter of agreement or with mission plans and detailed accountabilities has all the pitfalls that Scott mentions and, IMHO, tends to freeze a parish in place because they might get used to moving from Sunday to Sunday. Any congregation of any size and clerical status can slip into survival mode, for sure, but this might encourage that perspective.

Here are some very good resources that describe this in the Episcopal context very well:

Beyond Business as Usual by Niel O; Michell from Church Publishing. Michell offers a way forward for Vestry's to become learning communities and to take their place in the mission and spiritual leadership of a parish alongside their priest.

Back from the Dead: The Book of Congregational Growth by Gerald W. Keucher also from Church Publishing. Keucher has brought together most of the best thinking about congregational development and put it together with his experience in the stewardship and management challenges of parish ministry.

I also recommend another book by Keucher that helps vestries and clergy understand their proper relationship: Humble and Strong: Mutually Accountable Leadership in the Church.

Finally, I appreciate the bringing together of Benedictine spirituality and intelligent organizational wisdom found in Bob Gallagher's Fill All Things: The Dynamics of Spirituality in the Parish Church from Ascension Press. I have trained with Gallagher and have found his approach to be most useful and accessible to congregations. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Words worth a thousand pictures

Easter Sunday, 2017

Words are worth a thousand pictures.

Today’s Gospel is a good example.

“I have seen the Lord!” With these simple words that Mary Magdalene paints an image evoking a thousand stunning, unexpected images.

There are no caveats like “You won’t believe this but…” There is no “I think” or “maybe” and no defensiveness in these words. Here is what happened: “I have seen the Lord!”

These are the words of a person who has experienced something so amazing, so wondrous, so real and so unexpected that all pretension has fallen away. These are the words of a person who has met the Risen Christ. “I have seen the Lord!”

When we say it during every liturgy through the fifty days of Easter, we say it another way. We say “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” And we answer “He is risen indeed. Alleluia!” But try to imagine when we say this that we aren’t in church full of people but one of two people who meet in the street. Imagine that you cannot contain yourself. “Alleluia! (or praise the Lord!) Christ is risen!” And the answer is “He is risen indeed” (or “You betcha!") Alleluia! (Praise the Lord!)”

Now imagine yourself in grocery store, or at work, or walking down the street and saying out loud to your friends,  maybe even to a total stranger “I have seen the Lord!” Go ahead, try it. “I have seen the Lord!

Oh! You sound so sure right now! But getting there was tough, wasn’t it? Took a little coaxing, didn’t it?

Mary’s journey was not so easy either. In John’s Gospel we hear only of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb, not the other women mentioned in the other three Gospels. John tells us in the most detail how it was that she brought the news of the Risen Jesus to the apostles. She was a friend and apprentice of Jesus Christ. She was a friend—a person who knew Jesus and a person Jesus knew well. Jesus healed her and she became his follower. Tradition gives her the role as a prostitute, but don’t believe everything read about her especially if you found it in a novel or movie or something because nothing in the Bible says that. That "tradition" didn't come around until around 600 AD or so. Here’s what we do know: she was a follower of Jesus, and that she’s the one who first meets the Risen Jesus! 

Mary goes to the tomb, probably to care for Jesus' hastily buried body. She finds the tomb and the stone has been rolled away. She does not go in, but runs away. The first time she returns to the disciples, it is out of fear and distress mingled with grief. Her words are not assured but distressed: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

In effect, she told the disciples "I can't find the Lord!"  When Mary Magdalene sees the empty tomb the first time, she assumes that the grave had been robbed and that the body stolen. 

Notice also that the apostles are not expecting this news…they have to run to see this for themselves. The Beloved Disciple peeks in, then Peter steps into the tomb; then the Beloved Disciple goes in, as well. Peter knows the body is gone; the Beloved Disciple believes that Jesus is risen, but neither of them know just what this means just yet. That is left for Mary Magdalene to discover.

John is telling us in these few sentences some important facts: 

One, Jesus’ body was not stolen by his followers (they did not expect nor understand the empty tomb); two, Jesus was not resuscitated like Lazarus (notice the burial clothes are left aside in the empty tomb, whereas with Lazarus was raised by Jesus, he came out of the tomb wearing his burial cloths.); and, third, he is not a spiritual being translated directly to heaven. Jesus is raised bodily from the dead, and in this Gospel it is Mary Magdalene who will discover that for the first time.

We also learn that the followers of Jesus were surprised that he was raised from the dead. They did not expect it! Up until now, Jewish ideas of resurrection (which were not universally agreed upon, and in many ways not so different from popular ideas today) assumed at most a spiritual resurrection not a bodily one.

Because of the experience of these eyewitnesses, the early Christian concept of resurrection was completely different than the theories that came before it.

So it took Mary, not to mention Peter and the other disciples, a little while to wrap their arms around this experience. It was so different than what they expected. Once again, a word is worth a thousand pictures, when Jesus says to her gently“Mary!”

Now, she understands! Her friend and teacher is not dead—he is alive! His body is not stolen—he is right here! The grave is not desecrated—the grave and gate of death is burst open!

“Rabbi!” she says and she hugs him. Jesus tells her to go to the other disciples and tell them that he is going to his Father and our Father, his God and our God. The chasm between all of us and God is healed. The breach of sin has been closed. We are now God’s one, undivided family.

Seeing, and holding and talking to the Risen Jesus changes everything. Mary, this woman who was so tentative, and so weighed with grief, now goes to the disciples, bursts in on them and announces “I have seen the Lord!”

Say it with me: “I have seen the Lord!

Where have you seen the Lord?

Certainly in this community, gathered for worship, for ministry and service, for teaching and learning and in care for one another. Time and again, in beautiful worship, shared meals, quiet moments of prayer and companionship, in good times and in hard times, this gathered people have shown the risen Lord to each other and to the people outside these four walls. We say “we have seen the Lord” with every meal shared in the Soup Kitchen, when we welcome the addicted into our midst and when we open our church for music and fellowship. In all we do, we show more than a thousand pictures ever could that the Lord lives.

We have seen the Lord when we find that our gifts for service are raised up and used in great ways. We have seen the Lord when we are comforted in our grief, supported in our difficulties and transformed in our learning and growth. We have seen the Lord as our creativity is called out, and when we give our hearts to God in prayer.

We have seen the risen Lord in our sacramental shared communion, in our life of prayer together, in the ways we encounter scripture both in worship and in our devotions in places like Forward Day by Day. We encounter the risen Lord in our shared story and in the stories of the saints who themselves lived out their encounter with the Risen Jesus in their daily living.

“I have seen the Lord!” 

Mary’s meeting of the Risen Jesus in the empty tomb shows us that whatever happens in our life, there is the Risen Lord. Everything that separates us from God has died on the cross and is left in the grave. Whatever weighs us down is taken away. Whatever tries to smother hope, is removed forever. Whatever deals death in your life, no longer has power over you.

In so many great and little ways, at the moments of our deepest need, the wounded, crucified, and risen Jesus meets us exactly where we are, in exactly the way we need. And when we look past our tears and our grief and whatever weighs us down, there he is: Our friend; Our teacher; Our risen Lord and savior.

“I have seen the Lord!”

You see? Words are worth a thousand pictures!