Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Shrove Tuesday

So today is Shrove Tuesday, and for a couple of background reasons, we're not having our traditional church pancake supper. I miss it.

This is traditionally the last blow-out before the somewhat dreary season of Lent, and also the time when frugal housewives would get rid of expensive ingredients they couldn't use during the season of fasting. So if you have eggs, butter, and sugar, why not make pancakes?

I might do pancakes on Thursday. (Don't let the authorities know!) Today for lunch was leftover chili from Sunday's contest and my first attempt at a home-made tortilla. The tortilla was pretty terrible, but I can always try again. Tonight is steak with a nice red wine, so the tradition of a "last blow-out" will continue.

I rather like the idea, new to me, of a church year in which the seasons actually mean something. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and I'm still new enough to the whole idea that ashes on my forehead is a new and somewhat disturbing big deal. I think this will only be my third or fourth Ash Wednesday service. My previous tradition gave a lot of credit to the notion that "every day is the same," to the extent of singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" in January, but this new-found attention to church seasons and traditions makes me feel like I'm part of some sort of divine drama or dance.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Such a Big Deal

Sunday was the 25th anniversary of our priest's ordination. As usual, I was not prepared for what a big deal this would be. Dozens of visitors showed up, including the Bishop. We had dinner for 75 (40 is our usual attendance). There was a profusion of clerical garb and robes—most of the Episcopalians in some form of white with a lot of decoration, while our UCC friend was in dove grey. We had special music and special food and gifts.

I'm not used to all this.

Perhaps I'm not used to it because my family played down birthdays and anniversaries, rarely celebrating anyone's birthday after childhood.

Perhaps I'm surprised by ecclesiastical celebration because of my previous church experience. Before St. Matthew's, I was in a church where people joined up by simply asking for their names to be put in the church directory. That was it. And that's why I almost missed my own Confirmation—it came at an inconvenient time in my schedule, and I wondered why I should cut my vacation short just to return to Ohio and stand up during the church announcements. Little did I realize that Bishop Williams would be there and that Confirmation counts as a Very Big Deal indeed. Gifts, photos, decorated cake and the whole nine yards.

I could get used to this. There's a lot of celebration in the New Testament, particularly when Jesus comes to town. And these celebrations make the point that my life is significant and so is my history with God and with the Church. Good to remember.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Afraid of the Church

I spent last weekend at the 2016 Diocesan Winter Convocation in Sandusky, Ohio. It was a great weekend of old friends, good food, and deep thinking—with the added benefit that it isn't actually a decision-making body, so we didn't vote (or argue) about anything.

I came away with a brain full of ideas, but one selection of thoughts stands out.

Anyone who reads newspapers, listens to the TV news, or spends time on Internet news sites has gotten a truckload of words about Christians in general, and (at least for a week) the Episcopal Church in particular. It's not good. We Christians come across in the news articles as a disagreeable bunch who don't like one another, who don't believe in science, and who are in the business of supporting political candidates. Then there's the whole gay business. To listen to the news reports, one would think that the whole Gospel is summed up in "support heterosexual marriage and hate gay people." (I think that's a misrepresentation of even the most conservative churches' view, by the way.) Then there's the news (again somewhat misrepresented in the popular press) that the Episcopal Church USA got into some sort of trouble with the international body for supporting gay marriage.

Back to the roots

An outsider, looking at all this, has a right to feel uneasy, maybe even frightened. And yet, God draws people to himself, all the time. People aren't necessarily looking for the Episcopal Church; they are looking for God. If we can remember that priority, and remember, that for all our fine buildings, ancient words, and fancy robes, we are—at our best when we remember our true mission—a way for people to find God through Jesus Christ.

Then there's the Fear Factor. It takes a lot for people to walk into a church, especially if they haven't been there much before. Newcomers who are returning to the Episcopal Church they knew as children aren't quite as ill at ease, but those who are total newcomers know absolutely nothing about what they are supposed to do, what is expected of them, and how they can avoid looking like idiots. (Remember the prominent political candidate who recently, apparently on his second or third visit to a Presbyterian Church in decades, mistook the plate of Communion bread for an offering plate when it came down the row, and dropped some money in it.)

We sit, we stand, we kneel, we cross ourselves. Most of us know enough about the Sunday liturgy to do the responses from memory. When all those people go up to the altar rail, we all know what to do. It's frightening to the outsider. One speaker at the convocation asked how comfortable we would be if we decided to visit a mosque for prayers. Or a synagogue.

So much of it is just housekeeping! I can name two or three churches that don't have an obvious front door! And what does it matter if I'm kneeling to pray while you are sitting and the person next to you is standing?

So one final take-away from that conference is simply to put ourselves in the place of the newcomer and try to see things with fresh eyes.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Canting, Chanting, and Prayer

For years, I was totally opposed to written prayers. I was used to the so-called "pastoral prayer" from my boyhood church—which often droned on for 15 minutes and became a mini-sermon and announcement rather than a prayer ("Lord, please bless the congregational dinner on the 10th, tickets available at the door for $5, $2.50 for children"). I had enough of this foolishness.

Somehow, spontaneous prayer seemed more "real." Then I began to get weary of it. For one thing, spontaneous prayer is so subjective. Only topics of immediate interest get prayed about. God is sort of a divine order-taker, and there's no comment about any of His attributes or characteristics. If a friend gets healed, God gets thanked, but that's about it. And a lot of prayers are definitely sketchy, asking God to do things that are either mutually exclusive or maybe downright contrary to what the Bible says God does. Then there's the language. It gets repetitive. Extremely. This post from The Holy Observer, God's #1 Source for Christian News really nails the problem of the "just" prayer.

So we're back to composed prayer, right? And, at least for public prayer, what's wrong with figuring out in advance what I want to say?

The Collect: Not Just for Episcopalians

Enter the Prayer Book. It's full of prayers, some of which have been simmering for centuries. Lots of these prayers are a thing called a "Collect," which is a very compact, well-refined format. It's almost a haiku. Here's how the Anglican Studies Department at St. Paul University (Canada) defines it:
  1. Invocation. This is associated with an understanding of some quality of God upon which the prayer is built. Because God is a certain kind of God, we are bold to pray for this or that thing.
  2. Petition. This constitutes the body of the prayer, and is its central point.
  3. Aspiration. This is what we hope to receive from the petition.
  4. Ascription. Ordinarily this is "through Jesus Christ our Lord," though this may be modified for the sake of rhythm and variation. The full form is Trinitarian.
Here's how it works out in a collect for the Feast of the Epiphany:
  1. Eternal God, who by a star led wise men to the worship of your Son,
  2. guide by your light the nations of the earth,
  3. that the whole world may know your glory;
  4. through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Now for the singing

I once sang a solo in church. It was in 1976, and it went badly. However, for reasons that I will never understand, someone at St. Matthew's thought I would be a good cantor. (Note: the word is canting, not chanting. Episcopal chant is something different.)

This is working out well. Canting is mainly monotone, so if I can find B flat, I'm good to go. The interesting thing is that the melody is governed by the content, so each of the four parts of a collect has its own tune. Pretty cool. And to make things even easier, there really are only a couple of tunes, and you repeat them. I think I might be able to do this.

Friday, January 22, 2016

More on People who are Done

When I consider those who are "done with church," I wonder (in some cases anyhow) whether they actually started with church.

Of course, there are the injured people, those whose interaction with church folk (often with some member of the clergy) was so toxic that they simply cannot bring themselves to return. This has often been the case, for example, with gay people. A surprising number of America's LGBT folk have a religious background and a genuine desire to be part of God's community, but have been told, sometimes in this exact language, that "we don't want your kind around here."

Today, though, I'm thinking not of that group but of those who experienced "Christianity Lite" and decided that there's just not that much here. They're the ones who listened to years of sermons that essentially made the same point, 52 times every year. (Note: There are 23,145 verses in the Old Testament and 7,957 in the New. Preachers who are essentially a one-trick pony need to expand their reading list!) They're the ones who think that church music is all shallow and repetitive because their experience has been limited to songs by two of three composers, all composed after 1970. They're the ones who have been sold the idea that the Christian faith and the aims of one of our political parties are essentially the same. And some of them have rejected those political opinions, so they feel they must reject the church.

I think I would have been part of this latter group, except that by happy circumstance I had early contact with the Episcopal Church and remembered that there's a whole lot more going than "same old, same old." For starters, the reading schedule for Bible verses doesn't repeat until we have gone through three years, so we're about 36 months away from hearing the same old sermon again, no matter who is preaching. And there's the Internet Meme that says, "No matter what you think, at least two Episcopalians agree with you." (And at least two disagree too, I suppose—and we're not talking about the larger church, but a small congregation.)

Monday, January 18, 2016

Oners and Doners

We've had a lot of invented labels for groups of people recently—millennials, Gen X, and so forth. Here are a couple that have popped over my personal horizon recently.

"Doners"—those who are done with church

There are probably as many reasons to be "done with church" as there are people who voice this complaint. When I was in high school, a friend's father got irritated that his Presbyterian church reorganized the leadership and did away with the Board of Trustees (and he was a Trustee), so he never returned. Many people I talk to are "done with church" because they see it as becoming a mere right-wing political organization with no real religious significance. Others voice the common cliché that they are "spiritual but not religious."

Reaching out to the "doners" seems like a one-on-one project because these are often injured people who need to see first-hand that there's something more going on with our faith than the issue that finally pushed them over the edge. Often these were people who were heart and soul into the Christian faith and their local church, but something broke their hearts. It's not a numbers game here—but we really do need healing with this sort of person.

"Oners"—those who only only do one thing

That one thing is usually Sunday morning worship. Again, this is a diverse group: Some elderly people lack the energy or resources to do more than one event a week; some really are "doners" who have one foot out the door and one hand on the doorknob, but can't quite bring themselves to cut ties; some are folks who never caught a larger vision for what else the church is all about.

The church is like a fried egg

If you imagine a fried egg in a pan (sunny-side up!), you see the yolk, a thick region of the white, a thinner edge of the white, an area of the pan that has no egg in it, and eventually the stove outside the pan.

We often hope that newcomers will suddenly jump in and become part of the yolk (join committees, give generously to the offering plate, attend state-wide events). Sometimes that happens, but people really like to hang on the edge a bit. Some of them haven't even been in the pan yet. For them, just showing up and observing Sunday worship is a big deal. And some who are in the yolk need time out, so we need to be generous and allow them to drift out into the eggwhite.

I think, though, that we need to be both generous and proactive with both of these groups. Some of the "doners" and "oners" have suffered genuine hurt, and some have lives that are just overwhelming. We can't just write them off.

Matthew 12:20 (echoing Isaiah 42:3) says of the Messiah that "He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory." That would be a good attitude to emulate.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Getting Unfriended

Now that the worldwide Anglican communion has voted to suspend the Episcopal Church USA from voting on decisions made by that body, we need a bit more balance in our conversation than what we get from news headlines.

Time for more calm

For one thing, we aren't the Roman Catholic church, in the sense that the Archbishop of Canterbury (who, by the way, seems very sympathetic to our point of view) is not the head of the USA church. At its best, the international body is a body of cooperation, not of legislation, so nobody is telling us that we must change anything.

On a different level, we don't receive money or anything else tangible from the worldwide body, so we aren't damaged by any kind of a economic boycott.

A little perspective

Over the centuries, our ecclesiastical ancestors had a lot of schisms, so division has become a very troubling idea to Episcopalians. This is why we allow so much breadth of opinion on issues that other denominations would split over. And the issue of gay marriage has become another of those issues that could have split the church (indeed, some delegates seems to have wanted that), but instead we ended up with a three-year cooling period.

It's also worth noting that the strongest opposition to both the idea of ordaining women and the idea of accepting gay marriage came from the African churches, who have the most members (at least on the books) after the Church of England. While the USA is seeing increasing civil rights for gay people, it's still a crime to be gay in Africa, especially in Nigeria, home of the largest Episcopal body. So in a sense, we are seeing a battle between liberal American values and ultra-conservative African values.

Though we have been accused of simply bending our theology so it is more politically correct, we do not make decisions (such as the ones concerning ordination of women or acceptance of gay people) quickly or lightly. It takes a lot of conversation and voting on several levels for the ECUSA to change long-standing practice. We've been working on this one for years.

We still have friends

Several leaders within the Anglican Communion have issues supportive statements, and other USA denominations (such as the UCC) have also made encouraging comments. The screaming headlines that predicted disaster don't tell the whole story.