The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

What to wear? What to wear?

As I look back over the last couple of blog items, I realize that I'm frequently writing about clothing. Orange to protest gun violence. Red for Pentecost. And when I first walked into an Episcopal church, clothing was one of the first things that caught my eye: all the different robes and colors.

Robin Williams famously commented that one of the ten best reasons to be an Episcopalian is that the church year is color-coded. (We're currently in the beginning of the long teaching cycle of the Ordinary season, so the color is green.)

One of my Facebook friends posted a picture of a church notice (probably fictional) that had a list of things one couldn't wear: No sandals, no shorts, no athletic wear, no earrings on men, etc. The Facebook post says, "Join us for our opening hymn, 'Just as I am.'" That item might be fictional, but I know of two different churches in town that turned away teenage visitors who were wearing T-shirts with rock band names. (What a great message to send to kids who are interested in learning about Jesus!)

On any given Sunday at St. Matthew's, you'll see a lot of people who are dressed up. Women no longer wear hats and gloves (that was part of my childhood culture), but you'll normally see me in a dress shirt and jacket. You'll also see Bob in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and sandals. Lots of T-shirts in the summer. (We're not air-conditioned.)

So what?

One of the interesting things about the Episcopal Church is that we're very reluctant to tell you what to do, especially on what we'd call "peripheral" items. (T-shirt or tie? Long hair or short? Beard or not?) We tend to be very minimal in life-style rules, even rules that some would call "essential" to the matter of being a "respectable Christian" because those rules distract a person from the essential material of following Christ and doing good to our neighbor. What did Jesus say about smoking? About being gay? About transgendered people using public restrooms? Nothing? Really? Maybe those concerns aren't part of the core Christian message after all.

That's why I can wear my tie and jacket while Bob wears his Hawaiian shirt, and we never really ask whether our clothing says anything about our faith.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Wear Orange on June 5

I have a lot of experience with guns:
  • Years ago, a man with a gun forced his way into our house and robbed us at gunpoint.
  • When I lived in the West End of St. Louis, we had a pretty standard strategy when rival gangs would have a shoot-out on our street. It didn't include calling the police. They didn't like to show up until things had cooled down.
  • Early in my teaching career, I assigned a paper on the topic "A day I would like to change" and a student wrote about the time he found a gun in his father's bureau and accidentally shot his brother.
  • Another of my students commented that he came from New Jersey, so several of his friends had been shot to death.
  • Yet another of my students had to drop out of school to take care of his family after his brother had been shot dead.
  • My wife was nearly killed because the neighbors were using a field for target practice and had not mentioned it to anyone.
  • One of my childhood friends tried (unsuccessfully) to shoot himself to death with a rifle.
I don't have a lot of warm, happy, fuzzy memories that are connected with guns.

Unfortunately, my experience is far too normal in the USA. Most of us can name friends or family who have been victims of gun violence, and too often it is the simple, sad story of a child who finds a gun and is playing with it when the gun goes off. (American children are nine times more likely to be victims of this sort of accident than children from anywhere else in the world.)

Because of this, I really applaud the recent Episcopal initiative Bishops United Against Gun Violence. Just wearing orange to church on June 5 will not solve anything, but it's a beginning. We begin by raising the awareness of our friends and neighbors.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Why Wear Red for Pentecost?

The post below is copied from the website of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC. It's a good post, and I didn't think I could improve on it, so here it is in its entirety:

This Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost is the is the day on which we remember the story given to us in the second chapter of the Book of Acts.
The story goes:
  • 40 days after the resurrection (which we celebrate at Easter) Jesus ascends into heaven (which we celebrate on Ascension Day)
  • But before he ascends, Jesus promises that he will not leave us “comfortless”, but will send the Holy Spirit to strengthen and to guide us, to guide the church.
  • Ten days later, on the Day of Pentecost, Holy Spirit descended on the people gathered. (note: Pentecost is an ancient Jewish festival of the harvest, the name of which translates from the Hebrew as The Festival of Weeks. This festival is referred to in Exodus chapters 23 ad 34, and in Deuteronomy chapter 16)
In the Book of Acts, the story is told:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.
So… on The Day of Pentecost in the church year, fifty days of Easter and ten days after the Ascension, the clergy wear RED vestments to signify the work of the Spirit. It is also a custom in many churches for the people in the congregation to wear RED on the Day of Pentecost as well. We wear RED to remind us of the fire of the Spirt.

In addition, a congregation with many dressed in RED is colorful.

And perhaps most of all, it is fun.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Is there any point to Morning Prayer?

Last Sunday, Rev. Kay took a bit of a vacation, so we had a Morning Prayer service instead of Eucharist. It went well, in spite of the usual small confusions that occur when we are doing a liturgy that's unfamiliar. And, as predicted, attendance was down because it was "just" Morning Prayer and not the "real thing." Why bother to show up if you're not getting Communion?

Why go to church at all?

When you think about it, there are several distinct reasons a person might go to church:
  1. Turns you into a better person
  2. Provides religious-themed entertainment (music and visual, and sometimes dramatic)
  3. "Gasses you up" for the week—in the sense of a car going to a gas station
  4. Gives you a chance to be with other members of the Body
  5. A time to give glory and praise to God, no matter whether you are really feeling much benefit
All of these are actually legitimate reasons to show up, though #1 sounds like something a parent would do to a disobedient child, and the first three are mainly focused on giving benefit to the church-goer. That seems somewhat selfish, and it's likely to lead to the comment that "I don't feel like I need church this week."

And that leads to the question whether the point of attending church is primarily to get something for yourself. Some church bodies seem to lean hard on this idea and emphasize the entertainment value of Sunday, with bands and theater-quality production. (I used to be part of one which had an entire sound booth, complete with a multi-thousand dollar sound mixing board, several computers, and one guy whose job was to get the sound mix just right.)

What, no sacrament?

Recently, one of our political candidates famously commented about Holy Eucharist “When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.” “I think in terms of ‘Let’s go on and let’s make it right.’”

We can object to the trivialization of Eucharist in this statement (I certainly do), but at its core, this statement says something good. Eucharist was provided, as the Prayer Book says, to be spiritual food and drink for the believer, but for a long time, Morning Prayer was the most typical Episcopal Sunday, with Eucharist only being celebrated once or twice a month. We get into trouble, mentally and spiritually, when we start thinking of Eucharist as if it were an insulin shot. Quick and easy, get it over with and get on with life, have to have it on schedule or I get sick.

Reasons #4 and #5 are actually pretty good reasons to go to church, once you get past asking what's in it for yourself. And the basic idea of church is that we are there for and with other believers. The main question should not be whether we received a decent product this week.

A pressing problem

Many tiny churches, for example our neighbor church in Shelby, go through times when they don't have a priest every week. The Diocese does its best, and the result is usually a visit from a priest a couple of times a month and lay-led Morning Prayer the other mornings. If that isn't "really church," we have to ditch Christ's words as reported in Matthew 18:20 "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Note that he didn't say, "when two dozen are gathered and a priest is there to provide a sacrament.")

This will become an issue for St. Matthew's next year. Rev. Kay is planning on taking a sabbatical, and we will probably have visits by several different priests, but often Sunday will be lay-led Morning Prayer.

Will that be "real church"? What if you don't get your "little wine and little cracker"? Is it still worth going?

Yes, if Jesus is there. And he will be.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

What the church should be trying to do

I get to preach this Sunday, and the main text is from Acts 16, the part where Paul gets called over to Macedonia and ends up preaching to Lydia. (Note: Isn't it interesting that the first European Christian turns out to be an incredibly capable businesswoman?)

As I sat down to do some thinking and writing, I picked up a legal pad with notes from this year's Winter Convocation. Here are some fairly undigested notes from one session:

  • Lots of our neighbors don't have God in their lives, don't know how to change that, and are full of fear that if they show up at church, good "Christian" folk will pass judgment on them and make them feel guilty.
  • God is working in the world, and we are called into the world to invite those who are being drawn by God.
  • Our purpose is not to invite people to our church, but to invite people into a relationship with God through our church.
    • It's not about the money to keep our budget going or the bodies to fill the pews; it's about a spirit of openness to people's needs.
    • We need to learn how to be comfortable speaking with our neighbors about our faith—and that doesn't require a lot of specialized knowledge, but it does require knowledge.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Things are not the way they seem

I recently heard of someone who had visited our parish website and was very attracted by our diversity, but when this person arrived at church on Sunday morning, we were—well, we looked pretty old and traditional. We sing standard hymns with an organ accompaniment. Several of us are getting on in years. Though I used to wear flowered bell-bottoms to church in the 70s, now I'm more likely to wear a jacket and tie.

Sometimes the diversity lies below the surface, so here is a deeper look at us.

Women in leadership

It's easy to forget just how revolutionary it is for a woman to lead a congregation. (Ask some of your church-going friends: many of them attend churches in which women are excluded from any leadership position whatsoever—minister or member of the leadership council.) In the business/academic world, women leaders are extremely common, and we will probably have a female candidate for President of the US, so it might not strike you as unusual that St. Matthew's has a woman priest.

Rev. Ashby was one of the very first women in the Episcopal Church to study for the priesthood; now, when you attend a Diocesan event (such as Winter Convocation), you see a lot of female priests, so it all seems so normal. And for us, being led by a woman is normal. It's just business as usual for women to be part of our lay leadership council (Vestry) and for a woman to be our Rector.

It wasn't always business as usual. From what I've heard, a number of people left the parish in protest when the national body consecrated our first female bishop.


More people left when Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church.

Right now, our usual Sunday morning attendance is somewhere between 30 and 40 people, and by my count we have four regulars and three more who attend occasionally who are gay. It's just another non-issue for us, and not something that comes up often in lunchtime conversation, so a visitor might not notice them. (Trust me—political affiliation is a much more lively topic than sexual orientation for conversation.)

A few years back, I remember one of the older women commenting that "We just need more gay people in this congregation."

What else?

We have a lot of educators, a couple of nurses, and a retired judge, but we also have a couple of farmers, a couple of small business owners, and a firefighter. Look at our parking lot on Sunday morning and you will see a Lincoln and a couple of pickup trucks. Over the years you would find our members volunteering at the Grace Episcopal Food Pantry and the Ashland Center for Nonviolence. Some of us attend Pride Parades, and some of us support conservative political candidates. For us, that invisible diversity is just business as usual.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Bring Them In with Guilt

On my way to work, I drive by a lot of churches that put up signs with cute slogans. (Is there a book somewhere? Those things are really annoying and trivializing!) The latest on one church has been up since the day after Easter Sunday:
Now open between Easter and Christmas!
This is an outfit that has had signs that specialize in groaning puns and double meanings.

I have to wonder just what this snarky message was trying to accomplish. Surely everyone in the land knows that Christians do something every Sunday morning. This church is in a blue-collar neighborhood in central Ohio, which at least has cultural ties to Christendom—almost everyone has a relative or friend who goes to church.

I can only imagine that they are trying to push the guilt button: "Wow! I'm supposed to be at church! I have really fouled up."

My mother had a similar thought about giving money to the church. She had a box of those little envelopes on the kitchen table, each envelope dated by Sunday. (Note: We're discussing whether to bring those back at St. Matthew's.) She would look at those and talk about how she "owed" the pledge money for the offering. It was like paying the electric bill: had to be done every week.

Yes, it's tough to keep a church running. On a very mundane level, we need bodies in the pews and dollars in the offering plate or we will need to shut down, but something has gone missing in the "electric bill" attitude and the guilt trip.

When I was a boy, there was a strong sense that we were all supposed to go to church, mainly because it would somehow do something good to us. If God and church are only fulfilling a function of making me better, it's easy to drift away, especially if my life is doing well. As one political candidate famously said, "I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t." (He's the same one who said, "When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.")

What if it's not all about me?

I'll admit that, even though I'm committed to working out in the gym, I sometimes skip. I just don't feel like it. Is church the same? Getting out of bed on a Sunday morning and pulling myself to church is sometimes unappealing. So is going to work on Monday morning. Are they all in the same category? Work, church, gym?

Not really. When I think about Sunday morning, I remember that I'm the one who drives Mike to church. I'm the one who gets the coffee going. This Sunday, I'm the one who leads the congregation in the "Prayers of the People." That's still an obligation/guilt thing, but it feels different. It feels like my little contribution is necessary for the body.

"I'm still here."

Sometimes I need to do something in the church building during the week, and I'll walk into the the darkened sanctuary to get a book or fix a light or something. That candle is still burning in the red glass—the sanctuary lamp. I always take that to mean God is saying, "I'm still here."

That's a much better reason to show up than feeling better about myself.