The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Quote from Madeline L'Engle

We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Liturgy

Like many of my generation, I went through sort of a hippie phase, when I assumed that God didn't listen to much of anything except spontaneous prayer and unformatted worship events. If there was any planning ahead—I thought—God got bored and left.

And as I travel around Richland County, I keep seeing huge "worship centers"—most of them large metal buildings that resemble factories or aircraft hangers with names that suggest adventure and excitement (usually just a single verb) and signs that promise an electric worship experience.

So why am I (and so many like me) so interested in going back to churches in which the worship is planned in advance, in many cases hundreds of years in advance?

Repetition
Those who have not spent much time in a Catholic, Lutheran, or Episcopalian church (at least three or four Sundays, and actually paying attention), often say that it's always the same old same old. Well, yes. We always say the Nicene Creed at the same point in the morning's schedule. And no, because we're working our way through the church year on a pre-planned three year cycle, so this Sunday's specific prayers and Scripture readings won't come back again until the seventh Sunday after Pentecost 2018.

One thing I noticed when I was in those less-formal churches was that we often got stuck in a rut. I remember one preacher (in another city) who spent several years working through the book of Romans. There are 65 other books in the Bible! Surely he could hit one of those! At another church I attended, we loved songs by Chris Tomlin. We sang at least two of them every Sunday (and sometimes we sang three or four). Singing the song through usually wasn't enough, so we would usually sing the song two or three times, sometimes going back over a favorite verse five or six times. Tomlin has written quite a number of songs, perhaps hundreds, but getting him every Sunday, with such intensity, made every worship service feel exactly the same. And our song leader didn't know hundreds of songs—it was more like a dozen.

Speaking personally, the repetition of a "praise-band" worship service finally got to me. I had to get away from a place where every Sunday was precisely like every other Sunday.

Depth
Another thing I had to get away from was the intense focus on how good worship services make the participant feel. So much of our singing and praying was about excited or comforted or reassured we were. There was very little about God himself, and certainly not much in detail about God. There was very little that resembled this old Episcopal hymn:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most bless├Ęd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.
Head Trip
It's very difficult to fall asleep in an Episcopal church. You stand up, sit down, cross yourself, say things at the appropriate moment, sing, shake hands with people, get in line to kneel at the altar rail, eat something, and drink something. It's a lot of work.

I used to tune out when I was only asked to stand to sing a couple of songs and "kneel in my heart" for prayer (which usually put me to sleep). There's a great C.S. Lewis quote from The Screwtape Letters, in which he refers to us as amphibians—half animal and half spirit. I love it when the liturgy engages my physical side as well as my mental side because that's who I am.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Evening Prayer

Every Wednesday at 5 PM, we have Evening Prayer at the church. It's not wildly popular—numbers have ranged from a dozen down to one or two and average around six—but this half hour has become extremely important, both to me and to the life of the church.

Because we work from the Prayer Book and the Lectionary, the evening is extremely predictable. With just a little research, I can tell you what the Scriptures will be six months from now. Today, for example, we read about Samuel anointing David and Peter visiting the household of Cornelius. That's one value of a Lectionary: we tend to get trapped in our own little circle of favorite Bible verses and ignore the rest of it.

For a long time I was taught to value spontaneous prayer. Apparently God was pleased with people who are struggling to find words and to remember what to pray about more than he's pleased with people who figure out a prayer in advance (or worse, use a prayer someone else figured out in advance). That value judgment doesn't make much sense. Why not decide in advance what to pray for and what words to use? Again, the format helps because it takes us away from the prayers that repetitively focus on ourselves and our own situations.

Some topics always come up: prayers for our priest and our bishop, prayers for people in the parish who are suffering, prayers for family members.

Personal schedule conflicts will take me away from this discipline for about a month. I'll miss it.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Commenting on Posts

As I point out in the "How to Blog" box at the right, responses to posts here will be moderated. Watching over this blog is not my full-time job, so I may not see things you post for a day or so, but I do want a positive, helpful conversation on this page. Some posts, however, will not make the cut:
  • Responses that are attempting to sell something.
  • Responses that contain abusive or inflammatory language.
  • Responses that are attempting to pick a fight.
  • Responses that are really off-topic. (If it's a good one, I might copy your material start a new thread, giving you credit.)
If I do not choose to publish your comment, it is not because I am a coward; it's because I want this Internet resource to reflect the nature of our congregation. People who want to start fights or sell things can always do so on Facebook.

By the way, one other category of responses that will not be published (and quite a number of these come in) is items entirely in Chinese.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Our Slogan

I took a long bike ride yesterday, wearing a shirt I got on this year's Bishop's Bike Ride. It's dark blue with a slogan on the back in big white letters.

God loves you.
No exceptions.

Wearing that shirt is a challenge because it means that anything I do, stupid or smart, evil or good, is seen as an action that represents the Episcopal Church. (The shirt also has our shield and the words "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.")

In my long history, I've been in and near a lot of churches that defined themselves by what they are not. Churches that pulled away from larger organizations and the only self-identity they had was "Well at least we don't do/think/believe what those people do!"

Maybe that resonates with the original rebels, but the time comes when the old rebels are either gone or tired and the people of the larger community, who don't have a clue what those people did/thought/believed, just don't have many reasons to jump on board.

I've also been in and near a lot of churches whose basic stance was simply to be nice. Don't rock the boat. Keep our comfortable status quo running.

That sold pretty well in the 1950s, but not now. The comfortable status quo does pretty well without any help from the church, and people understand that. Besides, as a prophetic stance, "keep the old ship running" isn't too thrilling; neither is "we're angry at the group we left." We need something more.

Following our leaders
The T-shirt slogan actually comes directly from our Diocese website. Bishop Hollingsworth and our new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry are both firm in supporting this idea, that the Church should be the ultimate come-as-you-are party.

That's difficult because we humans like to spend time with people who are just like ourselves. Jesus, if you recall, got into a lot of trouble with the "nice folk" for spending time with the wrong sort of people.

A look at St. Matthew's
Though we're quite small and I don't know the personal circumstances of everyone in the church, I can point to

  • University professors and blue collar workers
  • Business owners and employees
  • People with very comfortable incomes and people who live on government checks
  • Farmers and town folk
  • Straight couples and gay couples
  • Cradle Episcopalians and new transplants
  • Theological liberals and theological conservatives (along with a few people who are still trying to settle just what they believe)
And the list goes on. Like most Episcopal churches, we have a 12-step group (Wednesday evening at 6:30) and a lot of people whose pain and struggles are only known to a small circle of friends who pray for them. 

That T-shirt slogan would make a pretty good prophetic statement for what we want to be.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Transplants

I saw somewhere that 70% or so of Episcopalians are transplants—people who began somewhere else and landed here. That's reassuring to someone like me; I was born and baptized Presbyterian and spent a bunch of time in a sort-of-Baptist independent church before landing here. Even though I've been at St. Matthew's for years and sometimes even teach Confirmation classes, I still have moments when I feel like an outsider, usually when I have to ask questions like "Is that how we are supposed to do this?"

I keep running into great quotations from other transplants, so I'm going to start a series of them. This is the first.


This one is from a member of the Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music Committee of the House of Deputies:

Occasionally I would hear someone talk about the “old” prayer book and the “new” prayer book, but for me there was only the prayer book. The text of the book lifted me heart, mind and soul to a place that I had only barely been able to imagine in my conservative Christian past.

Paul Fromberg, writing in the House of Deputies News

Thursday, July 2, 2015

More on Gay Marriage

You will notice that I tagged this post with "Doctrine." That's very brash and shaky on my part because I don't have the right to define it—I just want to report a little.

Gay marriage is one of those discussions that just won't die for a very long time. The Supreme Court ruling was supposed to settle things (though Texas and a few other states are fighting the idea) and our Bishop has sent out a letter, and now we should be able to move on to another issue. However, I suspect the discussion (and the unpleasantness) will continue for quite some time.

I am old enough that I grew up in an era when interracial marriage was illegal in many places. The landmark Supreme Court case concerned a couple that lived in Virginia, just across the river from my home in Maryland, and the judgment was handed down when I was in college. (Talk about "destroying traditional marriage"! At least for bigots!) I also remember that movies such as the Oscar-nominated Guess Who's Coming to Dinner were illegal in my home state because it showed an interracial couple.

I think there are a lot of parallels with the gay marriage discussion.

Law: The Supreme Court interracial marriage decision wasn't exactly welcome in many states. In Alabama, for example, local judges continued to enforce the anti-miscegenation laws for another three years, and it wasn't until 2000 that the anti-miscegenation language was removed from the state constitution (33 years). Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the opinion for the unanimous Supreme Court majority in this decision, and for years home-made "Impeach Earl Warren" billboards appeared along Maryland highways.

Faith: Like most segregation laws, the anti-miscegenation laws were said to have a divine mandate. In fact, the lower court that upheld Virginia's law based its opinion mainly on theology and on the idea of God's providence in placing peoples of different colors in different places. It took a while for churches and religious people to catch up (and some still have not).

Personal emotions: Growing up where/when I did, I never saw an interracial couple. And as time went on and I began meeting a few, there was always an involuntary twitch somewhere in my brain, saying, "This just isn't right." It still reappears at times, and I just have to tell that twitch that it is wrong.

The parallels with gay marriage are really vivid here. The law of the land has changed, though it will take years for everyone to adapt local regulations to the national law. Bible-based argument against gay marriage and acceptance of gay people was always very thin, and one by one even the most conservative scholars are beginning to understand that. What really remains for Christians is dealing with the "ick factor"—the personal emotions we experience.

Down through 21 centuries, the church has had to deal with a lot of times when doing what was right just didn't feel good. This might be another one of those for some of us.

NOTE: Here's an article by an Episcopal priest, The Church is the Next Frontier, which really nails the topic.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Holy Spaces

If you visit a lot of churches, you notice that one thing they all have in common is an enclosed area where people are supposed to get together (usually on Sunday morning) for some kind of worship event. We don't often think of asking, though, what are these spaces for?

The church I grew up in was a suburban start-up that began with an "all-purpose room." (Yes, that was its name.) I remember a fairly ugly grey room that we used for worship, suppers, and even the square dance club. There was no decoration to speak of, not because of our theology, but because of our finances and the general idea that we wanted a room that could be used for anything. We sat on grey metal folding chairs.

More recently, I visited a church that took this "all-purpose room" idea to the max. It had a stage, a sound booth, a projection screen for the song PowerPoints, and basketball hoops that could be cranked up to the ceiling. The floor was an odd tight carpet that was marked for a basketball court and (as one member proudly told me) actually worked quite well for dribbling the ball.

Another church I visited years back was one of those huge mega-churches with thousands of members. The main room had theater seats (really good ones), a balcony, and a really high-tech stage.

I don't think any of these three groups would be comfortable calling their room a "sanctuary." People gather there to eat dinners, to dribble basketballs, or to be audience members.

The concept of "Holy"
The basic idea is "set aside for God." It's the reason you don't use a communion chalice to fetch water for a plant. I have to admit that, because of my background, I'm still struggling with "holy," but there is something beyond simply preserving the finish on the chalice that keeps me from using it as an ordinary cup. (Yes, Eucharist would still be Eucharist if the wine were in a common teacup, but something did change in that ornate drinking vessel when it was blessed and set aside for its current purpose.)

One of the odd things about us Episcopalians is that we use a lot of "stuff." Wine, water, bread, oil, and fire are all part of worship. People who are leading worship wear special clothing. We kneel, we bow, we cross ourselves. Once a year we get ashes on our faces. When I was going for surgery, the priest used holy oil (not just any oil from the kitchen) and made a cross on my forehead. It's not just a "head trip" in which we try to put ourselves in an "attitude of prayer." We actually get down on our knees.

C.S. Lewis said, in The Screwtape Letters, that "Humans are amphibians...half spirit and half animal...as spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time." So I think at least one reason for "sanctuary" is to grab the attention of our spirit side and allow our animal side to be quiet for a bit. The decorations, the music, even the smells can help with that redirection.

Who is the real audience?
When I was a boy, I was amazed by Washington National Cathedral (quite a contrast with our "all-purpose room"). The beauty and the incredible craftsmanship were overwhelming. Everywhere I looked, there was some amazing little detail, often in places where the general public wouldn't see it at all. Years later, I was shepherding a group of Japanese high school students through the Cathedral, and the tour guide asked them all to lie down on their backs at the great crossing. She asked them what shape they were seeing. It took a while, but they finally got it: The Cathedral is an enormous cross. Then the next question: If the Cathedral is built in the style of the great European Medieval cathedrals, who can see this shape? Who can hover above it and look down on it?

So another reason for "holy space" decoration is not just the beauty or the attempt to shift the attention of the worshipper; In a real sense, God is the audience and the holy space is his space.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Two Important Pieces of News

It's been quite a week for the entire country, and for the Episcopal Church. I think I'll let these two links speak for themselves:

New Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
Here is the New York Times article announcing Curry's election. Just to emphasize a couple of points:
  • Curry is widely known as a dynamic leader who wants to reach out to the larger community. One of his huge priorities is spreading the Gospel of Christ.
  • He's also known as being a liberal social activist. As pastor of one of the earliest black Episcopal churches, he has a link to our historic involvement in social justice.
  • His election was by an overwhelming majority. He's the leader the majority of the church wants.
Letter from our bishop concerning gay marriage
There will doubtless be committee discussions about the exact language to be used in performing weddings between people of the same gender, but Bishop Hollingsworth says we don't need to wait for all that to happen. Here is our Bishop's letter (and the article's headline, "Go Ahead and Celebrate" is appropriate).

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Who Are We? (Volume 2)

(OK—one oddity of this software is that the newest material is on top, so volume 2 actually appears before volume 1. Sorry about that.)

I was going through some old notes (we writers are incredibly messy and disorganized) and I found a scribble called "What have we got?" (Referring to St. Matthew's). Here's what I wrote. It seems like a good agenda for the next few posts:
  • We are culturally progressive but theologically grounded. (Down through our denominational history we were very early to embrace such ideas as equal rights for different races, equal rights for women, and equal marriage rights regardless of sexual orientation, but we didn't do these things just to be trendy or relevant.)
  • We come from an ancient tradition, but long ago we became more Celtic than Latin. (I can see that this post will require a lot of explanation!)
  • Our environmental concern is a built-in part of our history and theology. (Partly because of that Celtic heritage.)
  • The concept of holy spaces is important to us.
  • Even though we're quite small, a formal liturgy is also quite important to us.
I am certain there are other things to say, and I may throw in other comments in between, but this is a starting point.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Gay Marriage

Of course, the big news of the day is that same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide in the USA. For St. Matthew's, this is a reason to rejoice. We already have an unusually large number of LGBT people, some in partnerships that go back several decades. (One Facebook post said, "We just might make an announcement." A reader responded, "Don't rush into anything," to which the original writer said "It's just 20 years.")

The 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church began yesterday in Salt Lake City, and it was already planning on dealing with gay marriage. Father Joe Ashby of Grace Episcopal in Mansfield pointed out to me the other day that the Supreme Court's action really isn't going to govern the church's action because it has to do with civil law. As a denomination, we're on record as open and affirming toward gay people, but there have been, over the years, a lot of people who objected to this attitude. My guess is that the national body will spend a lot of time debating how to solemnize these unions and what to call them.

On the local level in Ashland, things will be much more laid-back and rejoicing. The congratulations are already flying back and forth on Facebook. LGBT people aren't just a barely-tolerated side-show in our church; in fact the congregation is so welcoming that sexual orientation is a total non-issue here. But now we might have to find all the decorations for a couple of weddings.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Who Are We? (Volume 1)

That is not such a silly question as you might think. On the Bishop's Bike Ride this week, I stayed with Episcopalians in four other towns, and none of the parishes felt much like St. Matthew's.

You can probably name businesses that have failed because they forgot who they were and what they were trying to do—tried to do too much or went in the wrong direction. (Baldwin Piano Company went into bankruptcy largely because they tried to diversify into investments and insurance.) So the question St. Matthew's has to answer is really the same Baldwin failed to answer: What do we do best? What one thing does God want us to focus on?

The Rev. Brad Purdom, Canon for Congregations, came down from Cleveland to ask us this question two different Sundays. (The Vestry invited him after hearing what he had to say to that smaller leadership group.) We are a fairly small congregation, and we can't do everything a mega-church does, nor should we want to. What should we be doing?

Some things we're obviously not
Purdom pointed out that there's nothing wrong with being a small church—and that most churches in the length and breadth of Christendom have been small. So the first thing we're not is big. We're around 40 people most Sundays, and like most churches, the majority of the work is carried by a smaller portion of that group. (We do a pretty good job, though, of getting the majority of the people involved in things.) So here, just off the top of my head, is a list of the things St. Matthew's is not, and probably never will be.
  • A place where a visitor can hide. We really do notice when someone new walks in, and even though it's a bit overwhelming to a few, the visitor will get greeted and invited to coffee hour.
  • A church with a bus ministry. We have a very small number of kids, and there's no point in buying an old school bus.
  • A church with a praise band and songs on PowerPoint slides. The area has dozens of those, and there's no point in trying to be another one. We really do like the old hymns and the pipe organ. We're also in love with a form of worship that includes tons of Scripture reading and a format that we've been developing for hundreds of years.
  • A church where the preacher does all the work. Even if our priest were not a part-timer (who, by the way, puts in at least three times the number of hours we pay her for), the Episcopalian setup, both for worship and for daily life of the parish, assumes a lot of participation from everyone in the group.
  • A church that shuts people out. One of our core beliefs is that baptism works, no matter who does it. So we're quite happy to share the Lord's Table with all brands of Christian. We're also quite happy to welcome people who might not fit into other church groups: rich or poor, gay or straight, old or young, black or white—you get the picture.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Beginning Again

It's been a rough year for your webmaster (though not for St. Matthew's). I won't go into all of it, but surgery, death of a family member, trouble at work, and a few other things generally overwhelmed me, so the result was that this blog was totally ignored for a full year.

Not good.

So in the next few blog entries, I'd like to give some account of what's happened in the past year (quite a challenge!) and some idea of where we want to go in the future.

The Past Year
This is all just off the top of my head, so if I have missed anything, more apologies!
  • We added several new people.
  • We watched Luke Simmons graduate high school (There was never any doubt, by the way. He's a wonderful kid.)
  • A Twelve-Step All-Inclusive Recovery Group began meeting on Wednesday evening. (The idea is that it's not just confined to one type of challenge.)
  • Erin Fuller was received into membership. (For those who are not Episcopalians, this is an enormously big deal! Bishop Williams came down from Cleveland to officiate.)
  • We participated in the Diocese Capital Campaign drive, and raised a significant amount of money. So far, we have replaced the kitchen stove (so there's much less likelihood of the building blowing up) and two outside doors (so the cold air will tend to stay outside where it belongs). Next up is a roof, which is quite a project for an A-frame building.
  • I was part of the Bishop's Bike Ride, a pleasant little 240-mile jaunt through northern Ohio. We did that in five very rainy days. (Someone took a picture of trout swimming across a flooded bike trail he was using. I didn't get to go that way because my group got diverted.)
I'm sure there's more, and I'll post things as I think of them.

Not exactly our parish, but certainly something we are part of—the capital campaign raised enough money to purchase the camp property in Wakeman and begin work on developing it. This is an enormously big deal, both for the Diocese and for our parish. (It's only an hour away, so it will be very available to us for such things as leadership retreats.)