The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Friday, July 10, 2015


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?

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.

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


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.