The blog

The blog—informal opinions and chat about the parish

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Newer Christians

Reading my Facebook items this morning, I came across a post from a woman who lives in a small town in Vermont. The local newspaper republished an opinion piece she describes as being from a "radical ultra-conservative, right-wing, anti-abortion evangelical Christian blog site."

I am dismayed (but not surprised) that the world of non-Christian America gravitates toward materialism and selfish hatred of everyone who doesn't fit the local ideal mold of what a "real person" should be like.

I'm not even extremely surprised that the Christian label has become attached to this kind of thinking. After all, so many churches have been seduced into thinking that the USA is God's new Jerusalem and that the mythic American lifestyle (small towns, buying Chevrolets, eating hot dogs, and cheering for football teams) is God's best plan for the part of mankind rich enough and white enough to participate. (And I guess those who are not rich enough and white enough can, quite literally, go to hell.)

After all, I left a church like that a few years back.

But that tag from the woman in Vermont should be troubling to the genuine Christians. The outside world has pretty much figured out that Christians hate Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, poor people, Asians, gays, and educated people. "Evangelical Christian" has become the name of a political party, not a very honest one or a very nice one either. (It's ironic, because "Evangelical" comes from the Greek word for "good news" and it was originally all about telling a world of people in pain about the good news of Jesus. Poor Jesus! He's gotten totally forgotten in all this right-wing political mess.)

All through the Bible there is the doctrine of the "remnant." The basic idea is that many will call themselves believers, but God has a remnant, a tiny number, who remain faithful to Him. I think that is what we are called to be, and perhaps we need a different name for ourselves. We don't hate the poor; we provide for them. We don't hate the refugee; we provide for them. We don't think that accumulating wealth and protecting the borders of the USA are the highest callings of the Christian faith. We tell the truth. We do not automatically bow down to the latest speech from our great political leader.

And this kind of discipleship will certainly prove to be very costly.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Pantsuit Nation and the Church

Someone in the Facebook group named "Pantsuit Nation" posted a comment about how she responded to teachers from a Christian school who voted for Trump because "at least he's against abortion."

The flurry of responses was astonishing. The original post went up two hours ago, and I really cannot keep up with all the comments that are flying in.

Of course, this is an anti-Trump advocacy group, so there isn't much comment defending the teachers, and there is a lot of cheering for the woman who posted the response. There's more though.

Post after post comes from people who are renouncing that church because they see its views as hypocritical and opportunistic. For the sake of getting a candidate who claims (at least for the time being) to be anti-abortion, churches and Christians are willing to accept a man who has no respect for the Christian faith and no evidence of any of the Christian virtues. And church members are angry.

We often mourn the decline of the older, traditional "Main Street" churches. Beginning the days of the "Jesus People" (and I was one of those), we used to say that the "Main Street" churches were more interested in keeping Middle American culture going than in preaching the gospel. People still see through that hypocrisy, and that is still the reason that we have trouble attracting younger members. We are all tarred with the same brush.

Saint Paul saw all this coming, and made the comment in Romans 3:8:
Why not say—as some slanderously claim that we say—"Let us do evil that good may result"?
Indeed, why not? Because it's not the Christian way of doing things. Non-believers know this. Christians who would like to be in a really faithful church know this. Christians in faithful churches need to get the message out: We don't bow down to some cultural norm just to achieve one limited goal.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Immigrant Apostles' Creed

I found this today in the faculty mailroom. It was just lying on a table, so I had no idea where it came from or who wrote it. After a bit of research, I found it in a blog titled "Hopping Hadrian's Wall." Good words:


I believe in Almighty God,
who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home,
who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger.
When he returned to his own country he suffered under the oppression of Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power.
Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.
But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, not as a scorned foreigner but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.
I believe that the Church is the secure home
for foreigners and for all believers.
I believe that the communion of saints begins
when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity.
I believe in forgiveness, which makes us all equal before God,
and in reconciliation, which heals our brokenness.
I believe that in the Resurrection
God will unite us as one people
in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.
I believe in life eternal, in which no one will be foreigner
but all will be citizens of the kingdom
where God reigns forever and ever. Amen.

The blog says it was found on a Facebook post by Neal Presa, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and says it was originally written by Rev. Jose Luis Casal.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

We must be doing something right

Over the weekend, two Episcopal churches, hundreds of miles apart, were vandalized. This story comes from the Indianapolis  Star, dateline November 13, 2016:
St. David's Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom was vandalized sometime Saturday night.

Vandals painted tags on the walls, depicting a swastika, an anti-gay slur and "Heil Trump."

The Rev. Kelsey Hutto, priest in charge at St. David's Episcopal Church, said she was disheartened after finding the graffiti on the walls of the church Sunday morning. But her next thought was more positive.

"Well, we must be doing something right," Hutto said she thought. "We stated one time that doing the right thing was not always the popular thing. We were targeted for a reason, and in our mind it was for a good reason."

As Christians, Hutto said they need to respond to hateful acts with love and joy. That's what God calls on them to do, no matter what color people are, where they came from or who they love.
And this from the Associated Press, dateline November 13, 2016:
An Episcopal church in a heavily Latino suburb of Washington has been vandalized with a racist message that mentions President-elect Donald Trump, church officials say.

Jim Naughton, a spokesman for Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, said the vandalism occurred Saturday night at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring, Maryland. He said a banner advertising the church's Spanish-language service was slashed, and the words "Trump nation. Whites only" were written on the back.

Naughton said the same phrase was written on a brick wall in the memorial garden of the parish.

The bishop was scheduled to visit the parish Sunday afternoon and stand in solidarity with the rector of the church, parishioners, lay leaders and interfaith supporters.

Doing the 200s

I don't think of this too often, but my father was a great advocate of preserving the environment and (though it seems unlikely) a long-time member of the Sierra Club.

Our Episcopal Diocese is celebrating its 200th year, and we were encouraged at the recent Diocesan Convention to find a number of 200 things we could do this year: read 200 Bible verses with our family, invite 200 people to church, and so forth.

I think I will begin by donating $200 to environmental organizations (Western Reserve Land Conservancy and Sierra Club). How about $200 to social justice organizations? (ACLU and NAACP) $200 to programs to help the needy? (Habitat for Humanity and the Grace Episcopal Food bank in Mansfield)

When they go low, we go high. Anybody with me?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election is over

This will be brief, because the future of our Republic is very uncertain at the moment and only time will resolve that uncertainty.

Several things are quite certain though. Donald Trump was not elected by a slim margin. It was overwhelming. My county went two-thirds in favor of Trump; Ashland county was three-quarters. It is also quite certain that Trump is on record as being opposed to much of the Constitution (religious freedom, freedom of the press, equal treatment of all citizens, to name a few ideas he dislikes). The list of people who are on his hate list is quite simple: pretty much everyone who is not white, male, and a third-generation citizen. And of course, you cannot have a physical handicap.

How shall we react? My daughter has been weeping for twelve hours. I wonder if my daughter-in-law will keep my three very brown and Latina granddaughters home from school to protect them. My students at the University are walking around in sort of a stunned haze.

First things

The Huffington Post has good suggestions for your mental and moral survival. Take care of yourself. Find a way to constructively contribute to a better future for the USA. Bring that down to a local level and find a way to constructively contribute to a better future for your town and county.

Ultimate things

As Christians, we are called to love one another and to seek to do good to all people, especially to those of the household of faith. That calling goes beyond any political calling. The early Christians lived under one of the most oppressive Roman emperors, yet they were able to change the world. They thrived. Under Hitler, the church suffered and lost a lot of name-only members, but the true Christians, the ones who would risk their lives to save the unfortunate, shone like stars. That is still our calling as Christian individuals and as a church. It might come down to risking our lives—it certainly did in the 1960s when the nation finally did something about the injustices suffered by black Americans. We might have to stand up for our Muslim neighbor, our Hispanic neighbor, or our crippled neighbor in the face of government oppression and public opinion. So be it. Our time might be at hand.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Church Money

Our current church treasurer has announced that he will be leaving the post, effective December 31. Perhaps I was a fool, but I have volunteered to take his place. What on earth have I gotten myself into?

I have spent several weeks creating spreadsheets that will give us good information about how we are spending our money and where the money is coming from. (I do not want to spend the $200 or so for a commercial church spreadsheet because those products never quite do what I would like.) I have also devoted a lot of time to considering how much money it costs to run a church and how much money we have to work with.

I suspect the parish could use more information.

The whole thing reminds me of a teenager moving into an apartment and getting a car. We all went through this. Most teenagers are astonished when they realize that cars need repairs, oil changes, and tires. They figure that gasoline is about their only expense after they get the car. And a lot of those expenses are very non-glamorous, things that you cannot see. After an oil change, the car runs about the same as it did before, so why bother? And when a teenager has been living with parents who pay the bills, a lot of hidden apartment expenses pop up too. Who could have guessed that electricity would cost so much? Or that the electric company will shut off the power when you don't pay?

And inflation catches us unawares too. If you were in the habit of throwing $20 into the offering plate in 1980, you need to put in $58.60 to have the same effect in 2016.

As a character said in one of the Harry Potter movies, "Buckle your seat belts. We're in for a bumpy ride." I'm going to be telling the church folk this sort of thing for a while.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

That Videotape

By now, almost everyone in the USA (at least everyone who can read) is aware of an extremely lewd, demeaning videotape in which a major political candidate said things that would put him on the sex offender registry in most states, things that, if said by your 13-year-old son, would result in a month of grounding without access to friends or Internet.

In a way, it's not a surprise. A general theme throughout the Bible is that the tongue expresses the true values of a person's heart. We should have seen that tape coming.

The surprise to me is summarized in this quotation from the Washington Post:
One of Trump’s most prominent social-conservative supporters, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, told BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray: “My personal support for Donald Trump has never been based upon shared values.”
The FRC calls itself a Christian lobbying organization that opposes gay rights, abortion, divorce, stem-cell research, and pornography. If those are not values, then I do not know what the word "value" means.

The question, then, to a self-proclaimed Christian leader, is why you would support a candidate, if not on the basis of your value system. Pragmatics? No matter who gets hurt or what it does to either the core ideas of our Republic or to the Christian message, you support someone because you think his ideas will "work"?

Here, then, is the danger for Christian voters. Assuming that a candidate is not Mary Poppins ("practically perfect in every way"), we are tempted to do one of three things:
  1. Vote a single issue only. "I don't care that the candidate is a fool, a liar, a bully, and a potential sex offender, at least he's against abortion." (In case you had not noticed, there is a lot more to governing that being against abortion.)
  2. Vote pragmatics. "Even though there is nothing in this candidate that reflects Christian character or even the secular definition of a good man, at least he said he will bring jobs back." (That's how Germany got Hitler.)
  3. Vote hatred. "He hates the same ethnic groups and religions that I hate, so I will vote for him." (Can you hear yourself? Really?)
We Americans—and especially Christians—do not like to think too hard and we really want a quick, easy fix for our problems. Mary Poppins is not running for office this time, so we need to make difficult choices. We need to pray. We need to set aside hatreds and ignore the hate-mongers on television and the Internet. And we really do need to vote on the basis of shared values.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Christian Way to Vote

With an election coming soon, it's appropriate to think about the Christian way to vote. We have a habit of getting it wrong, or at least of doing rather badly when we try.

Christian voters, after all, gave us Prohibition, with no decrease in drunkenness but an incredible increase in organized crime. Christian voters also campaigned strenuously (in some places) in favor of slavery. I remember, back in the 1960s, when a highly-respected Christian magazine for college students made the claim that if John Kennedy were elected, the Pope would actually end up running the US government.

All that should give us pause. We got every one of those wrong. Those three examples, though, give us a look at typical ways we tend to vote, and we should try to avoid the pitfalls again.

The one-issue church

It is very tempting to reduce the whole of Christian theology to one simple item. Much easier to hold in your mind. I have no real objection to people who quote John 3:16 on billboards and such (that verse has a pretty good claim to really be the heart of the Christian message), and I get amused at signs that say simply "John 3:16" (as if the average non-believer had any clue what that could mean). But we have been told recently that (for example) monogamous straight marriage is the heart and core of the Christian message and that the only thing the church should be doing is opposing abortion.

Surely there is more to the Christian message than that. My Bible has 879 pages. We could have saved a lot of money on printing if those two items were the only things worth saying.

The danger when voting, of course, is that defining the "Christian candidate" in terms of only one or two characteristics makes us blind to a lot of other issues. What do we do about the candidate who opposes gay marriage and abortion, but has a strongly unethical personal life and no real experience or wisdom to govern? Is that person the Christian choice?
Footnote: This one-issue problem is a reason many younger people shun churches in general. Our reputation is that we only get together to hate gay people or to campaign against reproductive choice. That's what they think and we are at fault for failing to publicize our larger story.

The way it has always been

Good church folk supported slavery. We need to remember that. One great danger white folks faced if slavery was eliminated was that the traditional way of life (with white privilege and prosperity) would not work the same in a post-slavery world. And somehow we have gotten the idea that God's plan for us personally is a life of comfort, ease, privilege, and a lot of material possessions. (Go to a bookstore and look in the "Christian" section. You will find dozens of "prosperity gospel" books written by preachers.)

Once again, the problem is that folk who believe God's plan is to make us comfortable and to keep American traditions going have simply not read much of the Bible. The Old Testament is full of requirements to provide for the poor, the alien, and the stranger. Jesus didn't own much of anything at all, nor did his disciples, and the book of James is full of comments about providing for the poor. I do not find many places where Jesus said that he came to keep everything going just the way it had always been.

The voting danger is that we can be seduced into thinking that the USA in some sort of golden age (steam locomotives, "I Love Lucy" and Christian prayer in public schools) was God's Jerusalem. It simply wasn't. When Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king, Jesus made the specific point that his kingship was not an earthly kingship. Candidates who promise to return us to a golden age (that never really existed for the majority) are not pushing a particularly Christian message.

Fear and terror

We love to be terrorized. Just look at all those Internet ads telling you "shocking news" that you won't believe. Whether it was the razorblades in Halloween apples (a thoroughly disproven myth), "Four things you should never order from a Chinese restaurant," or the idea that Harry Potter will turn all our children into disciples of Satan, we just absolutely thrive on the idea that the world is a hugely dangerous place, that nameless terrors are out to get us, and that we need to be afraid of everything.

That's why everyone wants to carry a gun to Wal-Mart. That's why people refuse to have their children vaccinated. That's why we have been hearing for years that "those people" are out to "steal" the election.

Yes, there are things to be afraid of (global warming, the gun-toting fool in my classroom, and drunk drivers, for example), and the prudent response is to find ways to counteract the danger (EPA regulations, gun control, and reasonable restrictions on alcohol).

It is worth remembering, though, that the Christian church got its start in an era when Rome was a terribly oppressive overlord, when disease and famine would wipe out whole populations, when the most basic public safety and hygiene concepts were unknown. It's also worth remembering that, even in the face of much more danger than we ever experience, the Christian message is one of hope, not fear.

The John Kennedy warning is only one of many issued by churches. I have a campaign flier that proclaims Richard Nixon to be God's man for the White House. Voting from fear is not a particularly Christian response, nor is it a particularly wise one.

So what?

What should we do? For one thing, we should be aware that many politicians claim the Christian label just long enough to run for office. If you want to vote for a Christian candidate, look deeper. For another, be aware that we live in an incredibly complex time. Simplifying the vote to one issue or one comment probably lets in many things you weren't prepared to accept. And above all, "be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Slogging through HTML

I have just spent nearly two hours working on the church website, trying to bring the code up to the current standards. Aside from the hacking (which was real), a big problem was that I had used methods that were about five years old for doing such things as inserting photos. And everything has changed. Not in very obvious ways either.

In the middle of all this, I posted a Facebook comment (somewhat grumpy) that I agreed with Harry Potter's Dolores Umbridge, who said that "change for the sake of change must be discouraged." As is usual with quotes from memory, I got that one wrong. What she actually said was "Progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged." Quite a difference! And Umbridge was mangling a more reasonable version of the old proverb: "Change for change's sake does not always result in progress."

We in the Episcopal Church often get accused of "going with the flow." Female clergy, a gay bishop, and now we are on record supporting transgender rights. Do we do this because we use The New Yorker magazine as our moral compass?

Actually no, and it takes a LOT to change our official stance on anything. The process is similar to amending the US Constitution, and for similar reasons. Big-time proposals have to go through committees, be voted on in major legislative bodies, then down to the parishes, and on and on. We do this so we are not tempted to jump on every bandwagon that comes down the street.

Then there is the "three-legged stool," our nickname for the three sources of authority in our church: Scripture, tradition, and reason. (In practice, that's a misleading metaphor: We should talk about the old-fashioned stool at a lunch counter. Scripture is the shiny pole embedded in the floor, while reason and tradition are like the footrest you use to keep from falling off the thing.)

In practice, Episcopal theology has a baked-in stability. I just wish HTML programming language did the same.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Deanery = MAC

Last night was the MAC meeting in Wooster, and, like a lot of what goes on in the Episcopal Church, it was important but generally invisible to most parishioners. So I'm going to let you in on the secret(s).

Elsewhere, this group would be called a "Deanery" because it's under the supervision of a Dean (our own Kay Ashby, in this case). Somehow ours is called the Mission Area Council (MAC). It's a group of seven local churches plus Tabor Cottage, and each group sends a clergy representative plus a couple of laypersons.

Aside from sharing a dinner and exchanging the usual chit-chat, we get progress reports (for example, the church in Mount Vernon just got all the stained glass windows on one side of the church refurbished, which makes them look great, but the ones on the other side now look pretty dull). We find out about area-wide events (such as Shelby's all-day youth event a few weeks ago).

More substance

Every year, we have a couple of Diocesan gatherings. One is the Convention (this year on the weekend of November 11 in Bowling Green), and each church is urged to send a couple of delegates; MAC helps out by giving money to help defray the cost of transportation and lodging. The other is Winter Convocation, usually held in January. Convention is very official; we are discussing policy and decisions. Convocation is much more fun, more like an inspiring get-together. And MAC also provides scholarship money to help people get to Convocation.


Over the years, MAC has provided money for a number of projects, for example computers and solar power for schools in Belize. Currently, we are assembling household goods (sheets, pots, pans) for recent refugee immigrants.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Politically Correct

We have heard a lot about political correctness recently, mainly from a candidate for President. I suspect, though, that outsiders who look at the Episcopal Church see us as a bastion of political correctness, a place where nice people say nice things to one another and don't rock any boats.

One Episcopal joke (OK—I'm spoiling the punchline) has an Episcopalian missing out on heaven because of using the wrong fork on a salad.

And it's easy to see our advocacy for gay rights and full inclusion of women in leadership as attempts to "go with the flow" and just be nice to one another.

That's not how we do doctrine. Our process for dealing with truth has sometimes been called a three-legged stool, but that analogy doesn't quite work, for it implies that all three legs (scripture, reason, tradition) are equal. Scripture is the overwhelmingly important one, so the analogy should be more like the old-fashioned stool one used to find at lunch counters: one main pillar embedded in the floor (scripture) and a couple of side supports (your legs) that you use to balance yourself. The good thing about the three-legged stool analogy, though, is that it works against the tendency some have to pluck one verse out of the Bible, read it in modern English without discussing its historical context or linguistic background, and apply it as an unchanging rule. Here are a couple of examples to show what I mean:

Women in the church. We often hear, for example, of I Corinthians 14:34, which says that women should keep silent in the church and 1 Timothy 2:11-12, which says that Paul would not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. But what about all the important women in the Bible, including some who had a great deal of authority? What about the passage that says in the Kingdom of God there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28)? What about our own ancient history in which it was common for Celtic Abbesses to be persons of authority over both men and women? What about the modern missionary movement, which would have been impossible without female missionaries? Obviously, some thinking beyond a one-verse proof-text is necessary here.

Gay people and sexual minorities in the church. Once again, we get a lot of one-verse proof-texting. I'll just point out that the Leviticus "anti-gay" verse (18:22) uses the same language that is used for banning the eating of certain food, that the most-quoted New Testament verse in I Corinthians uses very unusual language that a Greek-speaker would not ordinarily use in discussing gay people, and that, by Paul's time, the real sexual transgressions of pagan society included ritual prostitution (some of it forced) in the worship of pagan deities. Forced temple prostitution is not what happens in the USA. I don't know how much weight we can put on it, but when Jesus healed the Centurion's servant, the Greek might indicate that the servant was actually a young slave who had been bought to be a lover. We certainly know, however, that the early church venerated Saints Sergius and Bacchus, who have normally been assume to be a couple.

Taking the heat for being politically correct

On both of these issues (and on several others, including our advocacy for civil rights and for the rights of immigrants), we have actually lost members who preferred the status quo, and pursuing justice on these issues has involved a lot of study, argument, and prayer, so it's not really correct to say we are advocates "just to be nice." We do these things because (after a lot of soul-searching) we're convinced that God is leading us to do the right thing.

Political correctness and the modern debate

OK—this is the part you thought I was going to write about. I'm old enough to remember when the default pronoun for a situation in which we were discussing generic humanity was "he." In the early days of the feminist movement, we struggled with a lot of silliness (for example, those who would write by alternating pronoun gender, paragraph by paragraph), and a lot of trivial campaigns (for example, the move to change the helper at a football game from "water boy" to "water person" and changing the name of an access hatch from "manhole" to "person hole").

But consider the roots of all this. How many female doctors, after struggling through medical school and residency, had to point out that they were "real" doctors and not nurses? How many divorced men can only see their children a few days a month because the mother is the "real" parent? How many Africans cringe when a Christian preacher makes reference to a heart that is "black with sin" and needs to be "washed whiter than snow"?

There is something basically loving and Christian about moderating one's language so as to avoid hurting or insulting the listener. And this isn't a matter of being spineless, but of standing firm for the truth that in God's eyes, people matter and we have no right to hurt them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Orlando Attack

To recap—especially because these comments might be read some time in the future—the material below refers to a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday, June 12. In that attack, over 100 were shot, and more than 50 died.

Our Bishop, Mark Hollingsworth, has published this excellent response to the massacre. I have only a few things to add:
  • News media and politicians, ever eager to get in the first word, instantly published speculations about the motivations of the shooter. Because of his name and his religion, he was instantly labeled as a radical Muslim terrorist by some. Reality is more complex than that, and his motives might well include self-hatred for his own homosexuality. We just don't know yet because the event is so fresh in our minds. It's only been three days. We shouldn't rush to judgment.
  • Religious figures have rushed to demonize Muslims and gay people as a result of this attack. They should know better. Self-appointed prophets of doom and hatred have little to do with the Christian message.
  • Gun control is a topic which will come up again, and the extremists claim that we should actually have more guns, and that proposed background checks on buyers and bans on military-grade weaponry would not have stopped this attack. They are right, but they miss an important point. Seat belts have been required in cars since 1968. Did the death rate from car wrecks go down instantly? No, because a lot of cars still didn't have them, and there was a lot of public resistance to using them. What we have seen, though, is a declining number of deaths and injuries over the last 48 years as occupant protection became more of a priority and seatbelt use became more universal. It's the same story with guns. Passing laws to control availability of guns, especially of military attack weapons, will not instantly decrease the number of deaths, but it will be the beginning of a process. We have seen resistance to changes that will improve public welfare from tobacco companies, from coal and oil companies, and from gun and ammunition companies. We mustn't let their desires to make money overwhelm our need to live quiet, peaceful, healthy lives.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

MAC and Gun Control

St. Matthew's is part of a group called the Mission Area Council (MAC), seven nearby Episcopal churches who meet to exchange news and plan for such things as outreach and mission. (One of our upcoming projects is to assemble Welcome Kits for refugees—such things as pots, pans, blankets, and household items.)

At our regular meeting last Thursday, we decided to begin a letter-writing campaign to state and national legislators demanding meaningful action to regulate the sale and distribution of guns and ammunition.

The rhetoric you hear from those in favor of gun ownership all sounds as if we must be prepared to defend ourselves against terrorists banging down the doors of our houses and a national government that has lost its mind and is attempting to enslave us. The truth is that guns are a far greater danger to the family of the owners than terrorists or criminals are. So far this year in Ohio, five children and youth have been killed by gunfire and fourteen injured. Numbers for adults would be far higher.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Don't all Christians hate gay people?

In a word, no.

With all the media attention that's been focused on same-sex marriage and the restroom issue, it would be easy to get the idea that antagonism toward sexual minorities is foundational to the Christian message. It isn't. In fact, Jesus said nothing about such topics, and the New Testament writers only touched slightly on them. (And there are serious questions about the translation of some of the Greek terms that seem so obvious in a modern English translation.)

(It's also worth mentioning that news media focus on sensationalism and conflict because such things drive up their audience numbers. That's how a relatively small number of screaming church members get so many headlines on gender issues.)

Who we are/how we work

Generally, big issues of doctrine and policy are decided in the Episcopal Church from the top down. (Note: This is what "Episcopal" means: We are governed by bishops.) Since 1976, we have been officially committed to the idea that "homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church." Here is the official statement on our denominational website plus some helpful links.

Within our own Diocese (that's the group of Episcopal parishes in the north half of Ohio), we don't have another official statement—the national one is good enough—but our bishop is on record as a supporter of full equality for full inclusion of LGBT people in the church. As an example, here's his letter to the Diocese, written just after the Supreme Court decision regarding same-sex marriage.

Back at St. Matthew's

Inclusion is such a total non-issue for us (we've been working on it for 40 years!) that you have to be a real Sherlock Holmes to find the LGBT people in our midst. As a congregation, we really do try to practice our denominational slogan: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. Here's the way our Diocese website says it:
You will find us to be old and young, male and female, gay and straight, single, married, divorced, and widowed, white and black, CEO and unemployed, rich and poor.

I realize that this post will probably get some responses, and I welcome them. You should know, however, that when you submit a comment, it will not appear immediately; it will be read by the webmaster before it posted to the blog.

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.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Too focused on the building?

Churches tend to get focused on buildings, and we share that problem. The issue really is that we need a special, dedicated space to do the things we do—worship, sing, and so forth—but we're not a business, so we can't just budget building repairs and maintenance as part of our overhead cost and adjust our prices accordingly. And, because we are Episcopalians, we have a concept of sacred space, so the idea of a minimal concrete-block building, metal folding chairs, and a cheap electronic piano just doesn't fit.

To outsiders (and even, sometimes, to ourselves) all this begins to look like the church equals the building and we make it pretty so we can sit in it and enjoy the beauty. All that, of course, misses the point on two levels. For one thing, we would be the church if we lost all our buildings and had to worship, as early Christians did, in private homes with the doors locked. For another, the ultimate audience for our singing and worship is not ourselves, but God. A beautiful stained glass window is quite pleasant, but really it's there to say something about God, and the whole operation is to please him. (Note to self: Try to remember this the next time a fellow congregation member is singing his/her heart out on a hymn I don't like and doing it badly. If God likes it, my opinion doesn't count for much.)

History of our building

One day, I would like to write a definitive history of that A-frame building. This isn't it, but from what I've heard, St. Matthew's Parish was a going, growing operation in the 1960s. We bought a lot of land out on the edge of town and wanted a building fast, so we went for three pre-fabs (the sanctuary, the parish hall, and the education wing). This explains a lot of the choices in materials and furnishings. After a while, it became clear that the building would not be a five-year temporary, so generous donors provided the stained glass windows and pipe organ.

The congregation declined in numbers for a lot of reasons, so that by the time Rev. Kay arrived attendance was around a dozen. (We are in the 40s now.) With a congregation that small, a lot of important things got put on the back burner, including building maintenance. That's why, when we began planning the Capital Campaign, we had to focus on things like the roof ("Won't make it through another winter" said our contractor.) and exterior paint ("You haven't painted this in how long?"). Next up is the asbestos floor tile in the parish hall—tiles like this have not been made since 1986, and they had a typical service life of 30–40 years. Ours is obviously a lot older than 1986.

The point of all this

Actually, there is more than one point. For one thing, a good building is a tool for reaching out to the community. We learned that when we replaced our aging fire-hazard kitchen stove with a modern one—even making corn bread in the old oven for a dinner meeting was impossible. For another, visitors do form opinions based on what they see. Clean, well-organized and inviting wins over shabby and disintegrating.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Mugging our Visitors

They're in! We now have six dozen coffee mugs to give to first-time visitors, along with a brief brochure explaining the Episcopal Church and our parish. The color is cobalt blue, and the message on both sides (so even left-handers can see it) is

Welcome to
St. Matthew's
Episcopal Church
Ashland, Ohio

I've already given one to a visitor who came to the Maundy Thursday service, and she thought it was mighty fine.

Mugging our Members

Long-time members who would like a mug can also have one. We'd appreciate a donation to offset the cost of the mugs—I'm suggesting $5. The mugs and a donation box are near the Parish Hall door.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Welcoming Church

Building upgrades

Rev. Kay's sermon last Sunday referred to St. Matthew's as a "Welcoming Church." She's not the only one who has used that term for us, and you should see some "welcoming" changes over the next few weeks. We're working on the small things (getting outside lights to work so people can find their way down the Parish Hall steps after an evening meeting) and larger things (freshening up the landscaping).

By Easter, we're hoping to have a welcome gift and brochure available for first-time visitors. Coming to a new church is really scary (Now what am I supposed to do??? Good Grief! They just switched songbooks!!!) I hope the brochure takes some of the edge off that—though having a helpful St. Matthew's person at the elbow of a newcomer will help a lot.

One change we are still working on is a sign directing people to the front door. The route to the real front door is so obscure that almost nobody finds it, and the usual path into the building—through the Parish Hall—puts a newcomer into a really confusing hubbub of people putting on robes, making coffee, talking about football, and setting out trays of food. It takes a lot of endurance for the visitor to burrow through all that to find the real greeters. We need a sign. That's the next step.

The point of all this

Almost nobody goes searching for an Episcopal Church; people are interested in finding God, and the Episcopal Church is a good way to do so. And if our point is to build up the congregation so we have enough people to survive as a group, we have our priorities wrong. Our priority in all of this, whether we're painting the front door red or making coffee or preparing for a Bible study group, is to help people get closer to God through Jesus Christ. We need to remember that.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Body Language in Worship


Recently I was trying to put together a brief welcome brochure for folks who are visiting St. Matthew's, and I wanted to say something about all the physical gestures we use, so I did the obvious (to me) thing, and did a Google search. I ran into the blog post below (it comes from Holy Cross Episcopal Church of Weare, New Hampshire), which seems to cover the basics nicely.

As you read it, you will probably notice subtle differences between their practice and what we do at St. Matthew's. I think that's OK. We really do not have an "Episcopal Liturgy Police" that will make trouble for you if you cross yourself at the wrong time—or even go the other direction according to the practice of the Greek Orthodox Church! The ending advice of Holy Cross is good: Be reverent; don't disrupt the worship of others or call attention to yourself; let this be an outward expression of your inward devotion.

Body language

Someone coming to from another denomination remarked, “The thing I like about it here is people are free to do different things at church: sit, kneel, stand, cross themselves, bow or not.” We do have that kind of flexibility. But sometimes people want a bit of guidance in feeling their way to what works for them in worship. So here’s an attempt to provide that.

First of all, the ground for what follows is a reminder that we worship with our bodies, not just with our minds and hearts. Just as Jesus was God “embodied” in human flesh, so we are spirits in flesh. If you’ve ever watched people of other cultures dance or move in worship—Africans, Latin Americans, gospel choirs—you get the idea. Some of us are more comfortable with that than others, but exploring a little movement is something we all can try.

Standing, sitting, kneeling. The old rule in the Episcopal Church used to be stand to sing, sit to listen, kneel to pray. But scholars of worship have told us that until the Middle Ages people stood to pray, often raising their arms to heaven (as the priest does at the Altar, and as is common in the charismatic tradition). So now the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer generally lists standing before kneeling when giving the options for prayer. Standing is more a corporate posture; kneeling a privatized one. Standing is also the customary posture during the reading of the gospel lesson. Of course, sitting is most comfortable for those with disabilities—and it’s just fine.

Crossing yourself. Here again, it’s a matter of what works for you. Making the sign of the cross is a way of expressing bodily the love of Jesus on the Cross for us. It’s done in the Western Christian tradition by taking the fingers of the right hand and touching, in order, forehead, chest, left shoulder, right shoulder, and (optional) chest again. A safe practice for beginners is to cross yourself whenever the priest crosses him or herself and when he or she blesses you or signifies the forgiveness of your sins by making the sign of the cross over you. When the gospel is proclaimed, it is also the custom to make a little cross gesture with just your right thumb over your forehead and your lips (signifying that you believe the gospel in your mind and will proclaim it with your mouth). There are a few times in the Eucharist or Mass where you may see people making the sign of the cross when it is no longer deemed appropriate. These times are at the Benedictus (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”)—because it’s Jesus who is blessed here, not you; at the mention of the resurrection of the dead in the Creed—the sign of the cross here is a superstitious relic to ward off death; and at the conclusion of the Gloria in excelsis. There are, finally, a few places where you might want to make the sign of the cross when the priest doesn’t: notably when you receive Communion. And, of course, making the sign of the cross is often a part of private prayer, at meals or bedtime—or even before attempting a free throw! Again, if it’s helpful to you, go for it—just be reverent in your gestures as you would be in your words and thoughts.

Bowing, genuflecting. Two other gestures of reverence are used in worship. The first is bowing, which properly should be a real bending at the waist, not a token nod of the head. This is a gesture of reverence traditionally given to the cross, especially when carried in procession at the beginning or ending of a service, and to the Altar, when entering or leaving the church or moving towards or past the Altar. Genuflecting means bending the knee, again more than just a little bob if your joints permit. It is the traditional gesture of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament (the consecrated Bread and Wine). When the Sacrament was reserved behind the Altar, people would genuflect to it there; that gesture tended to carry over as one of reverence to the Altar when the place of reservation was moved to another site, but technically it is appropriate to genuflect only when approaching the Altar on which consecrated Bread and Wine are actually present.

Having written all this, it should be stressed again that fussiness is to be avoided in body language; the aim is achieving a harmony of body, mind and heart. Also remember that when we worship in a congregation, it is not appropriate to do ostentatious or disruptive gestures that might interfere with others’ worship or call attention to ourselves. That goes among other things for the way we exchange the Peace of Christ in the Eucharist. Read other people’s body language and adapt your own to theirs when exchanging the Peace with them!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Sacred Space¹

Humans are amphibians … half spirit and half animal … as spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time, means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.
—C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
I love that Lewis quotation, partly because it sums up so neatly who we are as Episcopalians and as Christians. We're neither/nor; we're both/and.

I offend and startle some by saying that, in a sense, we are far less cerebral and spiritual than many other Christian groups. What I mean is this: In many other traditions, worshipers are asked to pray silently, to imagine things, and to do things "in their spirit." I used to be part of a church where we would sing many songs about bowing our heads, getting down on our knees, and even, occasionally, about prostrating ourselves. If anyone had actually done any of that on a Sunday morning, it would have created quite a stir. We were supposed to (in the words of the pastor) "kneel in our spirit."

The Episcopal Church, like most liturgical churches, is incredibly active and incredibly physical. We stand, sit, kneel, bow, and cross ourselves. People carry things around. We light candles. Many of us will not simply sit down when we first enter the room—we bow first. And we bow again as we go up those steps to get to the place where the lectern is. We get in a line and walk up to the front of the room. We eat and drink. People wear special clothing of several different types. If you have never been part of a church before and wish to join, someone will put water on your head. If you are sick, someone will make the sign of the cross on your forehead with oil. In a couple of weeks, with great ceremony, we will remove all the decorations from the room, only to bring them back in a couple of days later. (As a relative newcomer to the Episcopal Church, I was astonished on my first Easter morning when someone started an enormous fire in the back of the room before anything else happened.)

All of this gets back to the C.S. Lewis quotation: Unlike the angels, we are both spirit and flesh, and it makes sense to get both the spirit and the flesh involved in the business of worship.

What's Holy?

We wouldn't prefer it, but using a common coffee mug for Eucharist in place of a special chalice would not seem like a sacrilege. But is it OK to use the Communion Chalice as a candy dish?

I've been to conferences where a cafeteria table was used as an altar, but is it OK to use the altar for a craft project?

If you were horrified by the idea of the chalice as a candy dish or the altar as a craft table, that's your sense of the sacred kicking in. There's nothing wrong, really, with either candy or craft projects, but the chalice and altar have been set aside for something different. (That's the root meaning of sacred.) In a sense, they belong to God's service now. Find something else to fill with candy.

Where's Holy?

In the Old Testament, the Temple was arranged as a series of concentric courtyards. There was the world outside. The first real "temple" item was the "court of the Gentiles," which anyone could enter. Inside that, an area for ritually clean Jews. Inside that, an area for priests. And at the center of the whole, the "holy of holies," which only the High Priest could enter, and only once a year.

For more than a thousand years, Christian church architecture has echoed that arrangement:
  • Narthex is the outer vestibule. (Historically, it was the place where the unbaptized and those who needed to do penance could listen in on the service without actually participating.)
  • Nave is the room where most of the people gathered. (The name really does refer to ships, possibly because the roof beams look like inside of a ship, turned upside-down. We're all in the same boat.)
  • Chancel is the place for the altar and the people who have special responsibilities there. In some traditions (and in our own if you go back a few centuries), the division between nave and chancel wasn't just a low fence; it was a solid wall. (Sister Nadine mentioned the other day that it's quite recent for women to be allowed beyond that dividing line.)
The point here is not that God's presence is limited to one location. It's always been possible to pray in a fishing boat or workshop or family home. The point is rather to say something about the "otherness" of God. For a human being to enter His presence isn't quite like walking into a classroom or an inn.


All this talk of holiness (especially the part about the wall between the nave and the chancel) emphasizes the strange, unwelcoming nature of God's presence, but there's also the "still, small voice" heard by Elijah (1 Kings 19:12). That's the other side of "sacred space." I like the way the movie A Series of Unfortunate Events defined "sanctuary":
Sanctuary is a word which here means a small safe place in a troubling world. Like an oasis in a vast desert or an island in a stormy sea.

¹I'm supposed present a teaching on February 25 at our weekly Lenten Preparation session. This is the first part of that teaching.

²By the way, if you are new to the Episcopal Church, the best way to figure out what to do is simply to watch the priest. And don't get too obsessed with it. Nobody will notice if you don't cross yourself at the right moment.

Liturgical Colors*

In the words of Robin Williams, one of the ten best things about the Episcopal Church is that the year is color-coded. The idea isn't unique to us; many other traditions have a changing color scheme for such things as clerical vestments, altar cloths, and the like, but the colors differ from ours.

I don't want to get into the history behind these colors (you can find a good discussion in this blog), but things can get pretty complex, especially in the larger churches that have daily services. The list below is just the basics

Through the church year by color

Advent: The traditional color is blue, Mary's color. (If you are in an art museum and you see a painting with a woman who is wearing blue, chances are that it's Mary.) In some places you see purple as the color of Advent because it's the color of royalty and Christ is the king who is coming. (Purple can also be a money-saving strategy: in the Middle Ages, blue dye was very expensive, and even today, not every church can afford all the extra vestments and cloths that only get used four times a year.) Some churches use pink for the third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete Sunday).

 Christmastide: Not just Christmas day, but the entire season until Epiphany, the color is white, the color of celebration, joy, and peace.

Epiphany: Green, the color of of revelatory experience.

Lent: Many churches use purple, the color of penitence. We follow an ancient tradition and use something called Lenten Array, sort of an undyed sackcloth, to recall the tradition of repenting in sackcloth and ashes.

Holy Week: Red, the color of excitement and energy.

Good Friday: Black, the color of deep sorrow.

 Easter: The color is white, the color of celebration, joy, and peace.

Pentecost: Red, the color of excitement and energy. Red also recalls the flames of the Holy Spirit that rested upon the Apostles in the Upper Room.

Ordinary Time: Green, the color of of revelatory experience. By the way, "ordinary" does not here mean "mediocre." It's related to the idea of counting—we're counting the days and learning about Christ. This is, after all, where we spend most of our lives.
*This is the second part of my Thursday talk concerning Holy Spaces.

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.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Beginning Again Again

From its beginning, this blog has been sort of an odd mixture of personal opinion, announcements, and church news. It's being written by a guy who has (a) an incredible amount on his plate, with teaching several English courses and keeping up with church business, and (b) isn't too sure whether he has the right to speak "officially" for either the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) or the local parish.

So I have made a couple of changes. One is that the local parish's website now contains two new blog items for "Announcements" and "Transitions." That way I can simply stick items such as coming meetings and the like in the places where they are more natural. The other is that a new disclaimer appears at the bottom, listing me as the real source for this material and (I hope) getting both St. Matthew's and the Bishop off the hook if I say something stupid.