Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Good Dog

As of 6:00 p.m. yesterday, we are the delighted owners and new friends of a dog. His name is Brindle (we're playing with Brin for short or Brindlebug for fun).

Brindle is a Bugg (half Boston terrier, half Pug) and is sitting at my feet even as I write. It's been many years since I've had a dog, so I am still getting used to face licking and saying "No!" when he starts to chew my shoes. Brindle is a puppy, so of course there's a lot of training in our future, and very likely a lot of poop and pee in the wrong places. He's supposed to be paper trained already, but so far the best he's managed is peeing in the neighborhood of the paper.

Amazingly enough, Brindle didn't whine all night long even though it was his first night away from his brothers and sister. Our boys spent part of the night with him in their sleeping bags but somewhere in the middle of the night stuck him in his kennel and snuck up to bed. I got up this morning to find him staring out the kennel door. The second I let him out, he ran to the carpet and pooped. This may take some time.

But then, time we got. While we want to get the training on track early, we have a lifetime to make the relationship – and from all early indications, Brindle is more than willing to let that happen with us.

He's a bat-faced little thing, but from the moment we saw him (private dog owner we know), we fell in love with him. And yes, he is a cutie. By the way, he's now snoozing in my lap – really, he's hard to resist. Good Dog, Brindle!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Missing Communion

Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a friend at the local Roman Catholic church. I went in a tie rather than in collar because this was personal. Besides it was my day off. What's more, I was a visitor in a church other than my own, not serving a liturgical function. It seemed better to simply go as a friend.

Sitting in the back – I know, I was doing exactly what I grouse about – I got a chance to watch the service from a let's-compare-notes point of view. Must be an occupational hazard. Can't just go to church anymore, now I always have to see how others do it.

I came away with a couple of observations. First, it's striking how similar our liturgies are. I knew that all along, of course, but to sit there and listen to the words I normally say myself, well, it felt very much like home.

But, second, it did not feel at all like home. If anything, the similarities between the liturgies underscored the feeling of alienation. Imagine coming to your aunt and uncle's home. Your uncle looks just like your dad, and the house is very much like your own. They welcome you graciously but also make it clear that you really don't belong. When mealtime comes around, they say the exact same grace you grew up saying – but then they say, "You understand because you're not part of this family, it's impossible for us to let you eat this food." It's a kick in the stomach.

Now, I have many Roman Catholic friends and relatives. We've had this conversation before, and I know their response. There's a rift between the churches, and in fact, Rome doesn't really consider Reformation churches to be churches at all. Yada, yada, yada.

In the front of the missal there was a note of welcome to non-Roman Catholics as well as non-Christians stating that because of the sad divisions between Christians, others could not receive Holy Communion. Regrettable, to be sure, but what can one do?

Then something caught my eye. Members of the Orthodox Church could indeed received communion here – as long as it was okay with their own church leadership. Now, that was strange. You may remember that there was a split between East and West that became final in 1054, largely over Papal authority and the Filioque ("and the Son" in the Nicene Creed, added in around 589).

Now, as an Anglican, it distresses me to go to church and be refused communion. And what are the differences that separate us? Papal authority mostly (just like the Orthodox). And the fact that our split with Rome happened five hundred years later than the East's. Think about it. We use the exact same Creeds (we have no Filioque issues). We pray the same prayers for the most part. We have always shared apostolic succession (where each bishop is consecrated by three other bishops who in turn were consecrated by three other each in an unbroken line back to the apostles). We believe in the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion.

So what is the grievance breach that makes it impossible for us to share the Body and Blood of Christ?

There was a moment when I considered presenting myself for communion anyway. Only, the priest and I know each other, and he would have been required to turn me away. Was that something I really wanted to do at a friend's funeral. Besides, if someone doesn't want me at their table, I will oblige.

But I do so with sadness and a certainty that this is not how Christ intended us to address our relatively minor differences. It's not going to change in my lifetime, I'm sure. On the other hand, it is very much part of our church's teaching to welcome all baptized Christians to the altar to receive the Body and the Blood of Christ. Regardless what any other Christian thinks of the meal we share, it is open and available like Christ's love itself.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Gay Dumbledore

As you may know, I've been a Harry Potter fan since the very first days. We had to special order our first Harry Potter book because no one at Barnes and Noble had heard of it.

So now, after the series is finally complete, J. K. Rowling reveals that Albus Dumbledore was gay.


Sure, he could have been gay, but so what? What he really was, was celibate. Apparently, the only sexual encounter – if it even came to that – was with the soon-to-turn-evil Grindlewald back when he was a teenager. From that point on, Dumbledore seems to have no romantic partner of any sort.

Come to think of it, NONE of the teachers at Hogwarts seems to have a sexual identity. In other words, it's a non-issue.

But of course, as a pastor, people ask me, "What do you think of it? Does that change your attitude toward the books?"

The answer is, NO. The books show Dumbledore always acting in the best interests of his charges and never acting inappropriately. Gayness or straightness has nothing to do with appropriateness. I read a commentary that suggested Dumbledore chose a career in a school so he could be close to all those teenage boys. What silliness. That commentator seems to confuse gays for pedophiles, which are completely different creatures (and mostly straight according to mental health experts).

Perhaps this issue can fairly ask one question. If a person never acts on their sexual impulses (or ceases to do so at a very young age), can that person be said to be gay or straight at all? Let us take, as an example, members of religious communities. Monks and nuns live in community with people of their same gender but take vows of celibacy. I know some monks who would identify themselves as straight and others who identify themselves as gay – yet none of them act on their sexual inclinations. In reality, they are simply monks, and each monk – just as each person – must wrestle with their own issues in their own way.

I believe the Harry Potter books teach many great values such as honesty, courage in the face of wickedness, friendship and compassion. Whether it made sense for J. K. Rowling to announce Dumbledore's gayness after the fact, I can't tell. It certainly generated a good amount of buzz, but did it add anything to the conversation about gay/straight relations and tolerance? I don't know.

All I know is that Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and I guess – if he were real – that would include a gay Dumbledore as much as a straight Harry.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Better Life – a sermon

I'm thinking of starting my own TV show. I've got it all figured out because I've watched enough of those big mega-church shows and those self-improvement shows. First off, I need a big stage and a big auditorium. Then I need some fashionable furniture on the stage, a bunch of potted plants, and maybe a clear-plastic lectern. Add a wireless microphone, and I'm good to go. Then I can do workshops and write my self-help books to supplement my show. Could be a gold mine.

I figure the audiences will start flowing in after awhile once I start my new show – because I've been checking out the formula – the magic things that these folks say which bring them in so effectively. What they promise is a better life.

Say what you like about these shows and the mega-churches, but they do understand this. They understand that countless people are not satisfied with their lot in life – that they are looking for something more. In truth, they understand what people are looking for in life. I am quite serious.

One of the funny things is, what people are looking for in life does not really have that much to do with money or power or prestige. At our deepest core, what we want, what we long for is three things: Purpose, Acceptance, and Connection.

We want to know that our lives mean something, that we are here for some bigger purpose than to merely eat, sleep, add to the population, work and die. We need this sense that our lives matter. (St. Francis is an extreme example of this: He gave away everything and lived in utter poverty so he could care for the poor. We are not asked to go to that extreme.)

We also want to be accepted. We need to know that, despite our obvious failings, all is forgiven, and we can still find acceptance into whatever community we think is important. (The Martyrs are an extreme example of this: In order to prove themselves worthy of God's grace in the early days of the church, many volunteered for martyrdom even when it was easily avoidable. We are not asked to go to that extreme.)

Which brings us to number three: we long for connection. By God's own design, even those of us who cherish our "alone time" need to be connected with others. (Monks and other religious communities are an extreme example of this. They live in a community dedicated to God's worship and service in a way that is wonderful and, thank goodness, not expected of the rest of us.)

I figure I can make a TV show that includes purpose, acceptance and connection as well as the next self-improvement guru.

On the other hand, maybe I don't have to go to that extreme. Maybe that is what we at St. James' are here for – have been here for all along. Maybe what we have been doing at this little congregation on the Hudson River is exactly what we have been called by God to do: To help people understand how very important their lives are in God's eyes; To help them (which is to say to help ourselves) understand how welcome we are, how accepted we are in God's Kingdom; To help them know that they are part of this community and that the connections they – and we – long for, both with other people and with God, can be found here.

So what if we don't do it for a huge TV audience. We don't need to. We've already shown over and over that a small community like ours can do meaningful, important ministry. We have already shown that we understand God is not just interested in perfect people – but in US, just as we are. We ARE a community of love – just think back to Friday night's potluck – what a joyous and affirming occasion for us. And we are learning to become more loving of each other and ourselves.

Of course, I've watched enough of those TV shows to know that there is always the appeal for money. BIG money. I have a mailing from one of those shows that promises God will answer your prayers if only you will place your hand on the TV during the show and pray – and then send in a check for $50. And that's when I get lost. I've seen others that ask you how much you really love God, and then suggest that the amount of your check will let God know how much.

And I think to myself – No, I don't need a show like that. I don't need a place where my meaning comes from what I can pay. I don't need a place where I am accepted for a price.

St. James' is not a club. Yes, we have expenses, and yes, this is the Stewardship season where we talk about it. But when we talk about the "Fair Share," – as you will see in your stewardship letters that will arrive in the mail this week – it is an invitation to participate in the Kingdom. It's an invitation to look at our church and see God's purpose – which is to know God's love through Christ and to share. It's and invitation to look at our church and see God's acceptance – like the tax collector who said, "God have mercy on me, a sinner", and that was enough. It's an invitation to look at our church and see God's community in the flesh.

Each week, when I come to church, I have the privilege of looking every single person in the eye when they come up for communion. THERE is where I see God's love, God's grace, God's presence. I doubt I'll ever see that in the lens of a camera. That's why Liz and I pledge to this wonderful congregation – because we long to be part of the creative work of God, to make this church an active, joyful partner with God. A partner, mind you , that has been around for nearly 200 years – a heck of a lot longer than any self-help show.

I invite you to open your stewardship letters this week with a new sense of anticipation. Prayerfully read the words that so many of your fellow parishioners have written, and then pray over what God is inviting you to do. Your salvation does NOT depend on how big a pledge you make – or even if you make one at all (God knows there are enough of us for whom it is a struggle just to put bread on the table, and to them God says "come and be part of it all"). There are, in God's vastness, MANY ways to be part of the Kingdom and to make real contributions to that Kingdom. Oh, and one additional way you can be involved is to fill out the enclosed survey that will help us become a stronger community.

But for those who can give financially, that stewardship letter is your invitation to participate in a particular way.

We've been asking ourselves over the past few weeks: Why Church? Certainly, to practice following Christ. But in doing that, what we are really doing is asking God to give us a sense of purpose, acceptance, and connection. In practicing how to follow Christ, we are practicing that better life we long for. I don't need a TV show to understand that for me, that better life is right here. Amen.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Ten Years

Last night, the congregation had a little potluck to honor my tenth anniversary serving here. Ten years. Time flies when you're having fun, I guess.

This means one thing: Once again, I forgot my brother and sister-in-law's wedding anniversary. They got married the same weekend we moved up to New York from North Carolina. Funny thing about that was, I officiated their wedding – which meant that we drove up here one day, I flew out to Missouri the next day, and two days later was back to find that my wife had pretty much done all the work of getting the furniture in (it arrived while I was away).

It's a whole other story about how those things all happened at the same time, but either way, ten years is a fairly substantial time in churches.

To put it in perspective, the average length of a pastorate in our denomination is eight years. There are the long-termers who stay for twenty-plus years, and then there are the hoppers – those who stay two to three years moving around like Methodist circuit riders. But on average, there are the mid-termers – those who stay five to ten years.

Now, you might ask yourself, why would anybody move around so much? I'll argue that there are three main reasons. One, personality. Sometimes, the pastor and the parish just aren't meant for each other, and they either cut their losses or try to stay together miserably like an unhappy married couple. Two, opportunity. You might be happy in a parish, but then something exciting come along and you grab it, even though leaving is hard. Three, theory. There's a school of thought that says people should move around periodically so they don't get stale and so the congregation doesn't get too attached to the pastor. The opposition position says there needs to be some longevity so folks can create community.

I used to be of the opinion that staying around wasn't such a good thing. I spent five years in my first parish, three in the next. But after ten years here, I feel like I'm just now settling in. I feel like I'm just now becoming part of the community. Things are just now starting to perk with a new energy that does not feel at all stale but possibly more fun than they have felt in some time.

Could it be that after ten years the congregation and I are getting to know each other? As we spoke last night, I mentioned how our newest Vestry member was in elementary school when I arrived. Now he's 6' 5" and wears a size 17 shoe. I have watched kids move from Christmas pageants to their own wedding pageantry.

And as a pastor friend told me last week, "Now that you've been there a while, and they trust you, you can really start to do some new things."

Is it true? Does it take ten years before you can get anything done? Probably not. But I can say this much: it feels pretty new right now.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Does Nagging Help?

Churches know something about nagging – well at least if you ask most parishioners.

We nag about needing money. We nag about needing committee members. We nag about dinners, and Sunday School and fundraisers.

And THEN we nag about saying your prayers and caring for the poor and studying scripture on a daily basis. We are nags.

On the other hand, have you ever tried standing up in church once and saying, "We need new members of the finance committee. Those interested should see me at the back of the church." Just wait for the crowd you'll get with that one.

The reality is, nagging does work – somewhat. I mean, we're still functioning, aren't we?

But is that really what Jesus was talking about; beating people over the head with a request to do a job they really don't want to do? We need to look at what the widow in today's Gospel was doing first because that makes all the difference.

Jesus tells us that the widow went to the judge asking for justice against her opponent. You need to know that justice throughout scripture is a concept that focuses especially on God's "special regard for the poor and weak…" in which "a corresponding quality is demanded of God's people. Justice is closely related to love and grace rather than being a contrasting principle. It thus provided vindication, deliverance, and creation of community in addition to retribution." (Harpers Bible Dictionary)

That's a way of saying that justice for first century Jews was directed at what was the rights of the poor. The rules of the game, as it were, demanded that widows and other poor as recognized by society be cared for. Those who chose not to do so violated Jewish law. The woman, in other words, is demanding that her opponent give her her rights.

Those rights were simple. Food for the stomach, a roof over the head. That's something we can understand. If we believe what Jesus says, all we have to do is keep asking, and it'll finally be granted. In the same way, if we keep asking God for JUSTICE, God will grant it.

Only, does God grant justice to them? Billions upon billions of poor, needy, sick, injured, abused people have begged God over the millennia for justice, yet they suffer and die in pain and squalor. It's certainly happening today and in fact is happening to more people than ever before. How can we say that God will grant justice if we just pray more? What is Jesus telling us if that's not it?

First, as people of faith, we keep praying and working for justice anyway. Despite all appearance. Why? Because even if it doesn't help everyone, it will help some, and the more we help bring true justice, the closer we come to the Kingdome of Heaven.

Second, and more important. There is something we need from God which is greater than this earthly sort of justice. It is the only thing that we can have on this earth that cannot be stolen or broken or denied us, and it's the only thing we can bring with us from this life to the next. God's Presence.

God's presence in our life is – in fact – God's justice. Because while food will fail us someday, God's presence will always be there. While shelter will someday no longer help us, God's presence will always be there. While money and friends and yes, even the internet will someday be completely and totally meaningless to us, God's presence will always be there and will always fill us with God's love and peace. None of these other things – which are part of earthly justice – can ever do that. Let's face it, there are countless people who "have it all" and are miserable. That's not what they truly need.

Again, not that we should deny them to those in physical need – it is God's will that we care for each other, and without that, we can't begin to understand God's love. But when Jesus says that our Father in heaven will hear our pleas for justice, he's telling us to keep asking for it despite appearances because God will never deny that presence, yet asking for it is the only way to become aware of it.

I said a few weeks ago that we go to church to practice following God. Let's practice here praying – becoming aware of God's presence. There are a lot of distractions, but if we keep at it, never give up, we can become more and more aware. And as we grow in our awareness of God's presence, of God's love for us, we'll want to do as Paul says in his epistle: share that love with others around us. With those who cry out in their own need for God.

So true and ultimate justice is knowing God's presence and sharing it with a world hungry for real bread, real water. Jesus says you don't have to nag God for that sort of justice. Just ask, and the one thing we need above all else is ours. Amen.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Fall Festival

One of the things churches do is fundraising. Maybe not as much as the schools, but we do quite a lot.

One of our biggest and most exciting is happening today. The Fall Foliage Festival. 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM. It's jam-packed with vendors, petting zoo, classy tea room, food, food, food (hey, we're a church. We eat.) and entertainment. Who could ask for more, right? So, if you're not doing anything, come join us.

I've been up for a while listening to the rain, wondering if it'll mess up the festival, a large portion of which is outside. At about 11:30 PM, the really big storm roared through. I lay in bed wondering if the big tent we set up would still be standing. I will just assume. I lay in bed wondering if any tree branches would be down. I lay in bed wondering if the rain would ever stop.

Finally, I couldn't lie in bed any longer, so here I am. The rain has stopped, and in two hours vendors will start arriving to set up. This is going to be one very long day. But I also think it's going to be a fantastic day for the congregation and, I hope, the community.

Our parishioners have gone out of their way to make our home a hospitable place for their guests. They are even giving tours of the church and graveyard (there are some well-known folks in it). And of course, we are providing all sorts of informational literature about the church, our nursery school and our labyrinth (which we naturally invite people to use).

What I like about this particular festival is that it all stems from one person's desire to do something big but also a willingness to do the work. So often people say, "Wouldn't it be nice if we did X?" What they mean is, "Wouldn't it be nice if YOU did X?" Not this time. That person came up and said, "I have an idea, and if you let me, I'll see it through." You have no idea how good that feels.

The other thing I like is, it gets a whole lot of people involved, gets the community into our facility, and possibly even raises some money.

This sort of fundraiser isn't all that churches are about even if is feels like it some times. But it's nice when we can combine fundraising with fun and community. This is our first one of this sort in many years – but I think it won't be the last.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Have you kept up with the whole kerfuffle about the Armenian genocide? Or maybe the Red Sox's woes in the playoffs are what have kept you up at night. Well, in case you missed it, Congress is considering whether or not to officially designate as genocide the mass executions of Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

A lot of conservatives are asking – with some justification – why now? Why bring up old news from a government that doesn't even exist anymore? All it's doing is upsetting the Turkish government, our allies, and threatening our working relationship.

Of course, there are a lot of little things going on. First, I suppose, is that a Democratically controlled congress would naturally want to make life more difficult for a highly unpopular administration. This certainly does that. Turkey is threatening to pull permission for us to use their bases if the vote goes through.

And then, there is the fact that the recommendation to call that old event genocide has popped up many times over the years, always to little avail. It doesn't hurt that – according to NPR – Nancy Pelosi has a sizable Armenian constituency. Ah, politics is a beautiful thing when viewed from a great distance.

A lot of folks are angry at the Democrats for bringing up this old wound, and the Democrats are balking – this vote is not going to win. But while we're looking at it, let's ask a couple of questions.

One, why shouldn't we call it genocide? It was a concerted effort to destroy a particular ethnic group. One and a half million people were killed, and even if some of them fought back, the fact remains that the overwhelming power remained on the side of the state which carried out the killing.

Two, we are best served by remembering past genocides – and there have been many – so we can work all the harder to stop them in the future. Think back to the not so distant past. Rwanda. Cambodia. Germany. Or think to the present. Darfur. When we don't talk about the dirt of our past, we forget what human beings are capable of.

There is a disputed quote by Adolf Hitler (disputed because there's controversy over whether he actually said it), that involves the Armenian genocide. Despite the doubt over its authenticity, it is certainly something that he might well have said, and something he probably felt. He is reported to have said, "I have placed my Death's Head units in readiness—for the present only in the East—with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks to-day of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

The point is that speaking today of past atrocities does mean something and does have a place in modern conversation – despite being used for political sniping. As Christians, we have an obligation to speak truth to power. To speak up for those who are without power, not to cover over unpleasant realities because they inconvenience people from whom we want something.

But that brings me to a third point. If it is important to remember the past and not paper over it, why isn't anyone in Congress mentioning our own genocide? Or do we not dare to call what we did to the indigenous inhabitants of this land genocide? In 1944, Raphael Lemkin coined and defined the term "genocide." He called it the destruction of a "culture, language, national feelings, [and] religion." Isn't that what we did? Maybe we should ask Native Americans and see what they say.

So, while I believe genocide should be named, I believe those with logs in their own eyes should be careful about pointing out specs in the eyes of others. Or maybe we should all just shut up and watch the playoffs.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Two Points – A Sermon

Point one: Foreigners.

Point two: Gratitude.

One of the fascinating things about the scriptures is how much they have to do with foreigners. Jeremiah is writing t his compatriots who are in exile in Babylon. Paul is in Roman prison writing to Timothy in Ephesus – which is in modern Turkey. Jesus makes a point of noting that it is the Samaritan – the foreigner – who returns to praise God for being healed.

Why so much about foreigners? That's easy. In biblical days, it didn't take much to be a foreigner – just living a few towns down could suffice. Also, there was quite a lot of commerce between countries, kingdoms, and cultures. People were used to encountering others who spoke different languages and had different customs. In a way, they were much more sophisticated or open to diversity than we are today.

Yet they also had their periods where they cut themselves off from each other. Jeremiah is writing to a group of Jews who are in exile – but this is a group who not long before had tried to purge themselves of all foreign influence – the "purify" themselves. The irony is that now Jeremiah tells them to make themselves at home in the foreign land because they are not coming back.

In Jesus' time, Samaritans were outcasts in the eyes of Jews. They were foreigners in the same land, from the same lineage as the Jews but corrupted. Good Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid Samaritan towns or neighborhoods.

Throughout scripture, we not only see this portrayal of foreigners but we see them in a positive light. Timothy is no Israelite, yet he is Paul's trusted lieutenant. The Babylonians are the enemy, yet Jeremiah says to pray for their well-being. The Samaritan – well, we know, he is the one who shows great faith.

Throughout scripture, then, God points us to the eternal truth. There are no foreigners, only children of God. God knows us through our hearts, not our nationalities. Anyone who teaches otherwise has abandoned the path of Christ.

The second fascinating point we see in scripture is the idea of gratitude. We see it most clearly in this little story of the 10 men with leprosy – but you can find it, for example, in the story of Naaman in the Old Testament, the foreign general who is healed, and returns to Elisha to give praise to God. You can see it in Paul who, even though he's in prison and preparing to be executed, still gives thanks to God for all his blessings.

And of course, there is this Samaritan who, alone of the 10 lepers, comes back to Jesus and gives thanks. Now, why is that so important? Is Jesus really so petty that he needs people to tell him thank you every time he performs a miracle? No. Rather, he is teaching. When the Samaritan returns, Jesus asks, Were there not 10 who were healed? Where are the nine? Could no one be found to give glory to God except this foreigner? We have the foreigner issue, of course, but you might ask "Where ARE the nine?" Presumably they're off at the temple showing the priest – which is what the law requires. They're obeying Jesus.

What they are NOT doing is recognizing what has happened. They are not recognizing that it is God at work here, that the goodness in their lives come from God's grace and mercy. They may not even have thought about how they were healed or what it meant. You can imagine that some of them wandered away from the temple muttering, "It's about time. I should never have been made sick in the first place."

When that Samaritan returns to thank Jesus, notice what else Jesus says, "Your faith has made you well." Another translation says, "Your faith has saved you." Jesus equates giving thanks to God, praising God, with faith. And that is what saves us.

I don't want this point to get lost because it's important. GRATITUDE IS KEY TO YOUR FAITH. Someone else wrote, "Gratitude may be the purest measure of one's character and spiritual condition." In other words, those who can look around them and see God's loving hand at work – and give thanks – are closest to the heart of God.

The Samaritan leper saw what God had done and praised God. Do we see? Do we see what God does in our lives that is good and wonderful and beautiful? Look around. The very fact that any of us can take a breath is a miracle. The fact that we can sit inside with heat on a chilly morning is tremendous. Or that we could get to church even when separated by miles. As we leave today, look at those gorgeous trees, just beginning to turn – isn't that worth looking up and saying, "Thanks." Or Wow.

It's Fall, so you know we're entering pledge time. But this year, I want to look around and be truly thankful. So many folks have volunteered to write letters. So many have said, "I want to be a part of this." So many are looking around their church and saying, "God blesses me in this place, and I am more full because of it."

The funny thing about gratitude is that it's not for God's sake that we say thank you. It's for ours. When we live lives of thanks, we are happier, more complete, closer to God. When we live as if everything we have is ours, and we deserve it, we make ourselves less. Remember that book, "The Great Divorce"? When we live lives of thanks, then we are like those who get on the bus to heaven and find it beautiful and welcoming. Those who cannot look around them at any given moment and say, "Thank You" are like those who prefer to stay in hell to complain.

Two points occupy most of today's lessons. Get comfortable around the foreigners because they are God's children even as you are. And live your life filled with thanks – because it is that thanksgiving that will save you.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Our church has a Nursery School for 3 and 4-year-olds. It is a Christian school. I read bible stories to the kids. We teach them prayers and we do so in the name of Christ.

We also state in our mission statement that we welcome all children from any faith, as long as they have no problems with our prayers and overtly Christian teaching.

The other day some of the staff came to me a bit flustered because they had just learned that one of the children's mother is a Wiccan. Is this okay, they wondered? Perhaps more to the point, is this something we can have here, or is this devil worship?

I'm no expert on Wicca, but I know it's not Satan worship, and I know that the school long ago agreed that Christians welcome people of all religions. The best we could do was get online and look up Wicca.

Ever read about it? It's a pretty mundane religion when you think about it. It's not Christian, that's for sure, but it's no more strange or harmful than any other religion we don't buy into. It doesn't encourage violence. It honors creation and calls for the care of the earth. It doesn't have bloody rituals, or deal in curses or poisons or flying brooms.

As best I can figure – and the sources I read mention that Wicca does not have a hard and fast orthodoxy, so their beliefs are a little flexible – Wicca is a duotheistic religion. That is rather than believing in just one God (monotheism) or in many gods (polytheism), Wiccans believe in two gods – one male and one female. Of course, there are subdivisions of Wiccans who believe that one is greater than the other. There are others who believe that there is only one god but one who has two distinct parts.

Their religion is loosely based on the ancient western pre-Christian religions – pagan, if you will (pagan simply means "old" religions not of the Abrahamic traditions). Modern Wicca seems to have been developed over about a 30-year period from the 1920's to the 1950's when it came into its own. The word "witch" comes from the ancient English terms for priest, and in early Christian times witches (Wicce) were hunted down as practitioners of a banned religion.

It was only a matter of time before they came to be seen as practicing supernatural wickedness. Oddly enough, that's not unlike early Christians in Rome – people spread rumors about cannibalism (eating the body and drinking the blood of someone) in their secret rituals. And indeed, the early Christians did worship in secret because they were afraid of being captured and killed. Sadly, we did unto others what was done to us.

Some of the beliefs of Wiccans include reincarnation (not a Christian teaching) and retribution (if you do wrong to another, it will eventually come back at you. Many Christians also believe this, but there is the matter of God's mercy).

You can't go through an entire religion in one little post – that does neither the religion nor the reader justice. For my part, I have no more problem with it than I do with any other religion that differs from mine. So, how do I deal with the child of a Wiccan? Like every other child -- as the Benedictine monks say, we receive each guest as Christ himself.

Bishop Dan

Well, it finally happened. A member of my seminary class has been elected bishop. Yippee!

Actually, I can't think of another member of my class more qualified. Poor guy.

Dad Edwards will be the new Bishop of Nevada assuming the church approves, and as I said, I can't think of anyone better. Dad helped me through some difficult times in seminary with his down-home but brilliantly insightful pastoral presence. I can only imagine that Dan will bring those same sensitivities to his new position. Nevada is in the best of hands.

I want to say Congratulations to Dan.

On the other hand, what a rough job. He can have it.

To be a bishop is to be on the road all the time, to never have your own home parish but to have an entire diocese expect you to know them, to be involved in the national and international headaches. It is no easy thing, but it IS an important job. In the touchy environment our church finds itself in, dioceses need a calm, wise leader who will know when to hold hands and when to challenge.

It's not a job I would want or be suited for, but the right person in the position can do much good. I think Dan is the right person.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

All Those Extras

This has been one of those weeks where you get to experience all those little "extras" in life. You know, marriage, birth, death, that sort of thing.

Last week we were putting in a new boiler in our Parish House – the old one had outlived its usefulness about ten years ago. As it turned out, they did not finish on time so were still at it when our congregation hosted a big conference on Saturday. They were still at it when I officiated a wedding that afternoon. They took the day off when we had our big Blessing of the Animals service the next day, which ended two hours before a baptism. They were still at it Tuesday (Monday was Columbus Day, of course), when we got news of the death of an old parishioner, and still not finished today when we were planning the funeral. Whether we will have the funeral reception tomorrow amid grease and the smell of heating oil, I don't know.

What I do know is that sometimes you get this sort of week where everything seems to happen at once. Aside from the overwhelmed dumpster, they don't particularly present a problem. But they do make you think.

In a priest's life, there are moments when you get to be with people as they die – and more moments when you sit with their grieving families. There are moments when you walk a couple through the intricacies of a wedding – and the more important labyrinth of being married. There are moments when you try to talk young families out of a baptism that is being approached for the wrong reasons (because the extended family wants it or because they fear the child might go to Hell if he or she dies unbaptized), and, when they come for the right reasons, help them embrace the life of raising their child to follow Christ.

These are the moments, as a fellow priest told me, that no priest ever complains about. They are the reason we became priests – to preach and teach, to share life with others, to bring comfort and challenge when appropriate. It's possible that a lot of folks might not call this work. They might think of real work as doing the books, producing a newsletter, raising money, painting an office – something with tangible results.

But for many of us, being there with folks is huge. It's who we are, and it's necessary. Life is big and can be lonely. It's nice to have someone there who will accompany you on the journey, no questions asked, who will help provide context for life-changing events, who will assure folks that they are not alone – and they are not without purpose.

All those things we did this last weekend – almost a perfect storm of activity for such a small church – they're important. They are the life of the church, and it's nice to be allowed into them. I just hope the boiler will be working for our next extra.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Out of Control – a sermon

You know that feeling when you were a kid and you got on your bike on a hot summer day? You rode out on the street and felt the breeze run through your hair and under your arms. Maybe you got daring and took your hands off the handlebars and gave a whoop of joy. Then you took the bike down the hill and went faster. It was a big hill so it got faster and faster. You think, "I'd better grab those handlebars – this is getting fast." Then you see that bend in the road which you had forgotten about, and the bike's going really fast now. You put on the brakes only to remember they didn't work and the only words your mind can come up with are, "This is going to hurt."

That's called being out of control.

Usually, it's considered to be a bad thing.

Whether you are a person who is out of control or some situation is out of control, it means that things are not going to be smooth sailing for awhile. And it might just hurt.

Today we look at the life of St. Francis – but also at ourselves. Now, you know that St. Francis was a bit of a loose canon already, right? When he was a young man he hung out with the wrong sorts of people and got into all sorts of trouble. You could imagine his parents waiting up at night wondering, "Where did we go wrong?" Then one day he joined the army – because he really liked how he looked in uniform – and went to war. It took him all of one battle to get captured and wind up in prison where he spent a year thinking, "That was a really bad idea."

You probably already know that when he got home he was a much soberer young man who became converted to Christ. Only, then he got out of control again. Francis started taking his father's money to feed the poor and help the church. When his father tried to lock him in his room, Francis escaped and went about helping more people, which scandalized his father. Finally, his father took Francis to the bishop and said, "Talk some sense into this boy." In front of the bishop, Francis declared that from that day on he would dedicate himself to Christ's service alone, and that he would adopt a life of poverty. With that, he stripped off all of his clothes so that he would owe his father nothing, and walked down the street completely naked, singing hymns to God.

He was really out of control.

Which is pretty much how he would stay. This is a man who talked to animals, for goodness sake. In the town of Gubbio, there was a wolf terrorizing the people – talk about out of control – and nobody could seem to catch it. So Francis walked out to talk to it, which made everyone pretty sure he would be killed. Two creatures utterly out of control of anybody else, meeting outside the town. No wonder they could understand each other so well. Francis did not fear dying because death had no control over him. What could the wolf do to him, after all? Nor did he seek to control the wolf, merely find common ground.

Of course, St. Francis became the founder of a great monastic order, the Poor Brothers. His poverty, his humility, his freedom seemed awfully attractive to a lot of people. But as the order grew, it got out of control, too. Francis could no longer visit all the houses, and he was troubled by reports that some of the brothers found his way of poverty too difficult, so they were changing things a bit. Before long, Francis had no control and was shunted to one side. Yet even then, they say, he spent his last years filled with joy – not because everything was going well but because God was with him.

You may know what it's like to have things feel out of control. Where you can't make anything good happen, where everyone has unrealistic expectations of you, where a mountain of work and worry pile up on your shoulders and nobody is doing what you want. I don't think it's just me…. Well, that's a common theme in our lives. It's a big world with so many obstacles, so many dangers, so many things to get done – it's exhausting.

We have a little card in our kitchen that says something like, "You can't control the situation or the people around you – you can only control your reactions and attitudes." You can't control the aging process (or whether you get a disease) – you can only control how you approach the impending loss of abilities you once took for granted. You can't control people who SHOULD be doing things or thinking your way – you can only control how you approach them.

One of the things about our lives is that there are two ways of being out of control. We can try to control everything that goes on around us, try to make everything work just the way we want – and finally scream in fear or frustration when it doesn't. Or we can give up some of our control – voluntarily go out of control, as it were – and hand it over to God. Not that God will make bad things go away or make everyone agree with you. Ain't gonna happen.

But when we let go, when we reach the place where Francis was, and success becomes irrelevant, and whether everyone loves us becomes irrelevant, and whether we look ridiculous becomes irrelevant – because God loves us and is with us always even to the end of the age – then we are out of control in the best possible way. Amen.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

St. Francis and the Animals

Here's something fun. If you've got a pet, bring it to church this Sunday.

Well, bring it to our church (St. James', 4526 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, New York). Or at least check with yours to see if they're having the BLESSING OF THE ANIMALS.

The What of the What? you ask. The Blessing of the Animals.

If you're unfamiliar with this tradition, it's a fun way to celebrate the life and ministry of perhaps one of our wackiest and most profound saints. Wacky may not be the word you'd choose for a great saint, but a lot of folks thought St. Francis had lost a few marbles. After all, this is a man who walked away from a wealthy family with nothing – not even the clothes on his back. When he renounced his parents' way of life – in front of the bishop – he walked away singing hymns and completely naked.

He was also known to preach to the animals – ergo the traditional blessings. One story has him reconciling a killer wolf with the terrified people of Gubio. Another has him preaching to a flock of birds who listened respectfully.

Of course, his biggest contribution to his day was his endless care for the poor – giving everything he earned or begged to the care of those who had nothing. He is a role model for us all in that regard, though we may not need to go to his extremes.

If you want to hear more about a guy totally devoted to Christ, come to church this Sunday. Bring your dog or cat – or chicken or goat or horse (I've seen them all). You'd be amazed at how well they behave.

By the way if you want to come to our Blessing, it's this Sunday, October 7, at 10 AM. Weather permitting, we hold it in our beautiful meditation garden. See you there!