Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Towel Camp Journal - Day 2

Twelve members of our congregation are on a trip to North Carolina to work on the homes of those in need. It's called Towel Camp. I thought you might like a brief run-down of each day as it happens. You’ll be able to follow along - and I might even be able to send a photo each day. Hope you enjoy it.

Day 2:

Our first work day began with prayer and food -- lots of it. Our team which consists of young folks from New York, North Carolina and Virginia had charge of morning and evening devotions, so we put together a small morning worship service that included reading a letter from one of our parishioners telling how she was praying for us.

After that we had breakfast with lots of eggs and bacon and one of my personal favorites, cold pizza (okay, so I was the only one who ate that). Then all the kids had to make their own lunches and pack them into ice chests for the work ahead.

Our work team was sent to a women’s shelter (where I had worked last year). Our job was to take down a playground (that our team had built last year) to make room for a new parking lot, then to move a shed, again to make room for the parking lot. For what it’s worth, the playgroud will be put back up later.

The first thing we did was take one last swing on the playground swings because some of the kids had been on the project before. It was a little sad, but we knew it had been used by a lot of kids and that it would be used again. So we took care in dismantling the thing.

The work was hard, however. There were 8-foot-long 6X6 beams to remove from the ground (buried 3 feet deep each), and a 350 pound beam to lower down to the ground. The kids did a great job, and by the end of our work day, we had done more than scheduled.

Then it was time for play. Our team decided the best way to bond as a community was ice cream so after showers we went to Jack Frost. Yum.

The other teams worked at private homes. One team had a problem because one of the people they were helping got sick and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. At the end of the day we gathered outside for a cookout, some football and frisbee, and worship. Then, of course, the never-ending task of getting kids to sleep. Yay!

Towel Camp Journal - Day 1

Twelve members of our congregation are on a trip to North Carolina to work on the homes of those in need. It's called Towel Camp. I thought you might like a brief run-down of each day as it happens. You’ll be able to follow along - and I might even be able to send a photo each day. Hope you enjoy it.

Day 1:

A wonderful send-off -- for a bunch of extremely tired travelers and their families who brought them there. We started gathering in the church parking lot at 4:30, though it took till 5:00 before we were all there (we are Episcopalians, after all). At 5:30 we celebrated the Eucharist, including well-wishers who made their way to the church just to pray with us. In all, 24 people shared the Body and Blood of Christ in the Wilks Room.

By 5:45 am, we were in the van and on our way. Things were pretty uneventful -- too uneventful -- until the halfway mark. Then, doing 70 mph, the left rear tire lost all its tread with a tremendous bang. Mike was at the wheel and kept the van expertly in control as we pulled to the side. That Pounds of Change money came in handy then, let me tell you! By the way, we raised over $400 in coins! Two hours and a new tire later we were on the road again -- for another ten minutes. There hadn’t been any food near the garage, so we made our annual Cracker Barrel stop. Yum.

We arrived in Marion, North Carolina unscathed at 9:00 pm. When we arrived we met some old friends from St. John’s, Marion, and new friends from several parishes in Virginia. We had our first meeting where we were divided into three work teams. I’ll let you know about those teams and their jobs tomorrow.

Friday, June 19, 2009

God, Life and Everything - "TV Snow"

I write a biweekly column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take.  Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

Last Friday night I got an e-mail from my friend Harry Goodpeoples.  “You okay?” he wrote.  “I was worried.”  Good old Harry, always thinking of his friends.

But for the life of me, I couldn’t think what he’d be worried about.  I got on Facebook and noticed that he was online, so I instant messaged him.

“Hi, why shouldn’t I be okay?” I typed.  After a moment his response appeared in the lower right-hand corner of my screen.

“Knew you didn’t have a converter box.  Wanted to know if you were surviving the switch.”  I scratched my head over this one.  Harry must have had a really bad day, because he wasn’t making sense.

“What switch?  What converter box?”  You could almost hear him sigh over the wires.

“Your TV.  Today was the day analog was turned off.  Television is all digital now. If you don’t have a new TV or a converter box, you get no TV.”


“Go check.”  I left the computer and fired up the old Zenith.  Once the vacuum tubes were glowing, the screen came to life, and I noticed the snow.  Son of a gun, there was no picture.  I flicked through the channels and found only one show - a snowy man explaining how to hook up the converter box.

Back at the computer I tapped, “When did that happen?”

“This morning,” wrote Harry.  “Are you surviving without TV?”  I looked back at the Zenith.

“You know,” I wrote.  “The snow is much clearer now.  I think I like digital.”

“But what about the shows?” complained Harry.  “What about Monster Garage or American Idol or Lost or Nurse Jackie?”

Harry was speaking a foreign language.  You have to understand, the last television series I followed was Mork and Mindy.  Somewhere in the late 70s, I lost track of the TV and never managed to get back into the groove.  Oh, I’ve seen the occasional Northern Exposure or Seinfeld, but totally missed the Sex and the City boat and couldn’t begin to tell you what’s on today.

Is my life any less fulfilled because of that?

People are constantly amazed that we have two adolescent sons and still don’t have cable TV.  We haven’t had it in fifteen years, and even then it was mostly for the Weather Channel.  Oddly enough, they’re turning out to be pretty normal.  They have friends, they do okay in school, they play on sports teams.  Hmmm.

So what do we do with all that time we have?  Well, admittedly, we have computers in the house.  We have internet access and use it daily.  Sometimes, we’ll even instant message each other from across the house, though that’s more for fun than any perceived need.

The rest of the time we watch movies together (I never said we didn’t have a DVD), play games, read, or even take a walk.  And the boys climb trees.  Remember climbing trees?  Heck, sometimes I climb a tree with them.  Oh, and we eat dinner together.  At a table.  Every night.  Like a family.

A note from Harry appeared at the bottom of my screen.  “It’s not just you I’m worried about.  Millions lost their signals today.  What will they do?”

The flickering Zenith caught my attention.  Its snow really did look crisper now.  Maybe this switch from analog to digital isn’t the disaster some imagine.  Maybe that crisp snow would inspire others to get off their couches and live a little.  

I turned back to the computer and typed.  “I’m sure they’ll manage.”

Little -- A Sermon

So, I was driving my little smart car yesterday, and parked to do something.  When I went back to the car and wanted to get in,  there was a guy peeking in the windows and walking around it.  

Actually that happens quite a lot.  When it does, and they don't notice me approaching, I like to have a little fun.  My key has four buttons on it, and one of them is the red "panic" button.  It sets off an alarm and makes the lights flash.  I don't push that one.  I'm tempted but just can't bring myself to do it.  However, there's another button that unlocks the car.  When you push it, the car beeps just once, and the lights flash on and off.  It's just enough to make someone jump a little.  Maybe a mile or so.  So I did it.  And I enjoyed it.

The funny thing is, this almost always results in a conversation about the car.  It goes like this:  “What is it?  It’s so little!  What’s the mileage?  It’s so little it ought to get 100 miles a gallon.   How long does it take to wind it up?  Is it safe?  I mean, it’s so little!”

The next thing they say is either, “How can I get one?” or “What kind of nut are you for driving something so  little?”

We don’t really have a lot of respect for little in our culture.  Big is beautiful.  Fashion models are amazons.  Athletes are giants.  I can only name one NBA star who was ever my size.   Even in politics, tall wins.  I don’t want to sound defeatist but of all the presidents, only James Madison was shorter than me).    Our houses over the last fifty years went from large to obscene.  And some SUVs have gotten so big that people have to build new garages for them  As for churches, well, see if you can find any television churches with just 80 people in the pews.  

What’s so different about our society from others that makes BIG so attractive, and LITTLE so -- not?

Nothing.  It seems most societies like things bigger.  It makes them seem more powerful, safer, more important.  

Which makes the story of David’s selection as king rather odd.  The prophet Samuel was already unhappy with having to choose a new king.  Saul was still king, and although he wasn’t doing a great job, Samuel was loyal to him.  But in this story, God wanted someone new.

So Samuel went to Jesse as directed and started asking to see his sons.  And when he saw the first he said, “Oooh, he’s BIG.  He’s got to be the one.”  You know how the story goes.  He goes down the list of Jesse’s sons, each getting just a little smaller, until he’s left with the youngest and littlest -- and God says, “This is the one.”

The lesson, of course is,  “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”  It doesn’t hurt, however, that David is handsome and strong -- and that he WILL grow up to be big some day.  

Jesus makes a similar point with his story of the mustard seed.  It is the smallest of seeds, our story goes, but it will grow into the largest of shrubs, and birds will make their nest in it.  Just like little David, that tiny mustard seed will grow to be BIG.

But wait a minute.  All those stories seem to say is that something little can eventually BECOME big.  So BIG is still good?

What if you’re me?  I’m never going to get any bigger than I am!  My car is as big as it’s going to get.  What about that?  What happens if St. James’ continues to attract, say 100 people a Sunday?  Are we failures?

Let’s take a step back and look at our two stories for just a moment.  Did you notice that after Samuel annointed David, there were no trumpets blaring or honor guards?  Nobody bowed down.  More likely Jesse looked at Samuel, then at David and said, “Huh.  That was odd.  Now get back to work.”

It was years before David would then take the reigns of power.  He was not only little but hidden.  Nobody knew what was special about him - or that he would ever amount to anything.  

In the Gospel, we have the same thing.  That tiny seed is planted and then practically forgotten.  Their growth is secret and private; between God and them.  Keep that in mind as we return to folks like me who are little and will never play in the NBA or churches like ours that will never be the Crystal Cathedral.

Is there any value in staying little?  The answer is Yes.  And No.  

Obviously, for me, there’s no choice.  I’m little -- and actually as time goes by, I’ll get littler.  That’s biology.  Our church will possibly stay small, and that’s also okay.  We live in a small town, and though we can grow larger, being a small community is rather nice most of the time.

But what is hidden and between only God and us -- our hearts -- THERE we can grow.  And trust me, we do not want to stay little in our hearts.  Actually we don’t want to stay small in our minds either, because each of us has the capacity to continually grow.  Growing in our minds keeps us alert and engaged.  It helps us understand the world we live in and be an active part.

In the same way, growing in our hearts helps us better understand God, helps us be more like God, more caring and empathetic.  Growing in our hearts forces us out of immature self-centeredness and helps us see how what happens to you -- or a brother or sister halfway across the world -- affects me.  It helps us get beyond fear of death and poverty and such -- all those things we’re constantly trying to defend against or rise above -- and let go.  

To be fully engaged and loving the world yet ready to let go at a moment’s notice, like letting go of a balloon.  That’s where the growing heart leads - which means most of us still have a lot of growing to do.  But that’s okay.  This is growth that’s open to each of us no mattter how big or little we are.

It may not be visible, but then, the best growth never is.  Amen.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

God, Life, and Everything - "Civility"

I write a biweekly column called "God, Life, and Everything" for the Hudson Valley News. The title reflects the broad scope I want to take.  Everything in life falls under the eye of God, and if we watch carefully, we can catch a glimpse of God in it all.

Remember my friends the Goodpeoples?  Marge, Harry, their twelve-year-old son Pete, and their six-year-old daughter Rosetta?  Like I said before, they’re good people, always trying to do the right thing.

Which is why I was distressed when Harry called me the other day to complain about the big city newspaper he’d been reading.  

“I can’t believe some people!” he fussed.  “Outrageous behavior.  I couldn’t let Pete read along with me anymore.”

The first thing I did was congratulate Harry on still reading a newspaper.  “With all the electronic news, you miss the feel for good old paper.  I can just see you sitting side by side folding the paper, maybe doing the crossword.  So, did somebody write something offensive in the letters to the editor?”

There was an awkward silence.  “Um, we were reading the online version, and Pete was standing behind me.”


“And it wasn’t the letters to the editor.  It was the comments.”


“Yeah, you know.  There’s an article, and below it people can write their comments.  Only they can write more than one, and they can respond to other commenters.”

“Like a conversation?”

“Like a reality show!  There’s name calling, back stabbing, tantrums, innuendo, misinformation, lies...you name it.”

“What’s the point of that?”  There was another awkward pause.  

“Well, it’s kind of cool.”  I waited for more, and he obliged.  “I mean, at its best, you get a profitable exchange of ideas.  With letters to the editor, you write it, and that’s it.  No response, and you can’t even see it for days.  Plus, you have to put your name down for all to see.  With commenting, you’re anonymous.”

“So with comments, you can say anything you want with no consequences?”


That was a lot to think about.  An anonymous conversation -- or shouting match -- with no consequences.  I had to ask myself, would I be uncivil?  

In fact, why should we be civil?  Why not just do whatever we want, say whatever we want?

I mean, if some jerk is wrong, shouldn’t I tell him how wrong he is -- and maybe let him know what a pea-brain he is for thinking something so stupid in the first place?  I bet it would feel good.  Really rip them up, tear them down to size.

Don’t agree with me about abortion?  Taxes?  Homeland Security?  Homosexuality?  Then you’re a moron!

Hmmm.  Sounds like a TV pundit or a political ad, where civility vanishes into vitriol.

I got online and read some of these comments.  There’s interesting, even enlightening conversation out there, but there’s also a lot of verbal abuse.  How would Jesus comment?  

Of course, Jesus got hacked off occasionally, but he always left the door open for more conversation and reconciliation.  When someone abused him, he never lashed out in response.  And of course, everything he said was public and to the person’s face.

Perhaps there’s the lesson.  Civility exists so we can live together as a community.  We are civil to each other face-to-face because life works better that way.  Without it, we’d live in chaos. 

I called Harry.  “Here’s my advice.  When you read those comments -- especially if you’re reading with Pete -- let abusive comments go.  Don’t respond.  And when you comment, do so as if you were standing face-to-face with the person.  Do so as if it were your neighbor -- a neighbor you may not agree with, but with whom you want to get along.  After all, in the end, we’re all neighbors.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Red, White and Huh? -- A Sermon

I pull slowly on the string leading to the ceiling.  All eyes look up.  They follow a balloon as it makes its slow descent to the ground.  While I reel it in, I speak:  

Was ist das da oben?  Es kommt langsam herunter, doch ich weiß nicht was es sein soll.  Hmmm.  Ach ja!  Es ist ein Luftballon.  Komisch.  Wie kommt es, daß ein Luftballon in der Kirche schwebt?

How come you’re not answering me?  What’s the matter, you didn’t understand?  How could that be?  Oh!  Oops, wrong language!

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone understood everybody all the time?  But a lot of the time, people DON’T understand each other.  What’s even weirder is that a lot of the time we don’t understand God.  

It’s not just us, though.  The disciples didn’t understand God much better than we do.  Which made them very nervous when Jesus left them for heaven.  Remember how we talked last week about them being nervous?  And Jesus said, “Wait here for a gift.  Wait here for the Advocate.”

So they waited -- maybe they were staring up at the sky -- you know, the way you were staring at the ceiling -- hoping to see Jesus come back down.  But what happened wasn’t what they expected.  Instead of Jesus floating down like a balloon, a powerful wind swept through their house like a tornado.  And when it was done, they looked like they had fire on them.  And you know what to do when that happens, right?  Yes, Stop, Drop and Roll!

Just kidding.  Anyway, that fire was a sign of the Holy Spirit coming to fill the apostles, to give them life and strength and power.  In a way, they were sort of like this balloon before it had any helium.  Before it came, they believed in Jesus, but they had no life in them -- they weren’t really the church yet.  Once the spirit came, they had life and even sort of knew what to do.  In a way, once the spirit came, they could fly (I release the balloon).

The Spirit also helped them understand other people -- and helped them to be understood even by people who didn’t speak their language.  It really was a great gift.  That’s why we wear red today -- for the fire of the spirit.

But you know, there was a time when Pentecost was called Whitsunday -- which means White Sunday.  And on that day, it used to be the tradition that young women wore white dresses.  Why?  (I don’t know, maybe because it was the first Sunday after Memorial Day and it was safe to wear white again?)   In truth, white symbolizes purity and cleansing -- and since Pentecost is one of the best days for baptism, that might be the reason.  After all, this is a day where something new is born -- the church. 

So, we’ve got Red for the fire of the Holy Spirit and White for the purity of God’s cleansing in baptism. -- And did I tell you we’re having a baptism in a few minutes?  Then there’s the gift of understanding that comes with the Holy Spirit.  This doesn’t mean that everyone can instantly understand foreign languages, but that once you have the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of understanding God, and people -- even those different from you -- will grow in you.

It just takes time.  That’s the funny thing about the Holy Spirit -- you have to wait for it.  

I hate waiting.  I don’t understand it.  My attention span is too short.   Besides, we didn’t have to wait for Jesus, did we?  He just came!  We didn’t have to wait for the Father, did we?  He’s always been there!  But the Holy Spirit?  No.  When Jesus left his disciples, he said “Wait for the Spirit.”  And they waited.  For days.  Never sure anything would happen.

We have to wait for the Spirit, too, and that’s something we don’t really understand.  It’s like a different language.  It’s the language of sitting and doing nothing -- of just letting God talk to us.  

But the Spirit’s language is silence, and it won’t be rushed.  Those who try to rush it are like those who try to get a balloon up with no helium.  

Which brings us to our baptism today.  We’re going to see the red of fire and the white of cleansing.  In fact, we’re going to give some fire to Sophia today.  

But what she gets mostly out of being baptized is membership in a church that will stick with her and help her learn how to wait for the Holy Spirit in her life.  How to sit still long enough to hear the voice of God -- and then be filled with the power that the Spirit has to offer.  Amen.