On Distributing Ashes at the Train Station

Today I offered “ashes to go” at the White Plains train station.  It’s apparently controversial, but I’m letting others do the heavy theological lifting. I wanted to experience it before I reflected.

It was cold. Below freezing. We still haven’t gotten out of the polar vortex, which I think has decided that it’s very comfortable in its new digs and has decided it will never leave.  Besides, spring has gone fishing. Ice fishing.

At first, I stood outside the train station in my cassock and surplice for a bit, but once I found myself unable to move my hands, I entered the lobby across from the newspaper kiosk.  It was also cold. The doors kept opening as commuters rushed in.  To keep my hands warm, I’d rub them against each other as I held my little glass bowl full of burned palms. I would have rubbed them between my surplice and cossack, but I worried it would look vaguely illegal. So I kept my hands visible.

I stood still, as I didn’t want to be pushy, merely present.  Available to the seeker, but conveniently ignored by the apathetic, distracted, and irreligious. I didn’t want to raise anyone’s anxieties or hurt anyone’s feelings by being so enthusiastically a priest.

People said, “I heard about this.” Apparently the radio and papers found this fascinating. Press might be good. Look at those quirky Episcopalians, standing in the cold, offering dirt and telling people they’re all going to die.

“I didn’t know this was happening,” said another. This?

“Can you do this?” Am I allowed? Well, I won’t tell anyone if you won’t, I didn’t say. I have a license. Continue reading

A Litany for the Blessing of a Car

A Car Litany

Priest: Let us pray to the Lord.

Response: Lord, have mercy.

Priest: Lord our God, You make the clouds your conveyance; You travel on the wings of the wind; You sent to your servant Elijah a fiery chariot as a means of conveyance; You guided man to invent this car which is as fast as the wind: Therefore, O Lord, pour now upon it your heavenly blessings. Grant unto it a guardian angel that it may be guided upon the rightful road and be preserved against all harm. Enable those who ride in this car to arrive safely at their destination. For in your ineffable Providence, You are the Provider of all things, and to You we give glory, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and always and for ever and ever. Amen.

Or

Deacon: Let us pray to the Lord

People: Lord have mercy

Priest: O Lord our God, You make the clouds your chariot. You ride on the wings of the wind. You sent to your servant Elias a fiery chariot to carry him up to heaven. You guided man to invent amazing means of transportation.  Therefore, O Lord, we humbly ask You to bless our cars. Send to their drivers Guardian Angels to guide them and to protect them from all harm.  May they arrive safely to their destination through the intercession of Our Lady of Guidance and St. Elias-the-Living and all your saints. For in your ineffable Providence, You are the Provider of all good things and to You we render glory, thanksgiving and worship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever.  People: Amen

Celebrant, Will you remain attentive, forgoing eating, talking, or texting while driving?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you drive safely at the speed of traffic?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you be sober when you drive, and offer your keys when requested of you?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you forgo rushing red lights or stop signs?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you change lanes safely with space in between your vehicle and others?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you follow cars at a safe distance?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you relax when other drivers show bad judgment?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you pull over and rest when you are tired?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Celebrant:  Will you be humble enough to forgo driving in bad weather?

Driver:  I will, with God’s Help

Almighty God, we give thanks for our reason and skill.  Let us remember that our ability to drive is a risk and that we are to remember the precarity of life in this world.  May all who drive do so with humility, attention and grace, so that we may be able to travel and visit the places we desire to go.

Or

O Lord God, listen favorably to our prayers, bless this …  and send your holy angels, so that all who ride in it may be delivered and guarded from every danger. And as you granted faith and grace to your deacon Philip, and to the man from Ethiopia who was sitting in his chariot and reading Holy Scripture, show the way of salvation to your servants, so that they may, after all the trials of their pilgrimage and life on earth, attain to everlasting joy. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

AMEN

9/18/2012  The Collect is adapted from a Melkite Prayer; the closing prayer is adapted from a Roman Catholic prayer.

On Bulletins

Penelope at One Can Not Have Too Large a Party (How True!) asks about the use of putting everything in the Sunday Bulletin.

I’m for it.  The arguments against it are trivial.

It was once a serious issue in my congregation.  I had started, over time, to include more information in our weekly bulletin.  Initially it was simply the responses of the congregation.  Then I included more of the priest text.  Soon, the hymns.  Announcements.

No papers flying about.  No need to juggle books and worry about choosing the right one.  Ushers freed from handing out the various additional hymnals when we needed them.  We included sermons by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop.  We could use more from the Book of Occasional Services.  It was full, and comprehensive.  Like Anglican and Catholic Christianity should be.

Of course, this caused a little consternation.  Our bulletins have become fairly thick, including the lessons, ministry schedules and announcements.    But of course, quietly, a few asked why we didn’t use the Book of Common Prayer or the hymnal any more (although we often still did for non-Sunday worship), and more complained about the destruction of large forests for the sake of the priest’s pride.  “We’ll help people who are visiting” they would assert confidently.

The sentiment was generous, but I’d never seen it happen.

The central question I posed back to them: what do recent members and visitors think?  Has it made worship more comfortable for them?  Did they come to our congregation because they wanted to become more familiar with the books?  Or were they coming to be a part of a hospitable, welcoming community?  Most of the few individuals who raised the questions about the bulletin were people who grew up in the church.  After many years of formation, the seasoned don’t experience our service the same way visitors and seeker do.  I’d change it back if that’s what our recent members desired.

Some enjoy learning the intricacies of worship and its complexity.  But a service that is too obscure can also be an unnecessary stumbling bloc to individuals looking for a community or a spiritual home.  So my criteria for analyzing whether a bulletin should be complete, is to first learn what the new members think.

And let’s face it:  saving paper is a ridiculous criteria.  Perhaps once we’ve given up seating meat twice a week; forgone air travel; started walking or riding our bike as a primary transportation, then we can get all fussy about paper. Download it on an ereader!  But until then, it seems to be miserliness masked as righteousness; a sacrificing of hospitality for some reason that cannot be fathomed.

But there are three challenges a full bulletin does not accomplish on its own.

A full bulletin is merely one example of hospitality.  But it cannot, on its own, overcome a parish that does not really want to grow.  It comes out of a generous spirit; it does not create it. It cannot hide it.

A full bulletin cannot mask rushed, incompetent, or lazy worship.  Worship that does not allow for some silence and reverence; that has cringe worthy music and singing; and includes dull, tepid and inauthentic preaching; will not be aided by a comprehensive bulletin, even if it is illuminated by hand by a order of monks with gold leaf.

Having a complete bulletin also does not excuse any pastor from teaching, in some fashion, the tradition.  We should be actively, continuously, repeatedly, be helping people explore their relationship with the transcendent using the many practices at our disposal, whether it be the symbols we hold, the words we read, or the prayers we say.  Those who want to learn about the Daily Office, about asperges and anointing, church seasons and colors, should be offered those opportunities.  And certainly, we can deepen people’s spirituality as best we can, so that they do not need even the bulletin or the BCP.  They can just look up, around, and participate in the liturgy by simply lifting their hearts to God, and learning to listen.

But we do this in steps.  Certainly do not skimp on strong worship; work hard on your sermons; love the stranger.  As you have done these these, you will find a complete bulletin will be a useful tool for everyone.

Cool Christianity?

A recent article in the WSJ by Brett McCraken has gotten a bit of play in the Christian blogosphere.   The general thesis:  young Christians don’t want “hip” Christianity – they want Jesus Christianity.   It’s a fine thesis.

So he has a list of complaints.

First:  pastors who refer to pop culture.   Granted, I’m equally confused by the passions of Lady Gaga, but I confess the occasional retelling of a Star Trek, X-Files, or Law and Order Episode.  I’ve quoted The Onion.     My youth group got my references to Friends, The Simpsons and Zombies and sometimes complained to me when I got stories wrong.

But isn’t referring to pop culture part of our work?  I don’t think it is much different retelling the insights of Malcom Gladwell or the poetry of Mary Oliver in a sermon.  People tend to have their eyes glaze over when I quote Calvin rather than Calvin and Hobbes, or offer extended quotations by the theologian Rene’ Girard.  My feeling:  it’s always justified for Christian pastors to talk about vampires, and better than referring to Hegel in German.

His other complaints: pastors in skinny Jeans (someday I’ll fit, really); showing ‘R’ rated movies; holding services in nightclubs.  But what seems inauthentic, fleeting and manipulative to him makes me wonder what are they teaching?  Instead of being horrified, I’m intrigued.

Being an Anglican, of course, I prefer the robes and holy ponchos, films with subtitles and attend nightclubs after mass.  But it seems to me that fussing over image is actually making image out to be more important than it actually is.

His complaint about churches being technologically adept, however, seems especially off the mark.  A pretty good indicator of a church interested in other people, for example, is a website that’s been updated within the last month.  Although tweeting during the service offends this Anglican, sharing religious references seems a justifiable part of my job.  We may not be able to create youtube videos on a weekly basis, but refusing to engage a visual culture seems irresponsible.

Mr. McCracken does seem to be a bit on the defensive about sex.  I admit, I will also be shunning sermons, podcasts, and twittering about the holiness of fellatio between married couples, it does seem to me that people are rightly curious about the Christian perspective, if there is one.

But I think, personally, that’s our own fault.  Our denominations have been dancing around trivial issues of sexuality while refusing to confront the very real challenges people face at all ages.   Personally, I admit, I think the gospel has very little to say about sex.  We might examine why it’s a subject about which most people are fascinated.

And although I’m completely in agreement that being shocking for its own sake seems opportunistic, self-serving and ill-considered,  I just can’t get very excited about it.  I’m bored by being shocked.   And what’s more shocking is that Christians are just now talking about subjects that have been played out in contemporary culture.  Are they really just NOW talking about these titillating practices?   It’s not the practices that are shocking, after all.  It’s that Christians are talking about them.

That said, the gospel is shocking.  Just in a completely different way.

He gets close.  He writes, “If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.”

I understand this.  But I admit I cringe a little at the hyperbole.  Is this world created by God “utterly” phony?  Is it completely ephemeral?  Or is he talking about how Christianity, like the “cool” has become just another spiritual product?  Because what is certainly true is that the commercial enterprise has infected every part of human engagement.  Interrogating that reality, holding the mirror of the gospel up against that, would require a more severe look at our current system of social and economic priorities.  Then we might end up examining the powers, and not merely some misguided attempts to be relevant.  Money, not sex, is closer to the gospel’s true concern, and its consequences are, perhaps, shocking.

He’s right about some things.   From my vantage point, I doubt the institution will be cured by any quick fix.   But what is certainly true is that mainline churches don’t have any fixes.  They’re not even on life support.   Young people aren’t flocking to your local 930am Sunday Morning service with genial overweight pastor with a nice smile who loves everybody and quotes Auden and Kierkegaard.    Twitter and Good Sex might not save the church or compel the curious, but what mainline churches have been doing for the last 30 years isn’t working either.

It’s the work of pastors to engage people, churched and unchurched, where they are, communicating with the technologies that people have access to.  It does make our job more difficult.  We have to know a little of everything.  But it also focuses the work.  We are, fundamentally, communicators of the gospel.  We’re not building managers or administrators; we’re not therapists or nurses.  Technology is one of our tools.  Perhaps technology, itself, is the message, but that is for another post.

And since God is at work in the culture, we will necessarily be referring to His presence there.  He was not confined within the church; nor does he only speak in the alphabet of the creeds.  Sometimes to help a young woman understand the cross, a reference to Mean Girls will have to do.

Holy Week

It’s Holy Week.

I want to take this time to thank you for patiently reading the words I send. One of the challenges in our modern society is that we have technology overload; and the economy of attention means that we are too often distracted.

There are hundreds of internet tools designed to help manage information: Digg, StumbleUpon, News Feeds and blogs and telemarketing and facebook and tons of websites that will make you more informed, slimmer and more charming.

So you get a cheer for reading this letter. And its almost the end of Holy Week, and I hope to see you at least on Sunday to celebrate the party.

For, as Kool and the Gang said in the cosmic soundtrack, “its a party going on right here. So celebrate. It’s all right.” When you think of Easter, consider that song. It’s an Easter song.

Let me review this week.

Maundy Thursday, its all about the mandate: love one another. It’s Jesus’ seder, where he remembers that as the captain of the ship, he’s going to the pirates instead of us. Whatever happens, tonight remember those who have sacrificed for us so that we have been freed. We’ll be having a dinner here at the church, and then the church remains open all night for meditation.

Good Friday: the passion, with betrayal, the rivalry, the envy, the fear, all that makes up human nature laid right before us. We are stripped naked and vulnerable. Let the illusions be stripped; all that is absent be revealed. The moment of panic, of terror of being alone, the fear of being judged, of being judged wrongly, of being unable to escape.

And then the whisper Saturday night. After the long night of the soul, the possibility of love.

Easter: may we have forgotten all the evil done to us;
that we have no reason to envy any other person. We have been rescued by the simple voice that is constantly urging: what you do matters; your life counts; every hair on your head; that we may stand up again and see the horizon before us and welcome what comes.

We have been liberated from fear by love’s perpetual, creative power that makes our bodies move like magic, from the strength of a young body or the will of someone who needs a cane. Every time make a mistake, lose a little hope, we fall, and yet we do not end the journey there. We stand up again. And it will be alright. Love has conquered death before. And for that reason why not again? Let’s celebrate.

Resurrection!

Being a Good Ancestor

I was thinking about the phrase Samantha Power used in a commencement speech: “Be a good ancestor.” This phrase is wonderfully suggestive. It implies that we have some agency, some responsibility, an ability to make considered, deliberate choices – in spite of our normal familiar, habitual acts – that can change the world.

What we call the church’s traditions are our attempts to be good ancestors. We want people to seek peace; to break bread with our neighbors; to see through other people’s eyes. Of course, sometimes our tribal patterns run counter to our traditions. And every religion has several traditions at work, some of them contradictory.

Granted, I don’t think there are always clear answers to what makes being a “good ancestor.” Often, I think that the best we can hope for is that good decisions for us now will lay the foundation for future generations. As we are often broken, we make mistakes, and have everyday failures, being a “good ancestor” doesn’t mean being a perfect ancestor. It may just mean what Jesus implied throughout his ministry: don’t be deceptive in your practices; don’t worry so much about the future; recognize that God’s love does not require lifestyles that are costly for our relationships or for the planet. The love that God has imbued within creation is enough for us to live at peace with one another.

Indoctrination

Most of the time, when people think of what churches do, they think “indoctrination.” It makes sense. Churches have schools, offer education and preach a particular story. I don’t think it is the primary role of the church, but it is one role that churches have had.

And indoctrination is not all bad: some people do need to be reminded that they should do unto others good things. It’s a shortcut to thinking – a way of training one’s instincts for the good.

I want to suggest, however, that churches are primarily about something different: churches do relationships. (They also enchant the world, but that’s another essay).

“Relationship” happens before rules. Connecting happens before doctrine. It is from experiencing relationships that the church has had with all those people who have been in the church (and outside), that the church created doctrine. Sometimes its rules don’t make much sense, but they made sense at some time.

Doctrine is not the end point of the faithful person. It is not our purpose. Our purpose is more about connecting people with each other – and through those relationships we begin to see what God looks like. Our first encounter with God is usually through the encounter of other persons. Like our children; or our parents; or our friends and spouses. And sometimes our enemies.

In England they recently agreed to consecrate women bishops. It’s a remarkable change for Catholic Christianity – one that England’s sister churches throughout the globe have already experienced. And the reason for the change is that the church’s experience and relationshp with women has changed. The challenge still continues: how do we maintain relationships with people who think differently about the consecration of women? Personally, I find that there is even a question about the merits of women’s ordination itself to be a bit strange, but there are many world views, of which I’m not familiar that have their own internal logic.

From our relationships that we begin to understand the church’s mission. How do we, as a community, become a place for healing, joy, peace and fortitude? We need to know where people are hurting; where they have conflict; and when they are weak. I suggest that this includes most of us at some point.

I imagine that in Westchester people have different sorts of anxieties. Money is a pretty central; raising children in the midst of affluence and unregulated desire; environmental challenges. Many families are trying to sort through the immense changes that the culture is experiencing. How do we become the place that serves them?

This is part of a greater strategy to discern our mission. Recently I asked someone who had been a member of the church for about 40 years what he thought the mission was. He had just suggested closing the church down. And he couldn’t give me an answer. I don’t think this is unusual.

I do think, however, that there is a purpose and a reason for our community: but discerning it comes from maintaining and fostering connections with each other. From those connections we can begin to formulate the way this church can be a place of strength and love for any person who walks through our doors.

Christmas, etc

I’d like to wish you a Merry Christmas. And a Happy Christmas. I’d also like to wish you a Happy Hannukah and Happy Kwanzaa. And also a Merry Chanukah and a Merry Kwanzaa.

If you are an atheist, then just happy and merry to you.

Happy boxing day, December 26th, which is a day we celebrate our urge to kill our family members the day after, by not killing them, but by just boxing them around a bit. That’s the day we float like a butterfly, but sting like a bee, as a prophet once said.

Have you bought all your gifts? I haven’t bought any gifts yet. I’ll probably wait until after the New Year. It allows me to miss the rush and get to some post- New Year’s sales. I’m waiting for the 90% discount sales at Hermes.

I’d like to support the economy more, but for now, I’m just avoiding the madness. Not because I don’t like madness, and there’s nothing wrong with a little madness, if only because it helps you appreciate sanity. I just don’t want to be stuck in traffic.

Perhaps it is enough to sing some hymns and have a good dinner. Perhaps you will open that Chateauneuf du pape you’ve been saving from last year, when you splurged after a wine tasting one evening. Or you decided to get your ingredients from Whole Foods, including some wild mushrooms and artisenal cheese. Instead of spending a few hundred dollars on that diamond necklace, or getting some extravagant electronic device, you bought truffle oil for your mashed potatoes.

Wise choices. Truffle oil is far more important than a 75 inch plasma screen.

For the great theologian Schleiermacher, the feeling of the love of Christ was best represented by a family singing hymns around a piano after a delicious meal. He did not say it was found by a new camcorder.

Although the Flip is pretty cool.

The story of Christmas actually begins with the story of his return, with His words of peace and reconciliation. It begins with Easter. The body of believers began to understand that Christ’s love overcame the power of the gods who maliciously manipulated the lives around them. When they saw how being loved changed lives into lives that were full of potential, maganimity and creativity, they listened to the stories that were being told about Jesus’ early life, including his birth.

Tonight we celebrate the story of his birth.

And no, there is little historical evidence when or where. But we can recognize a few things within the events, the snippets of the lives told from the religious imagination of the people.

The first is that God is in surprises. The shepherds, Mary, and pretty much everyone, were a bit surprised. God as a baby makes God vulnerable and dependent, which is much different than the God who throws his weight around, making lives miserable. Granted, not all surprises are good, which is why we spend a lot of time avoiding them.

The second is that our life in the spirit is one of engagement. The child is dependent upon his family and the generosity of strangers. We are likewise truly dependent upon each other. And we’ll probably learn more about this as the year continues.

And last, Jesus loves a party. If there is a victory, if love does work, if there is justice at the end of time, if there is reason to hope, then we can afford to be magnanimous toward our enemies, patient in our work, and optimistic in our orientation. It may not get better for us, right here, in our individual lives, but the work we do together does make things better for others, even in the midst of individual sorrow and pain.

Therefore, we have plenty to celebrate about.

This is why the church placed Jesus’ birth square in the middle of Yuletide. Because the pagans had a good idea in holding parties, Christians agreed that the birth of Christ is a pretty good reason to party in itself.

So we’ll see you tonight at some time.

Hospitality and Church

A essay about Starbucks, wifi and church in the USA today.

“Styrofoam cups in church, Father. Kids running up and down the aisles. Can you believe it?”

It’s here. A parishioner asked me if we could serve eggnog before the Christmas eve service. She’d provide the nog.