Monday, April 30, 2012

Of ultimate importance

I am continually amazed at how we get confused about what has ultimate importance. I've been pondering this as I wrestle with a culture where kid's sports seems to have become a religion unto itself. My friend and colleague The Rev. Grant Barber wrote the following letter to his local lacrosse league:
To the Officers and Board Members of the Scituate Lacrosse Winter League:
Once again children and families have disappeared from churches on Sunday morning because of the conflict in schedules created by lacrosse matches.
When I have (respectully, gently) asked parents about this choice I've heard the same calculus: church is always there, lacrosse provides one more lynch pin in making sure kids are popular, maybe have something additional to put on their college applications if the kids can continue to play into high school, and the rigid rules that mean if a child misses a practice/game on Sunday mornings there will be consequences for the child in future games.
Almost all parents with whom I have this conversation will also offer up that over-scheduled lives--and they point specifically to sport team demands in general and this winter lacrosse season specifically--are not what they ideally want for their kids. It is not a coincidence that we see rising levels of anxiety and depression in children at younger and younger ages.
I feel that I'm facing a losing battle here with something almost as intractable as an ocean tide coming in, and one change we are making is to offer alternative service times. Still, I would be remiss in pointing out that the program over which you have oversight is being disrespectful of the traditional day and time of worship, Sunday mornings.
Admittedly, our Jewish and Muslim friends have not had the privilege of their sacred worship day being "off limits" to sports and other activities and in light of this, my friend's email might seem a bit off base. However, it points to the deeper spiritual dis-ease in our culture which elevates sports to an idolatrous status while ignoring the spiritual life of our families and children.

Don't get me wrong - I do think there are important lessons to be learned by playing team sports. Learning to work with others, putting your own ego needs aside for the good of the team, supporting fellow team members and developing physical and emotional skills on and off the field are important life lessons. But when it comes to ultimate importance, sports falls very, very short and leaves our children and youth spiritual bankrupt.

What do I mean by ultimate importance? Ultimate importance has to do with our core identity as children of God, who are beloved of God, and accepted by God just as we are. Sports can never teach that because sports always is about measuring and comparing who are the "best" and "better" players - these are values which leave some as winners and others as losers. As my friend pointed out, we have rising levels of anxiety and depression among our children and youth who often feel under the microscope and under tremendous pressure to achieve more and more. This is not of God.

And so this lowly parish priest asks of the parents out there: Who do you trust to teach your child about their truest identity as beloved of God? Their sports coaches or the church? Where will they learn the spiritual lessons which will help them weather the storms of life?

I know where I learned about what is of ultimate importance: at church (and thanks Mom and Dad for making sure we went to church on Sundays).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Things hidden

Those of you who know me IRL, know that I love icons. The parish church where Beloved Husband and I had our marriage solemnized had many icons in the nave. I spent a semester in seminary with the Greek Orthodox where I was introduced to more icons and the realities they represent. This one is one of my favorites ...

It's called the Anastasis icon in Greek but others call it the Harrowing of Hell. It is the icon of Holy Saturday in the Orthodox tradition. In it, Christ is shown raising Adam and Eve out of their graves. On the left of the image are King David, King Solomon and John the Baptist - all Jesus' ancestors/kin in this life. On the right side is a young Moses with the staff, Elijah and another unnamed prophet representing the prophetic tradition of Israel. Below Jesus' feet are the gates of Hell skewed at an angle because they are forever broken. Below that are broken shackles, chains, and keys representing the liberated souls who have been redeemed and released from Death. Finally, there is one skeletal figure still bound up under the feet of Christ - that's Death itself personified.
Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And to those in the tombs
He is restoring life
In the Western Church, we often think of Holy Saturday as a day when Jesus "rested in the tomb." This icon reminds us that there was more going on than met the eye! Christ was not resting at all - he was destroying death forever.

It is a reminder to us that when it appears on the surface of our lives that nothing much is happening or perhaps we find ourselves stuck ... God in Christ is doing something beyond what we can perceive in the moment. What we can see is only a small and limited view. There is more going on that meets the eye!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Proud moments in parenting

This has been a week of dealing with disappointments. It began with a post-Easter letdown of having to kick start another search for an organist at Grace (my stuff) but then began to include other's stuff too.

Our oldest daughter was bumped from her varsity lacrosse team back to junior varsity. It was a bruise to the ego, but the truth of her gifts and graces is that she's not so much a team athlete as a team intellect. She's amazing at Model United Nations and has been asked to lead the group next year. She loves international affairs and issues. She's a theater techie. All in all, a lot like Mom.

Nonetheless, it was hard news when the freshman JV goalie leapfrogged her to varsity. We had a long talk and I was amazed at how she handled herself. She agreed to stick it out for the remainder of the JV season to make sure they were covered even as she made plans for her senior year which will not include lacrosse.

I am so proud of how maturely she's handling this and told her she was learning a hard lesson in coping with a difficult situation. This won't be the last time she finds herself in a hard place and learning to deal with it now is a growing (although not fun) experience.

Our youngest daughter, who is a natural athlete, injured her foot in a soccer game and has been forced to wear an orthopedic boot. She thought she'd get her boot off this week only to find out she needs to wear it another two weeks. She was heartbroken! She was sure her soccer team no longer needed her. We reminded her that yes, her soccer team could get along without her ... but that's because they have built up a resilient team and that's what's important. They will be even better when she returns but she should be happy that the loss of one player doesn't bring everyone down. She's coming around on it.

I'm continuously amazed at my girls and how they have grown - physically, emotionally and spiritually. Makes a mom proud.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

For those who believe ...

American economist and engineer Stuart Chase once said: "For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don't believe, no proof is possible."

Beloved husband and I just returned from a few days away after the rigors of Holy Week and Easter. I absolutely love the liturgies of Passiontide and Easter ... but they are rather exhausting in the preparation they require. Beloved husband made plans for us to go away for three days to a remote cabin outside Berkeley Springs, WV where we could relax and recover. It was a lovely place and well appointed - including a hot tub which helped take the tension out of my shoulders and back.

The second night we were there, the weather was absolutely crystal clear. Being that far out and away from city lights, we could see many more stars than we can at home. We sat in the hot tub and watched several satellites make their way across the sky - definitely not something easily visible where we live! We were able to lay on our backs in the contoured seats of the hot tub and view the starry heavens.

As we watched the night sky and identified the constellations we knew, I began to think about one of my former hospice patients. His name was John and he was a confirmed atheist. He wasn't sure if he wanted a chaplain at our teams initial meeting. I told him I wasn't there to convict, convince or convert him - my role was to help him work through the moral and ethical issues of dying and to find those things which maximized the meaning of life for him. He told me what gave his life meaning was his family, science (especially astrophysics and cosmology) and music. We agreed to try meeting to talk and, if it didn't work out, he could give me the boot.

My pastoral visits with John were the longest ones of any of my patients. He really was a delightful guy. Sure, he ribbed me about believing in "Santa Claus in the Sky" (his initial favorite moniker for God). I didn't let it knock the cheese of my cracker ... I laughed along with him. As he began to trust me, he also began to talk about the God he didn't believe in - one that was really angry and judgmental. I told him I didn't believe in that God either. "Hey! Maybe I'm really an atheist too!" I said. We both laughed. He asked me about the God I believed in and I told him I believed in a God beyond the right and wrong, the God outside of tribalism, the God who breaks all the rules humanity projects onto God. Later, he told me he could believe in that God too.

John then told me that if there was a life after this one, he would give me a sign to let me know he was OK. "Of course, you could be waiting a long time for that," he said. "I'll take my chances ... and I'll be looking."

John died last July and I've been looking for that sign. I told Beloved Husband about John's promise. As we looked at the sky, he said, "You know, there aren't any known meteor showers going on right now. If a meteor shot right overhead right now, I'd take that as a sign."

"Well, I would too. But you know the Bible does tell us not to put the Lord God to the test."

No sooner had those words left my lips than a meteor shot directly over me following the length of my body from my toes to my head. We both let out a shout! "That was DIRECTLY over YOU!!!" he yelled.

"I KNOW!!! If you hadn't been here to see it too, nobody would believe it!! Of course, some will think we're nuts." We both laughed.

I'm taking that as my sign ... John's OK.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday 2012

Today marks the beginning of the Triduum - Latin for Three Days. For Christians, this is the most holy time of the year and marks the three days from the Last Supper, through the arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Christ. Experiencing the Triduum is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

Tonight we'll hear the Gospel of John where Jesus washes the disciples' feet and gives them a new commandment: "Love one another as I have loved you."

St. John of the Cross said that when we die, God will ask but one question of us: "How well did you love?"

Love is the ability to both give of ourselves fully and completely as well as to receive the gift of others with grace and gratitude.

How well do you love?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

State Occasions

I'm now in the throes of Passiontide (a/k/a Holy Week) at Grace Episcopal Church. I'm furiously finalizing bulletins, prayer lists and sermons ... Oh my! I don't know what it is about Christmas and Easter but I find them to be a homiletic nightmare. It goes beyond the whole writer's block of the blank page staring at me on my laptop. It's the struggle with what to say.

For the 2.75 people who read my blog ... rounding up to the nearest 3 ... you may find it odd that words fail me on "state occasions." I guess I find difficult is that Christmas and Easter are days when lots of people show up for lots of different reasons and I'm not sure how to connect with all the differing expectations in the room.

It's one thing to preach on a Sunday to Sunday basis with our members who faithfully attend worship. I have a relationship with them. They know something about me and I know something about them. But on Christmas and Easter, there are a significant number of visitors whom I do not know. Some of these visitors are seeking a Christian community and checking us out to see what kind of message gets preached and lived in our context. Some come because it's "what you do on Easter." It would be nice to see these folks regularly but that's something they need to decide - I'm not there to judge them and I do want them to feel welcome. Some are there because they are visiting relatives. It's all kind of a spiritual stew and it intimidates me.

I do take this to Christ in prayer and faithfully follow with study and exegesis. But even so, the blank page stares at me. I take some consolation in reading other preacher's Easter sermons, especially sensing they too struggle with this. A few of these sermons are good ... many, not so much. I take consolation I'm not alone.

Come Holy Spirit!