Thursday, November 21, 2013

Learning the dance

Mom sent me to Miss Vernetta's Dance Studio when I was four. I couldn't walk across a room without crashing into something at that age. Mom figured Miss Vernetta (and I studied under her) could teach me tap and ballet so I'd be a little less klutzy. I'm not so sure it worked ... but I did have my moment of playing Shirley Temple (at least in my mind) when I danced at the San Diego County Fair in 1970.

Beloved Husband and I have tried to do some basic ballroom dancing. I suck at it. I'd probably be better at it if I didn't try to lead. I know that must come as quite a shock for those of you who know me ... OK, you don't really have to fake the astonishment ... it's more like a page out of the Book of DUH! I really do like dancing. Really ... even when I really suck at it. I don't know why because sometimes it feels so alien.

The same is true of music. I play guitar ... kind of. As a "lefty" it was hard to find teachers. I don't play that often and I really don't have a natural talent for it. I love music and I play from time to time but I have to work at it. Mostly I sing. That I can do ... but I still have to work at it.

The same is true of worship for me. I love the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, but it's not easy. Learning it takes some work and, well, hanging out with it. When new people come to Grace Church, we hand them a bulletin and then they sit in a pew with two books in the rack in front of them: a red book with a cross on the cover and a blue book that says "The Hymnal 1982." Bulletins ... prayer books ... and hymnals ... OH MY! And, we ask you to juggle them in varying configurations while standing, sitting and kneeling.

As my oldest daughter used to say when she was four: "Oh MAN!!" It's complicated at one level ... like learning a dance and you feel awkward at first. Or learning that fingering run and thinking you'll never get it. Or learning a new mad skill in soccer and falling on your face a few times (or maybe a lot of times).

There is always talk in the church about how to make our worship "more seeker friendly" or "more approachable." I think this is a constant question we need to be asking to prevent the church from becoming an "insider club" of those who are in the know and those who are not. However, I think we can make a terrible mistake in assuming that visitors and newcomers are actually put off by our "Episcopal aerobics." There are people who are drawn to our liturgy and want to learn it like they might want to learn to dance or play an instrument.

"Insiders" can tend to make assumptions that because our liturgy can be challenging it somehow equates to meaning that newcomers can't figure it out and we are driving people away from the Church. I'm not sure this is a valid conclusion. What if newcomers are challenged but drawn to learning about the liturgy? What if they are inspired to learn more about it because it is a bit complicated?

Too many times, I've seen churches print absolutely every word and every note of every music score in a bulletin each week (and burning through a lot of paper) in an attempt to be more "seeker friendly." But instead of pre-digesting the liturgy into a more "accessible form," what would it look like if we gave better "stage directions" in our bulletins, be more clear about how to find hymns and service music, put bookmarks into our prayer books and hymnals, and yes ... even put pauses into our liturgy and listen for the rustling of books to calm down as people find the page before speaking a word of the liturgy?

I'd love to hear from people new to the "dance." What brought you into a liturgical church? What was challenging for you about the worship? What was easy? Was the challenge of liturgy off-putting? Did you stay ... or did you go? If you stayed, what was it that kept you coming?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Baptism is not a commodity

I confess I am astounded by some ideas people have about the church and religion in general. I'm not talking about the agnostic/atheist crowd who reject God and religion. I actually get along with them really well. I don't shove my faith down their throats and we often find common ground on social justice and ethical issues.

My real conundrum is with nominal Christians: those folks who say they are Christian but if you put them on trial for it, you'd never have enough evidence to convict them. These are generally folks who will say things like, "I can be a good Christian and not go to church." Basically, they want Jesus when it conveniences them and they really don't want to give up anything to be a disciple. I think of this as "consumerist Christianity."

Basically, these folks reduce faith and religion to a commodity which they feel they can demand from the Church. Nowhere is this more evident than when they have children and the question of baptism arises. It's about this time that they view me and the Church as the purveyor of religious goods and services who will, of course, baptize their kid no questions asked and no demands made.

Last year, I had someone email me on a Tuesday telling me they wanted their daughter baptized on Sunday ... yes, THAT Sunday ... because Grace was the father's childhood church and he wanted his children baptized there. Mind you, this was not an email asking me about what baptism would entail: it was an email demanding their daughter be baptized on that day because that's when they could get the family together. I responded by telling him I wanted to meet with him and his wife. Thankfully, he agreed to a face to face meeting. During that meeting, I showed them the Book of Common Prayer and the vows they made to raise their child in the Christian faith and life. I asked them how they were doing with that vow since they had made it just one year earlier for their oldest daughter. They admitted they were not living into it at all. I asked, "Why not?" They told me they hadn't found a church home close to where they lived.

I explained to them that I don't baptize children whose parents do not take them to church. It's pointless. For all the good it will do, you might as well put your child in the inflatable kiddie pool and squirt them with the hose three times. I suggested they start attending a local Episcopal Church near their home and gave them the contact information. I told them I would be willing to baptize their daughter once they became involved in a worshiping community. They called me back in four months, after getting involved in this local church, and I was delighted to baptize their daughter ... and transfer their memberships to their local church.

Baptism is about joining the Church and committing yourself to being a part of a worshiping community where you can learn to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It's about personal transformation, but we believe this happens within community, not as a solitary enterprise. Baptism is personal - but it is not private! It concerns the whole community gathered who commit to helping you grow into the full stature of Christ. We, the Church, baptize people into the Body of Christ - and at baptism, the individual "me" becomes part of a much bigger "we" known as the Church.

Some things are not commodities. Baptism isn't a commodity. It is a call from Jesus Christ to take up your cross and follow him - which means dying to self and making sacrifices. Jesus makes demands on his disciples. He didn't say to James and John, "Follow me when it's convenient for you" or "Follow me if you have nothing else more interesting to do."

Too many nominal "Christians" think that being a disciple of Jesus is like some sort of a la carte menu where you can pick and choose at your convenience when and where to follow Jesus. They believe they can have their own private belief in Jesus divorced from a community and being a part of the Church is something you do if you want to ... or not ... and baptism is a reason to get together to have a party for your baby. That isn't Christianity - it's consumerism wrapped around a cross. To be a real Christian, you need to nail your consumerism to the cross. It needs to die so that you can really live.

Baptism demands something of you. It's not yours to demand on your terms because it's not cheap grace.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Changing perspective

Wow! It must look like I dropped off the face of the earth to the three people who actually read this blog. Fear not ... still here and it's now been two years since I've come to Grace Church in Brunswick and they still want me to stay with them. I'm blessed.

It's been a year of changing perspectives. Priestly lore is that the second year of ministry is when the proverbial "poo" hits the fan. Something's going to happen. There will be a crisis. It may be a little one or a big one, or some series or combination of both ... but it will happen.

My year began with a deep loss when one of our confirmation class members took her own life after a long struggle with bipolar disorder. I learned about St. Dymphna, patron saint of those with mental illness, from her. Her life and death had a profound impact on our little community. It helped some of our members who also struggle with mood disorders to reevaluate how they attend to their own wellness and medication regiments. It was painful for spouses, partners and friends to see what can happen when a person doesn't respond to treatment. It was a reminder that no matter the circumstances of our lives, God is present: even in suffering, even through death ... and that death isn't the last word. Two new families came the morning I had to announce her death ... and they stayed because they saw how our community responded and how we loved each other through it. That's grace.

Ash Wednesday ...

Ashes to Go at the MARC. Meeting Jennie ... getting to know her ... helping her prepare over the next few months for her death from breast cancer leaving behind a husband and two teenage kids.

Holy Week isn't always "holy" for clergy. We have a few other nicknames for it ... I'll leave that to your imagination. Just before Holy Week, Beloved Husband's brother took ill with an upper respiratory infection which quickly went septic. By Passion Sunday, he was on a ventilator and things were not looking good at all. To amp it up more, one of our well-beloved elderly members died Passion Sunday morning. Her family was in chaos as was mine. Pastoral visit to parishioner's family and a mad dash to Carroll County Hospital to anoint my brother-in-law before his airlift to Inova Fairfax's ICU.

Oh ... and did I mention this is Holy Week? By now, it seemed more like "holy s**t!" to me. Thankfully, my dear friend Michael+ (who is a priest in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion) was willing to step in to preach Good Friday, assist at Maundy Thursday and Easter Vigil along with our deacon Tom+. Organist Dj and I spent loads of time getting programs together for the Triduum along with fielding many phone calls to the grieving family of the deceased parishioner who just couldn't understand why we couldn't have the funeral on Holy Saturday and why we couldn't have a clowning routine in the middle of the service ("I'm sorry, the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer don't mention 'clowns.'" ... Just sayin').

First Maundy Thursday watch in many, many years. Well attended, even by Grace's ghosts (yes, the church is haunted ... but it's all good juju), and very moving.

Good Friday ... live Stations of the Cross:

First Easter Vigil in 10 years ... 55 people present ... fire, smoke and all the pageantry we could muster! Easter morning ... another 60+ people.

Octave of Easter ... funeral for well-beloved parishioner. Clown routine set at beginning before Mass begins as a pastoral compromise. Packed house ... old Brunswick railroaders ... fascinating. Brother-in-law comes back from the dead like Lazarus ... off the vent ... will go on to recover.

Low Sunday? Not so fast! Bishop Joe's visitation ... confirmations - 16 ... reception - 1 ... 102 people the church for the occasion.
Post-Easter break? Well ... a couple days for the priest ... while the organ gets yanked out of the building for a rebuild and expansion...
Now a break? Um Jennie departs this life in May. Big funeral - packed house. Her son plays a piano duet with our organist for the opening hymn, "Morning Has Broken." Not a dry eye in the house. Missing you Jennie!

Summer break? Well ... not much. Stayed and prayed while youth and adults went on first mission trip in ... well ... I don't know how long, if ever.
One week vacation ... yes, the fam and I did get away for a week to Michigan. Then back to eldest daughter leaving for college. OK, she's not far away, but living on campus and not at home. A big adjustment for us and more bathroom space for younger sister.

September brings the Kirkin' o' the Tartan with the Mid-Maryland St. Andrew's Society and the Frederick Scottish Pipes and Drums.
And part of our organ coming back:

Then the Blue Mass for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels:
Lovettsville Oktoberfest and Brunswick Railroad Days:
And the All Souls Mass and Dedication of the St. Dymphna Garden of Peace in memory of Sophia ... where our whole year started ... with an ending and a beginning:
Many events, many people, many lives coming together and coming apart ... life and death ... hurt and healing ... changing my perspective on so many things ... and through it all is God's grace. If nothing else, the love of God through Christ remains.

Now you know where I've been.