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A Countercultural Weekend in a Time of Tragedy

Weekends are for “chilling,” aren’t they? It’s a much anticipated respite from the drag of the work week. We might head to our favorite watering hole, have dinner, and spend a leisurely Saturday into Sunday interspersed with some errands and household tasks.

Then you get this invitation from a perplexing Padre to consider observing this strange three day spiritual marathon called the “Sacred Triduum.”  Carving out three evenings—Thursday, Friday, and Saturday— to go to a church service seems awfully countercultural in this postmodern age. Maybe, given the tragedy in Belgium—36 persons now reported dead after the terrorist attack—a departure from the norm of our typical weekend is just what we need to regain some perspective on life.

What’s the draw to this alternative? If we are willing to make the buy-in, what’s the return we can expect for our time investment? If you find the right place to check in, you will likely:

  • Experience artistically choreographed holy drama based on some of the most ancient rituals in the Christian tradition.
  • Listen to thoughtful, imaginative, stimulating preaching that may give you a whole new perspective on religion and faith.
  • Hear some of the most magnificent music passed down through the ages.
  • Be aware of all your senses being engaged by color, smells, sights, sounds, touch and taste.

It’s kind of a pilgrimage into the first century, making stops along the way to follow the last hours in the life of Jesus through the washing of feet, dining on holy food and drink, relating of a story, reverencing a cross, and encountering a roaring fire that breaks through the darkness and suggests the hope we might discover beyond it.

If you are up for a really counter cultural weekend, spend some time with us at St. Paul’s. You’ll find details and time on our website – www.stpaulsnorwalk.org

Belgium has declared three days of mourning following the twin attacks on its capital city this morning. Might we join them in solidarity by our countercultural presence at this “Sacred Triduum”—our three days of prayerful reflection?

The way I see it, you may well be transported to a “thin place” by the words you hear, the ritual that unfolds around you, and the mystery of life, death, and resurrection imbedded in all of it. Not a bad way to spend some leisure time. Not a bad way to think about what’s very wrong in the world and what’s still very good about it.

• vi·o·lence1 /ˈvī(ə)ləns/ noun 1. behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. synonyms: brutality, brute force, ferocity, savagery, cruelty

We have witnessed it in many forms. We have read about it in the history books. It has become all too common an occurrence. The current political scene has, however, taken it to a new low and has shown the world America at its worst.

I do not consider myself a “political” person and, although I believe in the church’s responsibility to uphold and defend the civil rights of all people and to work for justice and peace, I have never used my podium to support or oppose any candidate for public office. This year is markedly different.

Christians of all denominations are about to observe the most sacred and solemn week of the year, remembering the violence endured by Jesus—unbearable torture, humiliation, and horribly painful and heinous death by Roman crucifixion method. When we hear this story told again on Palm Sunday or Good Friday, when we hear it preached from the pulpit, are we not at all appalled by its awfulness?

Yet we live in an age where the memory of the atrocities of the holocaust is not that far removed from us and in which the brutality against African-Americans in the 1960’s is still fresh for a good portion of the population. Have we forgotten Matthew Shepard, the young gay University of Wyoming student assaulted and hung on a fence to die on a cold October night? All of it—from the cross on Calvary to the smell of burning flesh at Auschwitz to the bloodshed in Birmingham to the broken body of a gay man is the result of people driven by hatred and fear.

Enter the 2016 presidential race. I am deeply distressed, saddened, and embarrassed for our country that a leading candidate for the highest office in what has been touted as “the greatest nation in the free world” has made his platform one that incites hatred and fear and breeds violence—acts of aggression that he seems to condone. Yes, there has been bad behavior on the part of both those who support and those against the candidate. My reproach is based on my conviction that anyone aspiring to such a high and esteemed office should be promoting respect for one another’s differences and encouraging unity among what is a very diverse population.

The way I see it, what we have lost as a people is any sense of civility, a quality that was present in the presidential campaigns of both major parties during my younger days. We need to keep Holy Week with deep prayer for the healing of the wounds of our nation and in remembrance that the One who died for us gave his life in the cause of reconciliation and forgiveness—articulated in the last words he spoke from the cross before his death.

Author Anthony de Mello writes, “What is love?” “The total absence of fear,” said the Master. “What is it we fear?”

“Love,” said the Master.

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Is Mending Broken Hearts the Church’s Business?

In 1971, the Bee Gees released a song that was to be their first #1 hit. It was called “How can you mend a broken heart?”

How can you mend a broken heart?
How can you stop the rain from falling down?small heart
How can you stop the sun from shining?
What makes the world go round?
And how can you mend this broken man?
How can a loser ever win?
Please help me mend my broken heart and let me live again.

I suspect that we can all relate to the sentiment expressed in that song. No matter what our gender, age, sexual orientation, or upbringing I’m sure we have all experienced the hurt of a broken heart. It might have been because of a betrayal or loss of a relationship, the death of a loved one, perhaps a pet, the unexpected termination of a job, life-threatening illness of a child or spouse—all heart breakers that beset us along our life journey.

I think that one of the most tragic and damaging causes of a broken heart come at the hand of religion and the church. Perhaps it is the divorced person shunned and refused access to Holy Communion, the LGBTQ person marginalized because of her or his orientation, the child refused baptism because its parents were not married in church, women denied full access to ordination and even participation in roles to which laymen have full access, or the unwelcoming behavior of clergy at the funeral of an unchurched family member. These are just a few of the ways God’s people are injured in the name of religion.

I am proud to be part of a faith community that has opened its doors (literally, every day), its arms and hearts to radically welcome all who long to hear about God’s enormous and unconditional love for them. St. Paul’s on the Green has begun an endeavor to intentionally invite the broken hearted to find healing and recovery within our community—its worship, its preaching, its music, its support, and its caring.

If you know of someone who may have a broken or somewhat fragile heart because of their prior experience with church and religion, let us know. We will send them a greeting on our “Healing Hearts” postcard, let them know we care and are praying for them, and invite them to visit us. Or you may direct them to our website – www.stpaulsnorwalk.org – where they can learn about us, our ethos, and our life as a community.

The way I see it, one of the things Jesus calls us to do as the church is mend broken hearts so that those who are hurting might live again—knowing fully the extravagant, unconditional love of God.

Jesus a Politician?

As I write my blog this week it is March 1, “Super Tuesday,” the biggest single day for presidential candidates to receive delegates thanks to voting in 12 states. The day is a turning point in most presidential election years, typically serving as the key indicator as to who the nominees will be from each party.

It’s been a rather volatile atmosphere up to now with candidates hurling insults and accusations at one another. “He’s a liar!” “She’s a liar!” It is certainly not the civilized kind of debate that some of us remember from election years of our youth.

I thought it might be a good week to ask the question, “Was Jesus a politician?”

The definition of “Politics” has its origin in the Greek word πολιτικός (politikos), meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens.” It is the practice and theory of influencing other people.  I suppose that within the parameters of that understanding of politics, we could say that Jesus was a “politician.” Certainly, he related to the citizens of his time, especially to the common folk, the poor, women and children—much marginalized by that society—and his mission was to influence people with respect to both recognizing God’s enormous love for them and the kind of life that God wanted them to live. It was a life that included compassion for the poor, justice for the oppressed, love of enemies, and respect for every human being regardless of how different they may be from us. Jesus’ “platform” was built on the truth that everyone is valued in the eyes of God.

Clearly, the “politics” of Jesus were far removed from the politics of 2016. I hear very little compassion in the rhetoric of many politicians, see little evidence of a passion for authentic social justice, and there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of too many of them to create division, distrust, fear, and animosity towards those who are different.

What is so very incongruous about this, at least for me, is that so many politicians flaunt their religious fervor and not a few of them are quick to identify themselves as “Christians.” I do wonder when I listen to them, read about them, and look at their track record as servants of the people, what brand of Christianity they follow.  There just seems to be such a disconnect between what Jesus taught about being his disciple and the message some politicians proliferate.

Here I must confess that I fall far from the mark of living every day as a disciple of Jesus. As the psalmist says, “My sin is ever before me.” I would hope that, if I were called to serve this country as a representative of its citizens, I would be vigilant in terms of how I worked to ensure compassion for the poor, justice for the oppressed, and respect for every human being regardless of how different they may be. And I would hope that the people I served would “hold my feet to the fire” in the performance of that sacred duty.

The way I see it, Jesus was a politician in the very best sense of the word but he would never get elected to public office in our day. Clearly, he would be a big loser on Super Tuesday. Food for thought as we await the news from the 12 primaries—and look forward to casting our vote in November.

What’s the deal with Prayer?

Does prayer really change things? Does prayer ease the pain of the cancer victim, save the life of the premature baby born with serious heart problems, prevent the car accident in the making that could claim our life, change the mindset of some very intolerant, bigoted person, prevent the break us of a long term relationship, or divert flood waters from homes in the wake of a hurricane?

Does it change God’s mind about things? And, if not, why bother to pray at all?

Most of us—maybe out of habit, perhaps out of desperation and fear—pray in some shape or form at least at some time in our life. Yet we can be frustrated by the reality that we don’t know how it all works.

But you and I have our stories. We know that there have been times when things have looked really hopeless and we have prayed like crazy. We may even have been blessed with a wonderful outcome, even one approaching what we consider a “miracle.” And then times when it seems like no one is listening.

Perhaps what matters about prayer is not the answers but the very asking. When we pray from the depths of our heart, when we disclose ourselves in a way that admits our lack of self-sufficiency, declares our vulnerability, and lets us put down all our defenses—things do change. God gets a chance to speak to us and through us and it doesn’t always matter whether we hear an answer, a non-answer, or a great “maybe,” as we wait.

Rabbi Harold Kushner taught that “prayer is not so much about having an effect on God’s plan as it is about aligning believers in their commitment to well -being and grace and support for one another.” C.S. Lewis said that prayer is not meant to change God; it is meant to change us, our attitude, our world view.

St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, has created a Wall of Community Cares on our grounds—a public, interactive art installation where the concerns, hopes and dreams of the whole community might be raised.  The writings on the Wall form the foundation for a service of Evening Prayer to be held in our Lady Chapel on Fridays at 6:00pm during Lent. Stop by the wall or send your concerns in a comment to my blog and they will be posted for you.

The way I see it, it takes a village to support us on our life journey and prayer is a way to invite all the villagers to raise one another up with loving thoughts for well-being and grace.  Maybe it’s not about the outcome at all—but rather the income we receive from remembering others and their needs in a way that makes the human heart pay attention to them.

Fasting? Are you for Real?

 

We’ve just begun the forty day season in the life of the church called “Lent,” a word that comes from the old English word for spring. It’s been around for centuries and has been both a time of self-reflection, preparation for the feast of Easter and a period of engaging in certain disciplines suggested by the gospel read on Ash Wednesday: prayer, fasting, and caring for the poor.

I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church at a time when meat was forbidden every Friday – the day of the week when I most longed for a hot dog! Later, as an Orthodox priest, I found myself within a tradition that required fasting from meat every day in Lent and from wine, fish, and oil on Wednesdays and Fridays! I always began Lent with the best of intentions about keeping the fast but, truth be told, I never made it past the first week.

So what do I make of the discipline of fasting as a liberated Episcopalian in this post-Christian era? First, I realize that many of us already fast. Americans are obsessed with diets. Over the past year or so, I’ve lost weight through a combination of daily exercise and cutting back and/or eliminating certain foods. That takes discipline and I think we can all agree that a fast from some things that pass by our lips is a good and healthy practice.

The way I see it, we might do better to pay some attention to what comes out of our lips. So this Lent I’m going to try my best to think before I speak (or type on a keyboard as in email or texting or a Facebook post). I’m going to avoid negative or snarky remarks (mea culpa, I’m guilty of both), and making an intentional effort to offer praise, thanks, and encouragement to others as well as moving my lips as I lift them in prayer—especially those who may rub me the wrong way or with whom I disagree.

Not a bad way to fast—and not an easy way for many of us. Will you join me in that?

Oh, it might not be a bad idea to give up that chocolate cake either!

Ash Wednesday- A Hard Sell?

You may have noticed that there are no Hallmark cards for Ash Wednesday. After all, who wants to be reminded that we “are dust” and destined to die. And aren’t we a society that is pretty obsessed with hygiene and cleanliness? How many products are in our homes that reinforce that? So who wants a dirty smudge smeared on their forehead? Really?

As much we’d like to avoid it, death is never far out of reach. Just this past month I learned of the death of several young people who should have had many more years ahead of them. Tragic, unexpected death of the victims of traffic accidents, fires, tornadoes, shootings and bombings bombard the daily news. (As I write this blog, I hear that a crane fell from a roof top in Manhattan and killed someone walking in the street below and then a call came informing me that an old friend had died.) No, we just can’t escape it. But neither do we need to obsess on it.

And as sanitary as we might like things to be, life is messy, grimy and often fractured. No amount of Clorox of Windex can change that. As the saying goes, “stuff” (you can substitute another word if you like) “happens.” Murphy’s Law suggests, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, at the worst possible time.” And so it usually does. Life is far from being tidy and orderly.

Maybe it’s a good thing that there is a day on the calendar that serves as a wake-up call to the truth that life is fragile, short, and so very precious. If that black smudge on our forehead speaks to the scruffiness  and clutter of our lives, might we embrace the amazing grace that gets us through it all.  Maybe instead of a day for regret and fixation on our mortality, it could be a day to give thanks that we still have this wonderful gift of life to celebrate.

The way I see it, Ash Wednesday shouldn’t be such a hard sell. These ashes speak to me of life not death. They honor the fact that my life is at any time far from being spic and span but, nevertheless, a gift from God.  How about you? Will you wear them on Ash Wednesday, these messy ashes—and maybe look at life a little differently?

We’ll be giving ashes at St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, during three services on Ash Wednesday: 7 am, 12:05 pm and 7:30 pm as well as at the South Norwalk train station from 5:30 to 9:30 am.

 

Jesus began to weep. Who wouldn’t?

 

“Jesus began to weep.”  It’s a brief verse from the Gospel story read last Sunday, the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, but that’s not what I think triggered God’s tears this week.  I think those tears came after the radio interview with Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tying the persecution of African Christians to the fuller inclusion of LGBTQ people by “the western church” (or, more precisely, Episcopalians in the United States).

The story was upsetting but not very surprising. We’ve been hearing this kind of rhetoric from Canterbury for years. What we never seem to hear from the Archbishop is his grieving over young women and men who choose suicide over the options of living life in the closet or enduring life with bullying. Nor do we hear his cry for justice on behalf of those who live in fear of assault or arrest because of their sexual orientation, or his compassion for gay folk who are debased by the church and its leaders. And where is the Archbishop’s reprimand for American clergy who have fueled the fires of intolerance in Africa by transporting their well-crafted merchandise of hatred for LGBTQ people?

Several years ago, a candidate for diocesan bishop in the Diocese of Connecticut was asked during the “walk abouts” in which nominees are vetted by clergy and laity if he would bless the unions of same-sex couples. His response was that lesbians and gay men have been “blessing the church for two thousand years”—as lay ministers, clergy, teachers, organists and musicians, and in many other ways. “It is well past time,” he said “that the church begins to bless them.”  That’s what I want to hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury. That’s the Gospel.

In that Lazarus story we may have heard last Sunday where Jesus calls him forth from the tomb, John tells us that “the dead man came out, his hands and feet and face bound with strips of cloth.” I think some of the most powerful words Jesus ever spoke are in this text: “Unbind him and let him go!”  Jesus moves among us to give us life, to untie and release and unshackle us from whatever keeps us locked up and constrained and whatever it is that keeps us from knowing the abundant life God wants us to experience.  Yet it seems that the Archbishop of Canterbury would like to keep LGBTQ folk in the burial chamber (certainly, in the closet), afraid to emerge.

The way I see it, maybe it is time for the Episcopal Church to say to Justin Welby, once and for all, “Unbind us…and let us go!” I’m ready.

The Sin of Silence

Two posts on Facebook last week got my wheels turning and my stomach churning. The first was from a friend whose wedding I presided at three years ago. While stopping at a local Dunkin Donuts he overheard two city employees talking to the girl behind the counter about the “homosexual” who works nights and how “queer” he was, laughing about the fact that he was married to another guy. The second was about the Belgian newspaper that came under fire for printing an image that portrayed President Obama and the First Lady as apes. (Yes, to my friends on the other side of the political spectrum, I’m aware that the media disrespected Mr. Bush as well as they have several presidents. The difference is that none of them were African-American. ‘Nuff said.)

Then we come upon the story of Jesus healing the blind man on the Fourth Sunday in Lent. It reminded me that blindness to bigotry and discrimination is pervasive as is our blindness to the reality that they exist all around us all the time. A few years ago, a friend said something to me that struck me very profoundly. “Sometimes,” he said, “being silent is a sin.” I’ve been thinking about that in the wake of these two recent posts. My friend at Dunkin Donuts decided not to keep silent. He challenged those two city employees. “What’s wrong with being married to the man you love?” he asked them. They had no answer. They slithered away to the cash register and left.

We are quick to claim that we are a Christian nation. Yet some who most vehemently profess that certainty and count themselves in that category often spew out the most odious racist, homophobic and xenophobic language. Can you imagine that a God who is the embodiment of uncompromising love would allow women and men to be born with an attraction towards their gender and then sentence them to a life of celibacy, loneliness, and discrimination? Or a God who would fashion people in different and varying shades so that white folk can target them because of the color of their skin? How much sense does that make? Do we see how much we distort God’s image when we remain blind to bigotry of any kind?

Referencing how the “truth” unfolds in the story of Jesus’ healing the blind man, our parish seminarian, Peter Thompson, preached this at St. Paul’s on the Green: “One of the things that makes it difficult to determine and accept the truth is that as human beings we too often find ourselves aligned in opposition to it. The truth can disrupt our settled lives, and so we resist it…Truth is not something we can capture and use as a weapon for our own agendas; instead, it is a light that we are all journeying towards and deciphering together. That journey is a challenge, for sure, but also an opportunity. And a tremendous blessing. “

The way I see it, the truth is that we are all God’s beloved—everyone of us—and when anyone, any institution, any force attempts to demean and debase one of God’s beloved, we cannot remain silent. Sometimes being silent is a sin.

The Way I See it, We’re just not Open Enough

The Open Table

It has become a bone of contention within our denomination. I have heard the arguments for and against it. My mind and heart has landed in deep support. As an Episcopal priest, I’ve advocated and offered an Open Table for the past eleven years. I’ve been on the other side of the aisle too, growing up as a Roman Catholic and spending more than seventeen years as an Orthodox Priest. It was largely the ethos of exclusivity and restrictedness in those denominations that influenced my decision to become an Episcopalian. At least in this branch of Christ’s Church, I thought, all of the baptized were welcome at the Communion Table.

But as the years passed and I continued to be bothered by how we draw the line, I wondered is that enough? And are we being faithful to the ministry of Jesus by making baptism a requirement for offering Holy Food and Drink to God’s people, the guests that come to us on Sunday? I think about the story of the woman at the well that came round this third week of Lent.  Jesus asked this outcast of a woman for a drink and offered her “Living Water.” Sharing food or drink was considered such an intimate act that eating and drinking could be done only with those with whom one was in perfect agreement on all matters. It had nothing to do with germs and everything to do with religion, class, and assumed position in God’s order. To eat and drink with someone was to accept them completely.

Clearly, he was making a statement for all time. Jesus went out of his way, ticked off the religious leaders, and got himself crucified because he insisted that Samaritans, Roman soldiers, loose women, tax collectors, prostitutes, prodigal sons and on and on, were God’s beloved and welcome to sit down at God’s table.  And that, I think is what we forget. It is not our table. It is not my table. It is God’s table. We neither need to protect it or behave as if we own it and have exclusive rights to it.

The landscape has changed for us. We are not the church of the 50’s, 60’s or even the 90’s. There are many adults who might like to worship with us but have never been baptized. There are “dechurched” folk who might give us a try but are put off by language and rules that discriminate. Do we invite them to church and then tell them they can’t eat the bread or drink the wine or offend them by setting such unwelcoming parameters?

The way I see it, table fellowship is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. He welcomed all kinds of people to the table. Can we be expected to do less? As a start, can we remove that sentence from our Sunday worship leaflets that says only “baptized Christians” can receive communion (as if baptism makes a Christian). It would be better to say nothing and leave the outcome to God’s Spirit moving among us. It would be best to say “All are welcome at God’s Table.” And mean it.

One of the former Presiding Bishops of the Episcopal Church once said, “In this Church there are no outcasts.” Really? Shall we test that out with those who have not approached the Communion Table because of what they read or heard on a Sunday morning?