Mys-ter-y – something that is difficult or impossible to understand

Human beings always seem to want answers. The more technology available to us the more we delve into our search for information. We Google everything! It’s not a bad thing but I do wonder about our loss of appreciation for the mysterious, the impossible to understand.

As mainline Christian denominations face declining numbers, I see this as a common denominator for many of us who want to make church and religion “user friendly” and more palatable to the seekers of the twenty-first century. There are certainly welcoming strategies we should put in place to make the newcomer feel less of a stranger. Are we also trying to eliminate any sense of mystery in our well-meaning approach?

In my humble opinion, we do both our ancient and venerable tradition a disservice when we compromise our worship by trying to appeal to folks we think will only darken our doors if we cater to contemporary tastes in music and ritual. In fact, it seems that our millennial generation find time-honored, mystical yet authentic forms of worship more compelling than not. Recognizing the frenetic, noisy, competetive world in which most of them have to operate this is not a surprise.

This Sunday at the church* at which I am rector we will offer a celebration of Choral Evensong that concludes with a rite called “Benediction.” The exquisite music sung by our adult choir will feature nineteenth and twentieth century composers and will be awe-inspiring. Candles, incense and rose-colored vestments all help transport the audience to a “thin place” which conveys an aura of deep mystery. Then, near the end of this fifty minute service, a consecrated wafer – the Bread of Life – is displayed in a golden vessel and raised over the people in an act of blessing.

This all may seem strange to some. It is certainly not the norm in most churches. It is – this whole notion that Jesus might be present in the bread put into our hands during the Eucharist or put on view in such a public and peculiar way – very mysterious, very difficult to understand. Yet, wherever we land in terms of our belief about how Christ is present in such an ordinary substance as bread, there is something to be said for the kind of mystery it represents, especially in a culture where we have such a burning desire to figure everything out.

The way I see it, we could all use a little more “difficult or impossible to understand” moments in life, a little more mystery, if only to remind us that there is One greater than we are and who is the Author of all that is known and unknown.

 

*Choral Evensong and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament will be offered at 5 pm on Sunday, March 26, at St. Paul’s on the Green, 60 East Avenue, Norwalk, CT. All are welcome—believers, doubters, the unchurched, bored Christians and non-Christians.

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Don’t Take Anything for Granted

One of my favorite characters in the scriptures is a guy named Nicodemus. He seeks Jesus out in the dead of night because he is fearful of his peers who have waged battle with Jesus.  He comes looking for answers to questions about the things Jesus has taught. He doesn’t want to take anything for granted.

Last week, while attempting to do some stretching exercises, I lost my balance and took a hard fall injuring my left arm and shoulder. The good news is that I did not fracture any bones. Still, I damaged muscle and my roto cuff and am in the throes of several weeks of physical therapy. In addition to teaching me the hard lesson of how not to do what got me in this predicament, I have learned some things that I have just taken for granted: the ease with which prior to my accident I could get in and out of the car, shower and dress, tie my shoelaces, get in and out of bed, even preparing a meal. Everything takes more time to do and is a chore.

What my ordeal has raised for me is that there are even larger things in life that we have taken for granted. One that stands out these days is the Truth. Having grown up in an era where there was little “fake news” beyond some of the sensational gossip in yellow journalism publications, and when those in public office were by and large committed to the service of the country, it is discouraging and upsetting to be confronted with the state of the nation in 2017. Where is the Truth? It seems that a significant percentage of the populace may not even care.

Nicodemus did. He risked the wrath and retaliation of his friends in leadership positions – those who were more concerned with keeping their own power and wealth – and sought out this young radical Rabbi named Jesus to get to the bottom of things: to discover the Truth.

The way I see it, we are all in the dark when it comes to so many things we can take for granted. It’s also easy to “trip over” much of what we hear every day and even to lose our balance and be cajoled into a very partisan trend of thought. At risk is our loss of our common values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and the foundation on which our country was birthed: that all are created equal. These are the bedrocks that have made America great.

Maybe it’s time to follow Nicodemus and ask Jesus some hard questions. Maybe we need to dig really hard for the truth. Maybe it’s there already in the person and life guide of Jesus. Maybe, just maybe, he’s the only constant Truth and our way out of the dark.

Anonymous Letters: A Christian Approach to Our Gripes?

We clergy get them on occasion. We recognize them when they arrive in the mail. They may be hand addressed in what simulates a kid’s writing or they may be typed. Before we run the letter opener through the envelope we are fairly certain that we’ve just received an anonymous note complaining about something. I’ve actually come to be amused by them…until a member of our faith community showed me one he had received this week.

It was, well, just plain nasty. The complaint: take off your hat in church. It began: “When a Jewish man enters a synagogue (misspelled in the letter) he covers his head with a skull cap. When a Christian enters a church he removes his hat or cap….Grow up – Remove your cap in church or go to a synagogue (again misspelled in the letter).”

My amusement was not triggered this time. I first felt sorry for this faithful individual who has not missed a Sunday Eucharist in the past five years—cap or hat or not. However, I feel sorrier for the person who lives such a rigid, mean-spirited hybrid kind of Christianity that he or she felt entitled to belittle, attack, and embarrass a brother in Christ for such a superficial, petty reason.

If the author of the note really studies the Scripture, he or she will find that the only ones Jesus is tough on, the ones who elicit powerful language and negative criticism are the rigorously religious people. Those who strain out gnats and nitpick are the ones who get the sternest castigation. Jesus fumes at them.

If you are familiar with the congregation I serve as rector—St. Paul’s on the Green in Norwalk, Connecticut—you know our “doctrine” of Radical Welcome. A sign greets you as you enter our church that assures you that “you will be free to be the person God created you to be.” We mean it. Every bit of it. What God cares about is just that you show up!

Lent is a good time for some self-examination. One way or another, some folk who claim to follow Christ are capable of communicating to others that they don’t quite measure up. Some even have a knack for assaulting others with words and attitudes that sting and cause great pain. Before any of us casts that “first stone,” we would do well to consider the commandment that Jesus left with us: “Love one another as I have loved you,” as the law of love he preached in the synagogue and committed to his church.

The way I see it, if we admit to ourselves that others have loved us and that God does so unconditionally, we ought to be able to concede that others need not be flawless or canonized in order to gain our love and our respect as one of God’s own beloved.

If the author of the letter — or anyone else — would like to come into the light and talk with me directly about this or anything else that troubles you, my door is open and I’m happy to make an appointment to talk candidly and honestly.

 

The Great Fast

In the Orthodox Church, the season of Lent is often referred to as “The Great Fast.”  The name expresses the severity of the requirements imposed on its members during the Forty Days—abstention from meat, meat products, wine, oil, fish, eggs and dairy every day with the exception of Saturday and Sunday when wine and oil are permitted. Now that’s a fast! It may be both physically and spiritually healthy but it’s far from easy and one needs to be very creative in order to plan a menu that both nourishes the body and satisfies the canon of the fast. Needless to say, most folks can’t do it and usually observe some hybrid version of it.

Fasting, however, is an ancient tradition and has clear scriptural references, one of the most obvious being Jesus’ mention of it in the Gospel read on Ash Wednesday. “And when you fast…”

What are we to make of it? Is it simply obsolete?  Too unrealistic?

Maybe not. Clearly, there are things all of us can eliminate from our diet in order to improve our health and prevent serious health issues down the road. That’s one way to fast and it’s certainly commendable.

Here’s another: how about fasting for the sake of justice? It might be fasting from a product whose production means horrible working conditions for poor laborers. It could be fasting from a commercial business that discriminates against minority groups or refuses to pay a decent wage. It could be refusing to support a company whose billionaire owners give nothing or a penitence to charitable organizations. It might be fasting from media venues that encourage a culture of hate and revenge. It could be fasting from people whose rhetoric and behavior is really toxic (but we can still pray for them). Or it could be fasting from television programs that embody violence and exploitation.

In her book, Lent: A Time to Choose Direction, Joan Chittister writes: “Lent is our time to prepare to carry the crosses of the world ourselves. People around us are hungry; it is up to us to see that they are fed, whatever the cost to ourselves. Children around us are in danger on the streets; it is up to us to see that they are safe. The world is at the mercy of economic policy, foreign policy, and militarism; it is up to us to soften the hearts of leaders in government so that the rest of the world can live a life of dignity and pride.”

The way I see it, a fast that responds to that understanding of Lent can be both life-giving and long lasting. What might you and I need to forgo in order to make that kind of difference in our world?

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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!