A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Possibilities of Advent

I remember an old advertisement for MasterCard that featured Broadway legend Angela Lansbury; it ended with her saying “Master the possibilities!” Of course no one can ever master all the possibilities, and most of us probably don’t want to. But the ad hinged on getting people to think beyond their ordinary goals to the fact that so much more might be possible as long as they didn’t have to pay for all of it at once.

In the season of Advent God calls us to “master the possibilities”. But where the credit card companies ask us to overextend, open our wallets, and acquire more that we need (a particular hazard at this time of year), God asks us to slow down, to stop, even; to open our hearts, and to be prepared to acquire God’s gracious gift of salvation, which is both free and priceless.
Advent allows and invites us to begin afresh. Jesus tells us to be watchful and alert to that which is both unexpected and unexpectedly present. John the Baptizer urges our repentance, a literal “turning around” of our hearts and minds so that we may level our own hills and valleys and prepare a pathway free of twists and turns that allows the Lord access to our lives and vice versa. An angel announces a pair of impossible, holy births to two stunned couples.

There’s nothing new here, yet it bears repeating, year after year. God’s gift is not one to be garnered on the run, in the midst of a host of other tasks and distractions. The Incarnation doesn’t belong somewhere on a list; it is the list. It must be received intentionally, and nurtured in relationship. The Divine is taking on the human condition. Let’s make room, and time, for that. Let’s pray for the boldness of the Baptizer, the courage of Mary, the fortitude of Joseph, the insight of Elizabeth. Let’s make the coming of Christ real for us and for our world.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Got Vitality?

There’s so much advice these days for congregations looking to increase their vitality. Just what is it that makes a faith community “vital”? How can one spot the congregation that has a healthy, growth-filled future? Our diocese is looking at congregation vitality with a keen eye these days, and initiating programs to help ensure that over time, every congregation has an opportunity to become or continue to be a dynamic, life-giving community.

So I’ve been thinking about traits that, to me, point to a place that exhibits that dynamism and is engaged in positive ways with its own members and with the outside world. Here are a few things that I think are important:
1.      Its members like each other. I know, I know, Christians are commanded to love one another (not to mention our enemies), bear one another’s burdens, etc. Part of living in community is learning to love people one isn’t even particularly inclined to like. But when the members of a community know how to enjoy each other’s company, have fun together, and exhibit genuine friendship toward their fellow worshippers, that’s no mean feat. It shows. And it’s attractive.

2.      Its members like each other so much that they look for opportunities to share that with new people. I suppose that sounds counter-intuitive: if you’re all so happy together don’t you want to preserve that by protecting your boundaries? But a strong, faithful community is always looking to share its own particular “good news” with the world.

3.      They are not anxious. This doesn’t mean they ignore challenges or are in denial when some unexpected crisis occurs. But they trust God, and they don’t let anxiety become a partner in their common life. They don’t “feed the virus”.

4.      They tackle the aforementioned challenges creatively. They realize that yesterday’s solutions are pretty much guaranteed not to be the answer to solving today’s problems, especially if they are pursuing a more vital and hopeful tomorrow. They are open to the Spirit’s leading, and to ideas from within (and beyond) the group.

5.      And speaking of creativity, they understand that the God they worship is the source of all creation and all creativity. Since they are made in the image of the Divine architect, that creativity informs everything they do.

6.      They know that worship is a two-way street. They don’t show up to be entertained, or with a litmus test of acceptable liturgical practices. They intentionally engage in the worship and praise of God, the proclamation of the word, the celebration and administration of the sacraments. They don’t sit with arms folded across their chests, stand without moving, or kneel with their faces buried in a prayer book. They understand that liturgy, like so much of life, is relational; and they are as aware of their fellow worshippers as they are of the God they worship.

7.      They respect their church’s leadership, lay and ordained. They respect them enough to challenge them if they feel the need, and to speak with them directly when they disagree with a decision the leadership has made or a position they have taken. They don’t triangulate or gossip, and if they encounter others doing so they nip it in the bud for the sake of the whole community.

8.      They truly understand that this life, and the good things in it, are transitory. At the same time, all are gifts from God to be enjoyed, cherished, and shared. They live in this tension, and love out of it.
So, there’s my list, and it's not exhaustive. Some are no-brainers, to be sure, but we tend to forget them when we get caught up in daily routine, mundane tasks, or crises of a more significant nature. What would you add to the list?

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Last evening the Clergy Association of my local community held our annual Thanksgiving Eve celebration. It’s tradition that goes back over 25 years (no one can recall exactly how long) and well attended by local residents. This year we gathered at a synagogue, with a Presbyterian minister preaching. Our village is home to over two dozen worshipping communities; though fewer than half were represented by their clergy or other leaders, the diversity was extraordinary. The assembly’s participation as a group was limited to a litany that spoke more to our history as a nation than to anything particularly religious, along with the singing of “America” and “Harvest Home” (which I have always interpreted to mean the eschaton, thus not particularly an interfaith hymn, but maybe that’s just me). Rather than try to find prayers and readings that were universal and therefore watered down to the point of meaninglessness, we practiced the Assissi method wherein each tradition’s representative does a reading or prays a prayer from that tradition as the rest of us listen respectfully and participate inwardly as we feel able to do.

As we participated – Jew, Muslim, Baha’i, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Christian Scientist – I thought of so many things: the fragile truce brokered just that morning between Israel and the Palestinians; the persecution suffered by members of the Baha’i faith in parts of the Middle East. I met, for the first time, the new and very young iman recently called to serve the local mosque whose primary membership is composed of Bosnians – a people who know all too well the meanings of the words persecution and genocide. He chanted a portion of the Quran in Arabic – it was haunting and lovely and nasal and so different from the style done in our churches. The rabbi chanted, too, in Hebrew, and two local cantors offered solos or led us in song. I was moved by the testimony of the pastor of one of the Roman Catholic parishes as he thanked the community for helping him shepherd his congregation through the loss of three young men this past summer, students or recent graduates of the local high school, victims of accident and suicide.

Afterward the congregation offered us wonderful hospitality as we greeted neighbors. An elderly gentlemen approached my female deacon and me (still vested in cassock and surplice with those wonderful “Anglican sleeves”), saying that he had always championed the rights of women and he was so glad to see women clergy participating. “Can you please speak with the leadership of the Church of England?” I asked him, and we all smiled.
What strikes me in particular when I attend this service every year is the emphasis society puts on giving thanks “for” – both the necessities of life and the “stuff and fluff” that we want but know that we don’t really need. As people of faith, we don’t just give thanks for; we give thanks to – to the Holy One who is the source of all blessing, all joy, and yes, all diversity. All blessed and meaningful Thanksgiving to all!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Last week my husband and I saw a production of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Sunday in the Park with George. The show is inspired by Georges Seurat’s 1886 painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, which hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago; its creators have imagine a series of interrelated back stories involving the artist and the subjects – human, animal, and inanimate – that inhabit Seurat’s work. What’s notable about the painting is Seurat’s technique of chromoluminarism (the use of color and light, commonly called “pointalism”). The entire painting is – dots! The artist uses colors in various combinations of small dots to create colors and shapes. Several colors blend to become another color not by mixing paint on the palette or canvas but by allowing the eye to do the work of combining them visually. I’m told that Sondheim and Lapine spent many hours in the Art Institute, studying and observing the painting. This is evident in both the musical score – lots of staccato whenever Georges is painting – and the lyrics. When the characters describe their afternoon “on an island in the river”, for example, they sing of “Sunday by the blue-purple-yellow-red water.”

At one point Georges invites a fellow artist to his studio to view the work in progress. Jules cannot distinguish the shapes and colors; he only sees the dots. Georges explains that he must step back, get into the proper light, and let his eyes form the people, animals, and landscape that inhabit and cover the canvas. Up close, one sees dots. Viewed from a distance, an entire, complicated scene emerges. Color and light. It’s all in the perspective: how one looks, how one sees. Writing in Broadway: The American Musical (Applause Books, 2004), Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon note that “[Seurat] put hundreds of thousands of dots on that canvas. And every one was a separate decision. Some people say there were five million individual decisions. And that’s what art is.” 

Five million individual decisions. Five million “dots”. Five million representations of reality that are only complete and comprehensible when viewed from the perspective of the whole, because none of them exists in isolation. Just like us, just like life. Which is why, from time to time, we all need to back away from the confines of our own limited vantage points and look at the whole. Step back, and view the entire canvas. Move into the light, and let the colors emerge.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Earth, All Stars, and a Few Other Things

I've always liked the hymn "Earth and All Stars" (text and music, #412 in The Hymnal 1982). One of the things I like best is the scope of contemporary life that its text embraces. I must admit, however, that while calling upon all creation to praise God is easily understood, and "loud blowing snowstorms" are not unfamiliar to those of us in the Chicago region, some of the references in Herbert F. Brokering's vision have left the members of my congregation scratching their heads. "Loud boiling testtubes" and the occasional "shouting army" aren't a part of most of their lives - at least not currently. So I''ve written some verses to be sung on St. Giles Day, our annual fall season kick-off Sunday, which are more particular to the identity and ministries of our parish and to whose membership it is lovingly dedicated:

Tune: Earth and All Stars (David N. Johnson)

People of faith, sisters and brothers: Come, let us gather to worship our God.
Body of Christ, saints in communion: Come, let us gather to worship our God.
Refrain: We are the people of God in the world; we are the Church in celebration!

Gardeners and cooks, sharing abundance, Come, let us gather to worship our God.
Food rescue teams, serving the hungry, Come, let us gather to worship our God. Refrain

Heart, hands and voice, joining in praises, Come, let us gather to worship our God.
Organ and choir, instruments sounding, Come, let us gather to worship our God. Refrain

Spirit of truth, forming the faithful, be with us here as we worship our God.
Learning in love, telling our story, Come, let us gather to worship our God. Refrain

Welcoming all, heeding the Spirit, Come, let us gather to worship our God.
Diverse yet one, none are excluded! Come, let us gather to worship our God. Refrain



                                                                                                ©Cynthia J. Hallas, 2012

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Sisters, Friends, & Rivals" - Peninah: What More Can I Do?

It’s not that he doesn’t care about me. I mean, he has to – I’m the mother of his children. That’s just it. I’m the mother of his children.

But I see the way he looks at her. I catch him kissing her forehead, touching her hand. I watch as they exchange looks with one another; lovers’ looks. He never does that with me. Elkanah cares for me, I know he does. But he loves Hannah. And it’s killing me.

After all, I am the mother of his children. I’ve given him sons to inherit, daughters to sell off. Healthy children, too, not sickly little ones who don’t survive infancy. I’m always willing, always available. I’ve treated him well, never pushed him away. But he loves Hannah.
But, I am the mother of his children. What good is a woman if she cannot give her husband children? I’ve been the good wife, the dutiful woman, the devoted mother. All she can do is weep, and starve herself, and weep, and pray, and weep some more. But still, he loves her.

She gets the same share of the sacrifice that I and my children get. It’s not fair. The women in the village are starting to notice, and to talk. It’s not fair! She’s done nothing, and I’ve given him everything. But it gets me nothing – nothing.

And it’s brought out the worst in me. I cannot help myself. I taunt her, I make fun of her, I make sure that my beautiful children are always present for her to see, and envy. I’ve said horrible things to her, things not in my nature to say; I’m ashamed of myself, and I cannot stop.
It’s not really my fault though, is it? If only he would stop looking at her that way, stop favoring her when she’s given him nothing. If he gave me the favor, the standing, the love that I deserve, I could easily leave her alone. My cruelty to her, and seeing her weep, is the only reward I have.

How much longer can this go on? She will never have a child, can he not see that? Will he never tire of her, this woman who clearly can give him nothing. When will he treat me with such love and tenderness and longing, the way I deserve to be treated?
Because after all, I am the mother of his children.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jonathan Daniels & Ricky Byrdsong: When Will We Learn?

On the feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, I offer this reflection from a sermon I preached on July 4, 2009. The text was Mark 6:1-13. So many other such incidents, too many incidents, have occurred since that time. When will we learn?

On Independence Day weekend 1999, as I was preparing to enter my final year of seminary, I was working the Friday night shift as on-call chaplain at Evanston Hospital.  As I was about to retire for the evening in the chaplain’s room when I was paged by a nurse in the Emergency Room.  “Would you please come down here?” she asked.  “There’s been a drive-by shooting in Skokie.”

I’ve never followed basketball much, and we had only lived in Evanston for two years at that point, so the name Ricky Byrdsong was not one that I recognized.  I was only aware, when I arrived in the ER, of a distraught African-American woman who could not understand why her husband had been gunned down randomly as he was out walking with his children on a warm summer evening.  Neither I, nor anyone else, was aware that the horror that was to unfold that weekend was only just beginning.  I was struck by the fact that this woman and her young son, who had been with his father and had witnessed the shooting, were surrounding by whites: a white doctor, white nurses, white police officers, a white social worker, and me. 

And as she did her best to encourage her son to cooperate with the police detective while shielding him from the pain and shock they were both experiencing, Mrs. Byrdsong kept repeating over and over that she couldn’t understand why her husband had been targeted.  “He’s not a drug dealer,” she said over and over.  “He doesn’t do drugs.”  I thought about the assumptions many of us make when we hear the term “drive-by shooting”: we may think of innocent victims caught in the crossfire; but we also think of gangs and inner city violence and illegal drugs and other sorts of criminal activity; we think about people not like us.  And I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t imagine that a white woman in a similar circumstance would feel that she had to make such excuses or such denials for the benefit of the hospital staff, so ingrained are those stereotypes about drive-by shootings, and also, of course, about race.

We were told at the time the Mr. Byrdsong’s injuries did not appear to be life-threatening, so I left her in the care of her own pastor, who had just arrived, and excused myself.  About 3:00 a.m. I responded to another page from the ER nurse.  “You’d better come down here again,” she said.  “The ‘drive-by’ died.”  I returned to the Emergency Room and discovered that in addition to the attacks on Mr. Byrdsong, there had been shots fired at Jews in Rogers Park as they walked to and from Sabbath services.  An Asian-American couple had been fired on here in Northbrook.  Police were looking for a light blue Ford Taurus, but had not yet found it.  I attended to Mrs. Byrdsong, her family and her pastor as best I could, and they left the hospital. 

As Saturday morning dawned I drove home to our family’s apartment on the Seabury campus. I turned on NPR’s Weekend Edition, only to hear Scott Simon telling the nation about a tragedy I now felt a part of, albeit a very small, insignificant part.  A young man named Benjamin Smith, a disciple of white supremacist Matthew Hale and his World Church of the Creator, had gone on a shooting spree that we would soon learn was not yet over.  Police still did not know the whereabouts of that light blue Taurus; was Smith still in the area? Our young daughter was upset by the events and terrified at the thought that such a man might still be nearby.  I wanted so badly to tell her that people like Benjamin Smith don’t go after blonde, fair-skinned, blue-eyed children like her; but I knew that if I used race as an excuse not to worry or fear while others were threatened and suffering, I could not face my friends of color, as well as my Jewish and gay and lesbian friends.  I later learned that one of my seminary classmates, a young African-American man, had taken the elevated train from the city to Evanston late that night and when he heard the news reports about the shootings had sprinted the entire 2-1/2 blocks from the station back to the seminary, all the while fearing the sight of that light blue Ford Taurus.  I cannot imagine what that kind of fear must be like.  And of course before the weekend was over, a Korean student would be shot to death in Bloomington, Indiana; and Benjamin Smith, finally caught and cornered by police in Salem, Illinois, would take the coward’s way out, committing suicide rather than allowing himself to be arrested and brought to justice.

 It’s been over a decade, and I can still recall nearly every detail of that weekend.

When Jesus sent the apostles out two by two and in the process of proclaiming the Good News, and asking all to repent, and spreading God’s peace, we’re told, the disciples “cast out many demons”.  We may think of demons as Satan’s minions, ugly, violent, tempting us to give in to sin; we tend to personify them.  But the demons we face seldom present themselves that way, and that makes exorcising them all the more difficult.  Demons like racism and xenophobia and homophobia need to be “cast out” just the same, but they are still very much with us.  Freedom to act on our fears and prejudices in violent and threatening ways is not a freedom guaranteed by our Constitution.

I think about the ethnic prejudices that still manifest themselves far too often in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  I think about the deplorable way so many Muslims in this country were treated after 9/11.  I think about the murder of Ricky Byrdsong.  I think about our Church’s own saint of the civil rights movement, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a young white Episcopal seminarian gunned down more than forty years ago while protecting a young black girl from a gun-toting, white racist Alabama shopkeeper who was acquitted of his murder by an all-white jury.  I think about all these tragedies and so many more, and I wonder when it will ever end.  And then I think about our own sending out, every week, and the power we have to effect change in the name of the gospel: power we are reminded of and sent out into the world to use in the name of Christ to live out our baptismal vows by speaking out against prejudice and hate, by challenging those who practice the kind of habits that wound the psyches and often the bodies of our neighbors.  Strengthened by Eucharist and by the Word and by the strength of our Christian community, we do have the power to begin to effect that kind of change.  In the name of Christ, and in thanksgiving for the blessings of freedom, we can do no less.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"Caged" Silence

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of American composer John Cage. (The centennial of his birth is coming up on September 5th.)  In an article in the New York Times this past Wednesday, Allan Kozinn wrote about having a “John Cage moment” on the uptown A train in New York City. Such moment exist when we stop and listen to the ambient sounds around us and begin to perceive the music they make.

Kozinn highlighted what may well be Cage’s best known work, 4’33”, in which he explored what the writer refers to as “the music plucked from the air”. Over the course of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, a pianist opens the lid, then closes and reopens it two more times to signify the three movements of the work. The pianist never strikes the keys or plucks the strings. But just because the piano is silent doesn’t mean the audience hears nothing during that time; at least, not if they’re truly listening.
As I write this I’m having a “John Cage moment” of my own. What do I hear, aside from my fingers clicking on the laptop keys? My husband turning the pages of a newspaper in the next room, with an occasional laugh or sotto voce comment; my son upstairs practicing scales on his double bass; cicadas outside the open window. I listen more closely, to the sound of my own breathing, the traffic on the street outside, the sound of a jet plane passing overhead. In other such moments I’ve occasionally heard the sound of children’s voices playing outside, something all too rare these days. And birds! Have you ever noticed the music of birds – the pitches, rhythms, the sounds as varied as instruments in an orchestra?

The composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim was once asked if he listened to his MP3 player while walking around Manhattan (surely I’m not the only person who would love to know what’s on HIS playlist!). He said he left it at home, preferring to hear the ambient noise from the city streets. We’re no longer used to listening for these ambient sounds, something our ancestors often had to do just to survive. We go around with little buds stuck in our ears so that we can hear canned music that could be listened to any time, while the music in a given moment flies by and is gone forever. When Simon and Garfunkle recorded “Sounds of Silence” decades ago, they were surely onto something.

Listening for the sounds of silence takes an open ear, a willingness to use our God-given imagination and creativity, and patience. So here’s a thought for today, in honor of Cage: stop, and listen. Just…listen. What do you hear? Remove the earbuds, turn off TV and the radio, stop talking - and listen to “the music plucked from the air.”

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sisters, Friends, and Rivals: Hagar - in the wilderness (the second time)

She thought she owned me.

That was always the problem – she thought she owned me. And I suppose, in a sense, she did. When Pharoah realized he’d been duped, lied to by Avram the Mesopotamian, I was a human part of the settlement he made to get him and his wife out of town. So I was “given” to Sarai, as a slave to do her bidding.
But I had an advantage. I was young, and fair, and I was fertile. So when my new mistress had given up all hope of a child from her own aging body, she traded me to her husband – traded for the son they both knew Avram needed if the God he had so recently adopted as his own was to be trusted.
And so I conceived; and as I felt the life grow within me I realized Sarai owned me no longer – I had something she would never have no matter how badly she wanted it and that made me bold indeed. She knew it; she saw it. And it made her crazy with jealousy.
She slapped me, once. She cursed me, often. She even forced me to do heavy labor. And where was the father of my child – where was Avram? Hiding behind his cowardice, passive and complacent: “She’s YOUR slave girl – do what you want with her.” Did he care so little for his own legacy, his own child? Did he care so little for the promises of his god?
So when I could stand the abuse no longer I ran away. Into the wilderness – better to die there than face the indignities of their home. It was by a spring in the desert, on the way to Shur, that I saw the presence and heard the voice calling my name. “Go home, and submit to your mistress.”
“What’s in it for me?” (Well, I had to ask!)
“I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude. Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
Then I knew who this was, this presence. God had seen me, this god of theirs, and had allowed himself to be seen. I had seen God and lived to tell about it. So I gave this God a name: “the god who sees”.
So back I went, back to the abuse, back to the passive father-not-my-husband and his cruel wife; and in the fullness of time I gave birth to my “wild ass” child, a child who was all mine. Years passed and as time went on it turns out that he did not belong to my mistress as she planned; he would never be her son.
That made her crazy, too.
Then one day three visitors came. They must have been walking for miles across the desert, but it seemed they just appeared out of nowhere. Boy, did things get busy then! My mistress was making cakes, my fellow slaves were slaughtering and roasting a calf, and the party started. They talked with Avram while they ate, and I saw Sarah listening from inside the tent; but I was listening too, where she couldn’t see me. A child – really? A child, at her age. No wonder she laughed. I laughed too. They needed no child, deserved no child. My son was more than enough to fulfill God’s promises to Avram: descendants as many as the grains of sand in the desert, as many as the stars in the sky. My son would be their father, and they would know “the God who sees”.
But in time Sarah’s child was conceived, and the child was born. Isaac, she named him – Yitzak, “laughter”. My Ishmael loved his little half-brother, loved to play with him, care for him. Loved him too much, perhaps. Until the day my mistress caught him them playing together, and once again her jealousy took over. So I was given food and water and told to take my son, my only son, whom I loved, and leave them for good. Avram was sending us away. Once more into the wilderness, the place I had wandered before, with only a day’s worth of water and a little bread between the two of us.

And now the water is gone, and we have nothing; and this time there is no spring in the desert; only the water of my tears. I wait to hear the voice of “God who sees”, but I despair. I’ve put Ishmael away from me, in the shade of a bush, not far away but far enough, while I wash the dry sand with my weeping. I cannot bear to watch him die.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Chicago Coalition of Clergy has declared this a "Weekend of Peace" in the Chicago region, and called upon all who live here to attend a religious service at a mosque, synagogue or church in order to pray for an end to violence on our streets and in our neighborhoods. Following is the litany I wrote that we will use at my parish tomorrow morning:

Litany for the Weekend of Peace in Chicago
Deacon: As people across our region gather this weekend in churches, synagogues, and mosques, let us bring before God our grief and righteous anger at the violence in our region and beyond, as well as our hopes for and commitment to a more peaceful future, responding after each petition, "Lord, have mercy."

For every life extinguished by an act of violence, and for every family and community plunged into mourning; we pray to you, O Lord:

For those who believe their lives to be devoid of purpose, and for those whose dreams of a new and different life are thwarted, we pray to you, O Lord:

For an end to societal structures that foster division, inequality, fear, and violence; and for those who, actively or passively, help maintain such structures, we pray to you, O Lord:

 For those who believe that violence must be answered with more violence; and for those who feel they have no other adequate response, we pray to you, O Lord:
For those who believe themselves far removed from the region’s violence, that they may understand the interconnectedness of all humanity and our responsibility for one another, we pray to you, O Lord:

For those actively working to bring an end to the root causes of violence; and for those who turn a blind eye to its existence, its causes, and its consequences, we pray to you, O Lord:

For civility in public discourse, and for an end to polarization of political debate, we pray to you, O Lord:

For an end to the exploitation of tragedy for religious validation or political gain, we pray to you, O Lord:

Concluding Collect (Presider):
Lord, make us instruments of your peace in all times, places, and situations. Where enmity, rage, and despair rule the day, may we sow the seeds of reconciliation, love, and hope. Bring all of us to the knowledge that true peace is found not in the absence of violent conflict, but rather in the presence of charity, understanding, and genuine desire for the common good; through Him whose death on the cross embraced all the world’s pain and whose resurrection is the hope of the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Gospel in Cinema: Redefining Family

The gospel for the Second Sunday after Pentecost-B (Mark 3:20-35) is rich in so many ways that it’s difficult to pick which thread to pursue for preaching and discussion. At its conclusion, in what would become a message of hope for the early Christian community, Jesus redefines what it means to be family. Having already offended the religious authorities and embarrassed his relatives, he takes it all one step further when friends come to tell him that his mother, sisters and brothers are outside waiting for him. Jesus looks around at the group that is with him and says, "Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (NRSV)

“Family” isn’t always those to whom we are related by blood, legal adoption, or marriage. Healthy, functional families are often able to open their arms wide to include non-relatives; others, however, may have to escape those blood and legal bonds in order to become part of a unit that will offer them loving, wholesome, life-giving relationships. Pondering Mark’s gospel this week in preparation for preaching on it has led me to think of some films that also redefine family. I’ve listed a trio of them below. None of these films are overtly religious. (Heck, none of them are even covertly religious!) Nonetheless, each one illustrates the grace of human relationships that supports and sustains those involved, through times both good and difficult.
Antonia’s Line (Marleen Gorris, director; Dutch, 1995) On the last day of her life Antonia recalls the time she and her teenage daughter returned to her small Dutch village at the end of World War II. Over time she becomes the de facto matriarch for the village, bringing relatives and friends both eccentric and ordinary into her fold, wherein there is room for all but the most wicked among them. This film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1995.

MicMacs (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director; French, 2009) In this fantastic, surreal movie, a group of societal misfits, each with his or her own unique talent, have constructed a dwelling under a garbage dump in a French town. When the central character, a simple, homeless young man named Bazil is invited to join them, they become his family, and help him bring down the arms dealers responsible for his father’s death and his loss of job and home.
My Afternoons with Margueritte (Jean Becker, director; French, 2011) The illiterate Germain, whose relationship with his own mother has imploded, meets the elderly widow Margueritte on a park bench in their small town. As they encounter one another on a daily basis, she gradually opens him up to the beauty of literature. When Margueritte’s family decide to put her in a “home”’ some miles away, Germain takes drastic action to help the older woman regain her independence and enjoyment of life.

And there are so many others….what films come to mind for you?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Summer Reading

Here it is, Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. And nothing says “summer” like a list of so-called “beach reads”, regardless of where you actually intend to do your reading. I’ve been sizing up the stack of unread books in my library (and my office) and have resolved not to buy anything new until I’ve gotten through at least half of them, which means the e-Reader I bought not long ago will have to wait. In no particular order, here’s what I hope to have read by Labor Day. Some of them I’ve started already, some are new; others have been hanging around for several years.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer (Penguin Press). The former winner of the U.S. Memory Championship shares his experiences, and gives us a glimpse into the history of remembering. I’ve already begun to build my Memory Palace. Now, if I could just remember where I left the darn book….
Episcopal Etiquette and Ethics: Living the Craft of Priesthood in the Episcopal Church, by (the Rev.) Barney Hawkins. New from Morehouse Publishing, this book addresses oft-asked as well as seldom-asked questions, such as “Is it all right to bless the food at a wedding banquet with a gin and tonic in my hand?” For me, the bigger question is: Do I really want to know I’ve been doing it wrong for 12 years?

The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion, and Culture, by Francis Cardinal George, OMI. Though there is much about which the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago and I would disagree – should we ever find ourselves in such a conversation – he is a good writer. His discourses on classical theology bring me back to a discipline it’s easy to lose touch with in the daily work of parish ministry.

The Heartbeat of God: Finding the Sacred in the Middle of Everything, by Katharine Jefferts Schori (Skylight Paths).  The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church writes with passion and her signature deep spiritual intelligence about the way our faith speaks to the issues of the day and how we are compelled to keep bringing the Good News to a needy, hurting world.
American Judaism: A History, by Jonathan D. Sarna (Yale University). Recommended by my dear friend Anita Silvert; the title says it all.

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell (Simon & Schuster). Very thick. Very analytical. And, I’m told, very much worth reading.
Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith (because no matter what else I’m reading, I’ve always got a novel going). In what could have been titled Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh-der, the author takes on the story of the magi – yes, that’s right, those mysterious strangers from the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel – and asks the question: Who are these guys we’ve come to call “wise”? Smith is also the author of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which reminds me, I’ve also got The Complete Jane Austen dutifully awaiting its turn.) 

So – wish me luck! And let me know what you’ll be reading. Who knows, it might make it to my list...in a few years!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


When I was in the fourth grade our class was given an art assignment to paint a representation of our favorite song. This was the year of the British Invasion; songs by the Beatles and other English boy bands topped the charts, and I recall any number of imaginative renderings of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, “I Saw Her Standing There” and other rock n’ roll hits, some of which have aged better than others. My painting, however, was not of a single song but a series of songs. It depicted a mill on a stream, with a lovely young woman beside it (or at least, as lovely as a ten-year-old with no exceptional artistic ability could make her).  My favorite songs comprised Franz Schubert’s German lieder cycle Die Schoene Muellerin. With the exception of my teacher, no one had a clue what I had painted, or why.

Influenced by my father’s taste, I grew up listening to classical music, most notably the symphonies of Brahms, the operas of Donizetti and Puccini, and the lieder of Franz Schubert. No one sang those last pieces better than my father’s favorite baritone, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who died this past Friday just ten days shy of his 87th birthday. He inhabited those songs; he told their stories, his voice colored the tone and the text in such a way that the hopeful lover, the spurned and often suicidal suitor, all four of the characters in DieErlk├Ânig, among so many, many others, all were brought to life. I sang along with my father’s recordings, memorizing the lyrics phonetically if not literally. When I began the serious study of voice in my late teens and undergraduate years, it was not to the operatic stage that I aspired. In spite of my love of theatre, I wanted to be a recitalist who specialized in the lied. I wanted to unpack, inhabit, and present these gems in miniature, to draw an audience into their stories within the intimacy of the recital hall, as I had experienced them in those many recordings. Leave the opera house and verismo to others.
Fischer-Dieskau himself was equally at home, and equally acclaimed, on the operatic stage as well as in oratorio. In a gesture of global post-war reconciliation, Benjamin Britten recruited him to sing in the premier of his War Requiem. I loved to hear him sing Papageno. But to me he will always belong first to the world of lieder.

Gute ruh, Herr Fisher-Dieskau; you were a Meistersinger indeed. If there are liederabends in heaven, my father surely will be queued up for a front row seat!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Honoring Our Parents

As the months of May and June roll around, we approach the occasions known as Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day. Regardless of how we observe these days (or do not observe them) they weren’t created for the sole benefit of greeting card manufacturers, florists, and department stores. Nor are they religious holidays, even though some churches go all out to celebrate them. 

Of course it’s important that we honor our fathers and mothers as the fifth commandment bids us. Parents, biological or adoptive, have a tremendous influence over the lives of their children. The Church recognizes this liturgically in a number of ways, most particularly in the sacrament of Holy Baptism.

But while Mothers’ and Fathers’ Days are not themselves liturgical occasions, they certainly can be pastoral ones. For those who have lost parents, these holidays can be bittersweet as loving remembrance is mixed with a sense of loss. They can be painful for those whose relationships with parents or children have been damaged. They are often extremely difficult for infertile couples. While the commercial world is touting flowers, perfume, brunch, ties and gas grills, the Church can provide a corrective as we recognize the full spectrum of joy and pain that inhabit human relationships and lift up the opportunity for reconciliation; after all, even the best of relationships have their challenges and experience occasional brokenness.

 In the body of Christ, God has realigned the notion of family. While we needn’t (and shouldn’t) give up our familial bonds, we should also reach out to one another beyond those bonds. We look at the men and women who have nurtured, taught, protected, guided, befriended, challenged and loved us throughout our lives, and we look at the children for whom we have done the same.  Let us celebrate the gifts of all the women and men who have made each of us stronger in faith, more loving in relationships, and more authentic in living.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

At the End of the Day

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

At the end of the day, Jesus goes into the temple. It’s quiet now, but the noise of the crowds still echoes in his head, the shouts of “Hosanna” still ring in his ears. It’s late; too late for anything else to be done on this day, in the temple or anywhere else. So at the end of the day, he leaves for Bethany with the twelve.

At the end of the day the trees are stripped bare; the dirty, torn cloaks still litter the roadway into the city; the discarded branches lie in the dust. The donkey colt, presumably, has been returned to its rightful owners.

At the end of the day the crowds have dispersed, for the most part. The faithful are waiting to celebrate the Passover. The money-changers are waiting to set up shop the next day, unaware of the wrath that awaits them. The Roman soldiers have retired to their barracks, Pilate has gone to the governor’s residence. The religious authorities have gone home, as well, no doubt more than a bit unsettled by the spontaneous demonstration caused by the presence of the rabbi from Nazareth. Should they themselves put it down before the Roman governor gets wind of it and something more violent occurs?

At the end of the day the city of Jerusalem is silent, waiting, dark.

Our Palm Sunday celebrations pack so much into this one morning. In the space of little more than an hour we absorb the events of an entire week – exuberance and joy at the expected liberation of an oppressed people, horror and disbelief at justice miscarried, grief at the death of Jesus and what appears to be the end of a dream. We are witnesses to denial, betrayal, power sold out and violence victorious. Not all that different from life in our own time.

Which is all the more reason to let ourselves be shaped by the events of Holy Week. Injustice and oppression continue, violence rules the day, and far too many people live on the brink of death – physical death, of course; but also spiritual and mental and emotional death. Christ is crucified again and again, and hope seems absent.

At the end of the day, we can choose whether or not to be agents of the kingdom, messengers of the reign of God. We can choose to be the wounded hands and feet of Jesus, serving others in his name and working, bit by bit, to dismantle the powers that put Christ to death. But to do that we’ve got to do more than put down our palm branches; we have to pick up our cross, as well.

That requires sacrifice, and there’s no shortcut and there’s no back door entrance. At the end of the day we can’t just be in the triumphant Palm Sunday procession; we’ve got to be in the one that goes to Calvary as well.

At the end of the day, where will we be?

Friday, February 24, 2012

"Mulberry Days"

Our daughter recently gave me a DVD of one of my favorite “Britcoms”. Mulberry was filmed in the early 1990s and starred the wonderful Geraldine McEwan as Miss Farnaby, an aging, resentful, unhappy spinster who lived with two grudgingly faithful servants in her ancestral manor house and who, due to her ill temper and demanding nature, could not keep a paid companion on staff. One day a young man shows up at her door, identifies himself simply as “Mulberry”, and insinuates his way into the household as her new companion. Initially, Miss Farnaby and her servants, accustomed as they are to their depressingly dull existence, don’t quite know what to make of Mulberry; his zany sense of humor and enthusiasm for life are completely foreign to them. Eventually, however, his infectious energy causes them to begin to see themselves and their world differently. Always lurking in the shadows outside the manor house, though, is an old man dressed completely in black. As the story unfolds we learn that the old man is in fact the Grim Reaper, and that Mulberry is his son, sent as an “apprentice reaper” to usher Miss Farnaby to her demise. But what Mulberry has learned is that Miss Farnaby has never really lived, and he wants her to enjoy herself before she departs this life. Thus he keeps putting off the deed he has been sent to do, much to his father’s dismay. And there’s one more catch to the story, as we learn why Mulberry is so conflicted about his job. At one point the Grim Reaper confesses to him, “I fell from grace with your mother.” “Who is my mother?” Mulberry asks. His father answers, “Her name is Spring.”

I think the season of Lent is a little bit like Mulberry. There is a sense in which both death and rebirth coexist. We begin the season still in the cold and dark of winter with a substantive reminder of our mortality: ashes on our foreheads in the shape of a cross and the solemn words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a time of austerity, simplicity, and surrender to God. Always looming at its conclusion is the passion of our Lord. But the word Lent originates with Anglo-Saxon and Germanic words referring to longer days; in other words, “spring”. As we move through Lent, the days lengthen and the earth begins to warm. New growth appears. Finally, the tomb empties. Death does not, in fact, have the last word. The resurrection of Jesus ushers in the season of rebirth.

May we all be able to live into the ambiguity that this season brings: solemnity tempered with joy, intentionality interrupted by surprise, death to an old way of life for the sake of transformation and resurrection. In the words of the show’s theme song, “These are Mulberry days.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ashes to Ashes

I’ve been a priest for just over eleven years. As I was anticipating ordination I would often wonder what it was really going to be like to celebrate Eucharist, to preach on a regular basis, to take the Sacrament to the sick and homebound, to exercise ordained leadership in a parish….It has all been, and continues to be, blessing beyond all I could have imagined.

But one thing I hadn’t considered, and wasn’t prepared for, was the impact of imposing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday. In a society that continues to deny that death is part of life, using tangible symbols to remind people of their mortality is countercultural. As a priest I am privileged – no, blessed – to be allowed into places in the lives of my parishioners where few others will enter. On Ash Wednesday it all comes home. Over the years I’ve given ashes to the elderly in failing health, and to a least a few who I know, though others may not, are suffering terminal illnesses; do these folks really need to be reminded of their mortality? And yet I say the words and make the sign. I’ve told very young children with beautiful faces, shining eyes, lives of promise: “…to dust you shall return?” Not for decades and decades from now, I hope, I pray; but there are no guarantees. What will a child take away from this experience? And then there are those vital people, the proverbial “picture of health” who can be expected to return year after year but once again, knowledge of our mortality prevents taking that, or them, for granted: “Remember, you are dust….”

So once again, tomorrow, I will stand behind the chancel rail and remind people I have come to love dearly that this life will come to an end and our bodies will eventually disintegrate. I will probably choke up at some point; I usually do. But I try to remember: God created us out of the dust of the earth, and we could do much worse than fear returning to it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Wayside Inn

At a recent diocesan event, our bishop asked us to consider what it would mean to our congregations for our churches to function as “wayside inns”. I interpreted this question as asking how we, as Christians, allow and plan for the fact that our communities might feed a person’s needs – spiritual or otherwise - on an occasional or even one-time basis, without any expectation of further involvement or participation. This is an especially pertinent question in this age of ongoing anxiety about decreasing attendance and diminished membership in more traditional churches.

I listened to the table conversation around me regarding that question, and it became clear that the majority of people either didn’t interpret the question as I had, or were not up to going down that path of possibility. “My church is the place I go to get recharged so I can live the Christian life all week,” or some variation of that, was the answer I heard most frequently. That’s how a church becomes a wayside inn for its own members. No harm in that; we need that weekly worship to equip ourselves to do God’s work in the world. And most of us have no problem helping those who are totally outside the scope of our congregational life – foreign missions, soup kitchens and the like. But what about those who brush up against the community, receive something, and seldom if ever return?
A little thing got me thinking about this last week. As I walked around the circular drive from the church office to the rectory where I live, I noticed a car parked in the curve of the driveway. Approaching the car, and wanting to make sure that nothing was amiss, I noticed the engine was running but no one was in the driver’s seat. Then I saw a woman in the back seat. I waved; she waved back. The windows were tinted so it wasn’t until I got very close that I noticed she was breastfeeding a baby. A little embarrassed, I apologized and made sure she was OK. She asked if she needed to leave and I assured her she was fine where she was. Then I went on home to eat lunch.
The congregation I serve is friendly, warm, reasonably outgoing, and offers engaging, accessible liturgy; still, we have trouble attracting visitors and when we do, taking that next step of “turning them into” members. But we do have a fair share of people who stay for a brief time and then move on – geographically in some cases, but often because church in general, or perhaps our particular tradition or parish, ultimately just doesn’t speak to them. But I can tell they’ve received something when they’re here, and I do my best to keep in touch with them if I can and they are willing. That’s my concept of the “wayside inn”. If only we could embrace the notion that we haven’t failed if we don’t “keep” everybody.
A little thing, that woman and her baby. I have no idea if she has a church, or if she has any religious leanings at all. It doesn’t matter. But I do like to think she’ll remember our parish campus as a wayside inn where, for a short while on a mild winter day, she could stop to nurture her little one in (nearly uninterrupted) peace.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


It all began innocently enough, I suppose. Two years ago my friend and seminary classmate the Rev. Tim Schenck thought it would be both fun and educational to put the Church’s saints in competition with one another for the coveted (may we say that about saints? he did) Golden Halo, and to set up said competition in a single-elimination bracket a la the NCAA basketball championship tournament “March Madness”, which as any good churchgoer knows always manages to occupy Lent no matter what the date of Easter. Add a thorough search through the heavenly roster of the communion of saints for the first set of 32 candidates, and “Lent Madness” was born. Votes were cast via Tim’s blog, “ClergyFamily Confidential”; the winner was George Herbert, the 17th century English priest and poet. Building on his success in the 2010 competition, Tim offered it again last year, but with a whole new collection of saints. (Unlike Duke and the University of Kentucky, to name a few, I don’t recall any repeats in this “Madness” from year to year – so far. And if, as I recommend, the recent publication Holy Women, Holy Men becomes the resource of choice for the so-called “saintly smackdown” - I think we’re mixing sports metaphors here - there won’t need to be any until long after the “Table to Find Easter Day” in the back of The Book of Common Prayer runs out in 2089, the same year my younger child turns 100. But, I digress.) Last year’s winner was C. S. Lewis. I see a pattern already.

And now, as if the Anglican Communion wasn’t fractured enough, and less than one week after the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, this rivalry in religion has hit the big time. Tim is partnering with Forward Movement Publications and its Executive Director, the Rev. Scott Gunn, to take Lent Madness to the masses (of people). Frs. Gunn and Schenck have given the competition its own website, invited celebrity bloggers to weigh in, and are featuring a weekly video “Monday Madness”.
It’s an impressive list of contestants this year, including several Archbishops of Canterbury. Augustine of Hippo, evidently having listened closely to Jesus, goes up against his mother, Monnica (nice touch, guys). Will Paul of Tarsus, not running aimlessly, defeat Theodore of Tarsus in the first round and, being all things to all people go all the way? How far will Philander Chase the Golden Halo? Will Brigid lose out to Rose of Lima? And what about Rose of Sharon?
Seriously, Lent Madness is an impressive piece of work. It’s fun, it’s clever, and it really does fulfill its mission to educate about that vast “cloud of witnesses” in a way that’s entertaining and engaging. It’s also a much healthier mix of religion and sports than the Sunday morning youth athletics vs. church attendance that most of us face in our parishes. Who says a Lenten discipline can’t be enjoyable? Some, I suppose, but I’m not one of them. So, “I heartily endorse this game” and urge you to give it a try. Two years ago I followed the saintly Mr. Herbert all the way to victory, and it was tremendously rewarding.
The contest begins on Thursday, February 23 with daily match-ups until the winner is, um, elected. “Forward Day by Day” suddenly has a whole new meaning.
P.S. On the Lent Madness website we’ve been warned to vote only once per match-up because “this isn’t Chicago”. Actually, Tim, for some of us it is.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Love Song

I first entered the main building of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in April of 1997 as a newly minted postulant and prospective student, through those heavy wooden doors just off the parking lot. What I discovered wasn’t modern and institutional; it didn’t look like a school or university, even though it was situated on a Big Ten campus. It looked, and felt, like a place where religious community flourished. It even smelled right. I may not have been sure what I sought when I entered that building, but my gut (and isn’t that where the Holy Spirit resides, after all?) told me I belonged here.

The mechanics of enrollment and planning for a vastly different life followed. My husband was prepared to make tremendous professional sacrifices to I could pursue my calling. Through it all I never doubted that call, and I never doubted that I belonged at Seabury.
Places sometimes take hold of us. The setting, people, situations, and experiences all combine to create a deep sense of what Kathleen Norris calls “spiritual geography”. Seabury became that for me.
There was the chapel, the place where we gathered as many as three or four times daily to immerse ourselves in the Daily Office or celebrate Eucharist. It was the place where many of us first led worship, officiating at Morning Prayer or Evensong or gathering in the late evening, praying Compline by candlelight. We greeted Jesus’ resurrection at the Great Vigil of Easter. Babies born to seminarians were baptized here. When our all-too-human words and actions offended, it was often here that we were reconciled to God and one another.
The chapel was central, but the community was more than that. We held family/community evening Eucharists weekly, usually in Seabury Lounge. At one of these I witnessed my son, only eight years old, turn and give the Body of Christ to the bishop-elect of New York, then-Dean Mark Sisk. (Does anything like that ever happen in a parish?) We groused about the food in the Refectory, and about the living conditions in the student apartments. We learned from an exceptionally gifted faculty, who treated us as colleagues. We studied in the library and in the basement room known affectionately (?) as “Purgatory”. I held my classmate’s baby son while he preached in the parking lot at “Mass on the Asphalt”. Living “on the block” was a particular gift to my family, especially my young son and daughter. For years they had heard their parents talk about the importance of tolerating and accepting human diversity; at Seabury it was incarnate and they, and we, learned to embrace it. Life in that community wasn’t painless, and it wasn’t perfect. But it was right.
Several years ago Seabury made the very difficult decision to cease its residential M.Div. program, thus ending nearly 150 years of a time-honored and very specific system of theological education. The trustees advised most of the remaining faculty and staff that their jobs would soon end, and agreed to sell the property to Northwestern University and lease it back for use. Seabury would be “what’s next” in a seminary. Grief among graduates manifested itself in anger with the board. How could future Episcopal clergy possibly function and minister in the Church without a traditional seminary education?
Last Friday, the Feast of the Epiphany, the staff, faculty, trustees and many graduates of Seabury gathered for an extended liturgy that began with a leave-taking of the old chapel as the seminary made a journey from the physical space it had called home for so many decades and, going home by another way, moved into a new space in Chicago near O'Hare Airport: smaller, less burdensome financially, and much more accessible for both clergy and laity seeking a new kind of theological and spiritual formation for the missional Church we must all reclaim if we are to continue to spread and live into the Good News. Here in this new space the liturgy continued, dedicating it as a center for prayer, formation, and communal life right smack in the middle of the marketplace where cross the crowded ways of life. The Church in the world – not painless, not perfect, but right.

I’m proud to be an alumna of a seminary that took such a courageous step, and that continues to model faithful risk-taking. The memories that I and my fellow alumni/ae treasure, the formation we received will always be with us, and no one can take them away. But I would never be so presumptuous as to suggest that future leaders of the church want, or even need, those same experiences. We are waking up to a new and necessary reality, and Seabury is in the vanguard. The One who makes all things new is clearly at work, and I can’t wait to see what’s next!