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

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.