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!