Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Message 2012 -- Bethlehem

Below is my Christmas message, with the addition of some relevant photos that didn't make it into the oral sermon.

This summer,
I was in Bethlehem.
The journey was by air-conditioned coach,
            From Jerusalem, four-miles away,
            Not the long donkey ride from Nazareth in the north.
Nevertheless, we were stopped,
            At a military check-point,
            And told to enter the city by another route,
            For there was no place for us on the main road.
We saw security fences encirlcing the city,
            Barbed-wire ensuring no-one entered or left David’s city
                        Without proper paperwork.
Bethlehem, a place precious to pilgrims,
            Now isolated,
            its ancient Christian community dwindling
            from economic strangulation and political persecution.
Bethlehem Christians are a double minority—
            They are Palestinians in an Israeli state
            They are Christians among Muslim Palestinians.
            They are in great need of our prayers and support.
Early on that morning we came to a church
            Marking the site of the Word made flesh
                        Dwelling among us.
Actually we came to two churches atop
            Subterranean chapel caves
                        Commemorating Christ’s coming into the world.
The newest, a Catholic church filled with light,
            Was renovated by the Emperor of Austria in 1881.
It sits beside an Orthodox sanctuary
            Dating to Crusader times,
            Whose icons, mosaics, walls and ceilings
                        Are blackened by a millenium of smoke
                        From candles and thuribles,
            built above a fourth-century chapel
                        That Constantine’s mother constructed,
                        Of which only mosaic floors remain.
            On the outer church walls,
                        Bullet holes commemorate clashes
Mosaic from Fourth Century
                        Where soldiers strafed those seeking
            sanctuary and sustenance
in the birthplace
of the Prince of Peace.
Underneath these soaring sanctuaries sit a series of small caves.
Stairs down lead to an ancient children’s crypt,
            Perhaps where Herod’s holy innocents were interred,
And to the study of St. Jerome,
            Where the unwashed hermit studied and
Translated ancient scriptural texts.
 Also under the Orthodox church altar is a small chapel in a cave
Site of Jesus Birth (Green photo)
            Where maybe fifty can stand,
            near the spot where was born to us
            a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
An altar, owned by the Greek and Armenian Orthodox monks,
            Sits above a golden star placed on the ground
            Marking the place of the birth of
                        The son of Mary who is
The only-begotten son of the Father
A few feet from the place of Jesus birth,
            Was the manger
            Where they lay the newly swaddled Savior.
            A site a Roman Catholic altar marks,
Site of Manger (Greene photo)
And where we joined an Italian Franciscan priest,
            Saying mass for us in English,
            Hearing the same gospel we just read,
            And having sung songs we sing today.
There we heard the good news of shepherds
            In the spot where Mary, Mother of God,
Marveled at the same message.
There we shared in the Body and Blood of the one
            Who came into the world where his own did not accept him,
Where people loved the darkness.
There, in the midst of the darkness of division, discord, and death,
            Light shone and the darkness did not overcome it.

Bethlehem two thousand years ago was not the same
            As Bethlehem this summer;
The Stars and Bucks coffee shop did not exist,
No one sold olive-wood nativity scenes,
And soldiers carried spears instead of semi-automatic weapons.
But much remained the same.
God’s people were divided:
            Pharisees and Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes.
A thousand years earlier,
            King David came from there and united Israel.
But at that time someone else ruled them:
            Willing to bring Caesar’s peace with a sword
            Utterly ignorant of the peace passing all understanding.
But demanding a census of the whole world,
                        Collecting taxes and containing troublemakers.
 In the midst of big picture economic anxieties and political problems
            Two travelers borne on a burro bring burdens.
Joseph seeking shelter,
            Stops in a cave where animals could be kept.
During the night watches, his new wife gives birth.
Like all good parents of the day,
            They wrap the baby in swaddling clothes,
            So he feels safe and secure.
Then, having no beds themselves,
            They lay him in the only safe place they can set him down,
            A manger serving as a crib,
                        So perhaps they can sleep.
But their dreams are delayed
As astonished shepherds arrive announcing
            Good news concerning baby Jesus.
Angels appeared. 
The Glory of the Lord shone in that place
            To herald the arrival of the Messiah, the Lord.
The Word become flesh
            Immanuel, God-with-us,
                        The Life that is the light of the world.
            And the angel said:
                        Be not afraid!
But now what?
The shepherds return.
The baby nurses and sleeps and needs to be changed.
And mother Mary ponders in her heart.
Much remains – miracles, healings, and beatitudes
            Passion, suffering and death
But everything already is renewed.
The creator of the universe
            Is no longer apart from it,
            But has jumped directly into
                        The jumble of injustice, injury, and despair
            Re-creating from within all things that came into being
joy, love, peace, and life
                        For all who receive him
                        And believe in his name--
The name announced by angels
                        Shared by shepherds  
                        And disclosed to us.
            The name by which all under heaven are saved.
                        Immanuel, God-with-us,
The Son of David, the Savior who is the Messiah, the Lord,
Son of the Most High,

Bethlehem two thousand years ago is not the same
            As the Shenango Valley today,
            But we’re not that different.
We have the occasional census
            And the not so occasional taxes.
Our stables are scarcer, but our inns are emptier.
Young mothers too often have no safe place,
And petty Herod’s senselessly slaughter our children.
But today we know the story of the Babe of Bethlehem,
            If not announced by angels
            Then narrated by Linus. 
We’ve heard the story,
            We’ve sung the songs,
                        We’ve celebrated the season.
And yet we still struggle to live into it
            Because we can’t quite believe
            How unfathomably immense
                        Is God’s love for us.
We can’t conceive the celestial radiance
            Concealed for a season in human flesh
            So we can share the spark of eternity.
We can’t consider the cost of trading the courts of heaven
            For the cross of Calvary.
We can’t fathom the faithfulness of God
            When we lack it ourselves.
But mostly,  
            We want the darkness gone
            And we don’t understand
                        Why it lingers.
Our lives hold so much pain and suffering,
            Darkness seems so strong.
Two Thousand years later,
            Shouldn’t Jesus have fixed everything?

The promise says
            The light shines in the darkness
            And the darkness did not overcome it.
As long as people choose darkness,
            And all of us do sometimes,
            Darkness does doggedly dig into our existence.
Darkness does not however,
Have the last word.
Since Jesus was born in Bethlehem,
            Light is always shining into the darkness,
            And darkness must give way.
In every avenue of our existence,
            At least a glimmer of divine light shines
            And shows us a way out.
No matter how dark,
            No matter how painful,
                        No matter how sinful the situation.
Even if we are trapped in a darkness
            Of our own damning decisions,
            The dayspring from on high
                        Drives away the final despair
                        if we will only deign to open our eyes.
When families fail,
When dear ones die,
When we hate ourselves for hurting others,
Jesus offers an emergency exit arrow
            Pointing to a place of peace.
For our salvation comes not with a warrior’s sword,
            Nor by imperial edict,
But with a baby,
            Born in Bethlehem,
            Where all should be well, and isn’t,
                        Just like in our own lives,
But where Christ comes anyway,
And can’t be kept out.

Christmas Eve Procession to Church of Nativity, Bethlehem
Halfway around the world this night,
            Past patrolled check-points and barbed wire fences,
            Beneath vaulted basilicas and bullet ridden facades
            Aware of a world awash in the power of darkness,
            In an underground cave,
            People have crammed themselves together
because on this day,
                        In the city of David
                        Is born a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
In this place, we have come tonight,
            With our own struggles and burdens,
Nativity Icon (photo Scott Gunn)
            With our own weariness and wants
            To receive glad tidings of great joy,
                        For a child has been born for us,
                                    A son given to us;
                        Wonderful counselor, Mighty God
                        Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
For tonight the Word became flesh,
and we would have him live among us,
so that His light shines always into all our darkness
So come to Bethlehem and see
            Him whose birth the angels sing.
            Come adore on bended knee
                        Christ the Lord the newborn King.   

Monday, December 17, 2012

Preparing for Sharon, PA

Santa Descends at Sharon's Night of Lights
This post is from a "From the Pulpit" column that appeared in the Sharon Herald on Friday, December 14.

A few weeks ago, Santa came to downtown Sharon.  People lined the streets.  They celebrated with Christmas carols and dancing, with hot cocoa and kettle corn, and with the lighting of the Christmas tree.  Parents and grandparents were sharing their children’s wonder while reconnecting with friends and neighbors. Local businesses and community groups offered what they could to make the evening special.  Everyone knew where to wait for Santa – they read it in the Herald.  The right preparations were made, the crowd was gathered and, as he descended from rooftop to State Street, Santa was smiling.   

December is a time when we await someone bringing greater gifts than Santa Claus.  Jesus is coming.  While we celebrate Jesus’s first coming as a baby in Bethlehem, we also wait for Jesus to come again.  Our challenge is to figure out how to wait well.  Twiddling our thumbs and hoping he shows up during a commercial is probably not the best approach.

Scripture says to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.  These instructions are not easy, even if we have a bulldozer at our disposal.  Two questions immediately come to mind.  Where do we make these straight paths, and how do we do it.

The easy answer to where the Lord is coming is in our hearts, and we need to prepare them.  But that is not the only answer.  We should also wrestle with the question of where we could expect Jesus to be coming if we read his Facebook post that said, “On my way to see my peeps in Sharon, PA.”  Would our first impulse to run to church and get all the lights on?  Do we honestly think that would be Jesus first stop, especially if it wasn’t 10:00am on Sunday morning? (And which church would he go to, anyway?)  Jesus certainly came and spoke in the synagogues of his day, but he also spent much of his time outside of them. 

Judging by the folks he liked to visit, we might expect to see him any number of places.  Maybe at a school Christmas concert (where we know Jesus would be smiling).  Maybe at Joshua’s Haven, or West Hill Ministries, or Community Counseling Center, or a local food pantry.  I wouldn’t be shocked to see him at Artie Gras or Bike Night at the Lube.  Jesus seemed to go where people were – even to places that religious folk tended to avoid.  He was called a drunkard and a glutton, after all.

To make a straight path for Jesus, we start where we think he might be coming.  We spend time on the same roads we expect him to travel.  In those places, we prepare the way of the Lord.

Isaiah talks about filling in every valley and making every hill low, yet I don’t think our primary task is to take all the dirt from the East and West Hills and fill in downtown Sharon.  Our real work of preparing the way is to do what Jesus did when he was with people.  We talk to people.  We listen to their stories.  We pray for them and do what we can to meet their needs.  We love them and live alongside of them until we see each other as part of one extended family.  These steps help us bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, release the captives, give sight to the blind, let the lame run, and renew ruined cities (see Isaiah 61:1-4).  

When the way is prepared, we can expect Jesus to show up.  When he comes, people will be ready to celebrate his coming. No one will think he is a stranger or someone who doesn’t belong.  They won’t avoid him.  Where he goes, excited people will celebrate his coming just like little children waiting for Santa.  They will have experienced the beginnings of his love in the love we have shown, and they will be ready to have Jesus love them more completely than they have ever been loved before.

Jesus is on the move.  Determine where he might show up and prepare his way! 

Monday, November 26, 2012

A PK Conversation

So between services Lily is wandering around.  I giver her a hug and say, "Hey, why don't you go to rehearsal and sing this week.  The choir anthems are great -- I wish I could sing today."

Her response, "Why don't you sing and I'll do the services for you?"

I jokingly reply, "Sure," and go fill up my coffee cup.

A few minutes later, she strolls out of the sacristy and into the lounge all vested.

When I go up to give her a hug, she stops me and says, "I'm sorry, I'm busy now.  I'll talk to you later."  (Point taken.)

(She also said I could post this but that she doesn't want to be a priest and people, especially other priests, shouldn't bug her about it.  Even if she does look really good in a chausible...)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Over the past few days, I've seen Christianity and technology meet in some interesting ways.  A colleague and friend related a story about being told that he "wasn't a Christian" for tweeting during a church event.  Meanwhile, various leaders of Episcopal Church Commissions are hosting tweetups (or tweets-up for aficionados of Rite I), while looking at rules for when and how social media is allowable.  Many people are all a-"twitter" about how and when churches should use what technology to communicate with current and future members of the Body of Christ.

This week I also re-read a very interesting chapter on technology in Jim Collins book Good to Great .  He said that great organizations have a very different view of technology than many other organizations.  They don't try to be on the bandwagon with the newest fad.  Instead, they use technology competently in areas that are helpful and are relentless about creating innovation in ways that really matter.  Great companies also tend to crawl, walk and run with new technology, rather than run, trip, fall and then crawl before finally dying. Most importantly, they weren't afraid of new technology, either of using it or of being passed by while they figured out how to use it effectively.

All of this made me think about technology use in the church.  Social media is the mark of the day, but many other technologies in church life have come and gone. At St. John's, for instance, we have a card catalog of members that is decades old -- a powerful database before UNIVACs ate punchcards.  If I need to find information about members going back a couple generations, it is at all my fingertips.  The church could track family relationships, baptisms, confirmations, weddings and all the other information necessary for excellence in sacramental record-keeping and follow-up.

Think, too, about worship technologies and how they have been used.  Some churches took to electric instruments and projection screens in all the right ways and grew thriving congregations.  Others bought every bell and whistle imaginable -- along with the smoke machine to replace an antiquated thurible -- and it didn't go so well.  Some parishes passed on those opportunities, but put in quality microphones, speakers, and hearing impaired devices to go with their organ, but are still doing just fine.  Others didn't change a thing and died.  The moral for me is that church health and growth has less to do with what technology is used than how well the church is being church.  If a church is thriving, technology will be used to further mission and ministry.  If mission and ministry are confused, if people in the church don't deeply love each other, if the place is lukewarm about prayer and worship, then even the trendiest technology doesn't help.

In recent months, I know there have been times when Twitter and Facebook have been the essential media for the communication, and that our newest members wouldn't have found us without our simple but updated website.  At the same time, parishioners with rotary phones are still important members of the Body of Christ and we are called to meet their needs.  I am also aware that a handwritten note delivered by a post office employee can often be the most effective "thank you" I can send.  A wise pastor once said something about being all things to all people so we can win some of them to Christ.

Instead of fighting "technology wars", I think as a church we need to do a couple of things:

1. Relentlessly focus on mission and ministry.

2. Let people who use social media and other newer technologies use it when and how they want and show the rest of the church how it can be useful.

3. Use our mission and ministry goals to see what gaps technology can fill, on local and national levels.  In some places, it might be taking mp3 players of sermons and choir anthems to shut-ins.  In others, a cutting edge social media presence.  In some, a way to communicate cheaply with missionaries sent on projects around the globe.  In others, just adding color photos to the parish newsletters that help identify and welcome new members.  Urban and college ministries may lead the by innovating so that a few years down the line the small town pastor will know what works and can inexpensively implement it.  People on twitter may know what happens at a CCAB meeting before people who read it in the monthly newsletter, but both media can be effective at spreading the gospel.

4. Refuse to be afraid -- either of using new technology when it can help or of not using new technologies where they don't advance mission and ministry in that particular context, however cool they might seem.

5. Have the grace to allow people to build their communities using the technologies they are comfortable with.  They will probably be most effective with them, and any medium can still reach segments of unchurched people.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hearing a Holocaust Survivor

Last week, I had the honor of hearing Inge Auerbacher, a holocaust survivor, speak at PennState Shenango.  She was born in Germany and imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp from age seven to ten.  After the war, she moved to the United States, became a chemist, and has spent much of the last thirty years speaking about her experiences.

The story she told blended the hopes and struggles of everyday life with the absolute horror of what she experienced.  Her books tell her larger story better than I can.  But a few things in particular hit me.

The first is how German she felt she was as a little girl.  Her hair was done in the style of the day.  She had a blonde doll she named after Marlena Dietrich.  Her father had an Iron Cross for service in WWI, and two of her uncles were killed fighting for Germany in that war.  As she said, "They went to church on Sunday, and we went to synagogue on Saturday" but they were all German to her.  Perhaps a stark reminder to all of us that we can never believe it when someone says another persons isn't "a real American" or "a real Christian" or even "a real Jew" or "a real Muslim."  Demagogues don't determine true identity. 

Second, I was struck seeing the yellow star she was forced to wear as a child in Germany and in the camps, a star she still had with her.  Knowing all about the stars is different from seeing a real one.  We also saw her actual transport order that sent her to the camp, a train ride her family had to pay for themselves.  The concept is unbelievable, yet there is the physical proof on the table before me. (Note: Homosexuals at that time had to wear pink triangles, which is the origin of that symbol). 

Julia and Lily both came from school, since Jane and I had no idea if any of us would have another opportunity to hear a holocaust survivor.  I was glad they could come.  They didn't get was a technical description of the camps or how 11 million people were systematically killed (6 million Jews and 5 million others).  They can read that in the history books.  What they saw were photos of loved ones being shipped away while bystanders looked on.  They heard of a doll that made it through the camps with Inge through disease, deprivation, and fear.  They heard a witness that such atrocities have happened, no matter what deniers and falsifiers come up with.  But most of all, they encountered a heroic woman who somehow survived a horrific experience with hope and love intact, and who is now sharing her story so that every child can "grow up in peace without hunger and prejudice."  May God bless her and her work.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Quantity Prayer

To me one of the most compelling, and indicting, quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict is in Chapter 18.  This chapter lays out which psalms are to be said at what times during the week.  The chapter ends with:

For those monastics show themselves too lazy in the service to which they are vowed, who chant less than the Psalter with the customary canticles in the course of the week, whereas we read that our holy Fathers, strenuously fulfilled that task in a single day.  May we, lukewarm as we are, perform it at least in a whole week!

Such a prayer challenge may seem well and good for 1500 years ago, but we might easily dismiss it as out of step with modern life.  After all, if we do both Morning and Evening Prayer according to the Episcopal lectionary, we get through the psalms every seven weeks.  But Christian Schwarz of Natural Church Development, in his very rigorous research on church health and growth, found that when church leaders prayed 90 minutes or more a day, their groups grew twice as often as those whose leaders prayed 30 minutes or less a day.  Prayer didn't guarantee results, but people who took prayer seriously found whatever they were leading growing more often, whether a congregation, a Bible study, or an outreach project.  Really, this power in prayer shouldn't surprise us.

Benedictine monks were steeped daily in God's promises found in the psalms, expressed in the language of deepest human emotion.  They were led to preserve Western learning, improve farming, and re-evangelize Europe.  If we harbor similar hopes for ourselves and our communities, our prayer life needs to have a similar quality and quantity.

We need to look at what we want to God to accomplish around us.  Turn around dying congregations.  Plant new churches.  Revitalize mainline denominations.  See the lame run, the blind see, and the good news preached to the poor.  Preach the gospel in Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth, including the ends of the earth down the street from us.  With these dreams, we need to challenge ourselves honestly with the quantity and quality of prayer needed to open the floodgates of heaven, and be together with one another in prayer at that level.  As this prayer is happening in various communities, God is showing up and amazing things are happening.  May we, lukewarm as we are, do the same, and see God do more than we can ask or imagine in us, around us, and through us.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Acts 8 Community

The following post was written for the Acts 8 Movement blog, but has some information about Benedictine monasticism that might be usefully read more broadly.  You can read more about the Acts 8 Moment that came out of the Episcopal Church's General Convention on their website.

Recently a number of us from Acts 8 were talking about how monasticism and the neo-monastic movements might inform and strengthen our work in building up ourselves and our church.  Monastic habits are making a comeback, both as Benedictine virtues are applied to home and parish life, and as small groups of people form new, intentional communities.

In coming weeks, I hope to put together a few posts on aspects of monastic spirituality that might be relevant for our conversations in Acts 8.  These ideas come from my own experiences as an oblate for more than twenty years with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie and time spent with the ecumenical community of Richmond Hill.  Today, I want to talk about the monastic commitment to a specific community of people.

When people enter a monastery, they pledge their lives to a specific group of people in a specific place that has a particular manner of life, a particular focus of ministry, and the unique quirks of human relationships the call forth a full gamut of emotion from joy to exacerbation.  The closest analog most people experience is marriage, and monastics often referred to each other as brothers and sisters not just out of Christian piety, but because of a loving kinship forged between them.  In a good monastery, the love and intimacy among its members is palpable, and such love is compelling to newcomers, life-giving to members, and a true gospel witness to the world.

This love is not easy to attain.  While prayer and common purpose are essential, so too is what the Benedictines call stability.  We can only get to that level of love if we pledge ourselves to be together with this same group of people, doing what God calls us to do, until we grow into the people God has made us to be.  We can only be challenged to grow by people we are close to who we have agreed to stay close to even when they call us on our own failings and character defects and require us to grow up.  Without a commitment to stay with people we would sometimes rather leave, love cannot reach the depths necessary to transform our own hardened hearts, much less the church or the world.  Any talk of monastic spirituality that does not ground us deeply with particular, flawed, sometimes difficult individuals may be helpful development, but will not be able to call us to God when we need it most.  

A key question before the Acts 8 Movement is, I think, whether we are willing to make the kind of significant commitment to one another that will allow us form such a community of love.  If so, then we need to figure out how to do so when we are scattered geographically and already have other commitments to families, parishes and dioceses.  Yet if we can make such commitments, or even a small core of us can in a way that grounds the rest of us, we could have an amazing calling.  Instead of working to change the church into the vision God has given us for it, we will change ourselves into such a loving household of God that the rest of the church will drop everything to join us.

I end here with a question and a quote.  The question is what you think about Acts 8 trying to become a community of deep personal relationships at a near monastic level and how that might be accomplished.  (Please comment below.)  The quote comes from Thomas Merton, and is a good reminder to all of us when we decide we are going to go out and do great things on behalf of God and the church:

Do not depend on the hope of results.  You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even acheive no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.  As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.  You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people.  In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.  --Thomas Merton

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Less Licensing and More Permission

As we think about equipping our church to equip the saints for ministry, here is a small suggestion.  Eliminate as much licensing as possible in our canons.  By licensing, I am not referring to the wide assortment of "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" merchandise available by your finer purveyors of ecclesiastical goods.  I'm referring to the licenses given by bishops to lay people for certain ministries, a list made significantly longer in 2009.  I think reducing these licenses is important for at least two reasons.

First, licenses are primarily used to curtail activities, not promote them.  Does anyone think that drivers' licenses are there to get more people to drive?  If we think that we need more evangelists, a licensing system is not the right solution to that problem.  Trainings may help.  Exposing people to effective evangelists might help.  Networks like the Episcopal Evangelism Network would almost certainly help.  Prayer for laborers into the harvest is a definite must.  Licenses, not so much.  Are we really so worried about spreading the good news the wrong way that we need to restrict who does it and how?

Second, a licensing process is not nearly as helpful in most situations as a mentoring process, especially for adults in ministry.  The best way to develop effective ministers in any sphere is to give them a little bit of ministry to do, have a mentor or coach reflect with them and provide the next piece of instruction, then send them out again.  If we want to develop lay preachers, we need to let people preach, give them feedback, and schedule the next time in the pulpit.  At some point, some folks will rise to the level that a bishop may send their name to the parishes in the diocese as a potential supply preacher.  This would achieve the same positives as a license, without hindering folks in a parish who might have something useful to say once or twice a year but really don't need to take four semesters of a Bible class.

The fewer requirements for lay ministry coming from outside the parish, the easier it is for pastors to unleash people's spiritual gifts in fruitful ministry. In an Acts 8 moment where the Spirit is leading us into very interesting new opportunities, we can either provide potential lay leaders with requirements to be met, or we can ask them how we can help them do what God is calling them to do.  I prefer the latter.                 

Monday, October 8, 2012

A St. Francis Miracle

OK, so the trendy October celebration at an Episcopal Church near you is a blessing of the animals for the Feast of St. Francis (October 4).  One near-by parish had llamas, as well as the regular cats, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs and black giraffes.  Alas, St. John's did not intend to welcome God's furrier friends this past Sunday, but it seems St. Francis has other plans.

After the 8:00am service, an usher came to the sacristy and said that someone was here to see me.  When I got to the lounge, a young man I'd never met before told me his story.  He lives in a nearby apartment, one which doesn't take pets.  Saturday evening, when he opened his front door, a beagle ran inside.  It had a collar on, with a broken lead attached.  He spent the night in his car with the dog, but he needed someone else to help him so he could go inside with his wife and 16 month-old son.

At this point, the little voice in the back of my head told me, "You're taking home a dog today."  I knew I would try every other alternative and probably have many reasons not to make this my problem, but it wasn't going to matter in the end.  After talking to dozens of people at church, having our new friend drive the dog to the Agway that might take it, and making any number of calls, the man went home to his family and my wife and daughters went home with the beagle.

The dog, who we eventually named Buddy, was quickly overwhelmed with our snoodle Heidi, so they stayed on opposite sides of a baby gate.  Every time I walked by, Heidi tried to jump into my arms to make sure I knew who was the primary dog in my life.  Then last night, because we are total softies, my eldest even slept down in the family room with Buddy, who is apparently quite a cuddler.

We had left messages yesterday for all sorts of people, and called the police and some others this morning, seemingly to no avail.  No one in town had lost a beagle.  During a parish funeral, we almost convinced the local Disciples of Christ minister who was assisting with the service to adopt him.  Then this afternoon we got a call.  A woman who runs the rescue where we had gotten our dog had gotten a call from someone whose beagle ran had broken a new lead Saturday night.  We had left a message for her earlier hoping that she had space to take the dog, but she didn't.  Instead, she was the person who got the call from Buddy's dad.  My wife talked to him, and we met him at the church to return Petey (which turned out to be Buddy's real name).

On Sunday morning, the man who brought the dog said something interesting to me.  After we spent an hour or so looking for a solution and not finding any, he said, "I went to a nearby church, and the preacher just told me, 'We don't help with that.'  But you are willing to spend the time and try and help."  Now, I can totally understand a church with a clear boundary between it and an animal shelter.  At the same time, here is an unchurched person coming Sunday morning trying to do the right thing and having slept in his car all night to do it.  The way he's likely to feel the love of Jesus is finding some Christians who care as much as he does about this stray dog.  I'm not sure if he'll be back to church or not.  If he does, we can probably learn something from him about hospitality and care.

I'm also struck that the connection with the dog's original owner was one we were positioned to make.  Somehow we were an important link in God's return of a prodigal, and we were willing to be used by him.  Being part of Petey and his owner's reunion felt like God was at work.  Being part of the whole affair over the weekend felt like St. Francis has a sense of humor.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Opening the Door to Non-Episcopalian Congregations

As we look at structural changes in the Episcopal Church during the next three years, we need to develop some way to allow non-Episcopal/Anglican congregations to affiliate with our church.  This idea may seem odd, or even threatening.  But as we do God’s work more effectively as a national church, we should expect to attract congregations who want to join us but may not want identify as Episcopalian.

We know this happens with people in our pews.  On any given Sunday, our churches are filled with people from a variety of backgrounds.  Some have formally become Episcopalian, some may in the future, and some never will.  But all are part of our ministry and important for our mission.  In the same way, we should expect non-Episcopalian congregations (and even networks of congregations) to play a similar role in the life of our diocesan and national church.

Two sets of experiences have made me realize just how important our flexibility in this area could be.  The first is that a group of congregations from a number of mainline churches have hired a part-time missionary for our county.  A portion of his ministry is being out where people gather, like a downtown restaurant and a college student center, to build relationships with pre-Christians.  If he is successful, as he has been in the past, within a few months there will probably be prayer, Bible studies, one-on-one discipleship, and other ministry taking place in those sites.  They could also develop a group that wanted to worship together and form the core of a new church plant.  When they do, I hope they will be able to have an affiliation with the Episcopal Church, even if they don’t want to use the BCP at every worship service or have every lay worship leader certified by the local Episcopal bishop or sign up their very part-time clergy with the Church Pension Fund.  But we may be doing things at a deanery or diocesan level that could benefit them and that their participation could benefit us.  Maybe they want to be a multi-denominational church (as opposed to a non-denominational one) that maintained close bonds with PCUSA and the Episcopal Church.    We will want to include such communities in the life of our church, even if they aren’t necessarily “Episcopalian” congregations. We won’t need these mechanisms until creative church planting initiatives are successful, but we should assume such efforts will create thriving Christian communities.

My second experience is being part of a prayer group with a number of non-denominational, independent, and congregationally-governed churches.  As I listen to some of their struggles, I find that the Episcopal Church has figured out some things that give them fits.  The Clergy Tax Guide sent out by the Church Pension Fund would be a huge benefit to many independent church pastors.  Safeguarding God’s Children and Safeguarding God’s People would help them address difficult questions all churches face.  Our structured outreach programs from local food pantries to Episcopal Relief and Development can provide a way for smaller congregations to connect to those in need.  Any number of such efforts can lead local congregations into deeper relationships with the Episcopal Church.  These churches may not be interested in giving up their own backgrounds, but they may benefit from being regular participants in discussions we are having at the local or diocesan level about theology, ministry, mission and outreach.   We should be looking for ways to welcome voices of our Christian brothers and sisters as we serve our local communities together.  As our Diocesan and national church programs become less “command performances” and more helpful and life-giving, we should expect them to want to join us.

We have spent decades formulating various ecumenical agreements, and these are all good things.  Yet, not all churches have an ecumenical affairs officer or the desire to spend years in theological discussions.  But they do want to be the best Christians they can be, and the Episcopal Church has many important gifts to give.  What we don’t have now are good structural mechanisms (or the openness) to allow non-Episcopalian congregations to have a role in our diocesan life.  Some of those congregations will be new missions becoming Episcopalian.  Some may be multi-denominational missions.  Some may be churches resembling us who are the only congregation of their denomination in the area that need our support and fellowship.  Some may have structures with very different strengths that need our strengths to succeed.  Some may just discover incense and sanctus bells for the first time and want to learn more about us.  Just as healthy congregations attract new members, a healthy denomination will attract new congregations.  When they show up, we should be prepared.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Top Ten Favorite Teas

Earl Grey Creme Tea
Today's mail included a flyer from Teavana, an upscale chain of stores that specialize in organic, fair trade loose teas.  I stumbled upon it when our family went to a mall in Pittsburgh late last December.  My daughters had Christmas money they couldn't wait to spend and our exchange student just liked to shop.  After about 10 minutes, I realized that the only store in the mall that held an real interest was this tea shop.  My wife made it for about five minutes until the very enthusiastic young saleswomen started discussing which green teas could be used on a salad after they were brewed.  Apparently, I was the only one in the family who found it fascinating.  Of course, I left having spent all my Christmas money on more tea than I had ever bought at one time.  This summer, I was delighted to find a Teavana outlet in the Indianapolis mall near General Convention, and had an very helpful discussion with the with our Cathedral's organist while drinking a cup of oolong.  Since I had to look at the 17 new teas they just came out with on-line, I was inspired to share some of my favorites.

1. Earl Grey Creme.  This Teavana creation is my current favorite.  It takes a basic black Earl Grey tea and adds vanilla and blue cornflowers to it.  I don't think the blue cornflowers add anything except color, but the vanilla transforms Earl Grey tea, which I've never been overly enthused about, into a really good tea.  It doesn't hurt that this is also one of Teavana's more reasonable priced options.

2. Darjeeling.  This "champagne of teas" is probably my all-time favorite.  It isn't as strong as some other black teas, but it tends to be smooth and really, really nice.  The Teavana Darjeeling is very good and the leaves can be used for multiple infusions, but it is also very expensive and the caffeine content of tea decreases dramatically after the first brewing.  Twinnings or Bigelow also make solid Darjeeling teas at more reasonable prices. 

3. Jasmine Green Tea. I like various green teas, but one the best flavored ones is with jasmine flowers.  When they had organic Jasmine Green Tea out at coffee hour my first Sunday at Trinity, Warren, I knew I had accepted the right call.

4. Prince of Wales Tea.  A Twinnings black tea with a smooth and mild taste.  Not sure why it is so good, but I like it.

5. Lady Grey Tea.  Another Twinnings black tea that takes Earl Grey and adds orange and lemon.

6. Giant Eagle Market District store brand teas are pretty good, especially for the price.  I like their Green Tea with Ginseng and Lemon in particular.

7. Green-Black Tea blends. Mixing green and black teas together makes a very nice drink, as well.  The flavor seems smoother and more delicate than black tea on it's own, but a bit more bracing than just green tea.  Just take unflavored green and black tea bags and steep them in a teapot together for about 2 minutes.

8. Tension Tamer Tea.  An herbal tea by Celestial Seasonings that feels calming while also being interesting to drink. If someone suggests I have a cup, I know I probably need one.

9. English Breakfast.  A solid black tea with a stimulating flavor and caffeine content. 

10. Candy Cane Lane gets the last slot as the favorite of my wife and daughter.  This Celestial Seasonings offering is a decaffeinated green tea with peppermint, vanilla, and other festive holiday tastes.

Honorable Mentions:  Oolong Tea, JavaVana Mate, and Gunpowder Green Tea (Country Fair sometimes carries a Numi version which is a nice treat when travelling), and any variety drunk with friends.