Thursday, December 12, 2013

Saint Lucy, God's Salvation, and Human Trafficking

I was preparing a sermon today for a weekday commemoration of Saint Lucy, and it got me thinking.  Her feast day is December 13, which was the shortest day of the year until the calendar reforms in 1582.  Since Lucy means "light", her day was celebrated with great enthusiasm, especially in Northern Europe, where short days were very short and the increased daylight is desperately anticipated.  Most commonly on St. Lucy's day, a girl dressed in a white robe and wore a candle-bedecked wreath on her head while distributing treats to the family.

The tradition of St. Lucy's life is in many ways a classic virgin/martyr story.  The daughter of nobles in Syracuse, Sicily, Lucy refused to marry the suitor presented to her.  The spurned gentleman, as if to prove she made the right decision, denounced her as a Christian to authorities during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian.  The governor first sentenced her to a brothel, but she became so heavy that she could not be moved there, even by a team of oxen.  Authorities then attempted unsuccessfully to burn her to death, before killing her with a sword.  Other traditions note that her eyes were gouged out, either by authorities as torture  or by Lucy herself to dissuade her suitor who found her eyes especially attractive, and that God later restored her eyes.  Different sources also note dreams, visitations from St. Agnes, a miraculous healing of her mother, the distribution to the poor of her potential inheritance, and the early dedication of her life to God.

Like many traditions of the virgin/martyrs of the church, the teaching about them seems to focus on their confession of a Christina faith and their (usually sexual) purity.  We should hesitate to read too much dogma back into their convictions, however, or equate their purity with whatever we want to find in our teenagers so they don't have sex until they are married.  Many of our traditions, Lucy's included, begin with rejecting an unwanted marriage, and the horrific consequences of that refusal.  Their Christian confession and purity are different components of an integrated personality strong enough at an early age to decide that their entire being, including their sexuality, is only to be used in life-giving ways.  Spurning an inappropriate mate (due to age, cruelty or lack of faith) falls squarely within the boundaries of a strong Christian moral ethic.  Other integrated Christian souls made no-less-holy decisions to marry into situations that allowed them to serve God while raising families.

The witness of those like St. Lucy is powerful in ways that are desperately needed today.  At a time when the internet and global travel has increasingly made sexuality a commodity, Lucy is a witness to God's concern and salvation for victims in those situations.  God intervened directly to prevent Lucy from being forced into a brothel, just like he worked indirectly through Saint Nicolas who provided money for dowries so three girls wouldn't be forced into prostitution.  Respecting and protecting the sexual purity of the innocent and the sexual integrity of the perhaps non-so-innocent are both fundamental responsibilities of the church, of society, and of all men and women of goodwill.  Saints like Lucy shine light into the darkness of sexual exploitation and human trafficking, whether of the Roman, medieval or modern varieties.  Whether the problem is rich ancient patricians or drug-offering pimps, God cares deeply for young women and men caught in the clutches of those who would use them for profit and pleasure.  The church today would do well to emphasize once again the life of Lucy as a call to action for Christian men and women, and even more as a source of good news to victims of trafficking desperately waiting for deliverance and healing.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Prepare the Way of the Lord


I'd love to. 
Prepare the way of the Lord, that is.
Sounds like a great idea,
            not making the Lord go around in detours.
            Probably why he came in December
                        instead of during a summer of
                                    PennDot construction.

the problem is
that I don't know where he
            wants to go or how he
            plans to get there.
Maybe somebody could get Jesus
            a new GPS for Christmas.
There's probably already
            a straight path somewhere
            that knows how to properly
                        fete a Lord Almighty,
                        even one in a manger.

I'm rather busy,
            especially preparing for Christmas.
Too much to do.
Too busy spinning wheels
            going from this place to that
            running around in circles.
Not sure I'm a person to talk about straight paths –
            I've been to six different stores
            with very little marked off the list,
            and more back and forth trips
                        than I care to count.

I feel kind of guilty
            about all the bustle.
I know what this season is about:
            the preparation of the
                        coming of Christ
                        in the manger and
                        in the final hour.
I want to feel the silence,
                        the peace,
                        the calm,
                        the clear brightness
                                    of a starry, winter night.
I need a straight path for myself
            before I can prepare    one      more    thing.

Come, Lord Jesus.
Come, Word Made Flesh, to dwell in the midst of us.
Come, Prince of Peace, to calm our hearts.
Come, Lord of Glory, to surround us in love.

Come, Lord Jesus.
The Lord comes among us;
            let me stop
                         and recognize you.
The Lord comes with peace;
            let me stop
                        and stop worrying that
                        I have stopped too long.
The Lord comes with love;
            let me stop
                        and feel to the core of my being
                        how unfathomably much
                                    you      love     me.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Humorous Halloween (Candy) Sermonette

Maybe some of you have participated in the Halloween ritual of “trick-or-treating” yesterday.  I’m not going to talk today about whether we should or shouldn’t celebrate this holiday.  Some see it as a pagan holdover, while others are anticipating All Saints Day, and still others just like to check in with the neighbors.   But for those of you who did participate, I want to remind you of the spiritual importance of tithing your Halloween candy.

Now many of you probably haven’t thought about this obligation, being more concerned about stashing the loot before greedy family members find it.  Nevertheless, we definitely want to bring in our first fruits to God house, even when they are juicy fruits obtained by shaking down the people on our block. 

Someone may say, “Preacher, we tithe our money, but we don’t want to be like the Pharisees who worried about tithing mint and dill and cumin, too.”  Jesus never says, however, that they shouldn’t have tithed their spices; he only says that they had to do justice along with their acts of piety.  Then he says our righteousness should surpass that of the Pharisees, clearly referring not only to tithing mint, but also mint chocolate.

Remember how the Israelites could leave their tents and go collect manna, much like our costumed contemporaries collect candy?  If they took more manna than they should have, it went rancid and became unhealthy.  In the same way, when we gather candy and keep God’s first fruits, the candy becomes unhealthy in our stomachs, finding its way to the hips.  We find the fats and sugars turning to circulatory system clots, keeping us from loving the Lord with all our heart.  So bring in a full tithe to the storehouse of God, where the priests and Levites can share your bounty.  Let it be ten percent of all the candy, pretzels and cheese doodles gleaned from the generosity of your neighbors.  Give so that the same measure can be given back to you, a full measure of confectionery delights overflowing into your lap.

Note too, the instructions of the Holy Writ in how to bring an offering.  We have the example of Ananias and Sapphira who were not open and honest with their gifts, trying to keep the true value of their treasure a secret.  They died at the feet of Peter and the Apostles.  Be not like them, bringing to God only your generic taffy and the sugar-free hard candy given out by the local dentist.  Instead generously bring the best of your labors, the Hershey bars and M&Ms, the Snickers and the Kit-Kats, so that the servants in God’s house may rejoice with you.   

Don’t wait, but bring the tithes immediately.  Do not neglect your offering to God until your barns are filled with Sweet Tarts and you hear God say, “You fool, your soul is demanded this very night.”  Forget not God lest you find yourself cast out into the wailing and gnashing of teeth without even taffy to cushion the grinding of molar on molar.  Instead, offer at the altar your filled plastic jack-o-lanterns and your bulging pillowcases so that your place at the heavenly banquet will include unlimited offerings off the dessert tray.  Share your sweetest blessings with the priests that your lives may be long in the good land of milk chocolate and honey that the Lord your God is giving to you.    

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Why We Won't Be Using the Episcopal Church's Advertising Materials

Earlier this week, I received our diocese's e-newsletter that included a link to camera-ready evangelism materials produced by the Episcopal Church that can be used by congregations for postcards, ads and billboards.  Since I am always looking for helpful evangelism tools (what parish isn't?), I clicked the link.  I moved quickly from shock to disappointment to anger that our church is still promoting messages that make sharing the good news with unchurched people more difficult.

Here are a couple examples, and why we aren't using them.

"Summer sermons will be shorter.  Priests play golf too."  I can't help but rephrasing this ad as, "Our preaching is such a waste of your time that in the summer, when your leisure time is more valuable, we'll waste less of it."  If our preaching isn't helping people live out their Christian lives in important ways, then we shouldn't be preaching.  If it is, let's advertise that: "Hear a message that will change your life before your Sunday morning tee time."

"Why not surprise us and show up this Sunday?"  When I showed this one to my deacon, he couldn't believe it.  "We pray daily for those who need a relationship with Christ to come to us," he said.  "We're expecting them when they come, we're not surprised."  Really, would anyone want to go to a church, or anywhere else, that would be surprised and unprepared for their arrival?  Many people don't return to a church they visit for precisely that reason.  When we hung the banner off the side of our church last year, we included our purpose statement (Worship God, Care for People, Grow as Christians) with the message "We're Expecting You" underneath.

Then we come to "Come see what goes on between Easter and Christmas."

This message is a prime example of the insider language (interwoven with guilt) that turns newcomers off.  An increasing number of the folks in my community aren't in church on Easter or Christmas.  Some have never (!) been inside a church building, even for a wedding or funeral.  If we want Christmas and Easter Christians to come back, probably having a church leader reach out and see how to meet their needs is more helpful than a generic message, and this ad couldn't realistically be targeted to anyone else.

Then we have a couple of billboard suggestions directing people to twitter and Facebook.  I can't see a billboard ad to drive people to Facebook or twitter.  I think social media advertising is a much more helpful way to drive people to our social media sites and, if we are buying a billboard, let's have it share something more positive about us than "we are on Facebook and twitter."

For better billboard and advertising campaign ideas, I'd direct you to the Diocese of Ohio.  Their billboards included the message: "Love God. Love Your Neighbor. Change the World."  A church with that bumpersticker is one I'd be interested in trying, and so might my unchurched friends.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Musings on America's Got Talent

America's Got Talent ends up being one of the few TV shows I watch, mostly because watching doesn't require premium cable and Jane and Julia really like it.  The show is often interesting and occasionally even uplifting.  Yet as we watched this week's semi-finals, live from Radio City Music Hall, I was troubled by two thoughts which made me think about viewing habits generally.

The first question came during the judges comments to one of the acts.  A group of pre-teen boys performed
Howard Stern with an AGT act
a dance that, I think, was meant to look sexy, macho, and perhaps even gansta-esque.  Watching them was bizarre and troubling.  More troubling though were the judges comments, which mostly ran along the "you are all so cute" lines.  The only judge who said the act was inappropriate and unpleasant to watch was Howard Stern.  Yes, Howard Stern!  Not for the first time in my AGT viewing did I find myself grateful for Howard's comments, both aesthetically and for how various acts could help themselves even if they didn't win the million dollars.  But I didn't expect to see him as the advocate for the integrity of our young people. I don't really believe that Howard is today's voice for morality and Christian ethics, but at least in this context he seems to be the voice of reason and responsibility.  Hearing the other judges' comments, I can't help but wonder if we have become so accustomed to seeing children on screen (and in real life) performing so inappropriately that it doesn't even register to most of us any longer.  The creation of such acts is troubling enough.  More tragic is when we no long realize why it is troubling.  Gratefully that particular act did not make it to the next round.

In the same episode, a sword-swallower was on, who also did not make it to the next round.  I don't know if I had ever seen a real sword-swallower before, but this gentleman from Moldova literally opened up his mouth, stuck a sword down his throat and did acrobatics.  This act is quite dangerous.  Howard noted that he had injured himself internally during rehearsals that week and couldn't eat for two days.  Some of the judges during the act seemed quite afraid that he would seriously hurt himself during the live performance.  As I was watching, I thought about how much responsibility I would have if he had hurt or even killed himself.  I think most of us when we watch a show assume that we can trust the producers' judgement to ensure we won't see someone die on live TV.  But that judgment may not be so good (see paragraph above). 

An Ancient Roman Reality Show
It seems to me that we have some responsibility for the people we watch injure themselves for our amusements, whether we pay at a turnstile, buy the t-shirt, or just add to the ratings numbers.  I don't think we can just watch a professional football game without being aware of the toll concussions and other injuries have upon the players for the rest of their lives. (See, for instance, this report.)  I'm not sure that we can watch "reality television" and blithely ignore the emotional consequences on immature individuals who have their lives manipulated in front of millions for a chance to win a prize or launch an acting career.  While they may be free to choose to put themselves in those situations, if I help them along, I have some responsibility in where they end up.  If my money encourages them to self-destructive behaviors, I'm paying a portion of the ethical bill for the results.  If I watch a sword-swallower self-inflict serious injuries, not in a freak accident but in a somewhat probable outcome, I can't just shrug it off as a disturbing program.  I should be disturbed, disturbed enough to make better entertainment choices.

I am heartened that the voters and judges on America's Got Talent have not voted forward these or some of the other troubling acts.  And, after all, we can count on Howard Stern upholding standards of decency and appropriateness.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Holy Week: Thinking of Martyrs

Holy Week brings into sharp focus the ways in which Christian faith can be a life and death affair.  As we hear and grapple with the passion and death of Jesus, we know of numerous men and women throughout the centuries who also took up their crosses, followed Jesus, and lost their lives to save them. 

Janani Luwuum
We know too that the witness which began with Stephen and James in Acts of the Apostles didn't stop with early martyrs like Peter and Paul, Polycarp and Alban, or Felicity and Perpetua.  Even down to today, men and women in various parts of the world are persecuted and even killed for attempting to live their faith with integrity, to love those God is calling them to serve, or to share the good news of Christ's resurrection that could transform the lives of the people around them.  Our Holy Week devotions would benefit greatly by spending time learning about martyrs of the past and praying for martyrs of the present.

For those who have been following Lent Madness, martyrs from Ignatius of Antioch to Janani Luwuum were in the brackets.  A more comprehensive approach can be gained from Foxe's Book of Martyrs (Protestant), Butler's Lives of the Saints (Catholic), both available on-line, or similar historical works.  One of the best sources, however, is FOXE: Voices of the Martyrs, 450 pages of readable, inspiring vignettes of martyrs from Stephen the Deacon through the 21st century.  The book is an edited version of Foxe's 16th century work, updated through today. Also included is a persecution survey of nations throughout the world where either Christians specifically or religious minorities generally face oppression, imprisonment or worse.

An additional resource is the work of Voice of the Martyrs.  This group provides information on current persecutions the church is facing and the political climate in nations where Christianity is restricted.  They also provide opportunities to contribute to the needs of persecuted Christians in a variety of ways.  Their mission is: “Serving the persecuted church through practical and spiritual assistance while leading Christians in the free world into fellowship with them.”  Their iPhone and Android app provides a daily prayer need, as well as other resources. 

Holy Week, when we follow Jesus to the cross, is a good time to draw closer on the way to those holy women and men who experience the intensity of the cross in their lives every week.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Reimagining the Episcopal Church

Although many things came out of last summer's General Convention, two stand out.  The first was the unanimous (!) commissioning of a task force to look at the overall structure of the Episcopal Church and recommend changes to the 2015 General Convention.  The second was the recognition of an Acts 8 Moment, with two gatherings during the convention to dream about where the Holy Spirit is leading the church.  Both are of those initiatives are moving forward.
The special task force has met and chosen a name, Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC).   While still in the early stages of their mandate, they have organized and have set up a website, a facebook page and a twitter feed to provides updates on their work and receive comments. 

Meanwhile, a leadership team of about fifteen clergy and lay folks have kept the Acts 8 energy alive since General Convention.  A number of places, including Maine and Indianapolis, have held Acts 8 sessions during their Diocesan Conventions.  Various ministry resources, creative blogposts, and ecclesial commentary can be found on the Acts 8 website and facebook page. Perhaps most exciting, Acts 8 is about to hold its first mission gathering.

This gathering, themed Re-creating a Missionary Church, is an opportunity for interested people to come together for three days of prayer and discernment to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the renewal of the Episcopal Church.  This mission conference is open to clergy and laypeople, to those who have been to other Acts 8 events and to those who haven't.  Looking at the successful mission societies of the past while thinking about modern communication techniques, we want to discover the particular call of this vibrant group of people for the revitalization of our church. 

The mission conference is April 22-24 at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Arizona.  In addition to prayer, discernment sessions and community building, workshops will include topics such as historical overviews, missionary prayer, planting new churches and reinvigorating existing communities.  For registration and more information, go to the Acts 8 Website or the registration page at Eventbrite.  Look forward to seeing you there.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Sermon Blog Started

Just a note for those interested:  I started a new blog just to post sermons.  The link is  In the past, my sermons have been available on our parish website, but there they can only be downloaded PDFs.  This blog will let them be read in web browsers and even mobile platforms.  Currently posted are the Ash Wednesday sermon on dismantling our own plans for happiness, the instructed eucharists, and the Annual Meeting sermon.  When I preach from texts in the future, I'll post them on the blog, and hopefully be able to have sound and video sometime in the future, as well.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lord, teach me to number my words...

Another poem in response to Old Monk by Mary Lou Kownacki.  Obviously influenced by being on a silent retreat as I wrote it.  Opening is from Psalm 90:12.

(Warning: language not appropriate for all audiences.  Parental discretion advised)


Lord, teach me to number my days
       that I may turn my heart to wisdom.
The Cheyenne say
      each person at birth
      receives so many words.
When the words are finished,
      so, too, the person.
A girl,
      runs through the streets
      thousands upon millions of times
      shouting "F**k You!"
Until, with two words remaining,
      she falls to her knees,
      horrified and afraid.
Decade after silent decade
      she walks,
      seeking a heart still enough
            to keep closed
            her muted mouth.
Then, when an aged woman,
      alone, but not lonely,
      she whispers,
"Thank you,"
      her spirit leaves on
      her last breath
      as her silent lips mouth

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


On Friday night during my retreat, the staff served a delicious Japanese soup and sides.  All the food that week was interesting and delicious, and a Thank You Haiku came to me while eating in silence and listening to the chairs scrape along the dining room floor.  That evening, David and I took a walk in the rain, and encountered some of God's creatures on the Tennessee plateau.


On Japanese Night
      A Haiku of Thanks

Food: God's gifts we eat
Made by loving hands and hearts
The chairs squeak, "Amen!"


A Night's Walk With David

Rustling in the woods;
A shadow glides through dark fog.
The deer joins its friend.

A toad hops beneath.
Two earthworms straddle the road.
Two friends share the rain.

Monday, January 21, 2013

A Confirmation Class Question

The confirmation teacher came to chastise me.
At coffee hour, her students ran to me,
      "Name three gifts from God!"
Apparently the right answers were
      prophecy, teaching, evangelism
      and the gifts of the Spirit.
I said popcorn, pretzels, and
      (striving to keep powdered sugar off
       my black suit as I took a bite)

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Rumination on Dancing

Who starts ballet at thirty-nine?
PliƩs, Rond de jambes, pirouettes, jumps,
      amid stretches that don't stretch so far.
But deep down somewhere
       inside is hidden
            beauty and grace
And I must find them
             I no more
                   am able.

With thanks and heartfelt gratitude to Abbey Alter, Jill Niess and everyone involved with Ballet Theatre Shenango Valley.  I am honored and blessed to have the privilege of working with you in the studio and on the stage.

Special thanks, of course, to Jane, who signed me up for Cinderella and encouraged me to take an adult ballet class.  You are always right. Again.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Two poetic musings on vocation

On a recent silent retreat at St. Mary's Retreat Center in Sewanee, Tennessee,  I started writing a bunch of poetry.  Part of the inspiration came from reading Old Monk, a collection of poetry written by Mary Lou Kownacki, a Benedictine Sister in Erie, PA.  (Old Monk can be ordered from Benetvision.)

Below are two poems in response to what Mary Lou had written.  The first jumps off a quote from her friend who says that it's not why you came to the monastery, but why you stayed that's important.  The second comes from asking myself where I stand.

If you like these, I've got some more that will be posted in the coming days.  Put your e-mail address in the subscription box to the right and they'll be sent to you.


I come into church
      Sunday after Sunday
      and almost every day in between.
Once I would have said I was called,
      holding ten talents I dared not bury.
      "Build a career in the Church -- ah, good,"
      as one nonagenarian said to me in seminary.
Really, though
      I feared the talents I held were tin,
            not gold,
      and I needed to hear
            someone say
                  they weren't wasted.
But now,
      why not come?
They let me sing
      and pray
            and dress in colorful capes
                  and bless with abandon.
While every week
      I stand up and lay bare
      how God touched my soul.


"Decide where you stand
      and stand there."
      So says Dan Berrigan
      and also, more or less, R.E.M.
I stand at the altar.
      Sometimes in a church;
      Sometimes in the city;
      Sometimes in my home.
Calling forth the Body of Christ
      in the gifts laid upon it
      and in the souls
            standing round it.