Of stress and leadership

Yesterday, I preached a Michaelmas sermon in which I talked about spiritual warfare in our world. If you doubt the existence of spiritual warfare, look at a newspaper. Or consider what’s happening in our church.

stress ballMy social media feed has been taken up by an unfolding crisis at The General Theological Seminary over the last few days. Not long before that, it was Episcopal Divinity School. On a regular basis, I hear about about crises in congregations. And then every three years in the lead-up to General Convention, you can count on a crisis in one form or another.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

When we are under stress, we are never our best. That’s part of the human condition. Our church has been stressful for many, and that’s only going to increase. Lots of congregations are facing increasing pressure as attendance plummets and (often deferred) maintenance needs rise. Our seminaries are mostly not a picture of health. Dioceses are trying to figure out what to do as assessments look to get smaller. And then there’s the churchwide level, which is a whole new level of impending doom.

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A sermon for Michaelmas: This feast is but a waypoint

It was my honor this morning to be the guest preacher for the patronal festival of St. Michael & All Angels at the Church of St. Michael & St. George in St. Louis, Missouri. I shouldn’t have received top billing; that belonged to the bagpipes. But for what it’s worth, here is my sermon, partly inspired by the popularity of a blog rant of several years ago on this feast day.

Jacob said, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This occasion is a great blessing to me. I am glad to be here with you in this vibrant congregation, and I am grateful to Fr. Archie for the invitation. I am particularly glad to be here for St. Michael’s Day, which is one of my very favorite feast days. I’ve loved Michaelmas for years, and my love only grew while I served my curacy in a parish named for St. Michael.

I love Michael the Archangel for lots of reasons. It is a pet peeve of mine when we domesticate angels, but even a casual glance at St. Michael undermines an entire industry of cute, angelic tchotchkes. It will not be news to you here in this parish, but the St. Michael of scripture is nothing like the pillows and adorable prints of home decorating aisles in big box stores. No, St. Michael, like every other angel, is much more frightening than that.

St. Michael slays the dragonA few months ago, I preached in a church with a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary on one side of the nave, and a statue of St. Michael on the other. That statue depicts a fearsome Michael slaying a positively terrifying serpent. I would not be at all surprised to learn that all the children of that parish are afflicted with nightmares. While I wish nothing but a good night’s sleep to children everywhere, I think the scary depiction of St. Michael gets it right.

Angels frighten us for lots of reasons. They are not like us, and the scriptures are filled with stories of angels bringing world-changing, life-uprooting messages. With good reason, quite a few of those encounters begin with the angel saying, “Be not afraid.” We humans are filled with fear in these encounters because of our natural dread of the unknown — both the messenger and the inevitable change that comes from the message.

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The Peace, and how we fail to pass it

Over the weekend, I posted this status on Facebook, “The passing of the peace is not liturgical halftime, nor is it the same as coffee hour. Just a random thought on a Sunday morning.” It provoked quite a reaction, getting over 125 likes and almost 80 comments as of this writing. Comments broke into two camps: “yes, preach it” and “the longer the better when it comes to the peace.” I’ve grossly simplified, but you get the idea.

Since I appear to have struck a nerve and have a freshly-out-of-hibernation blog, I thought this might make good fodder for a further look. The commenters who think a lengthy peace is fine basically fell into two groups. First, some folks said that they like it that way. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, they said. Meanwhile, others said the Peace offers an important opportunity to welcome guests, and we need to encourage lots of conversation to facilitate that work. Obviously, there are a variety of approaches to the Peace, to liturgy, and to the Church itself. I’d like to share some thoughts about the Peace.

The Peace is primarily intended to prepare us to receive Holy Communion. Here I quote the awesome but too-rarely-used Exhortation from our prayer book:

But if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and
drinking of that Cup.

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Thoughts on TREC: To boldly go where we’ve gone before

Finally, I’ve been motivated to bring 7WD out of hibernation. You’re welcome, readers. What is that something? Why, of course, it’s the latest TREC letter! Yep, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church has spoken. Non church-geeks will want to move right along now. Come back next time, when I rant about something of more general interest

OK, church geeks, now that we’re on our own here, let’s talk about the TREC letter. I’m not going to unpack abbreviations or code language, since we’re among friends of high geekery. Now, most of what needs to be said has already been said by my fellow church geek bloggers. Go check out the many excellent posts in this handy roundup brought to you by Acts 8. I agree with much of what’s been said. Just a few thoughts here. Don’t worry, you won’t get anything here that’s Crusty Sized. I trade in pamphlets, hence my relative brevity.

Grumpy Episcopal CatFirst, I’m grateful for everyone on TREC for taking on what will mostly be a thankless job. The people I know on the task force are deeply committed to making our church better, and I know they have worked and will continue to work very hard. In return, they are going to get clobbered from all sides. Not bold enough! Too bold! Too simple! Too complicated! Too general! Too vague! More power to the PB! Down with bishops! And so on. The Grumpy Episcopal Cat has it exactly right in only six slightly misspelled wordz.

Second, our current system of governance is so dysfunctional that almost any change is going to be an improvement. At present, as I’ve said here before, the various entities (General Convention, its two houses, Executive Council, the staff / Missionary Society, and the presiding officers) are at times over-functioning, under-functioning, getting in trouble for doing their jobs, or not doing their jobs for fear of getting in trouble. What we need is clarity of role for all the entities.

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How to #MakeSoccerLessBoring

It’s been a while since I blogged, and I was tired of hearing people making cricket noises when I walked up. So here you go, adoring public: something new on 7WD. You’re welcome.

World CupSure, I know the planet is caught up in World Cup fever. Even I have downloaded and installed the FIFA app on my iPhone. But let’s face it, soccer is a bunch of people running around for 90 minutes trying to kick a ball into a net. It could be jazzed up a bit.

To that end, I made a few suggestions on Twitter last night. Some of them got some attention, although I have not yet heard anything official from the soccer powers-that-be. So see what you think. Add your own suggestions.

Also, please note that I hope this establishes my street cred as a blogger who moves beyond church geekery into terribly relevant things such as sportsball. Also, notice how I have cleverly made a Top Nine list instead of the tediously overdone top ten lists, like some other lesser bloggers.

9. Goalie gets to use cannon to shoot ball onto field once per game.
8. Get hockey players to teach on-field etiquette.
7. Make player who gets yellow card wear a sumo suit.
6. Fan with lucky ticket number gets to play on fave team for five minutes.
5. Give extra points if players do gymnastics flips in game.
4. Make each goal worth one million points, so bigger scores.
3. Give one player in each team a jousting lance.
2. Put one of those robotic lawnmowers on the field DURING the game.
1. Put a moat around the goal.

Once several of these have been implemented, you can thank me later.

The Great Vigil of Easter: The lifeless stone is a sign of new life

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said.”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Among the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, St. Matthew’s version is perhaps the most spectacular. This is the version that includes an earthquake, fainting guards, and — my favorite flourish — the angel sitting on the stone which has just been rolled away. We hearers of this Gospel receive the message that God’s power is victorious, that life has conquered death in a dazzling way. I remain firm in my conviction that the correct description for what happens at the tomb is — to use the technical theological term — a “cosmic smackdown.” Evil, death, might, and fear have been vanquished by righteousness, life, love, and hope.

The Angel's StoneA couple of years ago, I was able to join a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Without doubt, the highlight of my time there was a night I was able to spend in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with other pilgrims from around the world. In the middle of the night, apart from the crowds of other tourists, one has the silence and the luxury of time to savor this most sacred spot.


If you have been to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you probably experienced what I experienced during the day: flocks of tourists crowding Calvary Chapel, the Stone of Anointing, and of course, Christ’s Tomb. Usually, one has to queue up to enter the traditional site of Christ’s Tomb, and then one gets 15 seconds or so before the priest chases you away. But overnight with pilgrims, it was different. I sat inside the Tomb for nearly an hour praying. It was a blessing beyond compare to contemplate the mystery of the Resurrection in the place where we believe it took happened.

That night gave me another gift. In the room outside the Tomb, where most of the time we are queued up to get to the main attraction, there is a stone under glass. One could be forgiven for passing by it without noticing it amidst all the crowds. But that night, I had a chance to stare at that stone, to examine it closely, to treasure it. Tradition says that this is a fragment of the very same stone that once guarded the Tomb and which the angel rolled away.

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Good Friday: Let us embrace the Cross

A sermon preached on Good Friday 2014 at Church of the Ascension, Chicago.

Crucifixion

From the Passion according to St. John, “And again another scripture says, ‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced.’”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This day provokes in us a wide range of deeply felt responses. I once knew a woman who had nightmares for several weeks before Holy Week, as she dreaded hearing and recalling the Passion. Some of us may have experienced violence in our own lives, violence that is echoed in what we have just heard. Or perhaps we are moved to tears by the depths of God’s love for us, that God would suffer agony and death.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Christians have, for centuries, looked for ways to comprehend what is incomprehensible. As we gaze on the Cross, if we are not overcome by horror and sorrow and gratitude, we simply aren’t paying attention. It’s difficult — impossible even — to fit this day into our human experience.

Many Christians have looked for someone else to blame for what happened on Golgotha. We have desired a way to shift responsibility away from ourselves and onto others. Too often, we have put all the guilt on our Jewish brothers and sisters, deliberately forgetting that Jesus himself and all his disciples were, of course, Jews. And I don’t need to remind you, just a few days after violence perpetrated against Jewish organizations in Kansas City, that this is not an ancient problem, something that we have solved.

We are desperate to put distance between ourselves and the Cross. In American public Christianity, it is common to rattle off the bumper-sticker saying, “Jesus died for my sins.” Of course, that’s true, but this short sentence is also a caricature of our salvation history. The Cross is not something that is done, merely a past event that we can look back on with the easy distance of twenty centuries.

The fact is, as uncomfortable as foot-washing might have been last night, Good Friday eludes our embrace precisely because the intimacy that the Cross demands is greater than our ability to comprehend.

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Maundy Thursday: Gird yourselves and look for Jesus

This year, I am the guest preacher for the Triduum at Church of the Ascension in Chicago. Because people sometimes ask for sermon texts, I thought I’d post them here. Enjoy, or not. And, by all means, if you are in Chicago, stop by the Ascension for some excellent liturgy, warm people, and generous clouds of incense (among many other good things).

Jesus said, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

For those of who you might be experiencing this strange and wonderful celebration of Maundy Thursday for the first time this evening, we are about to embark on a pilgrimage. Tonight, and over the next two nights, we will enact dramatic events from the first Holy Week: the final meal of Jesus with his friends in the Upper Room, the first Eucharist, Jesus demonstrating his love for his disciples by washing their feet, the loneliness and betrayal of Gethsemane, the Passion, the Cross, the uncertain waiting, and finally the Empty Tomb and the Risen Christ.

Sketch for "Jesus Washing Peter's Feet" circa 1851 Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893 via Tate Now perhaps some of you are a bit miffed at the preacher for reading out our plan for these Three Holy Days, not so much because I’ve given spoilers but because we all ought to know this. Why state the obvious? But I think these annual rituals have a danger, and that danger is familiarity. We have repeated them so many times, perhaps we are tempted to enter a kind of ritual lull, when the shocking power of what we are doing is lost on us.

I invite you, if you are familiar with what happens in Holy Week, to have a conversation with someone for whom this is all unknown. Perhaps there will be guests or new Christians or people new to Catholic worship here, experiencing all this for their first time. Ask them what it is like. See what we do through their eyes.

And if you are here tonight wondering what you’ve just signed up for, be not afraid. You are about to savor the most powerful and transformative liturgies in the Christian tradition. On our wild journey through friendship, love, betrayal, sorrow, death, grief, and finally unfettered joy, we will see how deep and how wide God’s love is for our world and for us.

But let us talk about tonight.

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Discipleship and celebration — An interview in The Living Church

TLC interviewNot long ago, I did an interview with Richard J. Mammana, Jr. of The Living Church. They’ve now published the interview. Here’s a sample:

We water down the demands of the faith, hoping it will be more attractive to seekers, but forgetting that it is precisely the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus that compels disciples. We give up too easily on challenging relationships, whether in our personal lives or in the Anglican Communion, because we forget that we have the Advocate to help us reconcile. We settle for mediocre liturgy, preaching, and teaching, because we begin to substitute the perceived friendliness of community for the transforming presence of God among us. We think that our task is to renew the Church, when our call is to renew the world. Of course, I think the Church does need renewal, but that is the means and not the end.

Go read the whole thing, if you like. We talked about Forward Movement, the Anglican Communion, and discipleship, among other things.

By the way, I encourage you to subscribe to The Living Church. After a rough patch, in which I let my subscription lapse, I’ve become a subscriber again. It’s gotten really good the last few years under the leadership of Christopher Wells. Lots of thoughtful articles, book reviews, interviews, and news of the church.

BREAKING NEWS: Archnemesis given up for Lent

Breaking news alertThis just in… As many of my regular readers know, I have a tense relationship with Tim Schenck, my archnemesis, with whom I am forced to work on Lent Madness. Each year for the last few years, we had managed to negotiate a settlement for the forty days and nights of Lent (and not a minute more). This year has been tough.

If you aren’t familiar with the history, the “Cuban missile crisis” of our relationship was the Great Jelly Bean War of Oh-Ten. Our blogs nearly came to blows in what has become known as the poetry slam to end all poetry slams. You can follow the saga here, here, here, here, and here. For years, we met for coffee every week in a vain attempt to reach a comprehensive settlement, but it has proven elusive.

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Of gimmicks and Gospel

Too often, we decide that some gimmickry will make the church interesting. Whether it’s music styles, feel-good therapeutic preaching, or some other way of expressing “relevance” we think that these things will make us as interesting as all that glitters. While I do think the church needs to change to meet the needs of a changing world, we have to be careful that we are presenting ourselves in an authentic way. Gimmickry for its own sake is a mockery of the Gospel and makes the church less interesting, not more. The only compelling thing about the church is the Gospel. Let me say that again. The only compelling thing about the church is the Gospel.

This tension is not new.

As unbelievable as it sounds, I still hear people say, “We need new music to reach ‘the young people.'” Balderdash. Many if not most “young people” these days actually want transcendent worship with ancient music. Now, I have nothing against new music on its own terms. A guitar mass isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it works for lots of people. So if a guitar mass is an authentic expression of your community, it will be terrific. If Solemn Mass with all the trimmings are authentic for you, by all means do it. But trying to slap a coat of look-at-how-cool-we-are onto your authentic self won’t do.

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Governance, administration, and change. Oh, my!

In 2012, nearly all Episcogeekery talk was about church restructuring. General Convention that year famously passed a resolution to create the Task-force on Reimagining the Episcopal Church in a rare unanimous vote. (Seriously, there’s always a cranky person voting no; I have been that person.)

change aheadWe are finally seeing some fruits of TREC. They recently released a study paper on networking, and that one was panned by most of my friends and by several bloggers. Had I made the time to blog, I’d have given it low marks too. Yesterday, they released a study paper on church governance and administration. This one will fare better, I think. Go read it now. I’ll wait.

Before I share a few thoughts, I’d like to correct one thing. My local Ohio nemesis, the Crusty Old Dean will doubtless mention several times in his forthcoming blog post on the topic that he started writing about this stuff in 2011. Yeah, whatever, Crusty. 7WD was all over this governance stuff in April 2010. For my trouble, I received some unbelievably nasty emails from various well-known folks in the Episcopal world. Their basic angle: if I didn’t like General Convention, I should stay away. And the classic: my new-fangled ideas are impossible, and I’d know that if only I were a six-time Deputy. In other words, the (mostly boomer) crowd said, “Get off my lawn, Xer!”

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