Of the readings for Holy Week

My ad hoc series on Holy Week liturgies continues (see here and here). I realize this is too late to make much difference this year for folks, but perhaps some useful conversations will ensue.

Seriously, this one is for liturgy geeks. Others can move right along…

lecternI’ve had two conversations with friends recently in which some confusion was expressed about the proper readings for Holy Week. It’s understandable that there would be some confusion, because the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church has introduced a bit of a mess with the Holy Week readings.

Let’s back up and see how we got to where we are, and that will allow us to see how to fix the mess. For most Sundays and Major Feasts, the readings are listed in the back of the Book of Common Prayer in a lectionary beginning on page 888. Keeping the material outside the “business part” of the prayer book allows the lectionary (in further confusion, this is called the “Table of Lessons” in our church’s constitution, see Article X) to be revised easily at General Convention, in one sitting. The prayer book itself requires two meetings of General Convention and a more rigorous voting process. So the framers of our prayer book intended that we would not revise the prayer book lightly, but the framers did make it not too difficult to update the lectionary. So far, so good.

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Holy Week with the Book of Common Prayer

If you aren’t a liturgical Episco-geek, move right along.

Great Vigil fireLooking at Facebook lately, I’ve seen that plenty of folks have been wondering what to do about Holy Week services. One sees lots of versions of “How can we be more ‘creative’?” I’m late to be writing this, because many Episcopal congregations will have already printed their service leaflets for Holy Week. Despite the fact that I’m too late to the party to affect what folks might have decided to do (as if anyone pays attention to 7WD in the first place), I’d like to share a few thoughts.

We are well served by our prayer book. We are generally not well served when clergy decide that their proclivities are something that should be imposed on congregations, which is the height of clerical hubris. See “Of common prayer and its neglect” from the 7WD wayback machine.

Certainly our prayer book is not perfect, and in due course it will require revision. But it’s a fine liturgical resource which has (with the possible exception of Eucharistic Prayer C) worn very well in the last few decades. So I am not suggesting that we cannot every improve or change the liturgy, but we must do so with care. Unfortunately, most liturgical “improvement” is the epitome of careless.

To put it another way, our prayer book presents a carefully crafted and beautiful theological and liturgical ecosystem. When we start to muck with it, our changes almost always have unintended consequences, and before long our previously lush ecosystem is a wasteland (with heretical tumbleweeds throughout).

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The thing we need to hear every Good Friday

CrucifixionThere is a blog post titled “The Thing I Never Want to Hear Again on Good Friday” making the rounds on Facebook. In the post, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush describes a powerful experiences of a dramatic Passion reading in which the congregation practiced the custom of shouting “Crucify him, crucify him!” The author writes:

I heard myself say the words and take part in this ritual and it made me physically sick. I couldn’t believe that this was the liturgy that this kind, little church had been using for the past decades, maybe longer. But even worse, I found myself participating in it; perpetuating an anti-Jewish theology of deicide that I knew was wrong, but feeling helpless to do anything about it.

I sympathize. The words are powerful, and many people are struck by the liturgies of Holy Week, often in unexpected and varied ways. What sickens one person inspires another. Here of course, we are dealing with the possibility of anti-Judaism, something which no Christian has the luxury of dismissing casually. Our legacy with our Jewish brothers and sisters is a moral blight on the Gospel and on our faith.

But I find myself disagreeing strenuously with the conclusions of the blog post. Raushenbush quotes professor Mary Boys from Union Theological Seminary, “We have to change the liturgies. The passion narratives should not be read without commentary on who Jesus was and what his wider ministry was about.”

You see, I think the Passion narratives themselves teach us who Jesus was and what his wider ministry was about. Far from dismissing them, we need to embrace the heart-wrenching story of the Passion and gaze at Jesus from the foot of the cross. The Lord of Life hanging on a cross teaches about sacrificial offering, about the wide embrace of God’s love.

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An appalling and horrible thing

This is the fourth in a series of posts on a trip, organized by Episcopal Migration Ministries, to explore refugee issues (see here, here, and here) in East Africa.

Nyamata Memorial SiteOn Friday, March 6, our pilgrimage group visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial. There are memorials for those killed in the 1994 genocide scattered throughout Rwanda. As one would expect for the capital city, this memorial is perhaps the most sophisticated of them all. Many of the memorials are dignified mass graves, with no other facilities. In Kigali, there is a museum which explains the history of Rwanda before the genocide, the events of the genocide itself, and subsequent efforts to seek long-term reconciliation and peace. It’s hard to know how to put such horror — on a scale that is unimaginable — into words.

For those who may not be familiar with events, here is the most basic overview, as presented at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Rwanda, like most other nations in Africa, historically comprised several tribal/ethnic groups. In Rwanda, the two largest groups were the Hutu and the Tutsi. Well through the 19th century, these groups lived together without mutual animosity. People moved freely from Hutu to Tutsi and from Tutsi to Hutu. Families could have included both Tutsi and Hutu. In the early years of the 20th century, colonial powers created conditions such that the groups would be exclusive of one another. The colonial rulers, to reinforce their own power, put enmity between the local people.

The Tutsi had served as the ruling people of the Hutu, especially in the leadership structures put in place by colonial powers, but the Hutu were the majority. When Rwanda became nominally democratic, the Hutu gained power. Reinforced by Hamitic theology from the church, an ideology of inequality gained ascendancy. Conditions were ripe for violence, and indeed inter-tribal conflict grew throughout the 20th century. Hutu leaders began to plot the extermination of the Tutsi, with the disturbingly familiar notion that “purity” would improve conditions. National leaders deployed propaganda extensively, often with the full support of the church.

Genocide requires several ingredients: collective fear on a massive scale, an identified scapegoat people, the dehumanization of those people, and leaders with a malevolent and contagious vision. Everything was in place in Rwanda by the early 90s.

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Justice and mercy and faith

This is the third post in a series on my current pilgrimage to learn more about refugee resettlement in East Africa. You can read the previous posts here and here, or follow along on social media with #ShareTheJourney. In the next day or two, I’ll back up and write about Saturday’s visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial.

All Saints Cathedral NairobiToday is Sunday, and so we naturally went to church. We decided to attend All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi. Though we arrived a bit late, we were warmly greeted. I’m told around 1,200 people were at the service we attended, with a Sunday average attendance of around 6,000 across all the services. Worship is offered in a variety of styles and languages. Our service was English-language morning prayer, with a mix of energetic contemporary music and a rousing dose of Victorian hymns fervently sung with accompaniment by a grand pipe organ.

The sermon was preached by a lay reader, a woman who preached with passion and clarity on Matthew 23:13-28. This passage never shows up in the Episcopal Church’s Sunday lectionary, because we tend to shy away from difficult or especially challenging passages. Go have a look at the passage, and you’ll see why we don’t read it. This is our loss, because the difficult passages of scripture are often the most fruitful ones for exploration and growth. But I have, as usual, digressed.

The theme of the day and of the sermon was spiritual warfare, especially focused on syncretism. This abstract theological term was made real for the congregation in a simple story.

A man was offered a job interview. As he left his house, a black cat crossed his path. The man went back home, and he missed his interview. His superstition about a black cat caused him to miss an opportunity. Do you understand? This man gave the power over his life to a cat, and not to God!

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When a dwelling place is not a home

This is the sequel to my last post about a pilgrimage I’m experiencing in Kenya and Rwanda. Yesterday we left Nairobi very early and flew to Kigali (with a quick stop in Burundi!). After a visit at a local United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office, we departed for Gihembe Refugee Camp.

I really wish I could have taken some photos there to share with you, dear reader, what this place looks like. The Rwandan government does not allow photographs except by those with permits, and only two staffers in our group had the permits. Since I don’t have photos to share, you’ll have to make do with words (except for one photo I cribbed from flickr).

Gihembe Camp

In some ways, Gihembe is not very different from other densely populated villages. Each family has its own mud shelter. These are quite small at about twelve square meters each. There are schools, medical facilities, and places to worship. By the standards of this part of the world, conditions do not appear to be terrible.

And yet, no one has chosen to live there. The thousands of people who live in this camp are displaced from strife-ridden areas of nearby Democratic Republic of Congo. Everyone I spoke with came in the first wave of about 1997. They’ve been living in “temporary” shelter for nearly twenty years.

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Sharing a pilgrimage

As some regular readers of 7WD will know, I’m on Kenya right now on a pilgrimage with Episcopal Migration Ministries to visit a refugee camp and learn more about the work of resettling refugees. This is not your usual pilgrimage to holy places, but rather it is a pilgrimage to see holy work and to meet holy people. It has already been transformational, and we just finished our first full day in Kenya.

EMM logoI had meant to write a pre-pilgrimage post on the importance of refugee ministry, especially as it is carried out in the Episcopal Church. Episcopal Migration Ministries resettles thousands of refugees every year, with most funding coming from the US government. You might well ask what makes EMM special; why is work done by a church; and why by our church? Simply put, this is Gospel work. Welcoming strangers, offering hospitality, caring for some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Any of these is a Gospel value, but refugee resettlement is all of these, and more. Moreover, EMM works hard to engage local congregations in the work, so that the lives of people (like me) who are pretty comfortable can experience transformation and care of Jesus himself (remember Matthew 25?).

Last summer, on a trip to Ecuador that I will write about someday, I learned more about EMM from an Episcopal Church staff member, who opened my mind and my heart to the work that is happening every day. Then I got a chance to visit Kentucky Refugee Ministries, and I was blown away by the depth of commitment of the volunteers and staff and by the many stories of successful resettlement. Now that I know about it, I would say EMM is doing some of the most exciting ministry in the Episcopal Church, and it’s something all Episcopalians should be proud of.

And that brings me to this pilgrimage. You can read more in an ENS news story, but EMM received a grant to take eight Episcopalians on a pilgrimage to Kenya and Rwanda, and I am blessed to be one of the pilgrims. The point is to offer transformation to us, but also to encourage us to share our journey with the wider church. It is hoped that those who follow along will be opened to new ways of seeing EMM and the work of resettling refugees. And of course, it’s also desirable to raise the profile of EMM within the Episcopal Church. I hardly knew a thing, and I’m a pretty heavy duty church geek. Perhaps as I had a chance to learn more, so can others. An encounter with refugees can change our lives, our church, and our world.

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Things Jesus never said

Jesus covering faceAs we start our Lenten journey, I’ve been thinking about how easy it is for us to cheapen discipleship to the point it’s no longer recognizable. Certainly I often fail to follow Jesus when it involves risk or great cost, so I’m not pointing the finger at everyone else here. Rather I’m noticing how hard it is for all of us, especially for folks like, I suspect, many readers of 7WD who are likely to be pretty comfortable.

In our church — and in our liturgy — we often polish off the rough edges, the places that might push us. For example, instead of declaring things, clergy like to offer limp wishes. “May the peace of the Lord…” or “May God bless you…” Or rather than declare absolution, we express hope and refuse to use the priestly imperative. The prayer book gives us strong language in these places, and priests are meant to make strong declarations, not express weak hopes.

During Lent, it makes some folks uncomfortable to say, as the Book of Occasional Services requires, “Bow down before the Lord” before the Prayer Over the People (if you use that instead of a blessing). All this has gotten me thinking: maybe we need to remember, both in our lives and in our liturgy, that it’s hard, and often harsh, to be a Christian.

Personally, I like to leave the rough edges on, because they are reminders of what it means to follow Jesus. With that in mind, here’s the alternative: the anti-Gospel.

So here’s a list of things Jesus never said.

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NEWS FLASH! BREAKING EXCLUSIVE! The Blue Book’s color is revealed!

If there’s one thing that is the heart of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, it’s the Blue Book. Containing the official reports of various groups, including Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards of the Episcopal Church, the Blue Book is chock full of legislative bonbons and ecclesiastical gems. This year, for the first time, the Blue Book is really more of a Blue “Book,” because it will be published primarily online. This is a very good thing.

However, a few people — including this reporter — like to have a paper version, and today’s announcement about Blue Book online availability contained the tantalizing detail that a paper version “may” be printed and sold by Church Publishing. This got me wondering, what color will the potentially-printed Blue Book be this year? Immediately, I dispatched the 7WD Investigative News Team to ferret out (without the help of Tim Schenck’s ferret) the true color. This is a tradition. For the last two General Conventions, this blog had the first exclusive reports of the book’s color: crimson in 2009 and salmon in 2012.

Tiffany-blueLong-time readers of Seven whole days will know that I usually refer to this document as the so-called Blue Book or the “Blue” Book because the last few years, it’s been any color but blue. This year, I am pleased to report, exclusively, that the Blue Book will be…BLUE. Specifically, it will be very similar to Pantone PMS 1837. Let me repeat that. The Blue Book will be blue, praise God.

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Epiphany proclamation 2015

Usually, I post the Epiphany Proclamation on the feast day, but each year for the last few years, people said they wished they’d seen it earlier. So here’s an experiment. I’m posting this year’s version of the proclamation early. Perhaps you’ll use it in your Epiphany services or share it in your parish communication. If you want to use it in the liturgy, it could be included as part of the notices in any of the places these are permitted; you might also print it on the leaflet. You could even pass it out with blessed chalk. Happy (almost) Epiphany!

dropcap dear friends in Christ, the glory of the Lord has shone upon us, and shall ever be manifest among us, until the day of his return. Through the rhythms of times and seasons let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation. Let us recall the year’s culmination, the Easter Triduum of the Lord: his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial, and his rising celebrated between the evening of the second day of April and the evening of the fourth day of April.

Each Easter – as on each Sunday – the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death. From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy. Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, will occur on the eighteenth day of February. The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on the fourteenth day of May. Pentecost, the joyful conclusion of the season of Easter, will be celebrated on the twenty-fourth day of May. And, this year the First Sunday of Advent will be on the twenty-ninth day of November.

Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the passover of Christ in the feasts of the holy Mother of God, in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints, and in the commemoration of the faithful departed.

To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come, Lord of time and history, be endless praise, for ever and ever. Amen.

7WD answers the internet’s best questions of 2014

questionsIn what has become a beloved (by me) tradition on New Year’s Eve, I like to answer actual questions people have typed into search engines to find their way to this blog during the previous year. This has been going on for several years, proving that the fun never ends (2013, 2011, 2010, 2009).

These are actual queries, edited only to add capitalization and punctuation. Until next year, enjoy!

Can you charge a fee to enter a church?
Yes, plenty of churches do this, so it’s clearly possible. If you meant to ask whether it’s a good idea, opinions differ. I think it’s fine, when circumstances warrant.

Do dioceses have to follow resolutions of General Convention?
A timely question, since the Big Event is coming right up this summer! No, dioceses do not have to follow resolutions from General Convention for the most part. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the digital archives and read all the things dioceses have been required to do which are left undone. This is because we like to pass aspirational resolutions whilst avoiding most anything that might look like it has consequences.

Is it difficult to evangelise these days?
Obviously the spelling gives away this interlocutor as a Brit. I’m not sure about the situation in England, but in the US, I don’t think it’s particularly hard, though it’s desperately needed. My experience is that people are hungry for meaning and purpose, and that they aren’t in church because church is too concerned with institutional survival. So we should talk about Jesus more, inside and especially outside our churches. You know, share the Good News? For some reason, most Episcopalians seem to believe this is a terrible thing to do, even though Jesus was pretty clear we’re supposed to do this.

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The means of life

Wednesday in the fourth week of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-16; Psalm 89:1-4,19-29; Luke 1:67-79

Luke 1:78-79
By the tender mercy of our God,
  the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
  to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Mary mosaic from NazarethFrom Adversus Haereses of Irenaeus of Lyons (IV.XX.5)
For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of his splendor. But [his] splendour vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life. And for this reason, he, [although] beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered himself visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that he might vivify those who receive and behold him through faith. For as his greatness is past finding out, so also his goodness is beyond expression; by which having been seen, he bestows life upon those who see him. It is not possible to live apart from life, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy his goodness.

This brings us to our final Advent reflection for the year. I’ve enjoyed writing these meditations — and searching through the ancient writers to find the right excerpts. I hope they’ve been helpful to you in some small way.

Everything we need to know about God is revealed for us in Jesus Christ. When we can see that, we partake of the brilliancy of God’s light. A lovely image, yes? And that is exactly what Christmas is about. God could have been enfleshed in any way, but God chose to be born in the most humble way possible. God was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. Truly human. In a remote town in the middle of nowhere in the Roman Empire, earth was joined to heaven, and heaven was joined to earth. The angels sang, and lowly shepherds were the first to hear the Good News. It’s remarkable, isn’t it? Astounding, even.

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