7WD answers your actual questions for 2013

questionsIn annual tradition, 7WD answers your questions. These are actual questions readers like you typed into Google to get to this blog. Here are the posts from some previous years (2009, 2010, or 2011).

Remember, these are selections from the nearly 4,000 Google queries that we received this year.

Do angels look scary?
Yes. They are terrifying. I sorted this all out in a popular blog post, where you can also find the answer to another question we got a bunch of times, “Are angels dead people?” No. Your Uncle Fred doesn’t become an angel; he gets to stay Uncle Fred for eternity. Angels are totally different from humans, not humans who passed the angel entrance exam.

Are angles frightening to look at?
Not to me. If they frighten you, look at spheres.

Does canceling church services often cause church not to grow?
Yes. So don’t cancel church.

Does the American Episcopal Church own a private jet?
If it does, I’m annoyed no one has given me a ride on it.

Do Anglicans believe in predestination?
If they do, it was meant to be.

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When God gets real

Jesus birth iconOne of the ways to understand Christmas could be to think of this day as a celebration of God getting real. Oh, God was real from before the creation. But with the exception of a few one-on-one encounters here and there with God’s people, the Divine was an abstraction. Moses might have glimpsed God, but for most people, their encounter with the Holy was wholly other.

Enter the Holy Family onto the stage. With Jesus, God gets real, sharing our human nature. The chasm between God and humanity, if it had ever existed, is crossed. Mary and Joseph and sundry characters gathered in an ordinary place to experience an ordinary birth. Jesus, God-with-us, came into this world in the most ordinary, messy, vulnerable way possible. God gets real.

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What are we expecting?

I am blessed to work with some of the very best people serving in the church today. Jay Sidebotham, the director of RenewalWorks, writes a column every week called Monday Matters. You can follow it on the RenewalWorks blog or subscribe to the column as an email newsletter. Jay writes thought-provoking and inspiring reflections each week, many arising out of his work with congregations and their spiritual growth. This is perhaps the single most exciting thing that Forward Movement is doing now, and I am grateful that Jay is leading it.

expectationsIn this week’s reflection, Jay raises excellent questions about our expectations in this expectant season of Advent. What do we expect in our spiritual lives? What do we expect in our churches? What do we expect when Jesus returns in glory?

The work with which I’m involved these days focuses on expectation, the expectation of spiritual growth in each of our lives, which leads to spiritual growth in our faith communities. It has brought a number of provocative exchanges. In one church, the conversation centered on how we move from here to there in the spiritual journey, how the church helps us do that, in fact, how that is part of what it means to be church, to grow and change and be transformed. One Episcopalian, in the spirit of full disclosure in the course of this work, said to her rector: “I don’t really expect anything to happen to me when I come to church.” I was grateful for the candor. She gave voice to what I often feel. I’m not always interested in change or growth or transformation. I’m not always prepared for it. I’m not always expecting it.

Advent tells us to live expectantly, to navigate the present moment guided by a sense of promise and hope in what God will do in days ahead. One of my favorite Advent hymns (and that’s a tough call because Advent hymns are simply the best) is printed below. It calls us to be on the lookout for the long-expected Jesus. Here’s what we might expect from that arrival. We can expect to be set free. To be released from fear and sins. To be consoled. To know hope. To experience deliverance. Ultimately, to be raised. Not a bad set of expectations.

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Resources for an Advent journey

After sharing some thoughts on the meaning of Advent and our need of it, I thought I’d pass along a few resources that might be useful for your Advent journey. This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a random assemblage of things that have been on my mind lately. If you’re at all like me, you’ve come home from church today “in the mood” for Advent, and now you’re trying to figure out how Advent will work in your life. Even though we’ve all known for, well, a year, that Advent was coming, it feels like no one knew the day or the hour. Maybe you’re more on top of this than I was. We’re always scrambling to find the right candles for our Advent wreath.

SSJE Advent word

From the SSJE Online Advent Calendar

At any rate, here are some ideas to enrich your Advent, or at least these are a few things that I find helpful. Please share yours in the comments!

  • For a good, quick video intro to the season, my two current faves are one from Busted Halo and another by the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. OK, the one I like even more than those two is this classic by Stephen Colbert, especially appropriate for the First Sunday of Advent.
  • I’m a big fan of the Advent Conspiracy. They are doing a valiant job of trying to help us all recover a deeper meaning of Advent beyond “the season that gets in the way of Christmas.”
  • Forward Movement, where I serve in ministry, offers a rich array of Advent resources. This year’s Advent booklet is From the Holly Jolly to the Holy by Jim Rosenthal. For those who know him, it will not surprise you to learn that St. Nicholas plays a prominent role. With brief daily meditations, the book is a wonderful companion for Advent Sunday through the Feast of the Epiphany. Besides print, it’s available on all the standard ebook readers. Check the website for details.
  • Our friends at Church Publishing have released a wonderful iOS app for Advent featuring artwork of the inimitable Jay Sidebotham (who now serves at RenewalWorks). Get the app today, it’s the best 99 cents you’ll spend.
  • SSJE offers an online Advent calendar in partnership with the communications office at the Episcopal Church Center. Speaking of the church center, the Episcopal News Service had a nice wrap-up of a number of good resources for the season.
  • Advent might be a good time to start (or renew) a commitment to praying the daily office. Forward Movement offers the offices online with all the readings and prayers included. It’s all straight-up Book of Common Prayer.
  • Oh, and as I mentioned here yesterday, I’m the December author for Forward Day by Day. If you’ve never given this daily meditation offering a try, here’s an opportunity — lots of links in my blog to all the ways you can read Forward Day by Day.

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Advent Day by Day

As many readers will know, I serve at Forward Movement, a ministry of the Episcopal Church whose mission is to reinvigorate the life of the church. We do this by offering resources that encourage discipleship and support evangelism. Lately we’ve been doing more edgy things like Lent Madness and formation offerings like Confirm not Conform. There are partnerships with Episcopal Church Foundation and the Society of St. John the Evangelist. But the most well-known offering of Forward Movement is Forward Day by Day.

Forward Day by DayIt’s our core offering, and about 90% of Episcopal congregations have subscriptions, not to mention individuals and congregations around the world (in nearly every province of the Anglican Communion). As executive director, my role is usually taken up with work other than writing and editing. We have amazing editors on staff, and we’re able to call upon tremendously gifted writers. So usually others are doing the writing and editing. But for various reasons, it seemed like a good idea for me to have a crack at writing a month of meditations for Forward Day by Day.

My month is here, starting December 1. I picked Advent (the benefit of knowing people) before I remembered what’s in the daily office lections for the month. Zoinks. It’s not all fun and games. Woe to those who say Advent isn’t penitential! And, as I’ve now learned, it’s incredibly hard to write a bunch of 200-word meditations. That’s a long enough chunk to require some shape, but short enough that every word counts! I have fresh appreciation for the difficult task that our writers face with each month of meditations.

Anyway, if daily devotions might be part of your Advent scheme, I invite you to give Forward Day by Day a try. Let me know what you think. I’ll be following the comments on our social media channels. Just be gentle with me. Mostly, I hope Forward Day by Day will be a blessing to you. If you don’t care for my writing, there’s always next month!

SUNDAY, December 1. Advent 1

Isaiah 2:3. Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.

Mountaintop experiences in scripture often bring people to extraordinary encounters with God. In Isaiah’s vision, people will stream to the mountain, marching to meet their God. The whole season of Advent could be seen as a journey to a mountaintop experience at Christmas.

I think we often forget that in order to have the mountaintop experience, you have to climb the mountain. The most amazing encounters between God and God’s people in the scriptures are almost never convenient or instantly accessible. We have to go on a journey first, and that work prepares us…

Read the rest of the first day’s meditation online.

Some fun facts: Forward Day by Day is read by over 300,000 print subscribers and thousands of others on the web, Facebook, Twitter, Kindle, Nook, and iTunes. And it’s in Spanish in all those forms, including print, Facebook, Kindle, Nook, and iTunes.

Have a blessed Advent. Please pray for the ministry of Forward Movement. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, let us know. We love to hear from our readers and friends.

Advent is here, right when we need it

Advent candleAs I write this, the sun has set in Cincinnati, making possible the darkness that is the vigil of Advent Sunday. This new liturgical season has come just at the right time, as it always does.

This weekend saw both Black Friday and Thanksgiving Day, two sides of the American coin. Social media were abuzz with joy and wonder, and not a little self-righteous condemnation. Black Friday received more scorn than praise among my online friends.

It’s easy to heap disapproval on Black Friday. In a nation blessed with astonishing abundance, people line up at odd hours to get bargains on things not many of us need. Consumption and greed appear to have triumphed at great cost, and not just to our credit card bills. According to one web site, seven people have died and ninety have been injured in Black Friday shopping incidents in the last few years. Is a new television worth risking one’s life over? Of course not.

But then others are right to remind us there are other perspectives on the narrative of Black Friday. Shunning bargains may be a privilege for the wealthy. Perhaps those doorbuster specials afford some possibilities to people who have less money, those who need bargains. While plenty of news coverage laments the appalling low pay of retail workers, this holiday weekend may provide some much-needed extra income for retail employees and others.

So while it’s easy to be self-righteous about the excesses of Black Friday, staying home might be a luxury that not everyone is able to partake in. But then, the internet being the internet, we saw plenty of self-righteousness going the other way. How dare you condemn Black Friday!

Is Black Friday a celebration of greed? Yes. Is it also something else? Almost certainly.

If Black Friday celebrates greed, our other weekend holiday celebrates something else. Interestingly, the collective narrative on social media uncritically praises Thanksgiving Day as a paean of gratitude. In its pure form, that is surely true. Here too, though, there is another perspective. It wouldn’t be hard to see Thanksgiving as a riot of gluttony. If one wanted to be self-righteous about it, there’s an easy narrative to construct about how we close down almost every hourly worker’s job for a day so we can eat too much and waste food (all the while re-membering the violent conquest of one people by another).

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Thanksgiving in Cincinnati

Lately, I’ve filled the proverbial pages of 7WD with extreme churchgeekery. So I thought it was time for something different. Here is documentary footage of a local radio station’s Thanksgiving traditions here in Cincinnati.

Wave of the turkey feather to Melodie Woerman, who shared this cultural treasure on Facebook. It’s a classic.

Pay to pray? Admission charges and church buildings

admit one ticketEvery church building should be open day and night for prayer and refuge. That’s the ideal. When churches are locked, and when they’re not free to enter, we’ve fallen short of the ideal. Let’s agree on that.

It’s no surprise that some media jumped all over recent news that Washington National Cathedral will soon begin charging $10 for admission (reduced for children, yada, yada). Check out samples here and here. The Washington Times used the sensational, but slightly misleading, headline, “Pay to pray.” ABC did better, saying that the cathedral would “Charge Fee to Tourists.” The right-wing church blogs love this story too, because it fits their narrative. I’ve already seen some loud wailing on social media from several quarters. But let’s look at the whole story.

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Singing the Sarum blues

Purple and pink hatsA few days ago, I posted a ridiculous photo on Facebook (on your right), making a joke about how Advent was finally getting some retail love — including Gaudete Sunday. See there? Purple hats for Advent I, II, and IV. And a pink, or rose, hat for Advent III. Just like the Advent wreath!

Someone pointed out in the comments that I was wrong, since the proper color of Advent is blue, not purple. Perhaps this person was joking, perhaps not. But this time of year, it’s a conversation I’ll have several times, as people debate the proper color for the season. For the sake of convenience, I have decided to put some thoughts into a blog post, so I can link here. You, dear 7WD reader, are the beneficiary of my commenting laziness. Because. I will definitively answer the question: What is the correct liturgical color for Advent?

Or not. Because, you see, there isn’t one.

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Parsonage allowances, parsimony, and privilege

church moneyLate last night, I saw a news story pop up in my Facebook feed, thanks to some upper-midwestern church types. It seems that a federal judge has found the IRS provision which allows clergy to avoid income taxes on their housing to be unconstitutional. Now The Lead has picked up the story, and there’s a fair amount of conversation amongst clergy on the internets.

For those who aren’t familiar, ministers receive a tax benefit that is unique to ministers and members of religious orders. We are able to declare a portion of our cash income or the value of provided housing as a “parsonage allowance,” and thus avoid income taxes on that amount. We’re still required to pay social security tax on all income, both the stipend and the housing allowance. This ruling, if upheld and implemented in tax practice, would significantly increase the income tax liability of most ministers.

Let’s dive into the news report.

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Chartres: In the beginning was communication

jesus facebookRichard Chartres, the Bishop of London, has written a wonderful short piece on communication. For such a small number of words, he says a lot. Go read it, and I hope you’ll share it widely. Chartres must know that too many church leaders are resistant to modern communication methods. Even worse, many folks don’t see the need to communicate. It would be hard to come up with a better rationale for communication in the life of the church than this short essay.

A couple of brief excerpts. First, this one:

As a Christian believer I have always been humbled by the relative success of economists and scientists in developing a genuinely global conversation. By contrast those who represent the wisdom traditions in the world have been very slow to develop the institutions and interactions to permit profound mutual learning and encounter.

And this:

For the moment of course the possibilities opened up by the web are very novel. We are experimenting; playing with the toy box and things are moving so fast that even what we say together today is likely to look quaint in only a few years time. We have access to a vast range of knowledge and information to the point where one of my friends has requested that the inscription on her tombstone should read “she died of a surfeit of information”. As T.S.Eliot remarked in his chorus from the Rock “where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge; where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” It seems to me that generations following us will have to develop not only critical minds to sift the results of surfing but also a capacity to listen more profoundly in a hectic and distracted world.

I think he’s spot on. We need to try new methods, even with the full knowledge that we aren’t getting it right. And we need to learn new ways of listening just as we learn new ways of speaking.

As an aside, Bishop Chartres and I are chums. Ok, not really. But I did sit next to him one day on a bus at the Lambeth Conference. Even though he hangs out with the royal family, he was perfectly kind to this parson. He spoke and listened to what I had to say. Right. He’s a good communicator.

Tip of the iPhone to Len Freeman, a venerable communicator in his own right, for letting me know about this piece.

Liturgy geeks rejoice! Church Publishing and the SCLM are offering FREE stuff

Some good news popped into my email inbox today. We can now download Enriching Our Worship for free. The press release I received begins, “Church Publishing Incorporated has collaborated with the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to offer free worship and liturgical resources through the Office of General Convention and churchpublishing.org.” There’s also a quote from the chair of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, Dr. Ruth Meyers, “…I’m delighted to be working with Church Publishing to make these resources available in electronic form to the whole church. Making these texts more widely accessible to the church will enrich our worship life.”

it is freeThe Book of Common Prayer has been available as a free PDF from Church Publishing, via episcopalchurch.org for maybe a year now. That was good news at the time, because before that one either had to use an unofficial, error-laden version or bootleg an official version (which I do not condone!). By the way, you can follow that link and get the prayer book in English, Spanish, or French. As usual, I have digressed. Back to my point: now we can get access to the Enriching Our Worship series of supplemental liturgical resources, for FREE.

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