Catholicity and creativity

Way back in August, I wrote about freedom, creativity, and accountability. Basically, I argued that when it comes to the Christian life — and especially in the post, to the church — it’s not all about us. Rather, it’s about Jesus and the world.

After some prompting from a friend, I’d like to look a bit more carefully at one specific aspect of the tension between creativity and our obligations, especially for those of us who have a catholic-leaning ecclesiology. Let’s talk about liturgy! It is important to know, for this purpose, that I have been branded on more than one occasion as a prayer book fundamentalist. About this I have mixed feelings. What is the behavior that has earned me this label? I think we Episcopalians should do what the prayer book says when it comes to our public worship.

Sadly, this is a controversial view within the Episcopal Church. Let me begin with what might seem like a digression. I am profoundly grateful for the diversity within the universal church. I’m glad to count as my sister and brother Christians Pentecostals, megachurch nondenominationals, Eastern Orthodox folks, Baptists, Roman Catholics, and all the rest. Each branch of the universal church has its charisms, and I have been known to recommend other Christian denominations to folks who did not seem at home in the Anglican family. The flip side of my view is that I think it’s important for us Anglicans to be true to our calling and our identity.

Contrary to popular belief, Anglican Christianity has core beliefs. The via media does not mean “all things in moderation.” Not only does the historic Book of Common Prayer bind us together liturgically, but the texts root us in a particular theological context. Our sometimes-erastian worldwide national structure has both liabilities and strengths, but our common life in the Anglican Communion is a beautiful part of who we are.

So I find it distressing when people are quick to jettison our Anglican liturgical life. Mind you, it’s not because I think the Anglican liturgical life is the only way to worship “in spirit and in truth.” Rather, it’s because if I want to have total freedom in my worship, there are branches of the church in which my desire can be aligned with the church’s charism. In other words, if you’re going to call yourself an Anglican, be an Anglican.

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Do numbers matter?

measurementA couple of recent conversations have led me to revisit an unending topic of debate in the world of church leadership. Do numbers matter when it comes to looking at our churches? Should we or can we measure success in congregational life? I dug through my blog file and ran across a couple of pieces from last summer as fodder.

Tom Ehrich says Sunday attendance is a “meaningless metric” and that we should instead measure “touches” of those who come in contact with a church or its ministries. In a somewhat more nuanced presentation, Ian Markham says (part one and two) we have a “myth of decline,” and that the Episcopal Church and other mainline churches are…not declining? Well, not really. He says basically that decline isn’t the real narrative and that we have to move past this to tell a more positive story.

And then there’s this cold, hard set of facts. In the Episcopal Church in 2012, a few dioceses saw growth in member numbers (which are not especially reliable), but the attendance numbers were pretty bleak. Over time, our giving numbers don’t keep pace with inflation. Bleak numbers, indeed. Markham is right, but you can’t really tell the story of your journey without a map and a sense of where you are. How will we know where we are if we don’t see our place? Are we growing? What’s working? What’s not working? Let’s be honest about our failures and (quicky!) move on.

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Freedom, Creativity, and Accountability

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting of the Gathering of Leaders, as I do every year. It’s a great colleague group, and I also enjoy the way each year’s theme generates discussion. This year’s theme is “Freedom, Creativity, and Accountability.” There’s a long subtitle and some blahblah, but the gist of the theme is in those three words (not counting “and,” of course). At first, I thought this would be a bit of a boring theme, especially after last year’s blockbuster, “Hope-filled, fear-less leadership.”

Was I ever wrong! As I heard various presentations and spent time in small groups, I realized how many of the challenges we face as clergy and lay leaders are wrapped up in the intersection of freedom, creativity, and accountability. This has helped me crystalize some thoughts I’d been noodling around for a few months. It’s also led me to a place of increasing exploration and uncertainty. Basically, I think we get these all wrong. Or maybe we just don’t fully realize the potential of any of the three of them. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Freedom
freedomFor Americans, this is the bomb. Sometimes literally. Whether it’s politics or economics, we tend to practice a kind of discourse that privileges freedom above anything else. And that has infected our faith. St. Paul of course reminds us that we Christians are indeed freed from the Law, but that freedom comes at a cost. In Paul’s view, we are meant to subject our freedom to any number of tests, including whether or not our own actions are edifying to others. In other words, we have freedom from some constraints, but the follower of Jesus is, in fact, merely a servant to other Christians and indeed to seekers (and perhaps to the world).

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Sharknado Church: The Movie

After the critical acclaim received by Zombie Churcb: The Movie, I am thrilled to announce the release of an even more epic blockbuster: Sharknado Church: The Movie. If Frank Logue doesn’t win an Oscar for his editing in the category of Sensationalist/Campy Church Movies, there is no justice.

Seriously, buy yourself a projector and a Dolby sound system. This would make a great centerpiece for your next vestry meeting. For that matter, why not show it in place of the sermon next Sunday? After all, people love to be entertained at church!

All kidding aside, if this video helps start conversations that help us move past our fear, then maybe we won’t need our chainsaws after all. And perhaps the church will begin to thrive again.

For those who want to read the book, not just watch the movie, the original post is here.

Zombie Church: The Movie

My recent post on zombie churches went viral, at least compared to many 7WD posts — perhaps because the topic struck a nerve, or maybe it spread because it was a lighthearted way to get at a serious issue in our church. Frank Logue suggested that this would make a good video, and I quickly sold gave way the video rights. He did a fantastic job.

This would be a fine film attraction for your next vestry meeting, don’t you think?

Coming soon: Sharknado Church: The Movie

P.S. I wrote this post on my iPad, where getting the embed codes sorted out was tricky. If the embedded video doesn’t work, try this link.

The Sharknado Church

After my recent blog post on zombie churches, the Crusty Old Dean rightly pointed out over on Twitter (where I hope you’ll follow me) that zombies are so 2012. The COD challenged me, nay, triple-dog dared me to write a post about sharknado churches. As everyone knows, one cannot refuse a double-dog dare, let along a triple-dog dare. Since we’re in the midst of Shark Week, it seems meet and right to say a few words about sharknado churches. I am indebted to an anonymous friend (who lives in a place where the sharknado threat is as real as it gets) for some insights here.

sharknadoIn the unlikely event you are one of six people in the universe unfamiliar with sharknadoes, the concept is simple: A tornado full of sharks. As a plot device for a campy b-movie, it’s perfect. We’re afraid of tornadoes! We’re afraid of sharks! The sharknado twists several of our fears into one giant tower of terror, including our quite sensible fear of bad acting and terrible screenplays. On TV, sharknadoes can be delightfully entertaining. But there is another dimension here, underneath all the silliness.

Zombie movies and cultural atrocities such as Sharknado are popular now because they are Hollywood’s way of answering our culture of fear. There are loads of cultural studies on how films and television reflect the hopes, fears, anxieties, and joys of society. In an era in which we are so afraid that we’ve surrendered any notion of privacy to secret government courts and in which we put up with humiliating searches for the sake of security theatre, it’s easy to see why Hollywood would both celebrate and mock our fears. So last year it was zombies. This year it’s sharknadoes. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict next year’s meme will involve robots.

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Preparing for the zombie (church) apocalypse

Zombies are trendy these days, and the Christian publishing industry is always churning out books on church leadership. So it should not surprise anyone that there’s a book called “Zombie Church: Breathing Life Back into the Body of Christ.” I haven’t read it. In fact, I only ran across it when I was thinking about this blog post about undead congregations — churches that sort of look alive but really died long ago.

zombie churchWe have lots of zombie churches in the Episcopal Church, which helps to explain our steady decline as a denomination. In fact, this is the thing that would have been good to discuss at some point in, oh I don’t know, the last six General Conventions. Instead we whistle past the graveyard by fighting over this and that. Or we insist that it’s OK our churches are turning into zombies because — look! there’s a Presbyterian zombie and a few Methodist ones too!

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Of Christ’s body, the church: how to get healthy

It’s not hard to find signs of health in our church. As I travel around the church, I hear stories of lives transformed and I see growing congregations. But there are other signs that our church is less than healthy, taken as a whole. Too many of our congregations are, if we are honest, circling the drain — being just a few years away from sure and certain death. On the one hand, I think some of that death will make possible our new life as a church, as we give up the idol of 1950s churchianity and recall our true nature as a church.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about another aspect of church health/unhealth that I haven’t heard much talk about. Perhaps you will report some existing conversation, since I’m sure I’m not the first person to observe what’s in this post. Put simply: our heads are not being heads, our hands are not being hands, and our feet are not being feet. Let me explain.

Body of ChristSt. Paul writes, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…” (Romans 12:4-6a). Not everyone in the church is called to do everything, and in fact, our health depends on just the opposite. We must learn be interdependent.

Not long ago, I was at another clergy conference. As usual, I heard priests bemoaning the work they “must” do as rectors. Having found myself as a rector sometimes doing some of this, I feel their pain. Sort of. But I also think it’s up to priests and lay people to step up when it’s time and to step back when it’s time. Here’s a specific example. In most congregations there are lay people gifted in construction, finance, office machinery, and even plumbing. So why should a priest take away someone else’s vocation by doing their ministry instead? If a lay person has been given the gift of preaching in a congregation, why not let them do that? What if the priest did only those things that must be done by the priest, and the baptized community did everything else?

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Twitter tools

I had been meaning to put some stuff on my blog, but today brought special incentive. I was preaching at St. Edmund’s, San Marino, CA, and during the announcements, the most excellent rector, the Rev’d George Woodward, gave my blog a shout out. I thought maybe I should put some fresh content here. Don’t want new eyeballs to see all the cobwebs!

Twitter tipsAlas, the top item in my blog hopper is some sundries related to Twitter. Not quite my usual fodder, which is church geekery mixed with humor/snark. On the other hand, I do post the occasional article on technology and social media, so without further delay…

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a pair of workshops on Twitter for the Episcopal Communicators conference. I promised — er, two weeks ago — to post a list of resources that I mentioned in my talk. So, if you are Twittery, this will be useful. If not, please stand by. Something else will be along soon.

First off, some current demographic data on social media: there are big differences among various social media related to male/female, urban/rural, and racial/ethnic background. Based on your intended audience, choose your platform(s) carefully. Know your audience, and provide appropriate content on the appropriate channel. Here’s some data from February 2013 from the Pew Research Center. This been nicely summarized into a lovely infographic by Media Bistro. Here’s some relatively recent info on number of users per platform with supporting links.

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Easter Day: A life of Easter faith

A sermon preached at Christ Church, New Haven, CT on Easter Day 2013.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.

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Empty TombIt would be easy to pick on the various people in the Gospels who have trouble believing in the Resurrection of Jesus. But the truth is, I have a lot of sympathy with their reaction. The scriptures use gentle words like “perplexed” to describe the reaction of the women who entered the tomb and found it empty. I can assure you, if that had been me, “perplexed” is not the word that would describe my reaction.

In the next verse following today’s Gospel reading, the disciples dismiss the witnesses of the Resurrection, because they think the Resurrection is an “idle tale.” After all, everyone knows that’s not how the world is supposed to work.

Easter has an uphill battle in our world. Not only do we have skeptics, but we have the attempts of consumer culture to take over Easter. Plenty of preachers will, this morning, be lamenting the commercialization of Easter, but I don’t mind that too much. For one thing, I love the candy. Anyone who was in the sacristy last night will have seen me dive for the jelly beans after we celebrated Easter at the Great Vigil.

But I also suspect that in stores everywhere across the country, little children ask their parents about the bunnies, the jelly beans, and the eggs, and there is an opportunity tell a tiny part of the Good News of Jesus Christ, even in Walgreens’ aisle #4.
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The Great Vigil of Easter: Do not be afraid

A sermon preached at Christ Church, New Haven, CT at the Great Vigil of Easter 2013.

The angel said, “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.”

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There is a reason our celebration on this most holy night begins before the alleluias. We begin in darkness and bless the new fire to call to mind how God brought light into the world, both at the moment of creation and in Jesus Christ. The Paschal Candle reminds us of the pillar of flame that led God’s people, and which leads us. It recalls for us the Light of Christ, the light which fills the world.

Tonight we told the history of salvation to remember how God has relentlessly loved us throughout history, again and again seeking our salvation. It’s astounding, really, how God has never given up on us, though we never quite succeed in living how we are meant to live.

Red Sea iconTake, for example, the deliverance of the ancient Israelites. God provides for them again and again, and still they complain about how things used to be. Once they escape Pharaoh initially, they see the advancing army, and offer one of the most poetic and ridiculous complaints in history: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” This is perhaps one of the earliest known examples of snark. It’s just the sort of thing they would have would have tweeted, if Twitter had been invented a few thousand years earlier.

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Good Friday: By virtue of the Cross, joy hath come to the whole world

A sermon preached at Christ Church, New Haven, CT on Good Friday 2013.

For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. (Heb. 10:14)

Golgotha Chapel

A few months ago, it was my great joy to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Without a doubt, the high point of my time in Jerusalem was a night spent in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It turns out that, most nights, a few pilgrims are allowed to stay overnight in this most sacred place. On the night I spent in what was once viewed as the center of the world, there were just eight pilgrims in the building, alone. We had the place to ourselves.

For some of the night, I wandered through the building with my camera, getting some photos that you simply can’t take during the day when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is overrun by busloads of tourists. Mostly though, I spent the night praying, reading, meditating, and just savoring the silence of the place.

My first stop was to visit the Tomb of Christ — the place where tradition says Jesus was buried and then raised from the dead. During the day, you’re lucky to get 30 seconds inside the Tomb. I spent almost an hour there, in which I read one of the Gospels to myself by candlelight in this most sacred place.

When I finished, I realized I wanted to back up a bit, as it were. So I walked over to the spot tradition says Jesus was crucified and died. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is almost impossible to separate Christ’s death and resurrection. They are close physically, ritually, and theologically.

If you have been to Calvary Chapel there, you’ll be able to picture it. There’s an Altar over the spot where it is believed our Lord’s cross was placed at his death. On either side of the Altar, glass panels reveal ancient outcroppings of stone, the top of the spot we know as Golgotha. It is stunning.

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