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” 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 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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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.

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.

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