Ashes to Go!

In recent years it has become quite popular for clergy to offer “Ashes to Go” on Ash Wednesday since modern life leaves people too busy to visit a Church on this day.

While I commend the spirit behind the movement, there is a significant misunderstanding of what the ashes of Ash Wednesday mean. They are not primarily a mark that one is a Christian, or has been baptized, nor are they simply sign of blessing.

Ashes are a reminder that we are all going to die. We are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we will return. This thought should bring us to our knees. We need the time and space to process this reality, to take stock of our human condition. This is what an Ash Wednesday service does, and to shortcut this tremendous work is a disservice.

Of course, Ash Wednesday proclaims the other side of the fact of Death. We proclaim that in Christ there is ultimate deliverance from death itself. And we receive ashes as a sign of our repentance from our sin that would bind us into death, and of our faith in Christ. This, too, is tremendous spiritual work and should not be cut short.

We then carry the mark into the world that proclaims that death is real, and our confidence that deliverance from death is found in Christ alone.

Memento mori,

Low Carb Preaching

I was in a recent conversation on preaching, and my conversation partner shared the story of a friend whose pastor used a very odd illustration during the sermon.  Now, the point of the sermon was not remembered, but the illustration was.  And it is this, “Men’s brains are like waffles, stuff is all spread out and separated into little squares of information.  Women’s brains are like spaghetti, all the thoughts get tangled, and they can pull the individual thought noodle out whenever they want, even years later.” Now that is offensive to men and women, and I think for Christian preaching. Waffles and spaghetti noodles? Talk about empty carbs!

I cannot imagine that being shared from any pulpit.  Of course, I was not present, but I struggle to discern what point is being made, what text was being read, or that it had anything to do with the Gospel of Christ.  Speaking from my experience in this corner of the world, it is also symptomatic of a problem that I have seen in preaching across the board over the past decade, that of not knowing what the content of preaching should be.  It is as if preaching, at least in the big box churches and the mainlines, is becoming either a commentary on the national news or a summation of the latest ideas from the Barnes & Noble religion section.  The categories of which are: self-help, marriage help, parenting help, bestest life now, financial management, preachers working out personal issues, or political issues under the guise of being “prophetic”.

Now, I am not saying some of these are not worthy of pastoral attention, but they are not the content of Christian preaching.  The content of Christian preaching, if I may be so bold, is Christ.  In the life of the local church, there is a place for marriage and family training, there is a place to discuss politics, there is a place to teach personal finance, but all of these should not receive pride of place in the Sermon.

For those of us given the terrible responsibility to stand before a congregation at worship, we would do best to remember to focus on the Word of God, and point away from ourselves and to Christ Jesus and our salvation, reconciliation, to the Father, through Him and in the Holy Spirit.  Of course, this means that Dogma and doctrine are important in our preaching, as is the state of our personal relationship with Him. We can even preach about the necessity of virtuous life and wrestling with the passions, but these do not change the core content of pointing to Christ.

To reiterate our sermons are not about self-help, politics, or really cool quotes and stories we find and want to tell.  People should remember not the stories or the tidbits, but that they heard the Word of Life and were pointed to Him in whom is our life.

As we move toward Lent, all of us who are called to preach, should take stock of our messages and see where we are pointing. The Body of Christ needs less carbs and more meat!

Transfiguration 2019

The stained-glass windows at St. Matthew’s have all the major feast scenes from the life of our Lord save one. I have been puzzling through trying to make sense of why the Transfiguration was left out. In the Gospel, and the life of the Church, it is one of the most important events of Christ’s ministry. The event on Tabor is formative to the faith.

Maybe it was left out, because we don’t quite know what to do with it. We know the Nativity and the 12-year-old in the Temple. We get the Baptism and the Wedding at Cana. We understand the Last Supper and the Commissioning of the Twelve. We believe he was crucified and resurrected. But the Transfiguration? This one seems weird and difficult. Or, maybe we fall into the category of the late scholars who just knew that this was impossible, and thus, taught it as the resurrection appearance moved to the middle as a “coming attractions” motif. In other words, it may be that our modernist lenses cannot see why this feast is important.

Yet, our liturgical life tells us that this must be deeply important. We hear of it at the end of Epiphany each year and we have today as a second celebration. The Church is trying to tell us something, so what might that be?
In short, this is the feast of promise for all of us. At the Transfiguration the light of the Glory of God, God’s very energy, shines through the flesh of Jesus. The Son and Word of God, who has condescended to be born in human likeness, taking on human flesh and nature, reveals that that nature and flesh have been united to the Godhead, and redeemed by union with God. The “veil” of the flesh, so to speak, has been withdrawn and the Divine Light shines in and through it and the “veil” covering the Apostles’ eyes has been lifted so that they can see Christ as the God-Man, and see what they will become in him. This is no created light that shines for a moment, but the eternal Glory of God united in the flesh of Jesus, our own flesh and nature.

And so, it is the promise to each of us who are in Christ. We too have bee called to a life of union with God, a life of transformation and transfiguration, by the Light. We are promised that this Light will shine in us if we follow and trust in him. This is our eternal life.

Maybe that is why there is no stained-glass of this event as it was too difficult to accomplish in its fullness. Or maybe it is because the Transfiguration is supposed to be lived out in us each time we approach the Sacred Mysteries.

I will leave off with the words of St. Gregory Palamas on this day:

“We believe what we have been taught by those enlightened by Christ, which they alone know with certainty—“My secrets are for me and those who are mine”, as God said through the prophet (Isa. 24.16 LXX, cf. Dan. 2.27ff). So, rightly believing what we were taught, and understanding the mystery of the Lord’s transfiguration, let us make our way toward the radiance of that light. As we long for the beauty of unchanging glory, let us cleanse the eyes of our understanding from all earthly defilements, despising every delight and beauty that is not lasting, for sweet as it may be, it procures eternal suffering, an though it may enhance the body, it clothes the soul in that ugly robe of sin, on account of which the man without the garment of incorruptible union was bound and taken away in outer darkness (cf. Matt.22.11-13). May we all be delivered from such a fate by the illumination and knowledge of the pre-eternal, immaterial light of the Lord’s transfiguration, to His glory and the glory of His Father without beginning, and the life-giving Spirit, whose radiance, divinity, glory kingdom and power are one and the same, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” Homily 34.17-18 in Saint Gregory Palamas the Homilies, translated and edited by Christopher Veniamin, PhD, Mount Tabor Publishing, Dalton, PA, 2016. Copyright held by the Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex, England.

14%

14%. The number seemed a bit low to me, but that may be based on my assumptions in coming out of a Free Church background. However, in a non-scientific informal poll conducted after Mass and during evening conversations, most considered the number to be quite high and expected a lower number. In either case, this is not good news.
So, what is the 14%? It is the number of those who attend Episcopal churches who have a daily reflection on Holy Scripture. Or at least, according to an ongoing self-reporting survey with current numbers of 12,000 respondents in 200 congregations.
One of the reasons this is so disturbing is that our very own Book of Common Prayer is 85% Holy Scripture. This is not just because the Psalter is included in the cover. Remove the Psalter from consideration and every “liturgy”, every service, is replete with direct Scriptural quotes and allusions to Holy Scripture. Include the readings required by the instructions (rubrics) for each service, and all that we do, and say, in private devotions, public prayer, the Holy Eucharist, Pastoral Offices, and Episcopal Offices, is rooted and informed and formed by the Holy Scripture. If the cycle of “Mass and Office” is followed each week, there is no escaping serious engagement of the Scripture. We may be a Prayer Book People, but we are first, and foremost, we are people of the Book.
This is testified by the oft-trotted out reference to Richard Hooker’s “Three-legged Stool”. This popular presentation of Anglican distinction, loosely based in reading Hooker’s “Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity”, states that Anglican’s are formed by Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. To be clear, there is no stool here as the legs are not of equal length. So, maybe it best be referred to as “the Anglican Scalene Triangle”. In any case, the leg of Scripture for Anglican’s is the longest and most formative of the three.
What this 14% means is that there is very little engagement with either the Holy Scriptures by themselves, or at minimum, the offices of the Episcopal Church daily. To be clear, this is not a sign of spiritual health and vitality.
The question for clergy is whether we are leading by example? Do we pray the offices, do we read and study Scripture, and being Anglicans does scripture form who we are and inform our conversation? If not, we need to model this behavior.
The question for laity is whether you wan the Church to return to its spiritual health and vitality? If so, engage the offices, or the daily devotions, and engage the Scriptures daily. The Word of God will be found in the words of Holy Scripture. Encourage your clergy, push them if necessary, to do the same.
14% is not a sign of vitality and health. So, will you help change it?

Annual Ash Wednesday Post (or sometimes a cigar is a metaphor)

A blessed Ash Wednesday to you.  Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return!

As you can no doubt tell, I enjoy a good cigar.  I recognize that in this day, and age, enjoying a totally natural product produced from the “evil weed” is probably one of the few “vices” that are absolutely unacceptable in respectable society, but I have always been a bit of a contrarian.

I smoked my first real cigar at the tender age of 25 and found that I enjoyed it tremendously.  Part of the enjoyment was the trip to the tobacconist’s shop, and the experience of being walked through the humidor and discussing the various options available for my palate.  I also loved the ritual of lighting up, and the camaraderie I found amongst my fellow enthusiasts in that small tobacconist’s shop in Dayton, Ohio.

I was in seminary at that time, a student at United Theological Seminary, working on an MA in New Testament.  I did not have much “walking around money”, but could always find a few shekels for a good cigar, and once a week would make the trek to the Boston Stoker on North Main.  There I would read, or write, or more often end up in a far-ranging conversation with folks from all political, religious, and irreligious persuasions.  There was never a dull moment, and though the conversations could get a bit heated, we all enjoyed each other’s company and the cigars we smoked together.  Over the years, I added pipes and good English tobacco to my repertoire, but no matter the smoke, the conversations were the same.  I do miss those days.

Hence the first purpose and name of this blog, as I need a place to have a good conversation that is centered on a common identity.  While, I will probably discuss the “evil weed” from time to time, the common identity here is a love of Jesus and a commitment to be a faithful disciple.  I invite you to join me on that journey.

The second reason for the name is that a humidor is capable of keeping a cigar fresh for an indeterminate amount of time, and allowing it to age to perfection.  I have cigars in my humidor that are fifteen years old, and are as fresh as the day I bought them, but have matured, aged, “gotten better” over the years.  I think the historic faith of the Church in many ways is like the humidor in that it keeps us fresh and helps us to mature in Christ.  I suppose, we could also be likened unto the humidor, as we keep the faith fresh, but I probably should not push the analogy to its limits.

Why is it appropriate to begin on Ash Wednesday?  Well, let me tell you a story.

I recently enjoyed a very special cigar as I was working my way through a demanding text.  I was alone, and thought it a good day to dive into my reserve.  That particular cigar was a Tatuaje robusto, and it has been aging for four years and was a thoroughly delightful creamy smoke. In fact, I delighted in this cigar so much, that I closed the book and just enjoyed the experience of the taste, the smell, and watching the smoke curl toward the ceiling and fill the room with its aroma.  It tasted of heavy cream, cinnamon, clove, and a slight hint of pepper.  The room note reminded me of “Blanc” incense.  So, I just sat back and relaxed, and tried to make it last as long as possible.

Unfortunately, as with all good cigars, at the end of the hour there was just a pile of ash left in the tray, and a memory of that smoke upon my taste buds.  I was sorely tempted to open the box and smoke another, but realized that would not be a wise decision, and looked with a bit of melancholy at the remains of what had been a great cigar, and was not but just a memory.  This is the fate of all cigars, and pipe tobacco, no matter how expensive, how great, how cheap, or how terrible, all of them become just a pile of ash at the end of the day.  They burn up, they burn out, and they are no more than a memory.

Is that not the lesson of Ash Wednesday?  We are all destined to be just like that great cigar.  No matter our station in life, rich/poor, wise/foolish, Republican/Democrat, beautiful/homely, or any other label, we are all destined to become nothing but a pile of ash.  We will die.  This is not because we are “used up”, but because of the effects of Sin.  As the Good Book says, “The wages of sin is death”, and we all get paid.

However, this is what makes the Christian faith different; we have hope beyond the ashy-ness of our existence.  Because of Christ: his Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, we have hope that this mortal body, though used up and ashy, will be raised and made new.  Because of Christ: death is not the end, and those who are found in Him will be raised like him.

On this day, when we remember our mortality, our common destiny to be put a pile of ash, let us repent and return to the Lord who will raise a pile of ash to new life.

May you have blessed Ash Wednesday.

Entrance of the Theotokos (Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

From a Homily of St. Gregory Palamas on this Feast.

Thank you to Fr. David Gresham of Holy Apostles for allowing me to visit this morning for the Liturgy.

 

We who understand the salvation begun for our sake through the Most Holy Virgin, give Her thanks and praise according to our ability. And truly, if the grateful woman (of whom the Gospel tells us), after hearing the saving words of the Lord, blessed and thanked His Mother, raising her voice above the din of the crowd and saying to Christ, ““Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the paps Thou hast sucked”” (Lk. 11:27), then we who have the words of eternal life written out for us, and not only the words, but also the miracles and the Passion, and the raising of our nature from death, and its ascent from earth to Heaven, and the promise of immortal life and unfailing salvation, then how shall we not unceasingly hymn and bless the Mother of the Author of our Salvation and the Giver of Life, celebrating Her conception and birth, and now Her Entry into the Holy of Holies?

 

 

Tax Day 2017

As we come to the final day of tax season in 2017, I would like to remind all of us that we have a moral duty to pay taxes.  As citizens of this Nation and its various states it is our obligation to pay a fair level of tax for the common good.   We can debate what a fair level is, and that would be quite spirited, but the underlying principle remains the same.

However, as long as we have a moral duty to pay the taxes asked of us, the taxing bodies have the moral duty to tax wisely, without using the code for either punishment or social engineering, and to spend the resources with which it is entrusted in a wise and moral manner.  Yes, I am looking at you, Illinois Legislature!

Happy Tax Day 2017.

Veterans’ Day 2016

107th_Cavalry_Distinctive_Unit_InsigniaLast Friday, I had the honor to serve as the keynote speaker for the Veterans’ Day observances at both Tri-Valley High and Middle Schools.  It was a privilege to address the young men and women of that community.

The focus of my address was simply on service, and placing ourselves second to others.  This is effectively what our Veterans have done.  Each of them, whether volunteers or draftees, stepped forward and signed on a dotted line for service before self.  Each of those who served honorably deserve our respect and gratitude being willing to serve when this nation called.  Whether or not we agree with the politicians and their maneuvering that brings, or has brought, this nation into conflict, the men and women who have served deserve our thanks.

So, what is the best way to thank a veteran?  Parades, programs, and discounts are nice, but I believe I speak for most veterans when I say the best thank you is to be of service to your fellow citizens and pass on the respect for, and love of, the freedoms so many have served (and died) to keep.
To all the old troopers, especially those of the 2-107th Cavalry, Scouts Out!
And don’t forget Fiddler’s Green.

Bastille Day

Terror in Nice.  Jesu, Mercy. Mary, Pray.

Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!

What does this horde of slaves,
Of traitors and conspiratorial kings want?
For whom are these vile chains,
These long-prepared irons? (repeat)
Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage
What fury it must arouse!
It is us they dare plan
To return to the old slavery!

To arms, citizens…

What! Foreign cohorts
Would make the law in our homes!
What! These mercenary phalanxes
Would strike down our proud warriors! (repeat)
Great God! By chained hands
Our brows would yield under the yoke
Vile despots would have themselves
The masters of our destinies!

To arms, citizens…

Tremble, tyrants and you traitors
The shame of all parties,
Tremble! Your parricidal schemes
Will finally receive their reward! (repeat)
Everyone is a soldier to combat you
If they fall, our young heroes,
The earth will produce new ones,
Ready to fight against you!

To arms, citizens…

Frenchmen, as magnanimous warriors,
Bear or hold back your blows!
Spare those sorry victims,
Who arm against us with regret. (repeat)
But not these bloodthirsty despots,
These accomplices of Bouillé,
All these tigers who, mercilessly,
Rip their mother’s breast!

To arms, citizens…

Sacred love of the Fatherland,
Lead, support our avenging arms
Liberty, cherished Liberty,
Fight with thy defenders! (repeat)
Under our flags, may victory
Hurry to thy manly accents,
May thy expiring enemies,
See thy triumph and our glory!

To arms, citizens…

(Children’s Verse)
We shall enter the (military) career
When our elders are no longer there,
There we shall find their dust
And the trace of their virtues (repeat)
Much less keen to survive them
Than to share their coffins,
We shall have the sublime pride
Of avenging or following them

To arms, citizens…

 

What do I have in my bag of Trix(R)?

As a child I used to love finding the prize at the bottom of the cereal box.  Inthose days of yore the prizes are actually pretty good. Who could not resist a slimy stretchy hand or a wall climber?  It was  the prizes that determine the type of cereal I would beg mom would buy each week.  If Sugar Smacks® had a better prize than Froot Loops®, then of course I would Dig ‘em®!  I believed that the prize helped make the cereal taste better and maybe even allowed for a more meaningful encounter between me and my potential breakfast.

It wasn’t until my cynical teens that I figured out it was simply a marketing gimmick designed to sell cereal. It was quite a surprise to realize that the major brands did not really care for much more than selling cereal to the unsophisticated child who would demand that mom buy the right kind.  Oh well, as a child, like a child.

This came to mind as I was preparing for the Pentecost liturgy this week, as I was reminded of all the gimmicks I have either seen used, or to my shame, have used on that day.  Readings in foreign languages? Check. Doves on fishing poles flying through the congregation? Check.  Red Balloons? Check. Sharing of Bid Red Gum and Atomic Fireballs to give us tongues of fire? Check. Shaking of key rings simulating wind chimes to symbolize the wind of the Holy Spirit? Check.

Now, each of these were designed to make the liturgy more “meaningful” and allow for greater “participation” in the meaning of the day.  In the end, they were nothing more than an attempt to be cool, or hip, or sell the service as something different and unique. Thus, they said much more about the promoter than the day, and subtly promulgatged a belief that the the power of Pentecost could not be known without a little help from its friends. Frankly, however, the real inspiration behind them was not to make the liturgy meaningful, but a belief that the liturgy could not speak for itself or had no real power, and needed us to jump-start a “meaningful” (read “emotional”) experience through our “creativity”. 

So what could possibly be wrong with reading the lessons in other languages?  Nothing, if a significant number of your members speak that language.  Otherwise it is just a show of how learned the clergy and members are (hey, read the Gospel in Greek!), or a calling out that we have one or two who actually know a foreign language.  Of course, we then forget that most won’t actually hear the lesson in their native language, which was kind of the point of Pentecost to begin with as, “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2.11). But, hey, why should we have intelligibility when foreign, or ancient, languages are so cool and fun? 

As for wind chime keys, remember that entrance of the Holy Spirit was not like a soft summer breeze, but was “a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house” (Acts 2.2).  Mighty rushing winds don’t make soft tinkling sounds, they overwhelm.  We aren’t being tinkled on Pentecost, we are being rushed over and changed.

No, none of those for me this year.  I believe that the Liturgy itself speaks the importance of this day for us as believers.  We do not need to add gimmicks to increase its meaning or emotive impact.

However, if you desire to find the full meaning of the Liturgy and be challenged/changed by it,  just do what the Church has done throughout its history.  What is that you ask?  Well, pray throughout the week for your mindful attendance, your fellow Christians’ attendance, and your clerical leadership.  Pray that the clergy are filled with the anointing of God in bringing the homily and presiding over the liturgy.  Conduct a self-examination to see where sin is operative in your life, is keeping you from living the Gospel life, and bring that with you to the confession.  Read holy works, Scripture and others, throughout the week and mediate on the readings for the Sunday.  Remember that you are not just celebrating a Sunday in May, but Pentecost, or Trinity, or Proper 15, and if you have to miss remember that you are not just missing a Sunday, or a service, but a particular Sunday and say your prayers.

We do not need gimmicks to worship.  We simply need to be prepared.

Although, if I could figure out a way to light foreheads on fire….