Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Wonderful Order: A Sermon for Michaelmas

"Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven."  Revelation 12:7-8.

I heard all about the Hall of Fame inductions this weekend—the ones that people around here seem to really make a fuss over—as opposed to the one that makes so many leave town in July.  It’s homecoming weekend at the high school, which means the annual induction into the CCS Sports Hall of Fame.  Not being an alumnus myself, I wasn’t invited, but I expect it was quite a grand occasion.  There was a nice dinner, plenty of backslapping all round, stories of the glory days.  And when the names were announced and the plaques unveiled, of course, there were speeches.

And we all know what sorts of things were said.  But how does a great athlete explain himself or herself?  Who should be thanked for the accomplishments that are still remembered, so many years later? These questions aren’t as easy to answer as we sometimes assume.  God, of course should be thanked—for the natural talent, protection from harm.  But who else lies behind the success?  An attentive coach, most likely, but was it really the one who designed the flashy plays for the varsity team, or the one back in Little League who taught you how to swing?  Was it the teammate who sent all those sweet passes your way, or the one who shamed you into dropping the attitude and getting with the program?  Was it Mom, cheering from the sidelines at every game, or great-granddad, whose smooth hands somehow became yours, even though he never saw you catch a ball? 

Perhaps it was all of them, but that generalization doesn’t really make the question any easier to answer.  There is a kind of mystery that lurks behind the good things in our lives.  No one cause stands alone.  No one person deserves all the credit, it’s all so interconnected.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Welcoming the little ones

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  St. Mark 9:37

“We’re taking a bit of a chance on him,” the headmaster told me, “It will probably be a tough adjustment.  Make sure you keep an eye on him.”  Joey, let us call him, was one of the students assigned to my advisory group at Saint James School.  We classed him as a tenth grader, but he had been in and out of so many schools over the past few years that it was hard to tell where he actually belonged.  My first impression was that Joey was a nice enough kid, but he couldn’t really understand social cues.  He laughed at things that weren’t funny, and he had trouble following a conversation.  He seemed extremely nervous, shell-shocked almost, always fretting about whether he would be able to remember when this class met, or what he was supposed to wear for football practice.

Saint James is definitely a college preparatory boarding school.  We didn’t really have what are termed, in the trade “second chance students.”  The schedule was tight and there were lots of things to remember, and we left students to supervise themselves a fair amount of the time. 

I did watch out for Joey, though, and I could soon tell that he needed it.  Nothing seemed to go right for him.  He soon fell far behind in his classes.  He was danger in hurting himself and everyone else on the football field.  His backpack was like the Bermuda Triangle—things went in there, and never seemed to come out again in one piece.  And for much of the time, he was an emotional wreck, breaking down in tears or blurting out inappropriate things in class almost every other day. I met with the assistant head of school and looked at his file, quite a few pages of assorted psychological disorders, lots of meds, a broken home.  The kid pretty much had everything stacked against him, and the results we were seeing seemed to fit well into what could be expected.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Commentary: Four Books of Contemporary Liturgical Theology

From The Living Church, Sept 20, 2015

Within Christ’s sadly fractured body, it has been some consolation for the past few generations that at least the liturgists could sing from the same hymnal.  The convictions and priorities of the Liturgical Movement have reshaped the Sunday gatherings of most Christians across the Western world, drawing us together through the use of shared texts, calendars and lectionaries, as well as a common emphasis on active lay participation. 

The Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms reclaimed the centrality of baptism, simplified ceremonial and symbolism and exalted early Christian liturgies as a model for contemporary use.  The Roman Catholic Church’s revised liturgies, which debuted fifty years ago decisively shaped a wave of new liturgical resources throughout mainline Protestantism, including the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (1979).  With perhaps the sole exception of biblical studies among the other theological disciplines, liturgical scholars have been educated together and continued in dialogue across confessional borders, working together to institute change within their respective church bodies. 

But that longstanding consensus is clearly beginning to fray.  The grand promises about reformed liturgy’s capacity to reenergize Christian mission and catechesis have worn thin in the advancing days of secularism.  Historical scholarship has undermined earlier confidence about unified patterns of liturgy within the early Church.  Texts, music, and aesthetic idioms that were exciting and innovative 50 years ago now largely seem banal and gauche.   Roman Catholicism’s most recent liturgical developments have been oriented toward reclaiming Latinity, while mainline Protestants have consistently pushed the envelope in the direction of inclusivity, stressing pastoral concerns.  Evangelicalism’s relative growth has popularized casual and emotive forms of worship untouched by the Liturgical Movement’s influence.  

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Let all the people praise you: on children in worship

From The WORD, the monthly newsletter of Saint Timothy's, Herndon
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.”  Ps. 67:3

“Is tomorrow Sunday School?”   Our youngest son doesn’t quite follow the days of the week yet, and from about Wednesday at supper he wants to know how soon the big day will arrive.  Coming to Saint Timothy’s has been a big event in the religious life of our family for several reasons. 

First, we all get to worship together on Sunday mornings.  Since our older son was quite young, the boys have gone to my wife Allison’s rural Lutheran church for service each week, while I led worship at the Episcopal church.  With Allison’s pastoral ministry on hold during her graduate work, we now gather in the same place—though generally on different sides of the Altar rail.  Sunday School is also new for them, and they love the stories, the crafts, and the fun time spent with other kids their own age.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

All the Difference in the World: My Life in Sunday School

Reblogged from Covenant

Thirty years ago this weekend, I was promoted. I had started first grade a week before, and, at the Rally Day assembly, I mumbled through my assigned recitation (a short poem). The Sunday School superintendent handed me a brand-new, black leather King James Bible, with my name written on the inside cover in her elegant hand. The inscription also notified me that I was now a member of the Junior Department of the Sunday School at Saint John’s Church.

To everyone at Saint John’s, though, I was really joining “Mrs. Truax’s class.” It seemed even then that she had been teaching forever. She had taught my mother back in the early Sixties, when the church was brimming with Baby Boomer children, a class in every corner of the Sunday School annex.

It was rather different on my promotion day, when amid the inevitable fluctuations of children’s attendance, our congregation found itself at a low ebb. I was the only promotion we’d had in several years, and the Junior Department was to be composed of me and about a dozen sixth graders. It was rather abrupt to shift from felt boards one week to reading through the Book of Esther in seventeenth-century prose the next, but I was proud at being able (mostly) to follow the lines in my new Bible.

Commentary: Saint Augustine's Prayer Book (2014 Edition)

From the Sept. 20 Edition of The Living Church.
My copy of Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book is battered and stained.  A constant companion since my earliest days as an Episcopalian, it has pointed me to God through difficult times of discernment, the death of loved ones, and many of my life’s greatest joys.  I greeted the news of its pending revision with the suspicion associated with a change to grandma’s pie crust recipe or a new route to the family vacation spot at the beach. 
But the new edition, edited by David Cobb of Ascension Church, Chicago and Derek Olsen has exceeded my expectations.  In his preface, Cobb notes his “genuine affection” for the book, which shines through this very careful and gentle revision of one of the greatest spiritual classics produced within the American Church.  The new volume is more than 100 pages longer, beautifully designed, and a convenient size.
Above all, the new edition is a tribute to the devotional usefulness of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.    The work’s opening section defines its purpose, in part, as helping Christians “prepare for and participate in public liturgy thoughtfully.”  Past editions of Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book claimed to be a “devotional companion to the Book of Common Prayer,” but relegated the prayer book to the shadows.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Who Do You Say That I Am?

“Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”    St. Mark 8:38

A few years ago, Pastor Allison and I led a mission trip to Washington DC for teenagers from our two churches.  We were aiming to help these rural kids understand what urban poverty is really like, and to support a number of ministries that were working among the poor in the city.  It was an amazing experience for all of us, and together we lived on a food stamp budget, visited and prayed with the homeless, chopped vegetables at the DC Central Kitchen, and helped serve meals at a shelter.  Our Bible studies each day focused on different parts of the Magnificat, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s revolutionary song of praise, which we prayed together each evening. 

We also gave the teens an assignment, to memorize the Magnificat over the course of our time, so that its message could form their spiritual lives.  One beautiful evening of the trip, we were walking up 14th Street, on our way back to our dorm from a concert on the steps of the Capitol.  Unprompted, a few of our girls joined hands, and started to recite the Magnificat together as they walked down the street.  “He has put down the mighty from their seats, and has lifted up the lowly,” they chanted.  “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”[1]  We were just past the Willard Hotel, about a block from the White House, and on the sidewalks, filled with tourists from every part of the world, all eyes turned to the girls.  Now they may have just been trying to learn the lines, but knowing those particular girls well, I think there was something more to it. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"One Such Child"-- A Tribute to Dorothy Truax

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.”  St. Matthew 18:5

Back in September of 1984, when I was six years old, I was promoted.  I became a member of the Junior Department here at Saint John’s Church, which for over half a century was known to everyone just as “Mrs. Truax’s class.”  I can still remember those first few weeks. We read through, of all things, the Book of Esther.  The Sunday School superintendent had presented to me with a brand new black King James Bible on Rally Day, the Sunday before. I was very proud of myself for being able to keep up with all the sixth graders in the class, piecing together all the words.

And then, a few weeks later, the Junior Department changed dramatically.  All those sixth graders were confirmed, and moved on into another class, taught by someone else over on the other side of the Fellowship Hall.  I was the only one left.  Now by the rules we follow in most parts of life, that should have been the end of the Junior Department.  You just don’t prepare a Sunday School lesson each week for one six year old boy. 

But Mrs. Truax did. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

For Reflection: "Mass Consumerism Reshapes People."

The ideology and practice of mass consumerism reshapes people—their fundamental visions of who and what they are—not into active citizens but acquisitive consumers.  Society itself is transformed not into a rich network of various sorts of communities and social institutions that together comprise a civil society that promotes human flourishing, but rather a national mega-supermarket of endless products and services where shoppers (having been “empowered” by their incomes) seek human fulfillment through mass consumption.  In such redefined human and societal realities, things like community life, civic participation and political engagement become extraneous, almost meaningless.  They are reduced to places where the rules of the market, wealth distribution and product safety and determined.  In the end there is no such thing as a common wealth, a public square, a common good.  All that exists are income-earning workers, commodity producers, service suppliers, markets, regulation and sites for satiating consumption.”  Christian Smith, et. al., Lost in Transition (2011), 217.