Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Not Changing the World

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?”  St. Matthew 25:37

“Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Change the World.”  For some years this was the official tagline of the Episcopal Church, the slogan you would see on the denominational website, the mantra repeated by the Presiding Bishop at official gatherings.  Under the leadership of our current presiding bishop, Michael Curry, the new tagline is, “The Jesus Movement.” But the “change the world” language does get trotted out from time to time.  It has an enduring to stir people’s hearts and to get them thinking big about the implications of following Jesus Christ in the life of the Church.

Some of you will know that Fr. Mac and I do a fair amount of writing for The Living Church’s Covenant blog, and this week there was a compelling article by our friend Dan Martins, the Bishop of Springfield, about this slogan, “Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Change the World.[1]”  Bishops Martins acknowledged, “It’s catchy, it’s memorable, and you can’t really argue with it without sounding hopelessly curmudgeonly.” 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Managing Well

“He entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents,  to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.”  St. Matthew 25:14-15

Last weekend, I went an apple butter boil, an old family tradition, at a cousin’s farm in my hometown.  By the bubbling kettle, I struck up a conversation with another cousin, Robin.  She plays the organ at Mount Carmel Methodist Church, a mile or two up the road in Shanktown, Maryland, a place that doesn’t make it onto the road atlas.  Mount Carmel is a white clapboard chapel, built around the time of the Civil War.  My grandparents were members and four generations of Michaels sleep in its shady churchyard.  I’ve always thought of it as a timeless place.

But Robin said things have changed.  There are only twenty of them in the pews most Sundays.  There’s no choir or Vacation Bible School anymore.  My cousin Andrew’s baby girl is the only child.  Mount Carmel has never been a big church, and it has always shared a pastor with the other local Methodist churches.  But it was probably two or three times that size when I was a kid. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The faith of an alto: remembering Grandma

“Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple.”  Revelation 7:15       

Grandma was an alto.  I learned this when I joined the choir as a ten year old, before my voice changed.  Mom placed me on the second row, between grandma and grandpap.  The joke was that this was for the sake of public order.  It took advantage of the fact that grandpap could only hear well in his right ear.  It kept me at a bit of a distance from those other tenors and basses who always had a joke to tell at the wrong moment.  But really, I think, it was so I would learn from grandma what it meant to be part of a choir.

Altos don’t get to sing the melody, like the sopranos, and they aren’t generally given dramatic leaps or catchy rhythms like basses.  They hold the middle voice and keep the beat.  Sometimes they will sing pretty much the same note for whole lines of music.  The other voices rise and fall, but altos are steadfast, anchoring the other members of the choir and drawing them together into a sound that is all the richer and more vibrant for their humble contribution. 

There isn’t any choral singing without altos—just lots of performers vying for attention, delighted in the sound of their own voices.  The blend is the truly beautiful thing about choral singing.  It relies on listening to each other, and requires that some must take the humbler place, offering their best as a form of service to the whole, giving what they have in love that does not seek for recognition or honor. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Youth Replies, I Can

These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  Revelation 7:14

The tradition at my high school was that each graduation speaker had to discuss as his or her theme a famous saying of an American hero.  There was a rotating series of texts, and these were assigned by Mr. Snyder, the venerable senior class advisor, who had been at it since my mother was a student.  Even by 1996, this sort of thing was dreadfully old-fashioned, but no one really complained about it—it was just how it was at Clear Spring High School. 

I wasn’t told until two weeks before graduation which text I would have to discuss.  I wanted Daniel Webster’s words from the Dartmouth College case: “she is a small school, but there are those who love her.”  Whoever got that could write the tear-jerker.

But instead, I was assigned a bit of a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
So nigh is grandeur to our dust, 
So near is God to man, 
When Duty whispers low, Thou must, 
The youth replies, I can.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Working Through Grief: A Sermon for All Souls Day

“I look for the LORD, my soul doth wait for him, in his word is my trust.”  Ps. 130:5

My father died of a sudden heart attack when he was 54.  I was 27, working my first real job, married for a month, and completely unprepared for navigating the rest of my life without my father’s guidance and support. 

It was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever experienced.  I know that doesn’t say very much compared to what many of you have endured.  But for me, it meant deep personal sadness at the loss of a man I deeply admired and who brought so much joy into my life.  It meant concern at the even more intense grief that my mother, my grandparents and my brother were experiencing.  And the experience left me feeling adrift, more hesitant and uncertain about the future, with a kind of fear in my heart I had never really known before.

I was deeply grateful that I knew I could pray for my father, with words that the church had placed in my mouth, when it was so difficult to know just what to say to God about it all.  My father died on a Sunday afternoon, and he was buried on a Wednesday.  The next Sunday morning I went to his grave, and I took with me a little volume, The Priest’s Book of Private Devotions, marked for the page for the Vespers for the Dead. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

In a Season of Elegy and Hope

The Episcopal Church lost one of its great lights when Richard Wilbur died on October 14, aged 96.  Wilbur was one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century, our nation’s second poet laureate, twice awarded with the Pulitzer Prize. At a time when his rivals often seemed to need vulgarity and extremism to attract public attention, Wilbur wrote beautiful and lyrical lines, often full of deep gratitude and profound hope. 

He was faithful member of his local Episcopal parish in the Boston suburbs, where a friend of mine was his rector for a time.  He kept a prayer book on his bedside table, and his confident faith colors the generosity and patience that mark his work.  Episcopalians may know him best for his striking Christmas hymn, A Stable Lamp is Lighted (#219).  Set to one of David Hurd’s arresting tunes, it weaves together the Nativity, the chaos and glory of Holy Week, and the hope of final restoration. 

I had another of his poems on my mind this week, In the Elegy Season, one of his first to receive wide acclaim.