Happy Easter! Expect the Unexpected

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not yet understood. Henry Miller

My transition from sleep to wakefulness comes as a result of a solid internal clock –courtesy of age – and the ambient sounds of the world around me – birds, the Latino radio station from the man delivering newspapers,  the family stirring. On Easter morning the hotel alarm buzzes me awake at five in order for my husband and myself to attend a sunrise service.

The location of the service is St. Andrew’s by the Sea in Hyannis.   The staff at the motel can’t recall where it is located.  It’s not in the telephone book and online references are fuzzy.  Through the Massachusetts diocese home site we get a street, but no no parish profile or web site. Programming this spare information into the GPS we set out before sunrise on a literal quest for the sole Episcopal church in this town.

Navigating a warren of roads that pass darkened summer homes closed in off-season, we happen upon a police officer who escorts us, headlights on, past the skeletons of privet hedge to the dead-end street where St. Andrew’s stands high on a bluff next to a local beach and yacht club.

We don’t know what to take in first : the location of a church that must have a dramatic view of the Atlantic once the sun is up or the fact that there is barely a place to park.  The road dead ends at a local private club with a capacious parking lot but it is barricaded in off-season. And most likely barricaded in-season to the hoi polloi.

St. Andrew’s is closed as well. At least the doors to the building are closed.  There is a gathering of 60 or so eager to witness and reconstruct in our own humble way the event that shattered the world.  Easter fest 2010!  We wait on a small patch of ground next to the stone building.

The service begins with a lone trumpet leading the hymns.  Everyone sings along.  The invocation and prayers are direct – nothing precious or overly intellectual.  As I say the words out loud in community I feel changed, lighter inside, a greater sense of understanding which quickens commitment.  It is terribly cold on this bluff by the Atlantic and I am not dressed for it.  My husband takes off his jacket, wraps me in it, and holds me firm and strong.  We had argued on the way here. In his loving, intimate action, there is proof of resurrection and healing. I think – no I know – this one of the best Easters ever.

The homily is short and one of the best ones I’ve heard. Here’s what I remember: Expect the unexpected, particularly when the unexpected exposes Christ in others.

The prayer that follows the homily begins like this:
God of such amazing surprise, put a catch in my breath today. Put wings on my heart.

This Holy Week, on the dune and ocean landscape of New England, the site of new buds on thorny bushes has caught my eye. There are rows of these dotted about the small patch of ground next to the closed Episcopal church.  

The church building is still dark as the sun rises over the cold Atlantic. The Church turns to see the morning fog begin its dispersal, chatting about where to go for  a warm breakfast and cup of coffee. Continuing the fellowship.

This worship was hosted by a confederation of Baptist churches in surrounding towns.  The participating pastors will be going off to their respective churches for indoor Easter services. One announces that there will be six baptisms that morning.

In the light, it becomes clear why no one knew where the church was: those who attend it want it for themselves. It is a seasonal church, intended for the people with summer homes. Most likely it is a summer cure for a priest who gets a small stipend, a place near the beach, an honorary membership at the yacht-beach-tennis-dinner club, and regular invitations to cocktail parties.

Peeking through the front window we can see that it is well-appointed: crisp volumes Lift Every Voice and Sing side by side with the 1982 Hymnal.  Although it is possible the volumes look crisp because they are held for a few minutes each week, 4 months out of the year, by people who are used to taking care of nice things.

The week before Easter the House of Bishops met at Camp Allen in Texas. Part of their time together included two days spent on the Emergent Church.  From what I’ve heard there was an amusing awkward tone to all this as the Emergent Church is anti-hierarchical as well as anti-institutional.  The bishops listened to presentations and were given a book to take home so they could read about about the Emergent Church.  The book has two introductions: one by Katharine Jefferts-Schori and the other by Rowan Williams.  The other chapters are written by people who, while insightful about the enormous transition going on in Spirit and Faith as well as the dissolution of the institutional-hierarchical church,  rely on its financial resources for their livelihood.

The bishops were also given two CDs with examples of Emergent Church music.  The music, skillfully executed and even occasionally sincere, was intended for soloists and bands.  Not a single song that could be sung by a congregation on either recording.

The readers of this blog are too wise for me to have to explain the irony of all this.  But two caveats for any bishops or canons or program people trying to understand and evolve:  First, buying the program is not the program.  If you need this verified, ask the hard-working and resourceful director of your formation program.

Second, there is an army of clergy in your diocese deeply invested in the status quo of their seminary training and the reality of parish politics.  The House of Bishops may meet as an International Entity but church is local.

In a culturally synchronous moment, Holy Week was the week that Priest Barbie became a fetishistic fad among certain Episcopalians.  The Facebook page garnered thousands of fans.  Priest Barbie showed up with a bitchin’ liturgical wardrobe, including a miniature sacristy at her imaginary Malibu parish.  People thought a plastic priest with an anatomically impossible figure, the most hated and tortured toy in recent memory, was a hoot, a role model, and a signal of the The Episcopal Church’s “coolness”.

Can’t we stop pretending?

It is a natural human inclination to stave off the difficult but necessary aspects of transition with totemic figures, programs, and magic thinking. During Easter we not only honor Jesus, but the lifetime journey of mindfully, reverently nurturing the Christ in ourselves and others. Miracles not magic thinking. The truth – the Word – is so very near us.  It’s in night blossoms, and buds in thorns, the narratives of our prophets, matriarchs, and patriarchs, our relationships. There are portals of sacred transformation among us.

The Emergent Church has been around for two plus millennia. It is not “out there”.  Unless the leadership of The Episcopal Church considers a confederation of Baptist ministers leading the faithful to worship at dawn “out there”.

Holy Saturday 2010

I not only gave up Lent for Lent this year, I also gave up blogging.  There are times when the impulse to come to conclusions prevents living mindfully in God’s time.  Strict adherence to arbitrary calendars, deadlines, and relentless standards also prevents us from living mindfully and compassionately.

Yet another good reason not to attend church for Lent.  Jesus goes out on the desert to discern his life’s mission, and we’re asked to sit like cattle while the church staff tells us what this is all about.

We are poor little sheep who have lost our way…baa, baa, baa.

A while back I was at a staff meeting planning the parish events for the year.  The organist-choir director looked at the calendar sighing dramatically.  “There is absolutely no place for us to have a choir fundraiser for our trip to England!”

I pointed out a nice empty weekend in March – not a schedule conflict in sight.

“But that falls on the second weekend in Lent!”

“And the problem is….?”

“We want to have a festive atmosphere in order to raise money!”  There was scorn in his voice; you could hear the bumper “Dummy!” in his inflection.

I explained to him that some very great thinkers in the church had experimented with not observing Lent.  Holy Week, of course, but Lent was made from whole cloth. Just as New Year’s Eve is party night for amateurs, living a disciplined prayerful life for exactly 40 days seems to miss the point.  Moreover, hadn’t we all experienced people who gamed the system?  Those who conflate sacrifice with vanity or self congratulation, or those who are eager to drop their discipline on Sundays when it’s “technically” a mini-Easter? (40 days minus Sundays = piety.)

The implication that I was a dummy gave way to a look from the clergy and organist as if I was suggesting the sacrifice of goats to Baal on the altar.  The rector said that no weddings or baptisms would ever take place in “his” church during Lent.

Silly me! I thought that the church belonged to the Body of Christ, but it really belongs to the clergy collecting a salary from the Body of Christ.

And for those of us with birthdays that occur during Lent, I suppose this priest would have us wear hair shirts as we sup on soup instead of ice cream cake. Darn, if only I had been born during the season of Pentecost, I could enjoy my birthday in a festive atmosphere.

This is the week that we remember the most important part of Jesus’ story.  Even though we are intimately familiar with it, each day, each story has its own vibration. If we tune in, we will hear a distinctly unique pitch sounding from the past, present, future, this world, and the other world all at once.

The vibration on Holy Saturday sounds the story of the women waiting to honor in death their beloved friend and rabbi.  They ready themselves to prepare not only his body, but for the reality of transition that is sure to come.

Too bad so many miss this part of the story.  The church staff is exhausted from coordinating “correct” Palm Sunday processions, Tenebrae services, forcing people into ritualized intimacy with Maundy Thursday liturgies, (it took me years to really hear that foot washing in this artificial situation is indeed gross for the average citizen!), getting everyone on board for the ecumenical Good Friday service, hiring the brass ensemble to replicate the shadow of a joyous Easter morning…and I forgot to include the Great (or typically Not-So-Great) Vigil of Easter.

An elder in a church where I used to sing, called this the “hot dog cooker” service. Maybe she was on to something.

Exactly how the institutional church remembers this week is the topic of another post. And another, and yet another. The liturgical year is a teaching opportunity about the life of Jesus, not what we worship instead.

In the northeast United States – and possibly other parts of the country – no matter how honest and holy and well-intentioned the remembrances of Holy Week are, attendance is low. It is spring break in the public schools: AKA “Mud Week” because it’s like trying to get wheel traction in thick mud.

I can’t count the times I’ve worked with teams planning and executing great Easter Eve Walks, powerful Palm Sunday experiences, sincere Maundy Thursday meals, celebratory Easter mornings, and a fraction of the parish population has shown up. Or the ecumenical youth group has forgotten what they were supposed to do at the sunrise beach service because they took a red-eye back from a warm, hedonistic locale and are fried.

What are leaders supposed to do about this?  Condemn those on vacation?

Take a tip from the early Christian strategists and work with the culture.  Jesus, like the Queen of England, has two birthdays – a real one and one the public celebrates in December.

Palm Sunday

Yes, the liturgical year is a helpful way to frame time.  But when the consumer culture co-opts the Easter egg hunt so it is about competition, over-buying plastic eggs and other doo-dads from Oriental Trading, it’s time for the church to stand for something.  Putting on a lonesome high-church chant fest for 20 people on Holy Saturday with the hot dog cooker and singing the Exultet is fine.  But the next weekend – Easter 1 – when all the kids, families, DINCs, retirees, singles, and young couples return from a much-deserved break, tell the story again. Save breakfast on the beach reading for the summer by making breakfast on the beach!

Make it live for yourself and it will live for those around you.  An interesting side effect of  rescheduling is that we don’t have to live with the cognitive dissonance of pretending we don’t know about the resurrection.  What an interesting contemplation. We already hold the sad knowledge of Good Friday when we re-enact the Last Supper. What if we also held in our hearts the knowledge of the Resurrection?

There is a tale that the founder of Hasidic Judaism, when faced with a problem, would go to a sacred place in the woods, ritualistically light a fire, and say a particular prayer.  The rabbi would then gain insight. His successor knew the place in the wood and the prayer, but did not know how to light the fire.  He also, would come to a new understanding. With each succeeding generation, a bit of the ritual would be lost.  When Rabbi Israel of Rishin was confronted with a problem, he stayed at home. “The fire we can no longer light, the prayer we no longer know, nor do we remember the place. All we can do is tell the tale. And that is sufficient.”

Let us go on telling the tale, and to paraphrase St. Francis, sometimes use words.

Advent 4: Snapshot of a parish

The first snow of 2009 in the northeast hit Saturday night and it was memorable. It brought to the present bits of my personal history with snow. An early memory was the time I tied with twine my grandfather’s ancient cross country skis brought from Sweden. Alone, I went out into the woods to explore. There, a storybook red fox crossed my path. We looked at each other for a while in silence. When the fox had had enough, he went on. I remained still, imprinting this on all my senses.

The nucleus of our spiritual journey is to find such moments – now. Jesus says “the Kingdom of God is coming, the Kingdom of God is here.” Faith tells me to walk with the belief that bidden or not, God is present.

The now of today incorporates snow cleansing the landscape, priming me for silence, awe, and the expectation that there are encounters yet to be. Today also asks me to be support for a local church’s Christmas pageant. I dig out the car, keeping in mind a promise I have made – particularly to 12-year-old Ryan.

Unloading a large bag of props for the pageant, I skate-slide my way across the parish parking lot’s tamped-down snow, walking in with focus. Passing the middle-aged female priest with cropped grey hair, she head pans a cheery “Good morning!” in my direction then goes right back to her conversation with another staff member. She’s ticked off the “welcome everyone” box on her to-do list. How would my experience have changed if she had walked with me? Or her experience had she had displayed some curiosity about the unfamiliar person who walks in such confident, familiar way through the halls?

I am spotting some of the props in the narthex when a couple in their late-forties arrives with the stomping of boots and other physical cues that the weather outside is frightful. Beautifully frightful. The husband wears a navy cashmere coat, a wool-silk reversible scarf nattily draped by the collar. His wife wears a full-length fur. Maybe sable.

“Ah Margaret! Don’t forget it’s our turn to bring up the elements!”

Yes, arrive wearing the cash equivalent of what could sustain a village in Micronesia for several years so you can tick off your Church duty as the one to bring up the symbols of Christ’s sacrifice and communion with the family of all humankind.

Halfway down the aisle in the nave I pause to light two candles. There are some things heavy on my heart. When I stand after my prayers, a different woman in a full-length fur, an expensive camera with a 5-inch telephoto lens around her neck, walks purposefully down the aisle. I am in transition, my eyes teary. She looks me full in the face, smiles brightly while saying “Good morning! Welcome!”

In this house of prayer and worship, everyone lives in the Land of the Oblivious. Well, nearly everyone. I encounter next the associate priest who smiles with his eyes rather than his teeth, asking me if there is anything he can do to help.

“No, thank you. And how is your stamina during this season?” I ask. “Enough time for your family?”

“Oh, you know how that is, but we’ll have time together over the break.”

This is a wealthy parish, founded by robber barons and early 20th century tycoons. These are the people who hated FDR for betraying his own class and there is a charism of that ethos. The parish is sustained by those who employ economic practices that continue to crush the poor and obliterate the middle class. The pulpit was silent when it came to the illegal invasion of Iraq, the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The relatives of those responsible for those policies might be offended.

The children on parade today may be the descendants of those robber barons – certainly many are the offspring of parents who enjoy the fruits plucked from the Wall Street system. At the moment, they are innocent, but the parish colludes with the culture in broadcasting messages about their “specialness”. There are the mission trips which pad college application c.v.s; the well-funded traditional chorister program which separates the sheep who bleat on pitch from the goats who are cast aside; rewards in the form of high-profile moments of recognition for the confirmation class attendees who obediently jump through hoops. When the children of this parish graduate from high school, the parish newsletter will print which public – or in most cases prep – school each one attended next to the name of the college the student will be attending.

All that’s missing is the glass case with engraved trophies.

But for me, I have a relationship with Ryan. Here is the Spirit. Here is where I need to read Ryan’s eyes and body language, allowing myself to be changed by being in the moment with this child. He can’t sing on pitch, he’s not aggressive. His readiness point is that he knows how to listen and watch interactively. There is trust in his eyes that makes my heart ootch. I want to be worthy of that trust.

The bulletin for the pageant takes up 8 folded legal-sized sheets of glossy paper, including a color cover with a child’s drawing of the manger. Sixteen pages for a very simple, apocryphal story or non-recycled paper. The pageant passes with moments of adorableness, enough mistakes to prevent any sense of it being canned. There is one African-American shepherd, a Latino Joseph, and an Asian angel. A display of diversity so that the parish can feel it’s not entirely insular. Everyone who owns a fur – and that is a large percentage of the female population – has worn it to church. Enough to costume a pageant sequel with northern fur-bearing critters around the manger instead of cows and sheep. The woman with the camera is taking snapshots.

But Ryan and I are collaborating off to the side making sound effects. Coconut shells for donkey hooves, a different bell sound for each angel, a wood block for knocking on innkeepers’ doors. Ryan is alive – watching, listening, completely off script. Both of us are practicing the productivity of playfulness. Kids are some of the most professional people you’ll ever work with. Ryan takes seriously that he is there to support the story of the nativity. Our relationship allows me to tolerate this community and I am grateful for Ryan for that gift.

I lose all the warm fuzzy feelings generated by the pageant when the priest steps out and tells us what it’s supposed to mean. Another “don’t bother” message from the clergy. Don’t ponder, don’t rest in the mystery of the incarnation. Here’s what he said it’s all about: We are all children of God.

We have announcements, and I am struck by how program-heavy this parish is. There are upcoming speakers, concerts, choir tours, book clubs, breakfasts, and classes.

The Eucharist begins, Margaret and her husband present the elements. Everything devolves into words on paper, laundry lists for me. I pray earnestly for God to help me find some meaning in all this. The prayer is repeated like a mantra and immediately before I am about to receive my prayer is answered. I see an image of the Bodhi tree, intercessions on paper fluttering in the wind, coupled with the sound of the words of one of the Eucharistic prayers where we ask that we do not come to the table with our own sense of righteousness. I receive communion in honor of someone else.

Back in the pew, I have a vision. At least I think I have a vision. What comes to me is this:

The last churches standing will be those that embody “church as club”. They will be a bit like conservatories – conserving tradition drawn from a small region in Northern Europe that coincides with the height of the British Empire. Sixty years of tradition extracted from 2,000. The rector will be selected for his or her capacity to keep pledges up, so that the right club atmosphere in terms of program is maintained. Just enough “learning” and mission to give a sense of corporate self-improvement. To paraphrase someone much wiser than myself: the church needs charity to deflect its energy from justice.

The poor churches will not fade. They will be absorbed into community like salt in the ocean. People will once again “be church” to each other. They will worship in Spirit and Truth. And this is where the world will turn. This is where the fire of hope burns just as it did in a cave a few thousand years ago.

Justice will rise, as it has for generations, from those who seek it the most. The de-churched, divorced from the agenda-driven church, will birth the Kingdom of God. We will acknowledge that we are on a spiritual journey. We will listen to each other and keep our lamps trimmed.

The worship over, I pack up my bags. Ryan runs up to say “Thanks, that was fun.” The associate priest thanks me too with a full sense of sincerity. It is only a moment, but we listen to each other’s holiday plans, wishing each other blessings and restorative time. This is enough.

The day remains cold so that the snow keeps its powdery silence. At home, I have my own agenda to tend to – clean up, prepare for the work week, cook enough meals for the family. But every time I look out the window, I expect to see a storybook red fox.

My soul doth magnify the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Help me to be in the moment, to live with compassion, to be flexible, to stop all agendas so that I may find your Spirit and your will.

Stop the spin

The Hopeful Episcopalian has a daily struggle not to believe The Episcopal Church can do nothing right because she comes up against so many who believe TEC can do no wrong.

When confronted with the cheerocracy of TEC, it requires enormous discipline to not lose heart entirely.

On December 1st, the first Tuesday of Advent, The top story of Episcopal News Service was a report from the Committee on the State of the Church.  Headline: Committee sees vitality in Episcopal Church despite challenges.

The challenges faced by TEC are cultural and economic, one having a direct effect on the other.  Since 1990, the part of the American population claiming no religious identity in has doubled from 10 per cent of the population to 20 per cent.  As the church involvement declines, so do the financial resources.

I offer the hyperlink to the article for the data on the state of religion in America:

http://www.episcopalchurch.org/79901_117454_ENG_HTM.htm

Question for those in the TEC loop:  Does the number of committees, commissions reflect a proportional downsizing?  If not, who exactly are these teams producing reports for?

Matilda Kistler, chair of the of the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church and the person who presented, first deflects responsibility by citing data that indicates all protestant mainline denominations are losing congregants. It seems other denominations matter to TEC when they’re all caught with chocolate on their faces from digging into dessert before dinner.  When it’s time for sharing resources or credit, TEC holds them at arm’s length. Witness the other ENS news release this week about online Advent calendars – not a link to anything but Anglican resources provided.

Then Matilda gets on to the optimistic part of the report:  “However, we believe that the committee’s research will confirm what most of us know instinctively — that active, vital and transformative gospel ministry is being done on all levels of the church.”

Matilda and the House of Deputies Committee are not doing their jobs. We can’t operate on instinct and happy talk in times of crises. When you’re in a life boat on open water, you need to actually have flares and rations on hand and know where they’re located.  The sharks are operating on instinctive knowledge.

TEC is in desperate need of emergency room or possibly hospice care. All we get from the top of the food chain is propaganda.  Is it coincidence that the primary generator of this hype now has offices adjacent to the Presiding Bishop?

We are a people of story and hope, not of spin and optimism. The stories of vital gospel ministry are there, happening from the ground up.  When spin becomes the official language of The Episcopal Church, it encourages an disingenuous ethos in parishes that are trying to find or have lost their way in naufragous waters.

This was a week where as I lived into my prayer of watching attentively, I heard news of three more vital Episcopalians with enormous gifts to offer who have stopped going to church. I saw a child’s relationship to learning transformed – possibly for life – through administrators and teachers employing flexibility. At a Christmas pageant rehearsal, I heard 40 children sing new songs of their faith, making promise a reality with their unique gift.

I heard from a friend who is married to a Missouri Synod pastor. After watching the street activity and community life surrounding her husband’s church in a neighborhood filled with cultural, racial, and economic diversity, she has started a community music school.  She is enormously accomplished, with a doctorate in organ and liturgical music and said “What is the point of putting on these concerts where all we do is pay ourselves? Is that what God wants us to do?”

Missouri Synod is notoriously “conservative”. I have no idea what my friend believes about openly gay bishops.  I do know that with a son in the military, who has been deployed in Iraq twice, she does not believe there is a “just” war. I know she and her husband do their best to serve the poor. Maybe political ideology isn’t what gathering on Sunday morning is supposed to be about.  Maybe if we focused on the work of the kingdom instead of producing another press release, we would all be transformed.

Watch in Hope

A new Advent meditation book made its way into my library: Stephen Cottrell’s Do Nothing – Christmas is Coming.

In his introduction, Cottrell makes an  analogy between what seasons like Advent can do in our lives and the de-fragmentation of a computer.  A computer stores new information wherever it can find available memory.  Large files can be stored in a number of different fragments so when the user asks the computer to find the entire file, the read/write part of the machine slows up searching for the fragments. Defragmenting programs rewrite files so they are stored contiguously providing foundational decluttering.

We need to defragment our lives in the same way. The time-tested method is to slow down, be mindful, and incorporate prayerful contemplation of history, scripture, daily events that the Holy Spirit brings to us.  So many faithful say that Advent is their favorite time of the liturgical year and it’s because of this slowing down coupled with mindfulness of the themes of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

On the parish level, this defragmentation process is not always modeled.  Advent becomes a time for ratcheting up special programs, speakers, adult forums, and projects.  One of the most dismaying staff meetings comes in early November when the rector and the organist have their annual discussion about replacing Rite Two with Rite One.

To offer this language because of its formality and distance from the congregant during a time of year when we are vigilant for Immanuel – God with us – and are encouraged go on spiritual journeys that seek out familiarity with chaos, darkness, and uncertainty represents persistence in the delusional by a few in control. It’s like putting snipers on the walls instead of watchmen who tell of the night.

This is the liturgical Christian’s New Year, a time when many of us make resolutions that affect our spiritual journeys. Yet rather than clear the path for us, our churches are cooking up the spiritual equivalent of hospital food.  Either the parish staff goes into hyper drive, colluding with the consumer culture in intention and continuing to send the “don’t bother” message loud and clear, or the small group of church ladies fold their arms to say “We’ve always done it that way.” The one-size fits all sale at Old Navy makes it into the church.

Has anyone out there tried to work with organist/choir directors who tells which hymns are “allowed” to be sung during Advent, for Pageants, and for Christmas?

For more on liturgy and hospital food, scroll down: https://hopefulepiscopalian.wordpress.com/2009/05/10/good-shepherd-sunday/

The churches out there that model the defragmentation process hold the flame of hope as much as Elizabeth and Mary held it in them. They are out there. In those churches….

  • The Advent wreath making takes place on a quiet evening with a family meal. The scent of mulled cider and pine boughs fill the parish hall.  There are no expectations – no production line quota for how many wreaths get into the homes.  And any color candle works.
  • Popularity is not the primary criterion for an offering that relates to spiritual journey.
  • The Advent guest preachers come from the congregation or there is a commitment to interactive sermons and listening to each other.
  • The Christmas Pageant has been replaced with an Epiphany Pageant or Paper Bag Pageant.
  • Lessons and Carols is a community-wide participatory event instead of a show by the “talented” and paid professionals.
  • Instead of special speakers, there are lay-led quiet days. People share their home prayers, liturgies, and other practices – including playlists of Advent music.  The music director listens and responds.
  • Mission and outreach are part of a continuum, not geared up for Advent/Christmas. There are serious discussions about capitalism, the poor, and the Christian faith.
  • A director of faith formation posts a large sheet of paper during coffee hour with the theme of each week of Advent written at the top. People are asked to write their thoughts and memories about Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. These thoughts are incorporated into the worship – including sermons – and life of the parish. The parish musician writes a song for corporate and private worship based on this collaboration.

One more thing to be thankful for…

Episcopal Church To-Do List:

Know the difference between Hope & Optimism

…embrace the former.

There’s been a Facebook challenge since November first to post every day something for which you are grateful.  To read everyone’s personal gratitude lists has given me a few epiphanies about my friends and their lives, offering me new perspectives.

Since reading these, I have begun to muse about the times I worked in a church during this season.

Christ the King Sunday arrives and the plug-and-play organist chooses all the kingly songs, a kingly anthem – maybe the kids sing a zippy “Ride On King Jesus”.  The program in the parish gurgles along in its peristaltic reflexive way – throw in a lot of crowns, kings, reigns, and we’ll be doing right by Jesus.

Then Thanksgiving gets into the mix. In my staff experience, this is a thorny hump in the middle of the week. There are digressions into gossip about the parish fellowship meal which morph into analyzing the history of the community ecumenical Thanksgiving service.  The “positive” aspect of these staff meetings is people imagine they’re focusing on fixing everything while complaining,  idealizing stuff that is always going to be problematic because people are problematic. It would be so much more effective – and spiritually mindful –  to just work together on offering a meal and a worship service. It doesn’t seem worth the energy to try to control who cooks what and who eats what and whether the organist at the Methodist Church is as good as the one at our church. Food, fellowship, music, and prayer.  It’s very simple.

This year, Advent 1 falls on the Sunday immediately after Thanksgiving.  Another staff moan fest  – numbers will be down because people are traveling.  The Sunday School teachers will be a week behind on teaching the kids about…what, exactly… Hope? Everyone will make their Advent wreaths a week later.  And one rector I worked with somehow thought this timing meant more work for her. What the what?

For the faithful who have left the church, we are observing the rise and fall of the spiritual tide, being mindful of the waves on the sand.  We observe the lectionary year prayerfully in our own ways.  We will be decorating for Advent, searching the links between Christ the King Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Advent 1 without waiting to be told what to do or how to do it.

It’s lonely. The faithful are homeless. We dare not go into a church to look for fellow travelers in hope because someone will slap a name tag and a “Smile!” sticker on our lapels.

Christ the King Sunday can be such a tough one to make relevant in the two-thousandies. One year when I was team teaching 6th and 7th grade Sunday School, I was alone with 15 hormonal tweens and teens on this last Sunday in the liturgical year.  Nothing made sense to me in the canned curriculum, which is always a start – unless our teachers, serious catechists, deacons, priests,  bishops, and communications officers, embrace a grounded faith in consort with a willingness to be upended by reality there can be no hope.  We must seek personal transformation, and then the transformation of those around us will happen.

I downloaded about 20 different images of Jesus, and brought in icons and other images I had at home: Jesus the teacher, Christ the king, Jesus the healer, Rasta Jesus, laughing or dancing Jesus, activist Jesus, suffering Jesus, Jesus eating.  Who do you say that I am? We passed the pictures around and talked about which one we related to most.  We talked about what Christ the King is like, questioning if this aspect of Christ was one we could invite into our daily lives.  We laughed when a girl remembered a boy named Jesus in her nursery school who was always hitting the other kids. “Jesus – go to the time-out chair!”

http://www.rejesus.co.uk/site/module/faces_of_jesus/

We never came up with a definitive Jesus for everyone.  It was an enormous gift for me because most of the middle schoolers related to laughing or dancing Jesus. Why? “He seems so free to be himself.”  Now, whenever I see a petulant middle schooler, chip on her shoulder, I remember that dream of those Sunday School kids:  to be free to be who God created them to be. I suspend all judgment and head straight for the conversation.  Had I imposed my own notion of what Christ the King meant, or asked the rector for advice I would never have received this ongoing gift.

A few weeks ago, I saw a montage of a lot of Hollywood moments where the slobs got their recognition.  It included things like rewards to the Wizard of Oz quartet and Han Solo and Chewbacca getting cheered by the crowd as they receive laurels from Princess Leia. This moment is inscribed in our hearts through popular culture time and again – from the justifiable humiliation of Lena Lamont when the curtain goes up to reveal who is really singing in Singing in the Rain, or when Jamal rises out of a pit of offal in Slumdog Millionaire.

This is an aspect of a Christ the King moment.  It’s not only that the Risen Christ rules – or reigns or whatever verb the hymnody spits out at us – it’s that the slobs beat the snobs.  Our King is one of us, we are all victors.

And here is where there’s another light on the road for me:  I can travel from Christ the King to Advent 1 in my own spiritual journey because Christ the King represents not royalty or the One who doth Reign, or golden crowns – but hope.  Jesus as wise, compassionate, deserving King is a core story of hope, the theme of the first week of Advent.

The tomb is empty. The cross is bare.  Are we there yet? Yes we are!

Hope is not optimism.  Hope is anchored in reality, and as a basic human yearning, rises up, infecting our actions so we strive through the pain, and the piles of crap around us don’t matter at all.  Optimism, however, likes to redecorate the crap.  A dead end is renamed a cul de sac.

The greater church is intensely engaged in optimism.  This trickles down, permeating every aspect of how we do business.  Check out whatever ENS has put in your in-box for the week and tell me it’s not optimism.  A Phoenix needs ashes to be a phoenix

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.  In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope the one that can keep us above water and urge us to do good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts is something that we get, as it were, from “elsewhere”.  It is also this hope, above all, which gives us strength to live and to continually try new things even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do here and now.

From the politics of hope by Vaclav Hamel

I wish us all hope on the journey, thanksgiving for hope, and pray for the church that it may find its way in understanding the reality around it – no matter how painful that may be.