Monday, July 11, 2011

Weekly Reflection: All Great Things are Simple

*This blog post is my "Weekly Reflection" sent to Christ Church parishioners and friends on Thursday, July 7.

As my family and I anticipate our move to Indianapolis, we are living in the midst of transition at home as well as at church. A significant part of our preparation for the beginning of my ministry at St. Paul's in August revolves around our house. Getting it ready to be on on the market has meant not only the completion of a few projects but also, and perhaps most importantly, cleaning out the accumulation of 12+ years of stuff. A sizeable portion of this stuff has been books. We have given away 20 boxes of books (and still have plenty more!).

Going through my books I found several volumes by or about Winston Churchill. I have most of these books in my collection thanks to Jane Palmer, a long time member of Christ Church and someone, along with her husband Don, I consider to be a dear friend. Jane and I shared a love of history and of Churchill and Harry Truman. Besides the books, I have a few other reminders of her in my collection that represent this common interest.

I need these reminders because Jane died last week. Beyond a sense of personal loss, I know that Jane's death is a loss for a broad community of people who have been touched by her -- her family, the citizens of North Hampton, students at the White Mountain School, Boston University, the Diocese of New Hampshire, to name only a few. She lived her life with a deep commitment to the common good and she shared that commitment with a feistiness that Winston Churchill would have appreciated.

I found this quote from Churchill that I believe Jane would have appreciated: "All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope."

We complicate life a great deal, don't we? Well, perhapps I should speak only for myself. Too often, I forget that what matters in life and what makes a difference in this world is really very simple. When it comes down to it, what matters is being true to ourselves, our communities, our families, and our God. If we do this, we make the world a better place.

I think I would add faith and love to Churchill's list. What would you add?

(Since sending this out to parishioners, here is what has been added to the list: charity, memory, friendship, knowledge, and compassion)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom: A Gift or a Right?

This blog post is my "Weekly Reflection" sent to Christ Church parishioners and friends on Thursday, June 30.

Did you know that in the back of the Episcopal Hymnal 1982there are five hymns in the category "National Songs" (one of which is the National Anthem)? This might seem a bit odd in a nation that so highly values the separation of church and state and the right to freedom of religion. However, Christians have always believed that God is active in society as a whole, not simply in the church. For example, here are St. Paul's words in Romans 13:1: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God."

For context, it is helpful to understand that Paul wrote this in a religiously pluralistic society with governing authorities who were most definitely not Christians. He is expressing his understanding and belief that God is the Creator of all, whatever one particular religious beliefs may be.

This brings to mind verse 3 of "My country 'tis of thee," which focuses not on the freedom we enjoy as Americans but on the freedom that is inherent in God's creation.

Let music swell the breeze,
and ring from all the trees
sweet freedom's song;
let mortal tongues awake,
let all that breathe partake,
let rocks their silence break,
the sound prolong.

Perhaps this is a good reminder that, while on Independence Day we celebrate all that makes our country great, we all recognize that, ultimately, we owe our existence in this world to our Creator. Perhaps this will remind us that true freedom -- not simply freedom spelled out in the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights but the freedom to be wholly who we are created to be -- is not simply a right but a gift from God.

As Thomas Jefferson -- who was more Deist than Christian -- wrote 235 years ago: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Living In Between

Everywhere I turn these days I find reminders that I'm living "in between" -- in between Exeter and Indianapolis; Christ Church and St. Paul's; the house I'm trying to sell and the one I've not yet found to buy. I go to church and find that not only do I have less to do, but also I see others working on things that have nothing to do with me. Yes, I'm still the rector, but I'm leaving so I'm becoming increasingly irrelevant here. At the same time, I'm communicating with folks in Indianapolis. No, I'm not the rector there yet, but I'm becoming more relevant there with each passing week. In Exeter, people are starting to move on without me (as they should). In Indianapolis, they are moving forward while I try to catch up.

Really, the whole experience is very odd . . . and a bit unnerving at times.

Living "in between" can certainly raise anxiety. There are all of those unanswered questions. Perhaps it's just me or perhaps it's human nature, but that desire to know how everything is going to work out can be very strong.

So, I was very thankful for a conversation I had a little while ago. I was talking with a member of Christ Church. It was very much an "in between" conversation. We knew it was one of the last times we will talk while I'm here, but it isn't really the last time we will see each other. So, there were some final thoughts expressed at the same time that we could say, "See you on Sunday."

Anyway, in the midst of talking about the transition at Christ Church and my transition, about saying good-bye and how hard this is, he said, "It's all good."

Amen! It's all good. For Christ Church, St. Paul's, and the Densons, there is much to look forward to. Despite all the unanswered questions (and perhaps because of them), living "in between" is good. At least, it's good for people of faith. And I don't mean some sort of blind faith that accepts divine will as if we have no choices. I mean the sort of faith that implicitly trusts that the Lord we follow is one who brings good out of everything. It is the sort of faith that looks for possibilities and finds a sense of adventure in the unanswered questions. It is the sort of faith that accepts that the only way to get where God is calling us is to walk through the "in between."

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen." (Hebrews 11:1)

Nice words for me to remember in this season of life (or any other season, I guess!)

Living "in between." It's all good!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Finding Yourself by Losing Yourself

Excellent column by David Brooks in today's New York Times. Click on the title and read "It's Not About You." In this graduation season, Brooks is taking on the general theme of commencement addresses in which graduates are told "to find their passion and then pursue their dreams."

Now, on the surface this would not seem to be such a bad thing to say. I've said this to my kids (ages 19 and 16) several times. But Brooks challenges this sentiment with, in my opinion, some powerful words.

"Most successful young people don't look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and a problem, which summons their life. . . . Most people don't form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling."

I'm not overly fond of Brooks' use of the word "task." I'm not sure that I agree that "fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks." Perhaps this is simply semantics. Instead of task I would use the word "practice." In other words, it is through the way we practice our lives – when what we do is aligned with our passion, identity, and gifts – that empowers us to become most fully who God has created us to be.

From my perspective this is true not only for individuals. It is also true for communities. When our community practices align with our identity, purpose, and mission, we manifest most fully the grace, mercy, and presence of Christ in the world.

"The purpose of life," Brooks writes, "is not to find yourself. It is to lose yourself."

Hmmmm . . . sounds familiar, don't you think?

Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the for the sake of the gospel, will save it." (Mark 8:34-35)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Considering the Common Good

So, here we are in Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial beginning of summer, and according to an article I read this morning in the Boston Globe there are places in the western US that cannot open their campgrounds because they have too much snow. There are actually some ski areas still open!

Which brings to mind the insane weather we've had this spring and the terrible cost, damage, and loss of life that has resulted from it. I found myself the other day complaining about the weather in New Hampshire because it had been cool and wet for days and days and days.

My complaining was put in perspective by a comment I read in James Carroll's column, "Amid disaster, community" in Monday's Boston Globe. Carroll quoted a woman who is losing her home (not just her home, but her entire town) to the deliberate flooding along the Mississippi River in order to save larger cities. Her town was deliberately sacrificed. Here's what she said: "While we understand the reasoning behind it, it's still hard to accept. It's a no-brainer when you look at sacrificing our small community to save New Orleans and Baton Rouge. I'm not angry. I've resigned myself."

Wow! And I'm complaining about overcast skies!

Carroll shares this quote in his column as an illustration of the power of a community attitude over a "me-first" attitude. Quoting Carroll here:

"The broadly positive spirit that greeted the heartbreaking need to put the welfare of many above that of a few represents the opposite of 'not in my backyard,' the refusal to carry weight for the common good that has become a hallmark of contemporary American life. In the Mississippi valley, thousands of backyards are under water, with assent."

I read something sad and hopeful here. On the one hand, I believe Carroll is correct. Contemporary American life is overly narcissistic and focused on "what's in this for me." On the other hand, when faced with a challenge and crisis, some people can focus on the good of the whole, even if they must make a sacrifice. Wouldn't it be nice if this sort of community spirit was the norm and not the exception? Wouldn't it be nice if this community spirit was so normal it would not have be written about as exceptional?

One of the core characteristics of faithful, vital churches is that they are committed to the common good. They foster and create a community spirit that calls people to a higher view of the world in which we live. These churches invite people to work for the good of the whole community.

A lot of congregations are struggling today. I'm guessing they'd struggle less if they focused more on the common good and less on their own needs. I believe these congregations would actually grow in vitality if they live as witnesses of a community attitude, just the sort of attitude Jesus calls us to embody.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Shrinking Attendance Means Stronger Church?

I'm sitting here at Me and Ollie's in the Exeter and no one is coming over to talk to me. Finally, I have a chance to write a blog post with some information I've been holding onto for a couple of months (my, how time flies!).

Here's the question: How religious are we, really, in the United States?

According to the 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey published by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 71% of Americans believe in God but only 39% attend religious services once per week (for a state-by-state breakdown go to "How Religious is Your State?").

According to an article in the Spring 2011 edition of the Public Opinion Quarterly (as reported on March 6 by the Boston Globe), it's possible that this "lukewarm" percentage for attendance is actually inflated. POQ reports that "studies of how people use their time have found that the attendance rate is lower by 10 to 20 percentage points."

I'm not a math genius and perhaps it's not this simple, but I'm assuming this means that, in fact, only 19% to 29% of Americans attend religious services weekly. In New Hampshire and Vermont, we're talking about 3% to 13% if we adjust the numbers down from the Pew Forum survey.

And let's remember that this includes all religions, not only people who claim to be Christian and go to an institutional church.

Before anyone starts to panic, perhaps we should remember that this is measuring weekly attendance. I think it is safe to say that a lot of people who go to church these days don't attend weekly because of a variety of other commitments in life and the fact that so many other events and activities now happen on Sunday. So, one can easily conclude that while the number of weekly attenders is low, that does not necessarily reflect how many people actually participate actively in a faith community.

I want to offer two possible pieces of good news here.

First, since there is no societal expectation that one be religious today, the people who come to church actually want to be there. From my experience, they are more committed to Jesus and to the church because they are personally motivated to participate. That makes us smaller but stronger.

Second, changes in religious practice are forcing those of us who lead the church to rethink who we are and why we are here. We can't simply follow the old models and expect that it will continue to work. I hear more and more people saying it's time for those of us in the mainline denominations to wake up, to focus on Jesus, and to reach out in new ways that embody the love of Jesus in the world. The more we are talking about this, the better prepared we will be to live faithfully today and in the future.

Whatever the numbers may say, I am hopeful. I know that the falling numbers mean that many congregations are and will struggle. Some of them will even die.

But if we can open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit and redefine our communities, the church can once again flourish as Christ's body in the world. Perhaps we will not be as dominant in society as we once were. But we may just become more faithful and authentic, more focused on our mission, and more effective witnesses of the active love of God in the world.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Shouting Out on Mother’s Day

It's Mother's Day. In the Episcopal Church we do not celebrate Mother's Day, at least not directly. The scripture readings and prayers will be those appointed for the Third Sunday of Easter. I can't find any inspiration there for a blog post!

Looking elsewhere, I go to one of my favorite "mother" passages in scripture (Matthew 15:21-27).

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon."23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us."24He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."25But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me."26He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."27She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."28Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

I love this passage because it represents one aspect of motherhood that I think we often overlook on this "Hallmark" holiday with its overly sentimental cards and messages. Here we find a mother who will not give up on her daughter, who will shout until that demon is cast out of her. I wonder if the daughter is embarrassed by her mother's persistence. I imagine her cringing a bit. She's heard this before and probably wishes her mother would just be quiet. But the mother loves her daughter and is going to keep shouting until someone does something to help. The daughter may be embarrassed, but underneath she is thankful that someone is looking out for her and is willing to do anything for her. This is not simply a story of great faith. It is a story of great love, of a mother's love.

Happy Mother's Day to my mom, to my mother-in-law, and to my wife! Thank you for loving your children, for your willingness to shout out for them in their time of greatest need. Thank you for being examples for all of us of great faith, abiding hope, and fearless love.