Advent Blessings

Photographed at frozen Irish Creek near Jasper, Ontario, Canada.

I love the beauty of a winter sunrise

The Season of Lent gets its name from a truncated version of the Old English word for Spring.  Etymologically, it is thought that the English words has its root in the Old Germanic word that means “longer,” such that it is the season of lengthening days.  This makes sense, practically speaking, since Easter falls on the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the vernal equinox (first day of spring), or roughly right near the mid-point of the sunlit portion of our days getting longer.  Advent, on the other hand, is mostly made up of deepening darkness.  Christmas always falls on December 25th, which means that all but four days of the Advent Season come before the winter solstice.  Here in Bowling Green, that means Advent is spent in more than 14 hours of darkness.  A December 18th new moon will make for a stark reminder of the growing night.

It makes sense, then, that one of the themes we hear about in Advent is the juxtaposition between dark and light.  The Collect for Advent 1 sets the tone for the whole season when it opens with these words, “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…”  The Seasonal Blessing from the Book of Occasional Services highlights this as well.  “May the Sun of Righteousness shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path; and the blessing of God…”

The clear reminder of this interplay between dark and light came to me this morning as I read the Psalm appointed for Advent 1, with its ongoing refrain as a prayer to God from those who find themselves in deep darkness.

Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

In the growing darkness of the coming winter, our prayer to God is that we might see the light of God’s face, the unending support of the God by whose grace we are saved, made whole, and restored to right relationship.  This prayer seems particularly poignant this year as the world seems to be a darker place, each day bringing a new danger, further polarization, and heightening fear.  My prayer this season of Advent will be a prayer for light.  I think the Advent Blessing will be my mantra, asking in this time of darkness, that my daily bread might be the Sun of Righteousness shining upon the right pathways.

As you prepare for Advent this year, Dear Reader, it will be my prayer for you as well.  May the Sun of Righteousness shine upon you and scatter the darkness from before your path.

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The New TEC Website is an Unpleasing Front Door

outside church in color

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the red doors of an Episcopal Church served as its initial point of entry. Americans lived, by and large, in the neighborhoods of their youth. Churches served those neighborhoods and new members came either from Episcopal parents or the rare new family that came to town. There was brand loyalty back then, so if you did find yourself in a new place, you found the red doors at 10am on Sunday, and you went in. Over time, the front door has had different iterations. As Americans became more mobile and technology advanced, the point of entry moved away from the red doors to the Yellow Pages, newspaper ads, and the occasional place mat at the local diner. Today, without question the first point of contact for someone looking for an Episcopal church is its webpage.  Whether a simple WordPress site, a Facebook page, or an elaborate web presence, the vast majority of visitors to your church will find you because of a Google search and subsequent review of your website.

Recently, The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States unveiled a new front door.  Design decisions are always a matter of taste, so I won’t waste much of your time discussing them, other than to say that the bar was so low after the Dreary Stained Glass Window era that anything would be an improvement.  That’s not to say I like the choices they’ve made, but simply that they aren’t resolutely awful.   The new website is very mobile friendly, and since more than 50% of internet users access the web via mobile device, this is a very good thing.  It has a nice modern look, with good photography and clean lines.  Overall, it is very pleasing to the eye, and I applaud the Communications Department for that.  And, for what its worth, the giant drop down menus are a neat throw back to when the under construction gif was a thing.

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Ah, the good old days

My main issue with the new Episcopal Church website is that for our front door to the world, there is very little about it that makes me certain that my denomination is a Christian Church rather than the newest gym in town.  Yes, there is the ubiquitous reference to the Jesus Movement, the Presiding Bishop’s ongoing refrain, but beyond that, what do we see that proves us to be a Christian denomination that lives out its theology by way of common prayer?  This Sunday, in the Collect for Proper 19, we will acknowledge before God that without God, nothing we do is pleasing to God.  It seems to me, that by and large, this new front door is rather unpleasing.

A quick scroll down the page brings us to an opportunity to give money toward hurricane relief, which is good and necessary, but not any different than the websites of the United Way, CNN, or even Coca-Cola.  Moving further down the page, we come to the section titled “New to the Church?  Here’s what we value.”  In case you don’t believe what I’m going to write next, here’s a screen shot.

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There are three enormous flaws in this section.

First and foremost, there is an amazing lack of Jesus in our list of values.  In fact, if you look closely, you won’t see the name of our Lord anywhere in our values.  The Episcopal Church is indeed a spiritual home, but it is a spiritual home because we believe that Jesus invites us to be members of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Evangelism is a priority, but not in the “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words,” kind of way.  Evangelism, at least according to our Presiding Bishop, is actually telling people about Jesus, about the difference following Jesus makes in our lives, and then inviting other to become disciples.  We are committed to things like racial reconciliation and environmental stewardship because of our faith in Christ.  Our faith in Jesus is what sets us apart from the Rotary or Bowling Green Women’s Club.  Our faith in Jesus should be our core value, and without it, we are lost.

The second flaw comes immediately below the heading.  There we find something that looks a lot like a mission statement for the Episcopal Church.  You’ll note that Jesus is not a part of our mission, at least according to this particular statement.  I pay pretty close attention to what’s happening in the wider church, and like the ill fated scheme to re-brand ourselves as The Missionary Society, this new mission statement caught me by surprise.  I’ve seen no press release through ENS.  I’ve not noticed the Presiding Bishop mentioning it in any video or publication.  I’ve not read about its approval at an Executive Council meeting.  Instead, it seems that whoever was assigned the role of revamping the website took it upon themselves to describe the Episcopal Church as “a spiritual home free of judgment and inclusive to all,” and who ever approved its launch didn’t spend a whole lot of time poring over the copy.

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Despite what you may have read between the lines in my post on Monday, I am firmly believe that judgment has a place in the church.  Paul’s admonition that we ought not pass judgment upon our brothers and sisters doesn’t mean that the church should be a judgment free zone.  Instead, Paul argues that we should avoid casting judgement upon one another, only because we all stand in judgment under Christ. The Church, on behalf of and because of Jesus, must be clear in her judgment of sin, both individual and corporate.  Our Prayer Book, modeling nearly two centuries of baptismal practice, makes us live this out by requiring three renunciations of evil from baptismal candidates.  I know that our Presiding Bishop believes in judgment.  He has preached on the evils of racism, xenophobia, and fear-mongering.  He is willing to offer a prophetic voice (a term I use intentionally, and rarely) to call the Church and individual Christians into action against the powers and principalities which threaten to corrupt us.  The Episcopal Church is not Planet Fitness.  There must be judgment here.

My last main issue with the section on our values is the ever-growing list of priorities.  Following General Convention, it was clear that two things would occupy our attention during the triennium: Racial Reconciliation and Evangelism.  I was on the floor of Convention for every day of legislation.  I remember the budget amendment that brought an extra $2.8 million dollars for evangelism.  I remember making unequivocal statements against the evils of racism be it by flying the Confederate Flag or committing violence in Emanuel AME Church, and calling for study and prayer that would develop into “Becoming Beloved Community.”  At some point in the last two years, Environmental Stewardship was added to create the kind of three-legged stool of priorities that Anglicans adore.  I’m honestly not sure how this happened, but I know it didn’t come out of General Convention as a budget or thematic priority.  Environmental Stewardship is important, which is why no one has really balked at its ex nihilo addition to the priority list, but like so many other things in the church, it would have been nice if someone had talked about it.

The same goes for Inclusivity, which is apparently the fourth wall in the now also Anglican-friendly quadrilateral of priorities.  Again, I’m not going to argue against inclusivity, but I don’t actually believe the Episcopal Church to be “inclusive for all.”  I would argue that the story we have told ourselves for too long – the story of our political power as the church of the elite – precludes access to many who would see themselves as something other than a privileged, upper-middle class, white person.  I have also personally witnessed the exclusion of people who have prayerfully considered any number of political and theological issues and come down somewhere other than the platform of the Democratic Party.  Yes, love will win, as the website borrowed from Rob Bell, but let’s not pretend that love has already won, and that Episcopalians have perfected loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The Episcopal Church has much to offer the world.  We have an important voice in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that can be heard just a little bit differently than other interpretations of it.  I believe this to be true such that I wrote my DMin thesis about it.  I wish, however, that we would be more careful in how we define ourselves.  Rather than focusing so hard on not being like some other group that we see as judgmental or exclusive, let’s focus on what we have to offer to the honor and glory of God.  We must not be ashamed to be disciples of Jesus Christ, who lived, died, and rose again to save us from our sin, and who will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Let’s make sure our front door is an adequate and appropriate representation of who we are, never forgetting that without God, nothing we have to offer, not even a website, will be pleasing to the Lord.

Given to Good Works

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. – Collect for Proper 23

Several years ago, there was a viral story making its way around the intertubes about Pastor Jeremiah Steepek who supposedly dressed himself up as a homeless man in front of the megachurch to which he had been recently called, to see if anyone would stop to care for him.  As the story goes, “He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service….only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food… NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit in the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.”

steepek

Much righteous indignation followed this post around the internet, especially among Mainliners who were certain that their church would have been better to Pastor Steepek’s alter ego than those feel good evangelicals.  For those who were intent on thumbing their nose at evangelicalism, Christianity, or organized religion in general, it didn’t much matter that the story wasn’t actually true, it proved the hypocrisy of the whole thing.

This Sunday, Episcopalians around the world will pray that we might be “given to good works,” a phrase that feels unnecessarily archaic, but means that through God’s grace, we hope to be predisposed to helping our neighbor.  This prayer is absolutely lovely in theory, but like the members of the fake Pastor Steepek’s church, I wonder if we really want to deal with what it means.  Because what Sunday’s Gospel lesson tells us we are praying for is the ability to see the people that we would rather not see.  We are praying to see the injustices that we would rather ignore.  We are praying to see the works of the Devil that we would rather explain away.  We are praying to see things that will break our hearts and motivate us to act in ways that will take us far from our comfort zones.

Being “given to good works” sounds nice, but when it comes right down to it, good works aren’t always easy, fun, or even, safe.  Still, let us pray for the grace to see the world in all its brokenness, to be moved to action, and be given to good works.

Walking the Talk – Why I blog

I wasn’t going to write a post today.  I haven’t even sat down at my computer until now, and it is already 4:14pm.  I just wasn’t going to do it today, until I read today’s post by my blogging compadre, The Rev. Evan Garner.  Evan was part of a three person panel talking about blogging for ministry at the Bishop’s Clergy Conference in the Diocese of Alabama.  He reminded me that while this blog has been and will always be a blog for me; a place where I work out the Biblical text for myself, I have 150+/- page views everyday from people who come to Draughting Theology for a variety of reasons: preachers working on sermons, my parishioners looking for what I’ve got to say today, random Google searchers who want to know what salvation looks like, lost souls in search of comfort, and the occasional random search bot who has come in search of Search Engine Optimizing Key Words.  So, feeling like I should say something, I opened up LectionaryPage.net and stumbled upon the Collect for Easter 2.

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Collect for Easter 2, 1979 BCP

And I was reminded about why I started blogging in the first place.  Way back in 2005, my seminary classmate, Scott Peterson, invited me to take part in a group blog during Lent in 2005.  Our goal was to write daily, reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the 10 Commandments.  Following that, I invited other VTS class of 2007 members who were starting the dreaded summer of Clinical Pastoral Education to blog their experience.  Many of us had had ministry experience before seminary: teaching Sunday school, leading youth ministries, Stephen Ministers, you name it, but for the first time that summer, the rubber of our new vocation was meeting the road; we were going to have to show forth in our lives what we professed by our faith – that we were called to be ministers of the Gospel.

In the 9 years and close to 1,700 posts I’ve written since, I’ve turned my attention to blogging the Sunday Lectionary.  I engage scripture as something that is living and breathing – something that has something to teach me today.  I believe that with all my heart, and so my goal is to show it through my writing.  Some days, I accomplish that task, and some days I don’t, but it is always the goal.

With that goal in mind, I guess my question to you, dear reader, is this, “what does your life show that you believe?”  If those two things aren’t matching, how can you change your life to better fit what you believe about God’s dream for his creation?  Or, as my well worn title suggests, how can you walk the talk?

Evangelism?!?! Again?!?!

*Every once in a while, I feel the need to write a snarky post. I started this one at 11:12am. It’s 8:21pm, and snark is what you’ll get.*

These Collects are killing me! Don’t get me wrong, I love the Collects of the Church Year. If I ever find myself as a solo priest somewhere (please God, no), I might even spend a year preaching and teaching on them; I love them that much, but c’mon this back to back thing is pretty dirty pool. Two weeks in a row telling us how to live our lives? I mean, didn’t discipleship go out of style in the 1960s?

At least last Sunday’s Collect had some wiggle room. We prayed that being “illumined in Word and Sacrament” we might go forth to shine the light of Christ that he might be “known, worshiped, and obeyed” in every corner of the globe. The wise preacher took their cue from the Presiding Bishop’s Christmas Letter and dove right into the book of made up quotes by the saints and told his congregation, “Saint Francis is famous for saying, ‘preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” He then went on to say that we are called not to feel guilty about not sharing our faith, but instead to just love our neighbor, which is so much easier. Members left feeling good that they give to the Red Cross and that the Church is no different than the Rotary Club, and everybody slept easily Sunday night.

Little do they know what awaits them this Sunday. The Prayer Book goes from preaching to meddling this week, suggesting, rather boldy, that perhaps we have to actually tell people about Jesus in addition to feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Maybe there is more to being a Christian than writing checks and felling good about ourselves. Perhaps there is even more than making meals for the hungry on Thanksgiving or building houses for those in substandard living situations or finding shelter for the homeless. Maybe we are really called to share our story, to actually open our mouths and tell people about how Jesus came to change the world. I know that even I’m not the best at this. I get nervous. Sometimes, I get tired of fielding religion-based guilt in social events, and I wish I could tell people I was the assistant manager at the Corningware store instead of saying, “I’m a priest.” But that’s not what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. No, being a disciple means being willing to share the Good News of God’s great love for us.

Give me grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call to proclaim the Good News, and if you have some to spare, help me not be a jerk about it. Amen.