Yes, kiddos, there really is a Santa Claus.

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Jolly Old St. Nick was the bishop of Myra, a city in Turkey in the early 300s. We give gifts because he gave gifts – dowries to three impoverished girls so that they could marry. He also built a lighthouse on a dangerous shore out of his own funds, which is why he is the patron saint of sailors. He was one of many brave bishops who carried the scars of Roman persecutions for refusing to deny the resurrection of Christ. Everything was going quite well for Bishop Nick. Then a priest named Arius showed up at a church council in Nicaea singing a catchy little tune he had written about Jesus that was taking the Roman world by storm. The good bishop listened to the words, “There was a time when he was not.” Realizing that if that if Arius’ idea stuck we would have Jehovah’s Witnesses teaching that stuff on our doorsteps to this day, he punched Arius in the face. 

So, parents, the next time your kids tell you they are too old to believe in Santa Claus, raise an eyebrow and tell them they better watch the content of the music on their Pandora, because “He knows if you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good…” Ok, so you probably shouldn’t threaten your kids with Ol’ St. Nick giving them a punch in the face, coal in the stocking will do fine, thank you.

December 6th is the traditional St. Nicholas’ Day (unless you are Orthodox, then it is the 19th). So have your kids’ put their shoes out on the step tonight and fill them up with unhealthy junk while they sleep and tell them the story of the old bishop who started all of this gift giving. Your kids will think you are even awesomer.

*And, as Anjel Ayrer Scarborough mentioned in a comment: “Arian smack down – The reason Nicholas is never depicted in eastern iconography in bishops regalia. Tradition holds that he was disciplined for his outburst at Nicaea and forbidden to wear bishop’s vestments form that point forward.”

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Why I dropped church and joined The Church

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A German Mass during WWII

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*A repost from 2013 as I think about contemporary liturgical worship this week.

I came of age outside of the faith. At eighteen God found me. From that day forward, and with a love that was not my own, I have not been able to help but love Jesus back and work for the welfare of others with the overflow of that love. Yet, even with all that love, I am sorry to say, I did not love church. Oh, I liked the idea of church. I liked lots of people at church. But no matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t like church.

At least not until I discovered The Church, as in, the Church historic. In historic Christianity; orthodox, catholic and reformed, I found something larger than I. The Church, described by the Creeds, nourished by the Sacraments, defined by the Scriptures, and led by the Holy Spirit through the 3-fold ministry, is something one can stand lashed to when the storms of life come. I first came to value Christ’s bride when I wandered into an expression of it that immersed me in a different and embodied narrative: the grand story of God’s creation, fall, redemption, and working toward final justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I am indebted to the church of my conversion. The godly men and women of that movement introduced me to faith, fed me on the Scriptures, and challenged me to serve. Now, though, in The Church I am no longer adrift in a world that is a Jesus add-on to a life of my American culture’s creation. In The Church, I am connected to the original eleven “sent-out ones” by touch and by teaching. In the church of my conversion, “The gates of hell,” did, in effect, “prevail against it” from the close of the canon until the Reformation, or maybe the Second Great Awakening, or, for some, the coming of the evangelical explosion of the 1980s.

The Church is rooted in history, unchanging, with worship patterned after that of the earliest Christians. Lancelot Andrewes described The Church of The Great Tradition as bound by “One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four ecumenical councils, over five centuries.” She clarified those creeds in the Reformation. Her lay and clergy were the missionaries of the Awakenings. In this Bride, the Holy Spirit is gloriously alive and balance is maintained in public worship by praying the safe, vetted words of The Church. In The Church, the old theological battles are not forgotten, so they do not need to be refought.

I realized that I could never truly connect with the relevant church simply because it was so like me – feeding me a steady diet of myself: my wants, my preferences, my music. It was all so “relevant.” I came to realize that I actually needed church to be UN-like me: to be transcendent. The Church is unconcerned with “relevance.” It cares not for my preferences. When I ask it to change it grins gently and asks me to change instead. In The Church, when one panics about something and accosts the clergy at the door, the chances are good the priest will say, “We have been in God’s presence in the liturgy. How about we enjoy that for a bit? Call me on Tuesday.”

The Church is maddeningly un-fearful. It is not subject to politics or fads. It does not do focus groups and market research. It is not trying to impress me, win me, or woo me. Instead of bending to my whims, it seeks to conform me to the image of Christ through immersion in patterns: daily in the Scriptures, weekly in Sacramental feeding of the Thanksgiving meal of the family of God, and living out God-time in the Christian Year. As a man of flesh, these patterns marinate me in the Gospel, bringing forth flavors in my life I never imagined.

In church I could write my own wedding vows. In The Church, self-made wedding vows, narcissistic holdovers of the 70’s, are not on the table for discussion. The Church calmly says, “Our job is to be conformed to God’s will and God’s words, not our own, so we will use the vows that have withstood the test of time, thank you.”

Many genuinely love the relevant church. I am sincerely glad for them. But for the growing group for whom church-lite leaves them hungry, for whom the four songs and a sermon liturgy delivered by latte-toting pastors in skinny jeans is holding up as well as a Walmart shirt, there is an alternative. That alternative is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It follows a pattern that was old when Justin Martyr described it in his Apology in 150 CE. It is both sacred mystery and deep discipleship, a mystery in which the words and movements all tell a story. And, ultimately, shape lives into the image of Jesus.

A few questions for discussion:

If you are a “relevant church” person, do you love church? Or are you giving up on it? If so, why?

Are you one of the people that goes to an expression of The Church that has a plethora of service options. (One of the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches that offer services along a continuum from chanted 1700 year old liturgies to modern “relevant” models.)  If so, do people move between the service offerings?

Are you in one of growing numbers of modern churches experimenting with ancient liturgies? If so, how is that going?

Smudgy Foreheads

 

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Wednesday you will notice people with smudgy foreheads. When you see this, resist your inner-parent urging you to dab at them with a moist napkin. They are not the victims of poor grooming habits, nor have they lost a dare. It is merely Ash Wednesday, the day in which Christians of the ancient traditions commemorate the beginning of the season of Lent by attending religious services in which they were charged to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19)

What is Lent?

Lent, is the archaic word for “Spring.” It has come to refer to the 40 days of spiritual preparation preceding Easter. Christians traditionally spend the season before Easter in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember our need for God and God’s great saving acts in the passion and resurrection of Jesus. (40 is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days fasting and temptation in the wilderness)

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets who urged “repent in sackcloth and ashes.” Among Christians, the imposition of ashes and the 40 day fast began in Europe in the 4th century.

What’s the point?

Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor making belated New Year’s resolutions, like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  Rather, Lent is about mindfulness – Thinking more about God and others, and less of ourselves. Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision for humanity through Jesus.

We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Christians of the ancient tradition spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. The mindfulness generated by self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to be more fully present for the remembrance of the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

What happens at an Ash Wednesday service?

They are usually brief. You will hear biblical passages calling people to repentance and have ashes imposed on your forehead with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) Holy Communion is then celebrated.

Checking out a service…

You do not need to be a member to attend. EVERYONE is welcome at an Ash Wednesday service. EVERYONE is invited to receive ashes. Although different churches have different rules for receiving communion, in the Episcopal church our canons ask you to be a baptized Christian to receive communion. (If you are not baptized you may simply stay in your seat or come forward with the congregation, arms crossed, to receive a blessing).

Tired of the noise?

In the midst of debates and news cycles and narcissism, when even America’s pastor urges us to be our own “I Am”, engaging in self-examination and the contemplating our own mortality is refreshingly against-the-grain. Ash Wednesday and Lent create space to become more aware of our need for reconciliation with God and others. Ash Wednesday is an active way to do that with the support of other seekers. This Wednesday, find a service and attend!

Smudgy foreheads

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Wednesday you will notice people with smudgy foreheads. When you see this, resist your inner-parent urging you to dab at them with a moist napkin. They are not the victims of poor grooming habits, nor have they lost a dare. It is merely Ash Wednesday, the day in which Christians of the ancient traditions commemorate the beginning of the season of Lent by attending religious services in which they were charged to, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  (Genesis 3:19)

What is Lent?

Lent, is the archaic word for “Spring.” It has come to refer to the 40 days of spiritual preparation preceding Easter. Christians traditionally spend the season before Easter in repentance, almsgiving, and self-denial in an effort to remember our need for God and God’s great saving acts in the passion and resurrection of Jesus. (40 is symbolic of Jesus’ 40 days fasting and temptation in the wilderness)

Where did it come from?

The tradition of ashes has its roots in the ancient Jewish prophets who urged “repent in sackcloth and ashes.” Among Christians, the imposition of ashes and the 40 day fast began in Europe in the 4th century.

What’s the point?

Ash Wednesday and Lent are not about spiritual brownie points, impressing God, nor making belated New Year’s resolutions, like dropping that last five pounds by cutting chocolate.  Rather, Lent is about mindfulness – Thinking more about God and others, and less of ourselves. Christians are penitent during Lent because we are grateful for God’s provision for humanity through Jesus.

We go to church on Ash Wednesday to be marked outwardly with ashes as we remind ourselves inwardly of our need for the unquenchable, fierce love of God to enliven us.

Christians of the ancient tradition spend 40 days in Lenten practices, either giving up something we enjoy and/or taking on a new spiritual activity. The mindfulness generated by self-denial and self-discipline prepare our hearts to be more fully present for the remembrance of the saving acts of Jesus during Holy Week.

What happens at an Ash Wednesday service?

They are usually brief. You will hear biblical passages calling people to repentance and have ashes imposed on your forehead with the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19) Holy Communion is then celebrated.

Checking out a service.

You do not need to be a member to attend. EVERYONE is welcome at an Ash Wednesday service. EVERYONE is invited to receive ashes. Although different churches have different rules for receiving communion, in the Episcopal church our canons ask you to be a baptized Christian to receive communion. (If you are not baptized you may simply stay in your seat or come forward with the congregation, arms crossed, to receive a blessing).

Tired of the noise?

In the midst of debates and news cycles and narcissism, when even America’s pastor urges us to be our own “I Am”, engaging in self-examination and the contemplating our own mortality is refreshingly against-the-grain. Ash Wednesday and Lent create space to become more aware of our need for reconciliation with God and others. Ash Wednesday is an active way to do that with the support of other seekers. I encourage you this Wednesday, find a service and attend!

Larry Bird and the power of repetition (pt. 2)

Part 2 of a series on the Daily Office

How is one “remolded” from within? How are people “transformed”? It helps to know a bit about the word we translate “remold” or “transformed.” The original Greek word is “metamorpho.” We get “metamorphosis” from it. “Morphing” entered the public consciousness in the 1990’s in the children’s show, “The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers,” in which teenagers had the power to transform, accessing super powers to save the world from alien invasion. There is also a DC Comics superhero by the named Metamorpho who is so transformed that, unlike most superheroes, he cannot return to his pre-changed state.

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The problem with “morphin’” as a pop-culture phenomenon is that the Power Rangers gave us the silly idea that morphing is something that we could do ourselves and do in an instant…and a change that could be undone just as easily. Scripture paints a different picture. In the New Testament “Metamorpho” is only used three times: Once of Jesus who is “morphed” at the transfiguration. The second is in Romans 12:2. The third is in 2 Corinthians 3:18 “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.


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In both places Paul uses “metamorpho” to refer to followers of Jesus the word is in the passive voice – the action of transformation does not happen by us rather it happens to us. In both places it is in the second person plural, “y’all” – In other words the “transformation” is for the whole church as a community, rather than merely for the rare super-hero or super-saint. In both places being “remolded” presumes a life-time of faithfulness rather than the instantaneous appearance of transformation, such as Jesus’ transfiguration or the Power Rangers. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, “metamorpho” is the process of becoming like Jesus: “being transformed(by the Holy Spirit) “into the same image (Jesus), from one degree of glory to another” (we become progressively more like Him). These two usages of “morphing” leave us with three principles: 1) Transformation is a work of God’s grace that happen to us rather than by us, 2) it is for the whole community, 3) it occurs over a lifetime…in other words, through repetition.

Interestingly enough, the power of repetition to change us is exactly the idea the Anglicanism was founded on. The concern driving Archbishop Cranmer, assembler of the first Book of Common Prayer, was how to make disciples of Jesus in a nation in which the king had just dissolved the monasteries and their communal life of prayer. Archbishop Cranmer, in the Preface to his first edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1549) set forth the following goals to course-adjust the worship of the English church, freeing it from medieval papal innovations:

  1. Combine the seven books necessary for communion, daily prayer services, and scripture readings into one book for use by all Christians (rather than just the clergy). That way the church would “need no other books for their public service, but this book and the Bible.” Worship, thereby, would be “by the book” – a book of shared prayers. That book would be…
  2. Understandable – rather than the “holy language” of Latin, the bible and the prayer book would be read in the language of the people so that “…they might understand and have profit by hearing.”
  3. Common: Everyone in the community would be united by this set of scripturally constructed prayers prayed together that “…the whole realm shall have but one use.”
  4. Scriptural: “The whole Bible (or the greatest pare thereof) should be read over once in the year.

Thomas Cranmer also articulated the idea that scripturally-immersive “common prayer” is the ancient and original method God had used to form the people of God and was “…agreeable to the mind and purpose of the old fathers”  

To the surprise of many Episcopalians, Archbishop Cranmer’s vision for the church and Christian life was not the weekly Eucharist, but the Daily Office: The services of Morning and Evening Prayer. Cranmer, imagined a life in which Christians would meet daily to read and pray the Word of God together as a community in order to live as God’s Word in the community. In the services of Morning and Evening Prayer we read the Bible every day, each year, for the rest of our lives with the result that we would live story-formed lives. As old record albums had grooves cut in them for the needle to follow, Christians lives deeply cut in the scriptures have grooves in our souls that make our lives sing Jesus to the world. The scriptures and the ancient prayers based upon those scriptures form a daily routine grooving the patterns of Jesus into our lives, transforming us into the image of Christ through a pattern that we surrender ourselves to – an immersion in the scriptures deeply permeates our souls s0 that when tough times come we go into layup mode-automatically channeling the stories, cadences, and rhythms of the presence of God.

What might we be like if Christians were so formed and immersed in the scriptures that we had the time in the scriptures that Larry Bird had in shooting jump shots? I have a feeling that we might be like Metamorpho-the super hero so transformed he could never return to his former state.

We are, each of us, being shaped by something…always being conformed into the image of something. What is it you are being formed into? What if we were shaped by daily immersion in the Bible? What if we read it, prayed it, and did it together, as a group? My guess is that we would be, as Paul described,transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” A daily ritual such as the Daily Office is a chance to have a “warmup routine,” a familiar pattern that conforms us to Christ by immersing us in the scriptures. When embraced over time it gives us the ability to, like Larry Bird with a basketball, get to places spiritually we could never get another way.

Larry Bird and the Power of Repetition

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How the Daily Office will change your life (Part 1)

Like most American Christians I have spent significant time looking for “fresh” Jesus experiences. Several years ago I decided that looking for “new” things was an unhelpful exercise in missing the point. That conviction struck me as I reflected on an experience I had years ago with Larry Bird…

My part-time job teenage job was Phoenix Suns ball-boy. While my friends worked the usual food service and retail gigs, I worked the visitor’s team bench and locker room. I wasn’t just paid better than my friends, I watched games from the floor and had the opportunity to rub shoulders with NBA Hall of Fame greats like Kareem, Dr. J, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. Well, maybe “rub shoulders” is overstating it. I tossed them towels and put their jerseys on their shoulders when they came out of the game. During those years I noticed something: The very best players, the really great ones, all had a consistent warm-up routine they followed identically, even superstitiously, before each game.

Game nights for me involved arriving three and a half hours before tipoff to set up the visitor’s locker room with towels and soda before the team bus pulled up an hour later. One afternoon in February of 1980 I entered the bowels of Veterans Memorial Coliseum to hear the echo of a basketball being dribbled. I craned my head toward the court and saw the arena lights already on through the tunnel.  The security guard, seeing my confused look informed, “Some Celtics rookie showed up early.” I set up the locker room and walked into to the court to see this curiosity for myself. Larry Bird had finished his layup cycle and was shooting his way “around the world.” I guess Larry had paid for a cab to arrive early and go through his routine. Seeing my ball boy jersey, he asked if I would shag balls as he shot his way farther and farther away from the basket. Fans of professional basketball may know that 1979-80 was not only Bird’s rookie season, it was also the first year of the three-point line, which at 23’9’’ is quite a distance to hurl a basketball with either form or accuracy. Larry continued to shoot his way further from the basket until he was at the 3-point line. Larry Bird was a forward. I had not seen a forward shoot from the still new and rarely used three-point line. What Larry did next I had never seen any player do: He continued to move beyond the arc until he was shooting a full 10’ behind it. I grew impatient chasing balls shot from a distance one could not possibly use in a game. I asked him why he was wasting his time. Larry responded in his Indiana drawl, “You never know,” he said winding up a shot from 12’ past the line on the right side of the arc near the scorer’s table sideline, “when I might need this shot to win a game.” I almost laughed out loud – an NBA coach was not going to give a game-winning shot to a rookie.

Five hours later, with time running out and the Suns holding a two-point lead, the Celtics broke their huddle and inbounded the ball to Larry Bird. The rookie dribbled into the front court where he launched a 30’ shot from within three feet of the spot he had told me he might need to shoot from in warmups. His shot caromed off the backboard and dropped through the net giving the Celtics a one-point lead over the Suns with half a minute left. How did Larry make impossible shots look easy? The answer: repetition – the thousands of shots Larry had launched in his practice routine.

By the time a basketball player reaches the NBA they have practiced tens of thousands of shots, but they still start their warmups with layups. Why do men who can dunk still practice layups? They know how to do a layup. Layups are boring. The truth is that greatness in both sports and the Christian walk is not about information, it is about formation. There is a difference. Information is knowledge. A good Jr. high player knows the mechanics of a proper jump shot. But it was the two decades of repetitive discipline, honed on an outdoor court in Indiana winters, shooting until his hands bled, that gave Larry Bird the freedom to do things others could not on a basketball court. The principle Larry Bird knew is that Repetition leads to transformation. We see this at work in scripture: Romans 12 opens with, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God….” Then Paul explains how to present our bodies to God, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” The Phillips translation phrases it like this, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into it’s mold, but let God remold you from within.”

(Next Up: Part 2 How does God “remold us” spiritually, and the basis of Anglican spirituality.)

 

Holy Week for Newbies (Rebroadcast from last year)

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A primer for those wondering what all the hubbub is about.

Holy Week, in a nutshell, is a spiritual retreat without leaving home. Remember summer youth camp? You had an authentic, transformative experience of God in a group of others having the same experience. You came home connected to those people and God in a new way. You thought, “That was fantastic. I am different and I can hardly wait to come back next year.” Holy Week is a lot like that.

Holy Week is series of liturgical experiences that walk us through the final week of Jesus’ life. We journey with Jesus, in the short span of a week, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the missing guard unit, neatly rolled grave clothes, and the shocking appearance of a risen Savior. In a symbol and story impoverished culture, Holy Week opens our hearts to the gift of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. This is more than a psychological remembrance, it is actively allowing ourselves to be in that final week, baptized (immersed) into his death…”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? …in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”  (Romans 6:3-4)

Holy Week is sacramental

…and we are sacramental creatures. Regardless of any initial reaction you may have to that word, hear me out. A sacrament is a tangible symbol that creates what it signifies. Like kissing. When you first kissed that special someone on the doorstep at the end of the evening, it did more than represent thinking the girl was pretty and nice and that you enjoyed talking with her. It actually created and amplified those feelings. You walked back to your car more emotionally connected to her than you were when you opened her door a brief moment earlier.  And when her front door clicked shut, you fist pumped the air. “Heck, Yeah!” Because that kiss actually made more of what it signified.

So God gave us, fleshly, sacramental, critters that we are, a God who came in flesh. Who lived. Who breathed. Who touched us and was touched by us. Who walked willingly to a criminal’s cross, laid down, spread his arms wide for humanity, and waited for real nails to pierce his hands and feet. It is because you too are flesh and blood that you should engage in Holy Week…because Holy Week creates what it signifies: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10)

A current reality

The ancient prayers point us to the deep mystery in this: It isn’t “Christ rose.” It is “Christ isrisen!” Holy Week is a current reality. A more real reality. So we do more than meditate on these holy mysteries. We allow them to become true within us, as our baptism is true within us. We join him on Maundy Thursday in His Last Supper. We are with him on Friday in His death. We keep prayerful watch before His tomb on Saturday. With growing anticipation we mark His descent into Hades and His trampling of death by His death. Finally, with shouts of joy, we greet His resurrection on Sunday morning, knowing that one day it will be our resurrection too. In Holy Week, as Orthodox priest Fr. Steven Freeman says, “The life to come becomes the life we live.”

A “deep mystery,” it should be said, is not magic. We must surrender to the prayers and liturgy – faith must be lived. In the end, Holy Week isn’t something we do. It is something that does us.

So what is the hubbub? 

Holy Week is more than an emotionally powerful experience. It is an opportunity for a greater sanctification. As Paul said, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6:8) Or, as an Arnold Swarzenegger character once said, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Do yourself a favor, make time to engage in Holy Week, especially the three-day “Triduum”: The despair of Golgotha on Good Friday, the muted sorrow of Saturday, the joyful Baptisms at Saturday’s Great Vigil, and the surprise of a risen Savior on Easter morning.

Almighty God, who through your only‑begotten Son Jesus Christ, overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life‑giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Holy Week Sched 2014 Blog