Why are y’all calling Thursday “Monday” and going to church?

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Holy Week for Newbies

Several friends have asked this. I think they suspect Christians of being so out of touch with reality that we are intentionally self-trolling. “Maundy,” however, is the English-ification of “mandatum” (as in “mandate”). Latin for “command,” it comes from John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.”

Christians head to church on Maundy Thursday for services commemorating the events of Jesus’ final night on earth – the “Last Supper.” It was essentially a going away party in which Jesus hosted a passover dinner for his disciples and altered and reinterpreted the traditional Jewish seder by saying that the bread is his body, the wine is his blood, and that his followers should continue sharing that meal until he returns. No one present came anywhere close to understanding what he was talking about. (The event is recorded in great detail in John’s gospel, chapters 13-17, five chapters worth of text!)

Two events happen at Maundy Thursday services: A foot washing (Jesus washed the disciples feet in John 13:1-20), and after the Lord’s Supper (communion), the altar area is stripped of all ornamentation, greenery, books, symbols, and linen. The lights are then extinguished and the congregation exits in quietly. The uglification of the church in silence is a stark reminder of Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death was portrayed by each New Testament writer as a self-sacrificial act explained using a variety of analogies, among them; a substitution (not unlike that of Arnaud Beltrame this week), a great moral example, a ransom paid to redeem humans, and the victorious king over death and the grave. The scriptures use each of these analogies. Together they seem to me to be the many facets of a gemstone; take one away and the brilliance ceases, add them all together and beauty shines forth.

The question my non-church friends usually ask at this point is: “So, how are you guys doing with that new commandment Jesus gave you to love one another? It is a fair question. Are we washing one another’s feet?

And are we allowing God to strip bare the altars of our lives of all of the idolatrous stuff, inclinations, and ideas that we fill our hearts with?

Mommy Bloggers, Simplicity, and the Power of the Cross

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I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal. At least I thought I was.

And not just because, like Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy, I have many leatherbound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany. I had my moment of self-absorption when someone pointed out that my blog had more hits than other Episcopal clergy. I was so very impressed with myself…until it dawned on me that Episcopal clergy blogs are small potatoes. A mommy blogger got as many hits on a post about overcoming postpartum with a well-timed Lilly Pulitzer dress purchase as I had in 3 years of posting. I’m not mocking mommy blogs. Once the great writing was found in political commentary and pulpits. Today, much of the great writing is on mommy blogs. Mommy bloggers highlight the beauty and make simple the complexity of our lives in 500 words. I’m going to do my best to do that with Jesus and the cross…

Three short verses.

John 19:28-30: “After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they soaked a sponge and put it on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Three small words. 

“It is finished.” They are Jesus’ last words. His final message; His last impression. What does Jesus want to make sure we never forget? “It is finished.”

Three small words. Except they aren’t 3 words at all. In the original Greek there is but a single word: Tetelestai. It means “complete” or “finished.”  Jesus, having lived a sinless and sacrificial life, having said, “I lay down my life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45), having surrendered to a cross as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), uttered his last word: “Tetelestai.” “It is finished.” It might be the single most important word in all of Scripture: Tetelestai. “It is finished.” “Complete.” It was the word printed on a bill when payment had been received. We write, “Paid in full.” They wrote, “Tetelestai.” The word occurs in the New Testament in this form in this one place, surely John’s original readers would have noticed the implication: The bill for all human brokenness and rebellion has “paid in full” stamped across it.

Paul spends Romans 5 discussing how Jesus’ death defeated the effects of Adam’s sin, completely. Paul spends Romans 8 discussing one result that payment rendered, neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The Grammar of Faith

No one likes grammar, but here grammar is our friend. “Tetelestai” is in the perfect tense, used to indicate a completed action with ongoing effects extending into the future. Jesus could have used the tense of simple action, etelesthay, “The work is done.” But this action was anything but simple.  Because Jesus fully and perfectly completed his task, the ongoing effects are that you and I are offered union with God forever. And, as bearers of that union, you and I carry the potential to live lives brimming over with meaning and purpose – we bear the Good News of the completion Jesus purchased for a lost and sin-sick world. It is finished; Tetelestai. The gospel in a single word; Tetelestai. Sin need never stand between humanity and God again; Tetelestai.

How do we experience life “paid in full”?

That receipt is given by grace. Received through faith. Cemented by baptism. And fed by word and sacrament. It was bought by God himself for “all who receive him,” (Jn 1:12) Tetelestai is an astounding mystery. “Paid.” Complete. Finished. Brought to perfection. Forever.

This Sunday of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the king of glory wills to enter the gates of your life. Receive your king. He has bought us, paid our debt, and sends us into the world on holy mission, destined to never have an ordinary moment again. Tetelestai.

Neither Ron Burgundy, nor you or I is that big a deal.  Jesus Christ is a big deal. The big deal. He has bought us, paid our debt, and sends us into the world on holy mission, destined to never have an ordinary moment again. Tetelestai.

 

Image credit: Graham Sutherland “Study for Crucifixion,” 1947. Downloaded from smp.org

 

Come Out of Hiding

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Photo courtesy of Diocese of Phoenix, retrieved from dphx.org

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(Guest post by my friend, the Rev. Louise Samuelson)

I remember listening to Jesus’s words against public displays of prayer and fasting while waiting for the priest to smear a very noticeable swath of black ash onto my forehead. Isn’t this inviting the very hypocrisy Jesus seems to be condemning?

But what if the practice of putting on ashes is not hypocrisy at all but rather irony? The people of Jesus’s day would make a great show of their humility by covering themselves with ashes. We on the other hand are masters of cleaning up. We spend a great deal of time and money to look good. We practice slapping a smile on our faces and letting the world know we are fine. We hide behind façades we create, knowing too well that to often our outsides do not match our insides.

Maybe this practice of smearing our foreheads with ashes gives us an opportunity to reveal our hidden truth. Maybe this liturgy we participate in on Ash Wednesday stage manages us into public exposure: we are not what we seem.

These burned up particles of carbon remind us that we are made of the stuff of the earth. To be human, to be humble, and to be humus or earth, all come from the same root word for “ground.” The ashes we spread on our foreheads “ground” us in the reality of who we are: human beings, created by God, and connected to every other created thing.

These ashes also remind us that we are not what we seem, but sinners living hidden lives. The ashes remind us to be real and vulnerable. To show the world what is true about me. I’m not perfect. I’m a bit of a mess.

We are invited on this day by the prophet Joel to come out of our hiding places and return to the Lord. The great irony is that we are called to return in vulnerability to the God who knows in secret and sees in secret. The God who spoke carbon particles into existence and created us in his image, this is who we return to. This is the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The God who sees our secrets is the God whose property is always to have mercy.

The grace of God is the setting in which we return. God’s natural inclination is mercy. As we come out of hiding and acknowledge that this God of mercy sees us, we are ready to begin a Holy Lent, to practice disciplines that will lead us to integration. We can begin to become people whose insides match our outsides.

How does this transformation to integrity come about? Jesus mentions three practices used for millenniums to become who God intended: Giving to the needy, fasting, and prayer. It is through generosity, dying to ourselves, and meeting intimately with God that we become the people God designed us to be.

I love the definition of intimacy as “in to me see.” As we practice the disciplines of generosity, fasting and prayer in secret, where our loving Father sees us, we allow God to see into us…and intimacy is developed.

Many people like to give up or take on something during Lent. The three disciplines that Jesus mentions could be could be divided into things that we take on that help others, things that we give up that keep us from being who God intends us to be, and things we take on that help us grow in intimacy with God.

I remember a time in my life that I was painfully aware that my insides did not match my outsides. I looked like a good Christian mother, leading bible studies, and homeschooling my children. But I had doubts about God and felt far from him. I also felt if I shared that with anyone in my circle I would be rejected. I also had some unhealthy habits that seemed to have total control over me.

The first step I had to take was to come out of hiding to a couple of trusted friends. I needed to allow them to see into me. Fortunately in the midst of my doubts I had a trust in God’s Grace and mercy.

I’ll never forget that first Lent when I was a part of this particular group of safe friends. I decided that I would fast from all food every Wednesday. I wanted to look at the hold that excess food had over me. I also took on an extra time of prayer Wednesday nights. My sweet husband would take our three children out to dinner. I would light a candle, get out my bible and journal and spend the evening with the God who sees me and loves me in secret.

Giving up food for a day, and taking on a special date with God changed my faith. I became a more integrated person free to be honest about my struggles and free to be available for others. It all started with a loving place where I could be real and a simple trust in God’s never ending love for me.

As you enter this Lenten season, let these ashes be a moment of honesty for you. Allow yourself to be seen as a bit of a mess. Then allow yourself to go inside and meet in secret with the God who loves you. Let him show you what you might take on or what you might give up. Then find a small group of people you can be real with, allow them to be that safe space for you to be seen.

I hope that each of us we will experience a deeper more intimate relationship with God this Lent. God will reward you with more of himself and with a life of integrity, where your insides and outside will reveal the beautiful person you are in Christ.

 

Dissing Christmas: The Church Fathers Pile On

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Starbucks. Target. City halls refusing to put up nativities. This relentless attack on Christmas must stop! Who is going to do battle with our cherished celebration next? The early church fathers? Say what? Listen to a “Justice League” of early fathers ruin Christmas by pointing out that, outside of the holy family, pretty much everything in your nativity crèche is based in fiction rather than biblical reality.

Assumptions v. Reality: The Church Fathers straighten us out on Christmas Night

Let’s contrast our modern version of the Christmas story with the perspective of the early Fathers who stood far closer, both chronologically and culturally, to Jesus’ birth than we do.Justice League Christmas Dis.002

  1. Not Announced by a star

We assume a star over the manger announced the King’s arrival. Like many of our beliefs about the Christmas story, we get that idea from Christmas carols. “The stars in the sky looked down where he lay…” Reality: The star came later (See assumption 3). The heralds were angels, who, as Cyril of Alexandria said in the 5th century, “never oppose the will of the one whose message they bear.”[1] God’s personal messenger service brought the news. For God, when it comes to salvation, it’s personal.

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  1. No Wise Men

Regardless of the school nativity play or the crèche on your mantel, the wise men were not even present at the birth. They arrived a year or so later. (Which explains Herod putting a hit on anyone under two years of age[2] and why the church celebrates the coming of the wise men as Epiphany on Jan 6.) In reality Shepherds were the first non-family to greet Jesus at his birthIn the 200’s Origen wrote, “the host of heaven brought the message of humanities’ good shepherd.” Bonus: There is also no indication from the text that it was the shepherd’s status on the peasant rung of the working-class ladder that amazed the public. What amazed was the message: “peace on earth.” From the divine perspective, “peace on earth” is only possible if there is peace with God – the enmity brought between humanity and God by sin removed. When the ones raising lambs for the temple system were sent to find a baby swaddled the way they swaddled their lambs to keep them spotless for the atonement sacrifices, everyone heard an implication: This baby would be “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”[3]

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  1. Not an Inn

In the pop culture version Mary and Joseph were rejected, turned away from a packed Inn In the Greek New Testament, the word for “Inn” is pandocheion, a place travelers paid for a common kitchen and dormitory, like a hostel. But that word isn’t in this text. Joseph and Mary instead went to a kataluma, “the spare or upper room in a private house…no payment was expected.”[4] A kataluma is where the disciples ate the Last Supper, not an “inn,” an “upper room.”[5] Joseph, seems to have done what Middle Easterners do to this day: showed up at a relative’s so that family could extend hospitality. Presumably, coming from a distance with a pregnant wife, other family perhaps already have the guest room for the census. Although despised and rejected by men[6] as an adult, Jesus was welcomed on his arrival. In the 3rd century Chrysostem wrote, he was “not in some small room but in the home before numerous people.”[7]

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  1. No Stable

Regardless of what your mom said, you probably weren’t born in a barn and Jesus probably wasn’t either, since animals were not kept in barns in 1st Century Palestine. They were kept in the lower level of the main house. The manger is on the main level so that the animals could put their faces in and eat.[8] Jesus was born in the main room and, as Gregory of Nazianzus said, “bound in swaddling bands at the manger to release humanity from the swaddling bands of the grave at the resurrection.”[9] No wonder his mother named him, Jesus, meaning, “God saves.”

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  1. Not on Christmas.

Jesus’ had a Christmas birthday, right? Wrong. Because the shepherds were in the field, scholars conclude Jesus’ birth was in Spring or Fall. How did we get Dec. 25? A common theory is that we co-opted the Roman feast of the Unconquerable Sun. However, the church, long before it gave a rip about the holidays of Rome’s pantheon of gods, believed Jesus was both conceived and crucified on March 25. They counted forward 9 months from conception, giving us, viola, Dec. 25. In reality, it is the era rather than the day of Jesus’ birth that is important. Jesus was born during the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, allowing the news of him to spread. 7th century historian Bede wrote, “Jesus was born at the time of utmost worldly peace to lead the world back to heavenly peace.”[10]

Conclusion: When Jesus arrived and God dwelt among us[11] he didn’t just, as Eugene Peterson paraphrased, “move into the neighborhood,”[12] he moved into the front room. As Athanasius wrote in the 3rd century, “He became what we are that we might become what he is.”[13] That is the point of Jesus entering what pagan philosopher Celsus called, the ragtag and bobtail of humanity.[14]

What do we learn of Christmas from the Fathers? It would be good to learn our Bibles and our story and defend our faith against shallow thinking and ministers who lack the training to teach the scriptures rather than simply critiquing the culture. The truth of Christmas we learn from the scriptures is that angelic messengers let us know that, for God, “it’s personal.” He may have been a helpless baby, but more than a helpless baby, Jesus would be the spotless lamb of God to be sacrificed, shattering the separation of sin. Jesus was at home in the world he had made,[15] in the midst of the stuff of life. His name means “God saves” and his birth is an invitation to that salvation: God joined us “in the fullness of time” to bring peace to the world, that we might be united to him eternally.[16]

Your crèche might be bogus, but the incarnation most certainly is not. Christian, reclaim Christmas by worshipping the manger-born King, walking with God rather than expecting non-believers to, learning our scriptures in the context of historic teaching, and bear witness to the power of that babe to bring “peace on earth, goodwill to those in whom he is well-pleased.”  

*And yes, I do know Perpetua isn’t a “Father,” but someone had to be Gal Gadot.

[1] Commentary on Luke, Homily 2

[2] Matt 2:16

[3] John 1:29

[4] ISBE, 2004

[5] Luke 22:12

[6] Isaiah 53:3

[7] Against the Anomoeans, 7.49

[8] There are a plethora of references on this one. Google it.

[9] Oration 29.19

[10] Homilies on the Gospels, 1.6

[11] John 1:14

[12] The Message,

[13] On the Incarnation

[14] Contra Celsus,

[15] John 1:1

[16] Galatians 4:4

 

Of Priests and Ordinations, FAQs

 

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An informative if slightly snarky look at clergy and their ordinations.

What is a priest?

A priest is someone called by God and set apart by the church to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. It may seem obvious, but the whole operation works better when those ordained to Christian ministry actually believe Christian things. Priests are charged by their bishop to “proclaim the Gospel of Christ and to fashion their lives in accordance with its precepts.” Priests are “to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come.” (BCP, 531) In short, priests point people to the Great High Priest, Jesus Christ. (Hebrews 4:14-5:4, 10:11-12) Occasionally we ordain folk without a deep scriptural faith. Once a colleague spoke of what a gift to the church the panentheist he was ordained with is. I can’t fathom how the fellow could take the ordination vows without his fingers crossed.

In addition, in the opening words of the ordination, priests are called to “pray, offer the Sacraments, preach, declare God’s pardon, and bless and console” (Book of Common Prayer, 531). These actions imply that priests also have gifts of gathering and leadership that they will exercise in the life of the church – ordination works much better for churches when ordained persons have leadership gifts as well.

What does the word “priest” mean?

“Priest” is an Anglicization of the Greek “presbyter,” meaning “elder.” In the Episcopal church, we follow the three historic orders of ministry: bishops, priests, and deacons (episcopos, presbyteros, and deaconos in the original Greek). A quick glance reveals that churches in the historic tradition have transliterated all three ordained roles. Most evangelical bodies combine the first two words (overseer and elder) into one role (elder) that they translate, and then transliterate deacon (which means servant).

How does one become a priest?

Through ordination, the rite in which the church grants authority and God gives the grace of the Holy Spirit necessary for the task. Needless to say, both are vital.

In the Episcopal Church our clergy neither self-select nor self-anoint. We ordain those we believe called by God in a process that is quite involved. Persons are identified by their diocese in a period of vocational discernment, trained according to the scriptures and the canons of the church (usually receiving a three-year Master’s degree from a seminary), are affirmed by a congregation, and ordained by a bishop. This process ordinarily takes around five years.

What do those being ordained do in their ordination?

The person being ordained (ordinand) pledges to be loyal to “the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them,” and affirm that they “believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God, containing all things necessary to salvation.” (BCP, 526) They place themselves under the authority of their bishop and yoke themselves to the ministry of Word and Sacrament at the hands of that bishop who stands in the long line of those touched by the original apostles two thousand years ago. Their first act as an ordained person will be to join their bishop in the celebration of Holy Eucharist. …All of which renders obvious belief in actual Christian doctrines and walking with the One to whom those doctrines refers is essential for those whose job is to “nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace.”

What is done to them in the ordination?

The Episcopal Church ordains everyone a deacon first. The role of a deacon is to serve, which reminds every priest that their first calling is to serve. The Episcopal church holds a second ordination (often six months later) to set our clergy apart as priests. This ceremony includes various rituals rich in meaning and history: prostration, laying on of hands, giving of a Bible and stole, and extending the sign of peace. In the ceremony, we will present the candidates, examine them for Christian faith and obedience to God’s calling, and pray over them asking God to set them apart as priests. The bishop will then lay hands on them and present a Bible and other symbols of their ministry. As a church, we believe in Word and Sacrament – that God is revealed through the Word of God, and is also tangibly present in the symbols of the faith: like water, wine, bread. We don’t know how this sacramental presence works exactly, but we believe it is present in ordination. I can tell you that one walks away from a sacramental ordination different…changed.

When are they actually ordained?

At the laying on of hands and prayer of consecration. This is an ancient tradition, grounded in the Bible. (Acts 13:1-5, 14:23, Titus 1:5, 2 Cor 8:19, 1 Tim 5:22, 2 Tim 1:6)

Who can ordain a priest? 

Since priests share in the ministry of Jesus passed down through the apostles through the laying on of hands and extend the ministry of the bishop in a diocese, a bishop who stands in that apostolic line ordains priests. Bishops are joined by the presence and prayers of the other priests in the diocese.
Why does the ordinand lie prostrate during the ordination?

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Not all do. Some only kneel before their bishop. Either way it symbolizes our unworthiness for the office and dependence upon God and the prayers of the Christian community.

What is the meaning of the laying on of hands?

The ordaining bishop and the participating priests invoke the Holy Spirit to come upon the one to be ordained, asking God to give them a holy character and setting them apart as a priest.

Why does the bishop hand the new priest a Bible? 

Because “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the Word of God and contain all things necessary for salvation” and the ordained will proclaim the Gospel revealed in the Bible and shape their life in accordance with its precepts. (BCP, 531)

Why does the newly ordained priest receive a stole?

The stole symbolizes the authority and responsibility to serve in imitation of Christ. It harkens to: “For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:30)

What preparation do priests go through before ordination?

Priests have completed a challenging program of formation. By their ordination they have demonstrated competency in seven areas: The Holy Scriptures, church history, theology, ethics and moral theology, contemporary society, liturgics and worship leading, and theory and practice of ministry, including leadership, evangelism and stewardship. In addition, they have also received training in the prevention of sexual misconduct, civil requirements for reporting and responding to evidence of abuse, Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, and racism.  (Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, Title III, Canon 8, Section 5) It is customary that they have also taken courses in biblical languages and a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, often at a local hospital’s trauma unit.

How is this different from the pastor at my evangelical church? Or the priest at my Catholic church?

It is hard to say, as the training required of pastors in evangelical churches varies widely. Many evangelicals no longer go to seminary, but only go through a training program created by their local church. You could show them this article and ask. In terms of Roman Catholic churches, the Episcopal Church ordains women and does not require clergy to be celibate if married.

What is with the funnyclothes? 

Hmmn. By “funny clothes” I would guess you mean the cassocks and clerical collars that are clergy daily wear. Mostly these are a holdover from the days in which you could tell a person’s profession by their dress. The butcher wore a white apron, the mechanic coveralls, and what not. The Cassock (a long black robe like Neo wore in The Matrix) is a holdover from the daily fare of Romans. The detachable collar was invented in 1827 in Troy New York, and became quite the rage. Catholic clergy wore cassocks as daily dress until the 1960s (watch an episode of Father Brown on Netflix for example). The “collar” was worn originally worn by Protestant clergy. Presbyterians and Anglicans started the trend in England in the early 19th Century. When detachable collars went out of vogue, clergy, who where not as well healed as their parishioners kept wearing the old style. You can see an example of this in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life when Jimmy Stewart comes down for dinner in college you can see his partially attached collar standing out on his neck. Roman Catholic priests historically wear the tab collars, but I wear them in the summer as a piece of plastic around ones neck in a hot climate is less than comfy. Women’s clergy wear is a whole separate ball of yarn. You will have to consult one of them on the fine points of their attire.

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Roman Collar

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Anglican Collar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do priests do after the ordination?

Grab dinner usually. After that, though, they begin to serve as priests in our corner of God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

 

 

Want to help a cause you love?

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We all have charities that we love – causes and organizations that tug at our hearts. How can you most help those grow? Hint: It isn’t to write them a check or to show up, it is to invest in the thing that makes your thing possible.

For 2,000 years one institution has created people who have hearts for others. That institution’s teaching has helped its’ members generate emotional and financial margin in their lives. The engine that makes your favorite charity and mine possible is the church. When you give first to something else rather than the church, you bypass the foundation that creates and nurtures the next generation of giving people, the very people who will have the time, talent and treasure to support the good works that tug at your heart. Oh, you might say, “There are people who are givers who aren’t and who never have been members of a church.” That is true, but those people have been nurtured in a culture with Christian assumptions: charity, kindness, an emphasis on the other. Even the non-churched in the West have been the recipients of the culture of the church. The data says that when you correct out for giving to the church (and much giving to churches gets then re-gifted to outside agencies), that church attending Christians still out give all other groups. In addition, “households that give to religious organizations donate about twice as much as households that give to secular organizations.”

In other words, the single best investment you can make in the organizations you care for is to tithe to a church. Healthy churches keep the floodgates of giving people open wide. So give to your cause, but give first to a church. It is a method that has worked for 2,000 years. With your help it will work for 2,000 more. If not, churches will continue to close, and, as giving people age out, your charity will be a generation behind it on the list of good things that are no more.

Source: National Center for Charitable Statistics

Spiritual but not religious? Beliefs matter.

The Feasts for Newbies: Trinity Sunday (Part One)

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Trinity Sunday is that feast in the Christian Year that is about a doctrine rather than an event. And let’s be honest, doctrine sounds like divisive, dusty stuff. You may be one of the many who avoid doctrine with, “I’m spiritual but not religious, I feel no need of your divisive, dusty doctrines. I have the real thing.

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I am sympathetic. Experiencing the Holy One is certainly where it is at, but the “spiritual but not religious” answer is a bit too pat. Here’s why: My son’s college offshore sailing team just sailed the Annapolis to Newport race. My son was navigator. Getting ready for three days offshore meant lots of prep work – 20 hours pouring over charts, marking shoals with yellow and red highlighters.

Saying, “I have the real thing,” though, is like standing on the dock looking out over the water excited about how beautiful it is on the shore. Why would you want to pour over dusty doctrine instead of enjoying the shore? For the same reason a sailor learns his charts. Yes, charts can be divisive – people will argue over which route to take. Yes, it is boring to turn from actual water to paper facsimiles of ocean. My son, who invested hours in those charts, agrees with you: Charts are boring.

They are also necessary. At least they are if you want to get someplace truly amazing. Standing at the dock is fine. But making landfall in Newport and seeing the great homes of the Gilded Age from the Sea is truly amazing…and you can’t get there without charts. Theology is our chart. Doctrine is the vetted, agreed upon experience of thousands who have sailed before – utterly necessary to go anywhere truly spectacular.

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When we are young we think that what we want is to appropriate spiritual wisdom as it fits us, the way we would pluck entrees at a cafeteria, picking what “fits” us. But what we need is not a “spirituality” of our own contrivance, but to surrender ourselves to something, someone greater.

One can be vaguely “spiritual but not religious” on the humid shore in Annapolis, or you can venture into the open ocean and journey to the perpetual cool breezes of the Rhode Island summer. At Pentecost, Christians are empowered to get off the dock and experience the real thing. but doctrine is the chart warning us of the shoals, and pointing us toward deep waters. And the doctrine that really matters, the single doctrine that all other doctrine hangs on is the Trinity. Here is why:

We humans spend our lives answering the Great Questions…questions we hoped would get answered in college only to be told, “Don’t talk about that. Get a major that will score you a good paying job, here’s a beer and a condom, stop thinking so deeply!” But the Great Questions stalk us through life like store security follows suspected shoplifters. Those questions include…

  • Why am I here? (The God Question)
  • What went wrong? (The Pain Question)
  • How is it fixed? (The Salvation Question)
  • Who am I to be? (The Existential Question)

You might be surprised to find out that the early Christians camped out on the first question: Why am I here? The God Question. They realized that if one gets the God Question right, everything else works out. Unlike many other theological questions, the answer to the God Question is specific, agreed upon by all Christians: The God who made us is the One who reveals himself as a Tri-unity…one God in three Persons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The God Question is how we ended up with the Nicene Creed. It took 300 years to articulate One God in three Persons. The Nicene Creed Christians recite is a very broad statement. All major branches of Christianity: Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodox, and Pentecostals…all stack hands on that really, really, really broad answer to the God Question. Unlike later confessions which sought to define what Christians should believe, the Nicene Creed is the least one must believe to be considered Christian by other Christians – the minimum admission to the Christian “playground” of the Holy Trinity. “Without the Trinity,” Christians say, “no harm, no foul, but you are just not one of this tribe.”

A later creed, the Athanasian Creed would elaborate…

“We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.”

They are three and they are one. And they are both at the same time.

That matters because beliefs have outcomes. What we believe about God seeps into everything we are and do.

For example, a Mormon friend once asked me to read the book of Mormon and ask God if Joseph Smith is a true prophet. I said I would if they would return the favor and read Hebrews 1 about Jesus being the final revelation of the Father, and ask God if Joseph Smith might be a false prophet. That sounded fair to me, but my friend objected strenuously, “No!” I asked why. In exasperation my friend stammered, “What if God lies?” That sounds shocking to most ears, but when your God is an exalted human, as he is for my LDS friends, God telling a lie isn’t so crazy. But when your God is an uncreated being of infinite, complete and self-contained love…a being who shaped the cosmos out of a desire to share love, the joyful dance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with humanity, well, deception is simply an unthinkable violation of that being’s very nature.

So yes, theology can be hard work. But is a good work. The question boils down to this: Will you be satisfied to have a narcissistic, humid little experience from the dock when the offshore adventure of eternity beckons?

Pull out the charts and do the work of learning the doctrines of the faith. They chart the boundaries of the journey of love that has sustained the generations. The captain of our souls invites you aboard.

Trinity Sunday Sermon Link

What’s with the Ascension?

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This Sunday Christians of the Great Tradition commemorate the event in Jesus’ life that most American Christians subtly avoid: The Ascension. After all, the idea of the disciples standing around watching Jesus’ feet disappear into the clouds sounds pretty strange – we know heaven isn’t literally up. American Christians often seem a bit sheepish about the whole Ascension thing. However, the New Testament portrays the Ascension as an essential component of Jesus’ saving acts – even the completion of Jesus’ work. To cite a few examples:

  • In Peter’s Pentecost speech, the climax of what God has done in Jesus is not the resurrection, but Jesus being “exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33). In support, Luke quotes the most cited psalm in the NT, Psalm 110, with its image of the messiah taking his seat at the right hand of God.
  • In the gospel of John, Jesus, tells Mary not to hold on to him because “I have not yet ascended,” and the message she is given for the disciples is, ‘I am ascending to the Father’ (John 20:17).
  • Luke divides his two books, not at the resurrection, but at the Ascension: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…” (Acts 1:1-2)
  • In Philippians 2, Paul skips the resurrection and goes straight from Jesus’ ‘death on the cross’ to his being ‘exalted to the highest place’ (Phil 2:8-9). Jesus movement was from death to life to glory, but here Paul conflates the resurrection and ascension as one movement.

Why is the Ascension important? (From Ian Paul’s terrific blog Psephizo.com)

  1. Authority. Jesus is enthroned with the Father. Because of the Ascension, the lamb who was slain is seated with the one on the throne and shares his worship (Revelation 4). At the Ascension Jesus said, ‘all authority has been given to me’ (Matt 28:18). It is that authority that gave Stephen confidence in the face of death—his final vision is of Jesus ascended in Daniel 7 terms (Acts 7:55-56). 
  2. Union. In the incarnation, God entered human existence. In the Ascension, humanity is taken up into the presence of God. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:15-16). Jesus joined humanity that humanity so can join him.
  3. Empowerment. The Ascension marked the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry; Jesus gives humans responsibility to continue His work, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is neither distant nor indifferent, he has delegated his earthly presence to his body, the Church.
  4. Trustworthiness. Jesus ascended in the clouds promising that he will return “in the same way” (Acts 1:11). (His return, btw, is never called the “second coming” in the NT because it is not paired with his “first coming” [the Incarnation], but rather with the Ascension.) As God has put all things under his feet, one day his authority de jury will be an authority de facto.

So, yeah, the embarrassing miracle matters. Besides, anyone who can believe God can be born from the womb of a virgin, and that a man with his blood drained from his lifeless corpse can walk bodily from the grave three days later, can believe that God can assume that risen Lord bodily into the clouds. So, it may sound strange, but get over it. The Ascension is worth believing in and celebrating, because a lot is riding on those disappearing feet.

Like your salvation.

Please revise your prayerbook. Sincerely, the hipster church that wants your building

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The real question with prayer book revision is “how much will the latte’s in the narthex cost when the evangelical hipsters salivating over your nifty old building move in?”

The Living Church is producing an excellent series of well-reasoned articles on the move to revise the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer. While there are many solid reasons to put the kibosh on prayer book revision, here is one I have not seen: It would be nice to keep some of our beautiful buildings for our own use.

If there is one thing we Episcopalians are good at it is building tasteful, lovely churches. Some of them even still have enough people in them to stay open. I fear prayer book revision will end that for several thousand of our 6500 remaining parishes and missions.

Consider the following: The median average Sunday attendance in an Episcopal Church is now 58 people per Sunday. To most Christians fifty-eight people doesn’t sound as much like a church as the neighborhood small group they are a part of. In 2015, the most recent year data is available for, we were down yet another 20,000 in total Sunday attendance to 579,000 per week.  An old priest once told me, “No matter how good a new prayer book is 100,000 Episcopalians leave every time we revise it.” Does anyone think we have another 100,000 of us to peel off?

For the benefit of non-Anglican readers, prayer book revision is the biggest of issues because our prayers express and shape our theology. We are together, not on a doctrinal statements (like Evangelicals) or behind a teaching magisterium (like Catholics), but on praying the same words. This makes prayer book revision Anglicanism’s third rail. Grabbing a third rail seems to most folk an ill-advised behavior. Anglicans, however, seem to love the feeling of power it brings.

Why is prayer book revision such a bad idea? First, it is insider baseball. It takes even its staunchest advocates off of mission and distracts us with futzing over words. Second, rewriting prayers has the effect of rewriting our theology. That always leaves a significant group disgruntled and disenfranchised. This is why revision has historically resulted in schism and defections. If there has ever been a time in our collective life that we have needed to let things breathe, after the sea changes in our church over the last decade, now is that time. I am not trying to throw shade, but here is the painful truth: prayer book revision is how old men (and women) institutionalize their schisms…why do you think the ACNA’s Bob Duncan was so hot that the departing churches have their own prayer book before he retired!

And if you think the last decade in which we lost 24% of our attendance was bad, we have not yet begun to see the emptying of our parishes that will happen if a version of the prayerbook revision advocates (including some members of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music) are telegraphing they want for our future. What sorts of changes are being discussed? Do you like the creed? (Get over it.) Confessing your sins? (Get over that too – sin is now institutional rather than personal.) God? (You get a new one of those as well: Parent, Child, and Spirit. The only member of the Holy Trinity with a gender is the Holy Spirit who goes from neuter to feminine.) All of these will redefine the faith of episcopalians in a way that departs from Scripture, Nicaea, and all other orthodox Christian bodies on the planet. The whole point of a prayer book is that it is the Bible reorganized for public worship. That will no longer be true if the reasons bandied about and the conclusions hinted at come to pass. If we make this collective slide from orthodoxy, many will simply and quietly back down the ladder and go play in another playground.

It takes three triennial General Conventions to pass a new prayer book. The clock is now ticking…

When the nine years of sand in the hour glass runs out and the new prayerbooks are delivered will the result be what the revisionists hope, a heady new era of growth? Or is my old priest friend right, prayer book revision will be the mine that finishes sinking our Episcopal Church, a boat that has been taking on the waters of numerical decline for more than a decade.

If there is a silver lining it is that perhaps other churches will be blessed by our self-destructive inability to keep our hands off of the high voltage. That is where our hipster evangelical friends come in. While the suburban megachurch struggles alongside of us, there are hipster churches melding our sense of place with a robust proclamation of the Gospel, social action, and even a desire to meld historic liturgy with culturally relevant forms. Ancient words and symbols and cultural accessibility – It sounds like what our best churches in the last generation were doing.

One hundred thousand people only represents about 15 people per church. Unfortunately, the ones who disappear when orthodoxy becomes unfashionable tend to also be the ones who tithe, so the 17% estimated decline probably represents double that as a percentage of your budget.

Which is another way of saying, “Would you like that in tall, grande or venti?”

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Good Friday: The axis of the cosmos

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You may have wondered why an execution is known as, “Good” Friday.

Here is the spoiler: Jesus went to the cross to be able to say three words: “It. Is. Finished.”

The early church believed Jesus was crucified on March 25th. Further, they believed that, since re-creation happened on March 25th, the first day of creation must have happened that day as well.

The early Christian’s view of time was much loftier than the later idea that time revolves around, Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.” The original idea of Jesus’ followers was that the cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe around which the entire cosmos rotates. It wasn’t that the earth was the center of the universe. It was that the cross is.

I was a Young Life leader for 25 years. Young Life focusses on explaining Jesus to the high school kids who don’t go to church. Every semester YL leaders do a talk on the crucifixion. One Monday night 140 high school kids were shoehorned into my friend Rawleigh Grove’s living room as I gave the “cross talk.” Regardless of what you have heard of high school kids interest in the things of God, I can tell you that all over the globe hundreds of thousands of high school kids are hanging on every word of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion at Young Life clubs. After that message kids sat in stunned silence. Except for one kid, a church kid named Josh. Josh jumped up, ran right up to my nose and said, “I’ve been in church my whole life and I have NEVER heard this. My dad was a youth pastor, my mom a Sunday school teacher, but I’ve never heard this. Why has no one has EVER told me this?”

Without thinking I said, “Maybe the church is so busy telling kids what not to do that we forget to tell you what Jesus did.” That was, it turns out, a pretty good answer. But Josh misses my accidental brilliance, “I don’t know about that.” He turns and practically runs out the door saying, “I’m going Starbucks.” He rips open my friend’s front door and yells over his shoulder, “It’s the only place still open. I have to tell someone what Jesus did for them!” The door slams and Josh is gone.

…For the first time Josh knew what Jesus did on the cross in detail. And for the first time, Josh knew that Jesus did it to satisfy a debt that only God could pay…Josh’s world began to pivot around a new axis: the immovable cross of Jesus Christ.

Centuries before Jesus lived, Isaiah passed along (in Isaiah 52 and 53) what God told us Jesus would someday do – why he would go to the cross. In John 19:30 Jesus tells us how it panned out – “It is finished.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.” He didn’t say, “Oops.” He didn’t say, “three cheers for the attempt.” Jesus said, “It is finished.

Jesus’ “it” was nothing less than the salvation of humanity, the opening of relationship with God for you. Forgiveness of all that stands between us and the Father. The relationship of a lifetime for all eternity freely offered, the opportunity to join God’s high and holy mission to redeem a lost world. That is what Jesus finished on a hill called Golgotha, on a cross between two thieves. The universe rotates around that event.

Isaiah said, “Kings shall shut their mouths.” And Jesus thundered, “It is finished.”

“He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;” And Jesus said, “It is Finished.”

“He was pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities.” It Is finished.

“His chastisement brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” That too, finished.

“The iniquity of us all was laid on him.” Finished.

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” Done.

“Cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” Finished.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; and put him to grief.” That as well is finished.

Because of him “many shall be accounted righteous.” Finished.

“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Finished.

“He bore the sins of many.” And guess what?” That, too, is finished.

And while the world grew quiet, Satan stood up in hell clapping. And Jesus, with perhaps the faintest hint of a grin, shook his head, “uh uh.” And said, “It. Is. Finished.” And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

And now, ever since that day, regardless of what you see, or hear, or think, the entire cosmos pivots on the axis of the victory won on the immovable, finished, cross of Jesus Christ.