The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Friday, June 29, 2012

FCS: Closer Than Ever


Quick facts:
  • Show: Closer Than Ever
  • Off-Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, June 28, 2012
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: July 14, 2012
  • Venue: York Theater at St. Peter's Church
  • Running time: ~2:30 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Fine  I was on the fifth row, stage right.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: There isn't a synopsis.  It's a revival of the musical revue featuring music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby.  Maltby also directed this production.

My thoughts: This will probably be the shortest version of "my thoughts" yet!  It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.  The music by David Shire is constantly surprising - in a thrilling way.  The lyrics by Richard Maltby are clever, even if they do come off sometimes a bit dated (which, I suppose, is to be expected out of a show first performed in 1989).

All four actors gave strong performances.  The far and away standout was Jenn Colella.  In addition to brilliantly singing this demanding show, she was masterful in telling the story of each character she sang and played.  Additionally, Christiane Noll shone in her excellent performance of "Life Story" - a brilliant song!

The other star of the production, from my perspective, was Andrew Gerle on the piano (with one surprising and delightful vocal cameo, too!).  Throughout the show I found myself drawn to his work - often more than the actors.

The real take away for me tonight, however, is learning about York Theatre.  It's a charming little venue beneath St. Peter's Lutheran Church at Lexington and 54th.  I arrived early (as is my custom) and did get to peek into the worship space for a bit.  It's a fascinating modern design that takes advantage of the city as a backdrop for worship.  The campus is large, and mostly commercial, which undoubtedly produces revenue for the parish.

The theater company itself is dedicated to supporting new works of musical theater through fully staged productions and scores of developmental readings.  It only rarely does revivals like this.  Numerous shows that went on to be big have gotten their starts in this little company.  I look forward to following them now that I know they exist!

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Probably not, but I WILL be buying the original cast recording.  It's worth listening to again and again.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Serious musicians would appreciate it, as well as theater insiders (they were all around me tonight).  It's probably not for just anyone - but the music is great and there's lots of it, so if that's your thing, you'd love it.
  • Twitter review: Great music brought back to life for the New York stage.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

God doesn't create in straight lines

**Note - there was something wrong with the video today, so just a text.  Hopefully we'll figure it out by next week!
 

Pentecost 4B, Proper 7
Mark 4:35-41


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Fear.

It’s one of the most basic human experiences.

We’ve all been afraid at one point or another.  Through a quick Google earlier this week about what fear is, exactly, the word that appeared most often was “normal”.

Fear is normal.  We all feel it from time to time.

In the Gospel lesson today, we hear one of the more familiar stories about fear.  Jesus has been traveling, teaching, and performing miracles.  Along the way he’s accumulated a large following.  The closest among them become known as the disciples, and they are with him in a boat.  There are other boats, filled with other followers, but the closest among them - the disciples - are with Jesus.

Out in the water, presumably within the safe confines of the boat - their security was suddenly interrupted.  A storm came up and tossed the boat around.  And the disciples became afraid.

They went to find Jesus - in their fear they sought solace from the one among them who seemed to have all the answers.

To their dismay, however, they found him asleep.

In the midst of their fear - their sense of scrambling around the line between life and death - their Lord was simply asleep.  As almost a kind of insult to their fear, Jesus’ rest went undisturbed.

One of the things that I like most about this time of year - this “Ordinary Time” within the church’s calendar - is that it explores some of these normal parts of our existence.  And fear IS normal.

Earlier this weekend, I went on my day off to see a movie with a friend in Brooklyn.  We were planning to have a day at the beach, after it had been so hot this week, but instead, it would turn out to be the day that it would rain.  After a week of unrelenting sun and merciless heat, our beach plans were thwarted by strong storms - the kind of strong storms that are pretty uncommon around here.

Undeterred, however, my friend and I were determined to enjoy our day off together.  So we went to see a movie.  The movie was terrible, as a matter of fact - I wouldn’t recommend it.  It was called Prometheus.  But as bad as the movie was, there was, within it this one line that captured my imagination - particularly as it related to the Gospel lesson for today.

A band of space explorers had traveled to a far-off planet on suspicion that another form of intelligent life inhabited there.  As they approached the planet and were deciding where to land, one of the scientists onboard saw through the window a series of straight lines and grids.  He said, “Land there.  God doesn’t create in straight lines.”

scarred land left behind as the Dead Sea has receded, March 2012
It’s true, isn’t it?  God doesn’t create in straight lines.  The shapes are always more complex: there are gentle curves and sharp edges.  There are cracks and crags.

Humans, on the other hand, tend to be more comfortable with straight lines.  We like to see all that lies before us, as far as we can.  Twists and turns engender fear - they feel unstable.  Straight lines make us feel assured and safe.

But the truth is, fear is normal.  As normal as the odd angles and turns that appear throughout God’s creation.  God doesn’t create in straight lines, and the world and our experiences within it aren’t as safe and predictable as we might like.

In the church - not just here at St. Paul’s, but in the church throughout the world - we’re living in a climate of fear.  The straight lines that we thought that we’d built for ourselves and for our futures aren’t holding up anymore.

The expectation of what church is and should be as it was experienced in the generations before us is proving to be untrue for our time.  Some people are even beginning to conclude that those clean and straight paths that we’ve built are keeping us from really walking with God.

After all, God doesn’t build in straight lines.

Too often we keep trying to walk those same straight lines laid out by our parents and our grandparents, but more and more we’re finding that the road we thought we’d be following isn’t beneath us anymore.  And our commitment to straight lines isn’t serving us as neatly as we’d expected it to.  The world has changed around us, and the same old patterns of moving forward just don’t work anymore.  When we insist on continuing to walk in straight lines, we run into walls, or the path is rocky, or the goal is nowhere to be found.

Straight lines may allay our fears, but they don’t serve us well for long.  Sooner or later our selfish and shortsighted commitment to them keeps us from following the crooked, and often frightening paths that God has laid out for us.

Several years ago Bishop Spong wrote a book called Why Christianity Must Change or Die.  The same is true of the church.  It used to be true that we could simply open our doors on Sunday mornings and assume that the people would come.  But that’s becoming less and less true.

After my friend and I finished the movie on Sunday we went back to his neighborhood bar to have a beer and to wait for his wife to get home from work.  The little dive-y bar was packed to overflowing with young people - my friend and I were among the oldest people there.  They were laughing and reconnecting with their friends - many of them had their children with them.  They were eating and drinking and engaging in real community.  In the outdoor section where we sat, I looked up to my left and saw my friend’s massive stone church.  Just a little farther away and to the right I saw the massive Roman Catholic cathedral.  And I realized - perhaps for the first time - that those impressive structures don’t seem to impress people anymore.

Churches are dying all around us, because we keep walking along the straight lines we’ve always walked along, and we’ve hardly noticed that the path is no longer beneath us.

I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but the truth is, we have to start finding another path.  God doesn’t create in straight lines, so the more we insist on sticking to them - sticking to the path we’ve always been on - the more assured we are of wandering away from where God would have us go.

It can be scary to go a different way.  It can feel like the security of the world that we’ve come to depend upon is falling apart around us.  But we have to find another way.  We have to be willing to try to walk with God - wherever that walk might take us.  Even when it seems unsure.

In the end of the story, Jesus restores the calm.  The disciples just could not yet take the threat to their security.

There will be times when we need calm, too; but, we have to remember that calm, security, peace, tranquility - whatever else we may long for - those aren’t the goal.  The goal is to walk with God.  Sometimes that’s not the easiest path to walk, but it’s the path to which we’ve been called.  Amen.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A parable is a gift


Pentecost 3B


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In other churches where I’ve served, the Sunday School has used the Godly Play curriculum.  Have you ever heard of it?

Godly Play is a church school curriculum based on the principles of the Montessori Schools.  It’s a very interactive way of teaching children that attempts to meet them and their sense of wonder and curiosity where it very naturally is at that early childhood stage of development.

In the Godly Play curriculum, the teacher doesn’t lecture the children, or assign tasks for them to accomplish.  Instead, the teacher sits with the children in a circle on the floor and serves more as a storyteller, and then as a moderator.  It’s a lectionary-based curriculum, so children learn the same basic stories that are told in church, but they hear them in a different way - with visual aids.  After the story is told, the teacher helps to guide the children into a deeper understanding of the story by presenting “wondering” questions.  The teacher doesn’t put anyone on the spot, but opens up discussion on the topic by “wondering” about the story that’s been told.

“I wonder why Jesus would have done that.”

“I wonder what the blind man first saw.”

And so on.

It provides a space for the children’s imaginations to open up and to discover the deeper meanings of the stories we all know and study.

One of my favorites of the tools from the Godly Play teaching resource is its approach to parables.  All of the visual aids for the various stories have a box.  But parables have special boxes.  Their boxes are painted gold - because, as the program says, “parables are a gift”.

Sometimes they may seem a little harder to understand than some of the other stories, but they are a gift.  It may take a bit more digging or unwrapping, but there’s beautiful gift hidden inside.

Part of why the parables work so well for the Godly Play method of teaching children is that they inspire the imagination.  They often bring up as many questions as they answer.  And Godly Play isn’t just about depositing information into supposedly empty young minds - it’s about teaching these minds to engage the Christian story - to engage the challenges and the questions of our faith - to build literacy.

Parables lend themselves to that kind of teaching.  Jesus wasn’t interested in building up the faith tradition of the mustard seed.  The mustard seed itself wasn’t what was important.  What was important was the ability of the faithful to revision how they experienced their faith.  They needed to think bigger than the limits of their faith had previously permitted.  They needed bigger imaginations.

And so do we.

The thing about big truths is that they usually can’t be captured in simple facts.  Truth is often much bigger than any fact.

It’s been said that the life of Jesus as a whole is a kind of parable.  Jesus’ life is about more than just the details of his existence.  It points to some bigger, deeper meaning that goes beyond just the details of the story.

That’s what parables do.  They’re not just about the story, but about the truth - the gift - that lies beyond the story.

Seeds make for a good starting place for parables.  Seeds, like parables, contain more within them than is immediately evident.

This morning we heard two parables of seeds.  In the first one, the point seems to be that the seeds grow - not from the inspiration or direction of the farmer - but apart from any human interaction.  The farmer can play a role in the germination of the seed - in the sowing - but once that role is accomplished there really isn’t anything more that he can do.  He must wait for the processes beyond his control to take over.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like that.  We can have a role in it - in making space for it - but its flourishing requires forces that are beyond our control.

Moreover, we hear that this kingdom of God isn’t just like any seed, but like a mustard seed - a tiny seed that grows into a significant shrub.  Its yield is so much bigger than its initial product would ever suggest.  Though the tiny seed may have appeared insignificant, the shrub it produces becomes something big enough to cast shade, and to provide shelter for the birds.

The kingdom of God is like that - as is our role within it.  We take these seemingly tiny steps - we sow these tiny seeds - and there is no end to the wonder that can come of them through the mystery - the unimaginable gift - of God’s intervention.

I suppose Jesus could have said it that simply: the steps you take in bringing about the kingdom of God will yield unimaginable rewards.  The things you do, through the intervention of God, will produce more than the simple things themselves.

Perhaps it would have been easier if Jesus had just said it.

But like the children in the Sunday School, we all learn in a deeper way when the answers are discovered and discerned and not just simply heard or passed on.

A parable is a gift.

It’s a gift because it gives us the chance to work through the big questions of our faith and our relationship with God.

We’ll hear more parables in the weeks and months ahead.  I wonder what gifts we’ll find…  Amen.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

FCS: February House


Quick facts:
  • Show: February House
  • World Premiere Production, Off-Broadway
  • Date: Friday, June 15, 2012
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: June 17, 2012
  • Venue: Public Theater, Martinson Hall
  • Running time: 2:40 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Great!  It was a small house, seating about 250, with stadium seating.  I was about half-way back, center stage.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: The story of a group of artists - writers and musicians - living communally for a season in Brooklyn at the dawn of the second World War - based on real events.

My thoughts: I hardly know where to begin.  This was my weekend of seeing shows that I knew nothing about.  Both world premiere productions of new musicals.  These kinds of things can be a bit hit or miss.  It takes something of a spirit of adventure to give yourself over to a new work like this.

Tonight, that sense of adventure within me was richly rewarded!

February House, with music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane and book by Seth Bockley is one of the smartest, most emotional, and most enjoyable nights at the theater that I've had in a very long time.  I haven't had my sense of creativity so excited by a show sense seeing The Blue Flower.  While that show was creative in it's unique approach to musical theater, February House, though fairly traditional, is entirely creative.  The score is wrenchingly beautiful - intoxicating and enthralling with elements of jazz, blues, bluegrass, and folk.  The lyrics are witty and profound.  And the story as a whole - while not action driven, and never pretends to be - is driven by intellectual experimentation, as must have been experienced among the assembled characters.

It's the story of George Davis, who feels inspired to bring together some of the greatest minds of his generation, for an experiment in communal living.  He invites Carson McCullers, the southern writer, W.H. Auden, the poet, and Benjamin Britten, the composer.  Eventually Erika Mann and Gypsy Rose Lee join them.  Auden and Britten each bring lovers to join in the experiment.  Auden is with the young Chester Kallman, an aspiring poet, and the very closeted Britten brings Peter Pears, an opera singer.

And all of them bring lots of baggage.

I was first attracted to this show thinking how fascinating it must have been to have had such an assemblage of talent and intellect.  But pretty quickly I realized that the real driving force behind the show was not the star power of the residents, but their shared experience: they were the leading outcasts of their era.  They came together for mutual stimulation, for healing and escape, and for community in a world that pillaged their gifts but rejected their humanity.

The set, though fairly simple in design (designed by Riccardo Hernandez), was faithful to the experience.  The show opens with George (played by Julian Fleisher) singing a love song to a chair - a chair whose elegance and charm inspires for him a lifestyle.  And that chair - that opening focal point - stands on its own.  It isn't a part of any set.  But together, with all of the other mismatched bits of elegance around the house, reflects the mismatched bits of greatness of its residents.

February House is one of those shows that deserves a cast recording.  Moreover, it's audience needs it.  The music and lyrics are worthy of further study.  Many of the songs were beautiful and moving.  But all of them were brilliant.  If a recording were to exist, it would appear often in my playlists.  My favorite song of the evening was "Awkward Angel" - perhaps one of the most perfect love song I've ever heard, sung by Auden of his lover Chester.  That song alone would be worth the price of a CD.  But the entire score should be studied, pondered, and digested. (Update - Playbill is reporting just today that it IS getting a cast recording!  Kahane is reporting on his twitter account that the recording will happen on Monday, June 18th - the day after the production closes.  So I'd look for something like a late-August release date.)

The performers were all excellent, but two standouts were Stanley Bahorek in the role of Benjamin Britten and Kristen Sieh in the role of Carson McCullers.  While I never believed Sieh's approach to a Georgia accent, her singing was among the many highlights of this brilliant performance.  Her performance was intense and delicate.  When she whispered emotion she drew me ever deeper under her spell.  (Update - after a little more research, I've read one review in which the reviewer compared Sieh's portrayal of McCullers as a near-perfect reproduction of recordings that she'd heard.  I'll be the first to admit that the panorama of Southern accents - in their variations of race, class, geography, and time - is wider than most people understand.  So I'm willing to concede that the accent may be on target - it's just not one I know...)  Bahorek also sang beautifully.  His approach to his character was genuine and evocative.

Overall I was simply wowed by this show - from every technical and creative aspect, to the caliber of the performance.  My only regret in seeing it is that I waited so long.  It closes in just two days.  If I had seen it earlier I could have spread the word to the many people I know who would have appreciated it and perhaps even have had a chance to see it again!

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  If only I could!  But yes, yes, yes!
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Absolutely.  I have already heartily recommended it to a clergy colleague of mine whom I believe would appreciate it.  If it were around longer, I'd love to share it with my brother - who happens to be a huge Auden fan.
  • Twitter review: A brilliant and important show.  Smart, funny, and beautiful, in every way.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

FCS: Night of the Living Dead: the Musical


Quick facts:
  • Show: Night of the Living Dead: the Musical
  • World Premiere Production, Off-Off-Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, June 14, 2012
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: June 17, 2012
  • Venue: Richmond Shepard Theatre
  • Running time: 85 minutes (no intermission)
  • My seat: Fine.  It was a small, oddly shaped space - the house was in an L-shape.  I can't imagine that any seat would have been bad.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: There were times when I had a bit of a difficult time following what was happening - so forgive me if I'm a bit off - but it seemed to be the story of six individuals trying to survive a kind of zombie apocalypse.  I've never seen the movie, so I don't know if it's the same story line or not.

My thoughts: It's been a while - just over a month! - since I've seen a show, so it was good to get back into a theater!

My decision to see this show was entirely on a lark.  I have heard nothing about it, obviously I knew nothing about it, but I saw it listed on the TDF website and thought I'd give it a go.  TDF has a deal where you can see any Off-Off-Broadway show that they offer for only $9, so I figured what the heck?!

I did go into the show a bit "rolling my eyes"...  I had very low expectations.  I mean - this is the third "horror musical" I've seen in the past several months.  Silence! took a decidedly satirical approach.  Carrie, though received with mixed reviews, was sort of campy, but a wonderfully engaging experience.

I really had no idea what to expect out of a musical setting of Night of the Living Dead.

I must say, however, that I was pleasantly surprised.

In general, I felt that the story was a bit underdeveloped - as, perhaps, suggested by it's short running time.  Not that all short shows are underdeveloped, but I did feel that the characters and their interactions might have benefited from a bit more exploration.  It would have helped me to grow a deeper sense of investment.

But overall it was well executed.

The score, with music by Matt Conner and lyrics by Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith, was simply delightful.  There were interesting and surprising musical choices.  Most notably, being set in the "horror musical" genre as it is, the score was surprising lovely and sweet - surprising, but not inappropriately so.

The set design was sparse - in general the production seemed to have succeeded in the context of limited resources.  Despite those limitations, however, the lighting design, by Daniel O'Brien, was magnificent.  It was consistent in it's approach to storytelling, and was remarkably effective at drawing the eye across the limited, but oddly shaped performance space.  O'Brien capably delineated the spaces and scenes through his use of light.  I was impressed with all he accomplished with such limited resources.

The all-equity cast was strong.  Everyone performed well and with intense emotion.  Most notably were the men of the cast: Sean MacLaughlin (leading among them!), Angelo Rios (powerful singing!), and Aaron Ramey (consistently drew me deeper and deeper into his performance).  Yvonne Campbell, though perhaps a bit out of place in her role, led the women as far and away the strongest singer.

There's something really fun about seeing a show like this.  I didn't get a count, but I would have been surprised to learn that there were 20 people in the house.  Even so, I felt as if I got to see something of a special little secret.  It wasn't at all life-changing theater, but it wasn't bad.  As I said above - the story could use a bit of development.  A few more of those nice songs - perhaps stretching it out enough to need an intermission and to build some suspense - and the show could really be something interesting.  I hope Conner and Smith will keep at it and see where this show might go!

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Not right now.  But with a little more work, it would be interesting to see how it develops.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who? I brought a friend with me to the theater tonight because I thought he'd enjoy it - or at least be intrigued by it.  I think he did.  As to others...  I don't know.  Right now I think it's best suited for the serious theatergoer.  If you long to see anything, then you should definitely see this.  If you groan at anything less than a finished product of Broadway quality, this won't do much for you.
  • Twitter review: If you like to support new musical theater, this is a show that you'll enjoy supporting!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Math, Word Problems, and Logic



Pentecost 2B


In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So I have a bit of confession to make.  I hate math.  I always have, and I probably always will.

It’s not that I can’t hold my own.  I can do math.  I can make sense of it.  For years I’ve had to write budgets for churches and programs and read the even more complicated budgets of multi-million dollar organizations that I’ve helped to govern.  I can balance my checkbook.  I can even pretty quickly calculate a tip in a restaurant (even if I do tend to err on the side of rounding up).

It’s not that I can’t do math.  It’s not even really that I’m not good at it.  I just don’t like it.

The one exception I ever found to the “I don’t like math” rule, was word problems.  I always loved word problems.  I think putting the problems into real world scenarios helped me to visualize the math.  It certainly helped me to see the value that could come of the work - in a way that random sets of numbers never could.  For me, word problems gave math purpose.

A couple of weeks ago there was this silly post making the rounds on Facebook - maybe you saw it.  It said, “Every time I see a math word problem, it looks like this: If I have 10 ice cubes, and you have 11 apples, how many pancakes will fit on the roof?  Answer: Purple. Because Aliens don’t wear hats.

That seemed to be the way that most of my peers encountered word problems, but not me.  Rather than complicating a problem, to me, the words would give the problem structure and relevance.

My disdain for math goes back as far as I can remember, and continued even through college.  I would always try to take required math classes in college during summer school - again, not because I couldn’t do the work, but because I just wanted it to be over as quickly as possible, and summer classes didn’t last as long as regular semester courses.

As I moved toward graduation at LSU, one barrier that kept slowing me down was that one final math requirement.  Fortunately, as a liberal arts student, I had the option of getting that final math credit through taking an introductory course in logic.  Imagine - a math course that was all about word problems!  Numbers would never be a part of the program!

I loved that class.  I loved the grace of logic as a field of study: identifying fallacies, building premises that would lead to elegant, irrefutable conclusions.

Logic left the world in such neat, manageable packages.  All through the simple manipulation of words.

As much as I loved studying logic, it’s ironic that now I should find myself called to a vocation that so often and so easily eschews logic.

The practice of faith seeks to identify truth even when it’s conclusions don’t follow from the premises logically.  Think about it: how often does faith stand at odds with every premise on which we build our lives and our choices?  It happens so often that there’s even a recognizable pattern that we hear from Jesus about breaking down previously held logic.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

There’s a whole list like that - examples of Jesus taking the established logic of the world and asking us to toss it aside in favor of a new logic.

And this assault on logic is elsewhere, as well: think about death for a moment.  Every human experience of death is that it is final - the end.  Existence ceases.  That’s what our experience shows us.  Our faith, on the other hand, dares us to imagine beyond our empirical experiences.  Our faith challenges us to look beyond the premises that have been neatly laid out for us, and to find another, unforeseen conclusion.

We hear it today in the gospel lesson, yet again.  At the start of the lesson, the crowds had swarmed around Jesus and his disciples - such that they could not even eat!  The people had heard of this one whose actions seemed to defy all logic, and they wanted to see him.  The leaders of the people - the defenders of the established logic - had also heard of him, and they feared the affront to the establishment that he represented.  A human being with that kind of power meant one of two things: he was either of God or of Satan.  They couldn’t accept that he might be of God - it would challenge all that they knew to the core.  So they accused him of being of Satan.

In the face of these princes of the logic, Jesus answers in their own language - with logic: “How can Satan cast out Satan?  If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”  In other words: how can these good works be the product of embodied evil?

It’s a triumph of neat and orderly logic.

But surely we know this Jesus well enough by now.  He’s not going to let it go without challenging us and our own logic at least a bit…

As the story winds to a close, the people around him remain baffled - how can this man do these things?  It just doesn’t make sense!  Even his own inner circle - his family: his mother and brothers and sisters begin to question how it could be.  They wonder if he’s lost his mind.  They resolve to pull him out of the situation before things get too out of hand.

When the word gets to Jesus that they are looking for him, he turns logic on its head once more: ‘my family isn’t who you think it is.  It isn’t even who they think it is.  These - the ones who have stayed by my side and who have accepted the challenging world order that I’ve laid out for you - these are the ones who are really my family.’

“Purple.  Because aliens don’t wear hats.”

It seems to come from out of nowhere - a new way of seeing the world.  Again.

That’s the gift of the Jesus experience: in it, we take everything that we had taken for granted, everything that we thought that we knew, and find new ways of knowing.

That’s what faith is: a new way of knowing.  It doesn’t tie itself up into neat little arguments and conclusions.  It doesn’t have the clarity of numbers and solutions.  It’s a word problem that, at first glance, seems to mean nothing; but, through prayerful engagement, struggle, time, and more than a little bit of grace, begins to show truth.

There are those who say that faith is a weakness - that it obscures the answers and the facts.  Perhaps it does.  But it isn’t a weakness.  It a means by which we might break through the answers and the facts and the logic to see the deeper nugget of truth that lies beneath.

For the past several months of the church year we’ve been mostly consumed with festivals and other observances - Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity Sunday.  But now, for the next few months, we move out of the festival season into what the church calls “ordinary time”.  It’s the time between all the more specific times.  But it’s anything but “ordinary”.  It’s the time when Jesus does the work that he was with us to do.  It’s the time when he tears open all logic, and dares to share with us a glimpse of the truth underneath it all.

It might not seem, on the surface, as exciting as the past few months have been.  There may be times when it doesn’t have the kind of drive that we’ve come to expect from church.  But it’s a very important time.  I invite you into the journey.  Who knows what truth you might find?  Amen.

A consultation on Human Sexuality in Africa

My friend, Jim Naughton, just posted this video over at Episcopal Cafe.  It's the full interview of me on our experiences in South Africa, interacting with Anglicans from around the continent, and finding learning about each other through our shared and different experiences.

The full video (more than just me!) is here.

Take a moment to watch.  The work we did there was really important, and it was an honor to have shared in it!

Sunday, June 03, 2012

St. Paul's 2012 Annual Report

The 2012 Annual Meeting and neighborhood party!
This year we did our annual meeting a little differently.  Rather than the normal boring line of reports, each of the ministry areas of the church set up displays in booths in the parish hall and staffed them in conjunction with our annual neighborhood party that we hold at the parish to celebrate the end of the program year.  As annual meetings go, it was pretty great!

This is my "Report of the Priest-in-Charge" that I delivered today during worship - along with a few pictures here and there that I took during the festivities.

 
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This year we’re having our so-called “annual meeting” a little differently than we have in previous years.  Rather than gathering after church to listen to reports of the various activities and organizations and entities within the parish on a given Sunday, this year we’ve decided to merge the “annual meeting” with our annual, end-of-the-program year neighborhood party.

Rather than a meeting in the more traditional sense, as it’s happened in the past, we’re looking on our meeting as a celebration - a chance to show off for the entire neighborhood and for ourselves about all of the wonderful work that we’ve been doing, and all the successes that we’ve shared together in the past year.

There won’t be any oral reports after church at this “meeting”.  Instead, several leaders from the church will be staffing tables in the parish hall to talk individually about their work.  Voting for our elected officers of the parish will be at one of the tables, too.  Meanwhile, there will be food, and singing and dancing, and activities for the kids outside and all over the church grounds.

Since there’s no time for people to sit and listen to reports (who really likes that part of the annual meeting, anyway?!) I’ve decided to give my annual “Report of the Priest-in-Charge” here - as a part of our worship today.

In reality, it really makes a lot of sense that we have our “annual meeting” in the context of a party - a celebration - because we have a LOT to celebrate.  St. Paul’s Church is doing very well - perhaps better than it’s been doing in a really long time.

In the past year, our average Sunday attendance has continued to steadily rise.  Sure, it’s not rising as fast as I would like (I can be a little bit impatient that way), but the averages continue to slowly go up.  And in an era of the American Christian landscape when church attendance is rapidly falling all across the country, it would be a sign of success if we were even holding steady.  Going up is a HUGE sign of success.

Additionally, for special events, our attendance continues to rise.  Our Shrove Tuesday pancake supper this year drew even more participants than the record we set last year.  Dozens of children participated in the burning of the palms for Ash Wednesday.  Our World Music Concert series continues to draw significant crowds and serves as a wonderful outreach to the wider community.  On Easter Sunday last year we had 147 people join us for worship.  This year, our Easter attendance was 223!

Even more significantly, our commitment to stewardship is growing by more than any of us probably could have dreamed to be possible.  By the end of 2011, giving far exceeded what had been pledged and budgeted.  Moreover, pledges in 2012 are more than TRIPLE what they were in 2011.  You have begun to answer the call to provide for the needs of this parish, and we are in a much more stable position now than we have been in a very long time.  Thank you.

But while all of these numbers are important - and while the statistics show us that the church is strong and growing in a time when that’s a hard thing to accomplish - the truth behind the numbers is far greater than the numbers themselves.  They show us not just that people are coming to worship and events, and not just that people are giving more to the church.  The real thing that these numbers show is an increased level of participation in and commitment to the church.  They show us that you care and that you recognize just how important St. Paul’s Church is - to yourselves, and to the community at large.

When Bishop Beckwith was with us a few weeks ago, he was struck by the reality that the neighborhood association put together a volunteer group to paint our fence.  The thing he kept saying to me was, “They wouldn’t have done it if the church wasn’t important to them.”  “They wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t feel some sense of ownership and pride in the church.”  “They wouldn’t have done it if you weren’t making a difference in their lives.”

It’s true.  St. Paul’s is making a difference.  The neighborhood thanked us by painting our fence, but just in case you didn’t hear it, let me say it to you now: thank you!  You are the reason St. Paul’s is thriving.  You are the reason we are growing.  Our church is strong, and relevant, and we have a lot to be thankful for.  Most of all, I am thankful for all of you and all that you’ve done to make that possible.

But the work isn’t done.  On Easter Day, with the church packed more than it’s been packed in many years, Althea said to me, “It should be like this every Sunday.”  And you know what?  She’s right.  There are more than 2,500 people that live right here on our block of Duncan Avenue.  There’s not a reason in the world that we shouldn’t be able to get that kind of attendance every week.  You’ve done good work, but you can do more.

dancing in front of the rectory!
When was the last time you invited a friend to church?  It’s important to have professional looking marketing, and a thorough and easy-to-use website.  It’s important to advertise with fliers and brochures.  But none of that will ever compare to the power of a personal invitation.  You can’t rely on me or the members of the church staff or even the elected leaders to do that.  We all have to do it.  If we all brought a friend to church next week, we’d have double the attendance!  Think what we could do in terms of increasing our outreach to the community at large if we had that many more hands helping!  I know it can be a little scary - asking someone to come to church.  But I promise - if you keep doing it, it will get easier.  Think of all of the benefits that you get from being a part of this warm and loving community.  Don’t you know someone who could benefit from this place?  Isn’t it worth sharing?

When was the last time you looked around and noticed that someone was missing who should have been here, and given them a call to check on them? to let them know that they were missed? to let them know that they are a part of this family?  It’s not about being nosy, or about prying into people’s personal lives.  No one wants you to do that.  But it is about recognizing that we’re all stronger when we’re all here for each other.  And not just recognizing that, but sharing it.  Imagine if you were having a rough week and decided not to come to church.  What if someone noticed and called to check on you?  Not to try to make you feel guilty, but to let you know that you were loved.  Wouldn’t that feel pretty good?  We’re not just a congregation - a group of people who gather.  We’re a community.  We care for each other.  That’s what the Christian life is really about.

When I first interviewed to be your priest, I told the members of the Vestry a story about Nick Saban’s football coaching style.  He was once asked in an interview how he took a team that almost no one thought had much potential and turned them into National Champions.  His response was simple, but wise.  He said that he taught the players to stop looking at the scoreboard.  Instead, he tried to instill in them the importance of doing the very best they could in every play of the game.  Rather than worrying about the statistics, they should worry about the play right in front of them.  If they did that, the scoreboard would take care of itself.

He was right.  It did.

And it has for us, too.  We’ve been working hard to do our very best at every play that’s been put before us.  We’re not perfect.  We drop the ball every now and then.  But we’re getting a lot better.  And the proof is in the pudding, as they say.  The scoreboard is starting to take care of itself.

In the First Lesson today, we hear the moving story of Isaiah agreeing to be called.  He had a vision of God being glorified by all the angels.  In the presence of such glory, he was moved to be a part of it also.  God said, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah responded, “Here am I; send me!”

In the past year, we’ve seen a glimpse of the glory of God here in this place.  At least I know I have.  I hope you have, too.  But the work is not finished.  The glory of God can still be shown farther and truer and deeper.

God is calling you to be a part of it.  I pray that we will all answer with the readiness of God’s servant Isaiah, and be willing to share glimpses of that glory with a world that is aching for it.  We have such profound gifts to share with the world.  Gifts that come only from God.  We need only agree to be called.

God is calling: Whom shall I send?  Whom shall I send?