Friday, November 16, 2012

Calmly Plotting the Resurrection

In my part of the world, it is time for the final yard clean up before winter arrives.  Raking, blowing  and bagging leaves, trimming or pulling out plants, such are the tasks.  The years form us to know that these are indeed endings, but we also know that they are done in anticipation of another spring a few months on, so we also plant bulbs  Advent is impinging, even for those who would not know or think to say so.

I recently came across a moving expression of this by E.B. White, in a bit from the Introduction to his wife Katherine's "Onward and Upward in the Garden," found in "Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season," (p.16) .  White writes of his wife planting bulbs:

"As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her  bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion -- the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection."

Schmidt, Gary D., and Susan M. Felch, eds. 2004. Autumn: a Spiritual Biography of the Season. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

This Preacher Needs Help

If you have not come across this some other way, these are brief video reflections I post on the weeks I am preaching about some of the challenges of the upcoming Sunday's scripture readings.  Feel free to subscribe on YouTube or find them on the Cathedral website or Facebook page.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Angels, Animals, and Saints (and Public Liturgy)

There is just over a month between the feast of Michael and All Angels (Michaelmas) on September 29 and All Saints Day.  Early on in that month comes St. Francis Day (October 4), with the Blessing of Animals in many places.  I have taken to thinking of these weeks as the time of Angels, Animals, and Saints, lifting our vision and imagination to a wide and deep view of creation and beyond, blazing spiritually like the fall foliage in this part of the world.  It begins our movement toward the end of the liturgical and then calendar year.

The Blessing of Animals is another of the ways churches "take it to the streets", not unlike Ashes to Go.  It always generates interest and enthusiasm beyond the regular church going crowd and, in a small city like Erie, usually brings the news media.  I wonder if it isn't another of those signs of the resurrection in the ruins of Christendom?  For this event, the sheer joy of God's creation, bigger than our thoughts and words, looms larger than the troubles of the day.  Affection abounds and wildness gets a foothold in our (reasonably) ordered ways.  Faith, hope, and love are evident all around.  Whatever the challenges to what is happening in our churches in these times, the Blessing of Animals is an example of vitality on the margins where church and culture meet.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Back On...and some Summer Signs of The Resurrection from the Good Sisters

Summer is coming to its end and it is time for me to get back in the saddle.  So I'm reflecting on some signs of the Resurrection I saw in recent weeks .   It is hard not to be aware that there are some challenging conversations going on between the Roman Catholic Bishops and the religious communities affiliated with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.   These matters are of interest and concern to me, although it is not my place to render public opinions about them.

What I can do, however, is give thanks for some of the work done by Sisters here in the city of Erie.  Just a few weeks ago, the annual Italian Festival was held in the historic Little Italy section of town.  My wife and I never miss it.  Not only does Sharon have a family connection to the Italian immigrants who gave the neighborhood its identity and name, but some of our friends and neighbors are involved in leading the festival.  Whatever it was like in its older heyday (and I often wish I could time travel to see that), it has become a challenged inner city area.  Among those who are working hard to revitalize the neighborhood, not as it was, but as it could be, are the Sisters of St. Joseph, through the Neighborhood Network.

More recently I took part in a Take Back the Site Vigil.  These are occasions when Sisters from the various communities in Erie gather folks to places in the city where murder has occurred.  With Scripture readings, prayer, and blessing, the site is reclaimed from violence for the purposes intended by God.  It was my humble honor to be there.  Here is the scene as I approached the corner:

And a report from the Erie Benedictines with a link to more photos on

I am deeply grateful for the courage and witness of these Sisters, and for their constant hospitality toward me.  They are trusting in God now, without dwelling in the past or being anxious about the future.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Firewater (And a Word about Communion Without Baptism)

Before the memories of Eastertide and Pentecost fade, I want to say something about Baptism as I poke around the ruins.  It is unsure what practices, structures, and institutions of Christendom will persist through these and coming days.  But the core things will for sure.  And the well spring is no doubt the great renewal of Baptism which is unfolding before us.

From the margins of "getting the kid done" (hopefully in private) to something more and more in the center of the Church's life, Baptism is like new water gushing up among the ruins.  Or maybe, remembering Pentecost, firewater.

It has been said that while the first fruit of the Liturgical Renewal was the return of the Holy Eucharist to the center of worship on Sundays, the deeper impact will come as we re-receive Holy Baptism.  I would say that we are still early in the time of the renewal of both of the principal sacraments.  But it is our time and it is an exciting time.

The hotly debated topic of Communion without Baptism will eventually be resolved as we deepen our practice and understanding of the Sacraments on the other side of Christendom.  Meanwhile, I would recommend no official change in policy while we live with some ambiguities in practice (perhaps stretching the concept of the "baptism of desire").

But the more significant "meanwhile" is the bubbling up of new life among us, through Baptism (and Baptismal Renewal).  I have said many times that we never come closer in this life to seeing the Resurrection with our own eyes than we do when we gather to the waters of Baptism.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cathedrals -- After

Back from the North American Cathedral Deans Conference in Denver.  And it was a good one.  St. Johns Cathedral in Denver is a large, lively and active place and people. Traditional worship thrives as does a Sunday Evening Liturgy called the Wilderness which goes beyond the (to me) tired and worn out "worship wars" of contemporary vs. traditional.  It seeks to be deeply traditional, but using today's technology and sensibilities.

The speakers were outstanding, ranging from matters of mission, worship, architecture, the traditional Orthodox view of a cathedral, new/urban monasticism, stewardship and funding, and the challenging views of Diana Butler Bass regarding Christianity after Religion.  But in every presentation, one central theme kept coming into focus -- spiritual authenticity.  It wasn't planned, it was just real, and we all know its true -- spiritual authenticity is the longing and challenge of these days, in the church and beyond, for others and for ourselves.

All the things that make many cathedrals hopeful places remain -- resources of places and people that will likely be sustainable and fruitful now and in the future.  But the one thing needful is a challenge and a possibility not just for cathedrals but for all kinds of congregations and all kinds of ways folk are seeking to live lives of faith and meaning.  The one thing needful is about deepening our responsiveness to God at work in our world and in our lives.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Cathedrals -- Before

Back on track after some time off for a little thing called Holy Week and Easter Week.

Tomorrow we go to the North American Cathedral Deans Conference which meets this year in Denver.  It is actually more than just a "Deans" conference as it fully includes spouses and partners.  A particular gift is the fact that it by definition brings together folks from the U.S.A. and Canada, and often guests from beyond.

In the ruins of Christendom, many cathedrals are doing pretty well.  The steady increase in attendance in the English cathedrals has been widely noted.  And while the experience in North America ranges from cathedrals that are closing to some of the largest congregations, my overall impression is that most of our cathedrals are lively places of worship and mission, blessed with financial and facility resources, with communities large enough to provide a decent congregation, and with a unique role in city and diocese including a certain freedom that comes from not being constituted as part of the political structure of the church (however much cathedral folk may be involved as individuals).  For all of these reasons and more, cathedrals may well weather the storm we are going through and provide both refuge and leadership in the days ahead.  There is some irony in this as what could be more a symbol of Christendom than a cathedral?  Still, in larger and smaller versions around North America, this seems to be so.  It is so in Erie, PA.

We will meet in Denver under the theme "Cathedrals in the 21st Century: From Mother Churches to Mission Centers."  An interesting group of speakers will address the topic, including Diana Butler-Bass.  I will offer some reflections afterwards.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

At last it ringeth to evensong

Be the day weary or be the day long, at last it ringeth to evensong.

This very Anglican sounding proverb appears in many places, including at the stake in Fox's Book of Martyrs.  I can't remember where or when I first heard it, but since then, I have not forgotten it.

Last Sunday (Mid-Lent, Mothering, Refreshment, Laetare -- take your pick), we sang Evensong at the Cathedral.  We don't have the resources or the support to do it more often than a few times a year, but Lent 4 is one of them.  Our choirs do a fine job and have experience singing the service at home and on Choir Trips/Pilgrimages.  It is often well attended and appreciated (as it was this time).  I am always taken with the surprise of delight by those who have never been to Evensong before.  Evensong is certainly alive and well in many Cathedrals and Colleges, in "Quires and places where they sing (1662 Prayer Book)," and even on a weekly BBC broadcast.  I think there is a reason for this.

Stephen Hough wrote a piece for his blog in The Telegraph not long ago entitled, "Do not touch me: the wisdom of Anglican thresholds."  It includes this thoughtful passage:

"Evensong hangs on the wall of English life like an old, familiar cloak passed through the generations.  Rich with prayer and Scripture, it is nevertheless totally nonthreatening.  It is a service into which all can stumble without censure -- a rambling old house where everyone can find some corner to sit and think, to listen with half-attention, trailing a few absentminded fingers of faith and doubt in its passing stream.

Most religious celebrations gather us around a table of some sort.  They hand us a book, or a plate, or speak a word demanding response.  They want to "touch" us.  Choral Evensong is a liturgical expression of Christ's Nolle me tangere -- 'Do not touch me.  I have not yet ascended to my Father (St. John 20:17).' It reminds us that thresholds can be powerful places of contemplation; and that leaving someone alone with their thoughts is not always denying them hospitality or welcome.

I believe there are lots of folks among us who want such a threshold.  Many belong to our churches, and this may be one (of the many) reasons we don't see them so much.  Some of them may be more active members of our congregations, and some days or some seasons we may be fairly near them ourselves.  Evensong is one gathering place among the ruins of Christendom and I thank God for it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The B-I-B-L-E

"The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that's the book for me..."

Somewhere back there I learned this song.  I doubt it was in the Episcopal Church.  There we were more likely to sing a song of the saints of God and to learn the four colors of the Church Year than the four Gospels.  So I probably heard it before my family became Episcopalians, or in a venture to another congregation for VBS or something like that.

Nonetheless, the Bible did function in very important ways in my Episcopalian upbringing.  The Lectern and its Bible were impressive (and now Gospel Books even more so).  The scripture readings were included in the Prayer Book then and it truly can be said that more Bible was (and is) read in Episcopal Churches than in those congregations where the preacher selects a few verses for a sermon.

But perhaps most important was the way biblical phrases, imagery, and narrative were embedded in the prayers and rituals of the Book of Common Prayer.  Scripture passed deep into the heart this way, perhaps more enacted than merely read.  I don't regret it one bit.

But it is a healthy thing when Episcopalians want to read and study the Bible outside of liturgical practice.  And there is a good bit of interest in this these days, more so than in the past.  Whether it is studying the Sunday Readings, or praying the Daily Office, the Bible Challenge (to read the Bible in a year), E-100 (100 key passages), or various kinds of book and study groups -- all of this is healthy and good (more Bible Study links here).  I even find real joy in seeing our cathedral kids learning the books of the Bible or memorizing verses -- they actually line up to do this in our Sunday School!

As so much of Christendom, of Church as we have known it, collapses and dies before us, certainly all of these ways of encountering the Word of God in Holy Scripture will be part of the way forward.  The story will continue as God's People arise in old and new ways in the days ahead.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Takin' it to the Streets

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday.  As usual, we had three liturgies, with the noontime and evening one shared with our neighbors from Luther Memorial Church.  Not as usual, the cathedral clergy took turns for one-hour blocks  from 8 to 5 in the Cathedral to be available for walk-ins looking for ashes and/or prayer.  Many came throughout the day.  Even more not as usual, we joined the growing movement called Ashes to Go.

We distributed Ashes on the streets outside the Cathedral.  On 6th Street, we face the Erie County Courthouse, and on 7th Street, we are the middle of the Gannon University Campus.  Both places provide good opportunities to offer ashes.  I took the early time on 6th Street.  Bishop Sean Rowe took that site during the noon hour.  Evan Clendenin, our Curate, took the 7th Street side at both times and he was joined by Shawn Clerkin who is on the Gannon faculty for the early time.  It was a great experience all around.

I was struck by the deep gratitude of many who received ashes as they were going to work at the Courthouse or who had business there.  It didn't at all come off as easy convenience, but rather as something  truly important for people who probably wouldn't get to a full liturgy.

Among them I particularly think of one woman who came up to me saying, "What a great idea!"  Then she asked, "Are you Catholic?"  I spared her the 45 minute explanation she really wasn't asking for and just answered, "I'm Episcopalian."  Then the Spirit stirred within and I added, "But we're all human, and that's what the ashes are about."  She said, "I agree with you," and gratefully received the sign of our literal common ground.  As I poke around the ruins, looking for signs of resurrection, I wonder if sharing ashes in the church and on the street might not be one.

We got lots of good and friendly media coverage, as happened around the country.  Perhaps this kind of attention won't last too many years as it will cease to be a novelty.  But for now, we can be grateful.

Here is a link to coverage by the Erie Times and another one.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

And Where Are You, God? -- A Theology for Poking Around

Where is God among the ruins of Christendom?  I understand Christendom to mean a total, universal system by which Christianity is held to be absolute truth, absolute in a way that leads to a sense of privilege for the Church in all areas of life and culture, from theology to politics.  At best, it produced stunning art and music, social and educational developments, and reconciling purpose in people's lives.  At worst, it produced things like the Inquisition and the Crusades, wars between conflicting Christian groups, and the marginalization of people of other faiths (or none).  It reached its peak in Europe many centuries ago, although pieces of it washed up on North American shores.  It has been over for a long time, but awareness of its demise and grief over it have not yet been fully realized.

At a recent question and answer session, someone asked Brian McLaren what we can say to people for whom even the word "God" is so damaged as to be inaccessible.  This is very much a question from the ruins of Christendom.  Brian mentioned a writer named Richard Kearney, and especially Kearney's book Anatheism, as resources for exploring this question.  Kearney is a philosophical theologian and Anatheism, while not technically difficult, will probably appeal most to those with an appetite for this kind of writing.  Let me summarize my reading of it for those who will likely not read it or for those who might be intrigued.

Anatheism literally means "God again."  It is God "again" after both theism and atheism have run their course.  For many of us theism and atheism both have their place and we can't resolve them with one "winning" nor  can we get back before the atheist critique and just simply believe again.  Reviewing theologians like Bonhoeffer and Ricouer, and writers like Joyce, Woolf, and Proust, Kearney identifies how the possibility of meeting the sacred comes anew, challenging us over and over to "wager" that life is lived in relation to the Holy (or not).

For those who wager "yes," this is a call to return to and practice our traditions deeply, deep enough that we seek the mysticism that is at the wellspring of religion, but which is greater than religious definitions.  We then can live our "wager" with both commitment and humility, and we can meet those who are different from us with hospitality rather than hostility.  It is in such meetings that God is to be found now.

Whew!  I am almost out of breath trying to condense this.  But I do think it provides an insightful theology for poking around the ruins.  At least it is a theological bicycle I can ride for a while.  God is in the ruins and seeking and finding God there will point to what comes next.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ancient and (Post) Modern

Are we stuck in a stand-off of "traditional" vs. "contemporary?"

After the leave-taking of the old Seabury chapel and campus (see last post), we drove to the new site and blessed its spaces, including the chapel.  From a funeral to a baptism, so to speak; death, burial, and resurrection.

The new chapel is, as yet, without Altar and Lectern (and  a stand for the Font -- the bowl was used for the blessing).  I had a chance to chat with the artist who is making them, David Orth. I asked him about the widely noted attraction of traditional worship for younger people, often to the curiosity, if not confusion, of middle age and older folks who feel much of their life has been an exodus from the way things were when they were young.  Some of this may be normal generational differentiation, but maybe not all of it, and maybe not the heart of it.

David reminded me that what we usually take as "traditional" is really not all that traditional and is often Victorian.  Perhaps "traditional" is really as modern as "contemporary," one's yin to the other's yang.  The draw of the young to things traditional may be in good part a turning toward the only alternative they see to a faith and practice that seems too light and thin for life today.

Is "traditional" the best that is available for a desire to find solid foundations or deep roots?  Is the longing actually for what is authentically ancient, yet expressed in our ways, in our time?  That is what David is attempting with the furnishings for the new Seabury chapel.  I think it is Peter Rollins who says something to the effect that what we should seek is not the Early Church but the Event which brought the Early Church into being.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Funeral for a Chapel

Last Friday, on the Feast of the Epiphany, I was able to participate in the formal leave-taking of the Evanston campus of Seabury Western Theological Seminary, the seminary I attended and graduated from in 1980, with its Oxbridge inspired buildings, including a Harry Potter style Refectory.  A final Eucharist was held in the Chapel of Saint John the Divine, a liturgy that included prayers of thanksgiving for what had been and hope for what will be.

It must have been hundreds of times that I entered that chapel -- to pray, to sit and think, to just sit.  It was central to my formation and to that of many others.  But now it was time to let go.  Afterwards, we got in our cars and drove out to Seabury's new location on the sixth floor of the national offices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  As Seabury Next, the seminary has positioned itself for a nimble responsiveness to the changes and opportunities of today and the future.

The last several years at Seabury saw many ups and downs, twists and turns, trying to find ways to revitalize the older seminary model -- even a grand plan calling for a major capital campaign that just didn't have traction.  Finally the painful decision was made to sell the campus, let go of faculty and other staff, change programming, and find a new location to fit the new direction.  And after the struggle and grief, there is now a real sense of possibility and newness.  Time will tell where it will go, but having followed all this closely over the years, I am both proud and inspired by the courage and boldness of those who led these efforts, decisions, and transitions.

It is the best of what I mean by "believing in the resurrection of the dead and looking for signs of it on the other side of Christendom."  There will be many moments and opportunities like this around the Church in the coming years -- coming very soon.  May there be more and more people and places that face the facts and move on to a new hope and possibility.