23 May, 2006

The 2nd-coolest thing that happened on Friday

The coolest thing that happened on Friday was that my sister graduated from college. Margaret Ann Horany was awarded (or will be, after her summer internship) the degree of Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology, Health Promotions, and Fitness, with a minor in Biological Sciences, Cum Laude, from the University of Texas at Austin.

That was Friday at noon. Closely followed by the 2nd-coolest thing to happen that day.

Friday morning, we held end-of-school-year worship for our local parish school with the staff and teachers. I gave a short sermon, in which the names of my elementary school teachers were invoked with a certain degree of thankfulness. Three hours later, at graduation, one of those teachers walked right past my nose. I had no idea I would ever see her again in my life. Dr. Dorothy Lambdin now teaches at the University of Texas.

Nobody asked for a copy of the sermon, but I'll violate my self-imposed rule this time.

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Sermon at Eucharist at the end of the school year, St. Thomas Episcopal School, May 19, 2006.
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Nora Garcia
Sharon Black
Bettye Lumpkins
Nancy Wade
Elaine Rushing
Elaine Peterson
Susie Jenkins
Sharon Wilson
Dolly Lambdin
Lucy Nazro

These are names which will mean nothing to you. But they mean everything to me. These are the names of my teachers and principals and chapel leaders, from kindergarten through fifth grade.

Some of you know that I attended an Episcopal school as a child. St. Andrew's, in Austin, through the 5th grade. And then we moved away. I remember 25 children in a class, two classes per grade, but that may not be right. It felt small. I felt known, and loved.

What you saw when you looked at me was an enthusiastic but slightly odd child. My mother and father showed up to drop me off or pick me up with smiles on their faces, they dutifully came to field day wearing their school-logo T-shirts. What you didn't know was that my family was in the process of going through a divorce and remarriage, and at home I was not the nicest child in the world, particularly to the step-parents. Not because they were bad people, not at all. In fact, they were both wonderful people, but people who had taken my parents away, people whose very presence cemented the brokenness of the world.

At school, from my teachers, I found nothing but love. Nothing but encouragement. It might have helped that I was an exceptionally bright little boy. I made straight A's all the way through 5th grade, with a single B in long division that marred my otherwise spotless elementary school resume.

Never, never underestimate the impact of love on a child.

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In today's reading from Acts, Philip encounters a court official from Ethiopia. This is a man who's the court advisor to the queen, the treasurer of the country. One of the best and the brightest the country had to offer, and probably a little boy who made straight A's in school. When Philip runs up to him, he is reading. Searching. Searching to understand the world, searching to understand himself, searching to understand the God he is drawn to across a thousand miles of desert. Philip's question is gentle, and is exactly the right one: do you understand what you're reading? And, in a flash of the profound and the blindingly obvious, the official says, "How can I, unless someone guides me?"

Isaiah 53 is a puzzling passage from late in the work of the prophet. My servant, in whom I delight, says God, will be despised. Viewed in hindsight, viewed from the foot of the cross of Jesus, the description of the suffering servant in Isaiah sounds like someone we know. But viewed from somewhere else, it's not easy to tell who the prophet is talking about.

And, just as before, Philip meets him where he is. Starting from the text he's reading, he begins to tell the story of Jesus. And somewhere along the way, Philip saw in the court official's eyes the same flash of insight that you have seen in the eyes of your students, the same moment when the world opens up and becomes larger and more beautiful than before.

Never, never underestimate the impact of love on a child.

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This is the end of a long year. We're all tired, all ready for a break. Well, I'm here to tell you that being tired because you've spent your year pouring yourself out into the lives of God's children is a good thing. A noble thing. You've earned the right to be tired.

When members of the church began to come to me and tell me that they thought I should be a priest, my thoughts went back to memories of school, memories of people who loved me without condition and wanted the best in the world for me. People who gave, sacrificially, of their lives, knowing that they would never see the full return.

And I thought: I can do that.

Never, never underestimate the impact of love on a child.


17 May, 2006

Ashram Cats

When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship.

After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship.

Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru's disciples on the religious and liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.

--"The Guru's Cat" from The Song of the Bird by Anthony De Mello

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A dear friend of mine got in trouble this year at seminary. No, not theological trouble. No, not academic trouble.

She wore red shoes to church.

As an acolyte.

For those of you who don't tie up this particular cat outside your sanctuary so that God can hear you, Episcopalian liturgical ministers tend to wear funny dresses to church. There's a long white one called an alb (or a cassock-alb), and a black one with a white thing worn over it called a cassock and surplice (or cota), and a red one called a chimere--we seem think it's even more stylish and hip to give them funny names than to just wear them and call them dresses.

The funny dresses are one of my favorite pet ashram cats. They were originally designed to keep people warm during long, cold, rainy, English winters, and I put one on every Sunday for worship. In San Antonio in the summer, the temperature reaches 110 in the shade. So we air-condition the building where the church meets. And I sit there and sweat in my dress, and wonder whether Jesus thinks we've gone quite mental.

Another of my favorites are candles. At my current parish, there are two on the table (or altar) where I preside. There are also, mounted on the ceiling, a set of theater-style stage lights. Lights so bright, in fact, that when I step up to the table, I can't see the back of the room because of the glare off the white cloth on the table (the student who fussed at my friend would want me to call the cloth a "fair linen"). I've taken to casually turning the lights down when it's my turn to preside at the liturgy, so I can see who I'm worshipping with. (I'm not kidding that I can't see, by the way. A couple of months ago, somebody fainted in the back, and I never saw her) Then I went on vacation, and when I came back, it wasn't a sliding rheostat on the table spotlights, it was a standard off-on light switch. oops.

But maybe my favorite of all is the gospel procession. Long before America was colonized, there were no electronic sound systems, and the gospel book was carried out into the congregation before it was read so that all could hear the good news of Jesus. But if we're going to have a parade, we have to carry the cross on the stick, and carry the torches so we can see where we're going...
At my current parish, we do indeed do a gospel "procession." A cross, two torches (placed where they wouldn't help even if the church was dark), and a fourth acolyte to hold the Bible while I read from it. This requires, of course, that four different families get up early and get to campus early so their kids can put on their funny-looking white dresses, so that we can do the gospel procession. But here's the best part: the building is in a cruciform shape, meaning it looks like a cross to the birds flying overhead, and the table where the Bible rests is more or less in the middle to begin with. So the gospel procession moves....wait for it.....

three feet.

The congregation in California that encouraged us to go be priests takes many of these things far more casually, but the cats are still there. (Maly, if you're reading this, I still say a gospel procession three steps to the left so you're at the top of the stairs is goofy looking. Just read the gospel from the dang lectern.)

If we were making up liturgy from scratch, we probably wouldn't do any of those things. In fact, to deliberately overuse a metaphor, you can't swing a dead cat in an Episcopal church without hitting an ashram cat. We do them because we value the long tradition of the church at worship, because we value the sense of being connected to something far older and wiser than we are, something that transcends our experience and lengthens our perspective. At our best, we're honoring the Holy Spirit speaking through the centuries of Christian worship that preserved the good news of Christ Jesus for us.

Now, back to my friend.

She's a second-year student at seminary, sponsored by the same congregation that sponsored me. At every seminary, there are people from literally all over the world, who come together to worship on a very regular basis. And you want that to go smoothly, so to establish a certain amount of orderliness in what could easily be a chaotic mess, you agree on a general standard of 'this is how we do it here.' At its best, it's a relatively short document giving guidelines so that all can get beyond the "how do we do this" mechanics and focus our hearts and minds on worship.

and then sin begins to happen.

The reality of seminary life is that the rules are complicated, because trying to learn all the liturgical traditions is a complicated business. At my seminary, the customary was over 60 pages long, single-spaced. At the beginning of every year, the first-year students have to learn the traditions of that particular place. And, unfortunately, observance of the customary often means that the focus is on the rules, on the method of worship, rather than the God who we worship.

And when my friend wears red shoes to chapel, the first thought that goes through people's minds isn't "swell shoes, Julie." Nor is it to giggle at her as she gently pokes fun at tradition. Nor is it to notice, then to notice that it irritates us, and then to ask ourselves why we give a damn and whether it's important. Instead, what often happens is that we think, and then say, "that's not in the customary," or "we don't do it that way." And that's part of the environment in which future clergy are trained for leading worship.

Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us.

When it was my turn to do chapel duty, I often found myself peering through the customary trying to make sense of it. My first time to preside at worship was at choral morning prayer (a service I'd be willing to wager a week's pay you've never participated in if you haven't been to a seminary), which was a harrowing experience just because it was unfamiliar, and I had to lead, and I had to sing solo in public...and afterward one of the third-year students criticized me for not following the customary on a couple of details that (trust me) you wouldn't have noticed. And this was a friend of mine. I damn near ripped his head off.

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Now, here's why this drives me crazy. The western world is, ever more increasingly, a culture that is post-institutionalized religion. To Julie's and my generation, the goofy dresses aren't beautiful tradition, they're just plain goofy. At best, since you see them in church, in the company of other unexplained symbols, they get lumped in with the transcendent. At worst, they get in the way. They are a stumbling block to proclamation of the gospel in this generation.

Julie knows this. Her kindling passion is to proclaim the transforming grace and love of Christ Jesus, and she gets impatient with people and things that get in her way. In that impatience, she rubs people the wrong way. (Including me.) But she's right a lot more than she's wrong, and when she speaks, I listen.

Lenten discipline, or lack thereof

Now that Lent is over (okay, we're five weeks into the Easter season), some thoughts on Lenten discipline.

This year, my Lenten discipline was to write every day. In past years it's been to say the daily office, or something similar. The most valuable discipline so far was last year, when I found and fed a homeless person every day.

But back to writing.

Part of the trouble I've been having with sermon writing is trying to say the perfect thing. I read books of good sermons, and watch good preachers on tape, as a way of getting better (that's the theory, anyway). And then I compare myself unfavorably, and try harder, and can sometimes paralyze myself with overthinking.

So the discipline for Lent was twofold. First, don't even begin to try to write Sunday's sermon until Thursday. I did the exegesis ahead of time, and let the readings wash over me, but I wouldn't do any writing, not even scribbles, no walking around and talking it out. Just go with the first thought (okay, maybe second or third thought), say something as well as I can, but don't even try to give the sermons without notes unless they came off my fingers in easily memorable format. Do a second draft, to clean things up, but not whole rewritten drafts on second ideas.

I compare this to being a kid and tinkering with my batting stance. (There will be a whole chapter about this, someday, in my long-contemplated opus one on baseball theology, but for now, you get the short version.) When you're a kid, you tinker with the stance all the time. It's part of the fun of the game. I would try to hit like Terry Puhl for a while, then switch to the Jose Cruz stance with the bat waaaay up over my head, then the Pete Rose stance, belt over almost double. Same task, different starting point, different feel, different result. And as a new preacher (at least until my 100th sermon), I feel like I should be tinkering around. This was the equivalent of two-strike hitting: see and react, protect the plate, hit the ball where it's pitched.

The second, and related, part of the discipline was to write something down daily. Preachers see sermons in rocks and trees and kids at wal-mart. We just do. It's part of the vocation. If you've talked to me for any significant amount of time, odds are good you've heard me say "that'll preach." Problem is, I tend not to write those thoughts down. And many of them would make good homilies, or short thoughts. But for Sundays, I tend to want to expand ideas, give the congregation fully-developed thoughts.

So I resolved to discipline myself to give those little thoughts away, not mentally file them for later, and to write them down as a method of prayer. This is why some people noted an increase in posting frequency--or, more commonly, accused me of blogslacking when Easter arrived.

How did it go, you ask? Well, good and bad. I almost always slip on Lenten discipline, no matter what it is. But daily writing got exhausting. And I often had trouble getting the intuitive idea from my head to the blog, usually because it required explaining the context and situation, which would take too long for too little reward. And the Lenten sermons weren't bad, just not my usual style.

I wonder if the congregation even noticed, but it felt different to me.

05 May, 2006

Mr. Spock goes line dancing

Okay, I've been accused of blogslacking. In my defense, I was out of the country, and was quite deliberately unplugged. No phone, no email, only one page of daily international news.

The good news is that we were on vacation for two weeks after Easter. The bad news is that most of the household got really sick with a stomach bug when we got home.

That's right, a two-week vacation. I've never in ten years of married life heard these words escape my spouse's lips: "I need a vacation." So when I heard them, my response was something on the order of, "yes, dear; where would you like to go, and can I come with you?" She wanted to go on a cruise, so that's what we did. Down the west coast of Mexico, with bookend stops in San Jose to see our god-child and compadres. I took the new camera along. Watch it, or I'll send you eight gigabytes' worth of pictures of beach. And birds. And seals.

One of the surreal things that happened on the trip was that one of our fellow passengers was an almost dead ringer for Leonard Nimoy. I did a triple-take that first day. That's where you glance, and then stop and look again, and then stop and take a really hard look because it just might be him, before you finally decide it's really not.

The first day, Mr. Not-quite-Spock (as I began to refer to him in my head) was wearing a dinner jacket and dark turtleneck, the same kind of outfit Nimoy wears in interviews and things. Dignified, gentle smile. But then, of course, as the cruise wore on, I got many more Spock glimpses, and every one was jarring, out-of-place:

Mr. Spock goes line dancing, in blue jeans, boots, and straw cowboy hat.

Mr. Spock in a tuxedo.

Mr. Spock in a deck chair, wearing a white spa robe, reading Tom Clancy.

Mr. Spock eating a burger and fries by the pool.

Mr. Spock in the hot tub?!?

I'm certain that this is going to work its way into a sermon someday. I can think of several ways it might go. In fact, that's one of the happy results of some vacation time for me: when I read gospel texts, the fireworks of multiple images and multiple things to say and allusions and connections are once again going off in my head.

But for today, I'll just leave you with the "Spock in the hot tub" image and let it work its own little brand of mischevious magic.

04 May, 2006

A preacher in the bleachers: sacrifice flies

It's well known that I grew up playing baseball, and that many of the ways I see God interact with human history, many of the ways that I see God's people interacting with each other, are things that I learned on the sandlot.

Sometimes, I see the world through baseball lenses.

For the uninitiated, a sacrifice fly is one of the ways to score in baseball. It requires deliberate action by at least two players. One is the baserunner, the other the batter. To complete a sacrifice fly, the batter has to hit the ball long and high (generally one of the easier ways to hit the ball). The runner waits on third base until the fielder catches the ball, then runs home ahead of the throw. The reason it's called a sacrifice is that the batter is out on the play, deliberately foregoing the ability to run the bases and score in deference to helping a teammate score instead.

The early church was characterized by love for one another. The book of Acts tells of great sacrifices made on behalf of the poor, careful consideration for the welfare of widows who were unable to care for themselves, and the inclusion of the outcast in the community.

Great love includes sacrificing for each other.

Great love allows the other's gain to be considered more important than your own.

And in the sacrifice fly, the whole team scores.