A Weekly Commentary by the Rev. Poulson Reed
Rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church & Day School
A Weekly Commentary by the Rev. Poulson Reed
Rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church & Day School
September 21, 2017 No Hands but Yours: Making Time for Faith-In-Action
Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people. (Saint Teresa of Avila)
When we think of the short form of our mission (Pray, Learn, Serve, Connect), most of us find some of these essential Christian practices to be easier than others. Some of us are drawn to prayer, for example, but find connecting difficult. For others, Christian service comes naturally, but learning does not.
One of the things we learned about our All Saints’ community during the RenewalWorks survey last year is that many of us find it challenging to find time to serve others. All Saints’ offers numerous opportunities to put our faith into action off campus through our connection with local mission partners like ICM, Andre House, and Habitat for Humanity. A number of our members do so, with great commitment. But for many others, life seems too busy. Our hearts are willing, but our hectic schedules do not always cooperate.
And so, one of the recommendations from our RenewalWorks team was to organize simple ways to serve those in need during our Sunday morning schedule. This Sunday, we begin with the first monthly service opportunity, at church, during the education time from 10:10 – 10:50 am. All ages, from our children to our seniors, will work together to help our neighbors across the street at Maryland Gardens.
These monthly Faith-In-Action opportunities will give all of us the chance to fulfill Jesus’ call to reach out to those in need in a fun, intergenerational way. Hopefully, for many, this will be the beginning of a deeper involvement in Christian service.
If you’re looking for other meaningful ways to give back with other church members, that don’t require a great deal of time, consider joining our booming new Prison Ministry. And mark your calendars for an All Parish Service Day on Saturday, December 9 out in our community. Registration for the Service Day opens this Sunday.
God nourishes us in prayer, worship, and learning, not only for our own benefit, but so that we might be the hands and feet of God in the world. Even the smallest gestures, done with great compassion, can make a difference.
From time to time, I will begin adding some brief notes at the end of my weekly reflection, to share other things of significance on my mind, that are not related
to the topic of my reflection.
• This Tuesday night, we had the first of our Shoulders Down conversations. Twenty-one people from All Saints’ and the community gathered for non-persuasive, small group conversation on this month’s topic “Does America Have a Promise to Keep?” I found it wonderfully refreshing and hopeful. Our next conversation is Tuesday, October 17 at 6:30 pm.
• One of our most important ministries at All Saints’ is our funerals. We put a great deal of staff and volunteer time into making sure that they offer solace and
hope to the bereaved, though much of that work is behind the scenes. I’m officiating at five funerals in the month of September, and each one is an honor, as we give thanks to God for individuals, each of whom was unique and beloved.
September 14, 2017 The Community of Hope and the Promise of Modern/Ancient Ministry
I have often said that one of the best surprises I received when I arrived at All Saints’ eight years’ ago came when I offered to take the pastoral care emergency phone. The church was short on money, and I was the only full-time priest, so I assumed I would be holding the phone that people call for after hours pastoral help. Instead, I was told that here, Community of Hope volunteers carry the emergency phone. I’d never heard of that role being done by volunteers before.
It’s not that a priest is not always on call (there is – we take turns monthly), but the volunteer answers the calls first, and, If a priest is needed, the volunteer calls
them. This might seem like a subtle distinction, but it is important, because a large percentage of calls to the emergency phone either aren’t really emergencies (“what time are Sunday services?”), or can be handled by a well-trained volunteer (“do you have money for rental assistance?” or “would you pray with me?”).
Since well before I arrived, the Community of Hope at All Saints’ has been an equal partner with the clergy in our shared pastoral ministry for our church members, and many more beyond our walls. This group of volunteers goes through a rigorous vetting and training process, and then is sent out to visit and (usually) take communion to those who are not able to attend church.
Typically, our clergy visit people in the most serious situations: serious illness or injury, emotional distress, and near or at the end of life. But those who are not in
crisis but are not at church either are visited by Community of Hope volunteers, sometimes for years, developing close pastoral bonds. In a church our size, we could not offer the compassion we do for our many members and others without the whole of our pastoral care team: the clergy, the Community of Hope, our Health Ministries Coordinator, the Daughters of the King, the staff, and others.
Sometimes the most effective ministry isn’t done by one of our trained people, but comes in the heartfelt visit of one member to another. Recently, I was visiting a member at their home, a few days after they had been discharged from the hospital. I was so pleased to hear that several friends from church had already visited. That is the ideal: friends, trained volunteers, and clergy, all working together to help those in pastoral need.
One of the things that makes the Community of Hope so effective is their grounding in Benedictine spirituality. Like a monastic order, they support one another in their prayer and in their pastoral work (“ora et labora” as the Benedictine saying goes – prayer and work). And they have spread the mission of the Community of Hope by training and supporting volunteers from other churches. Most recently, on September 9th, our chapter hosted a well-received Community of Hope retreat with attendees not only from All Saints’ but from four other local churches.
This Sunday at 11am, we will commission our own Community of Hope volunteers, and thank them for their vital ministry of compassion. Increasingly, the future of ministry will, I believe, look like the Community of Hope: modern, by being shared among clergy and laity, and responsive to the changing needs of people; and ancient, by being grounded in community and in disciplined prayer. This is God’s promise: that all things, including ministry, will continually bring together the best of what is new, and what is old, by God’s grace.
Interested in learning more about the Community of Hope? Visit the website of Community of Hope International: cohinternational.org or talk to Sue Kapp, Erin Oney, or any of our All Saints’ Community of Hope volunteers.
September 7, 2017 Welcoming Our New Director of Music
I am excited to share with you that I have called Joseph Ripka to be our next Director of Music. His first Sunday will likely be November 26th. Joey comes to us most recently from Calvary Episcopal Church in Stonington, Connecticut, where he is the Organist and Choirmaster.
In his six years there, Joey has grown the Adult Choir in numbers and quality, and begun a chorister program for children that now has 18 young people who sing at least every other week. The adults and children traveled to the UK a year ago for week-long residencies at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland and Lichfield Cathedral in Lichfield, England. In addition, Joey was one of the founders of the affiliated Calvary Music School, which now includes over 100 students from the community taking music lessons.
Along with his track record of growing music programs and musical opportunities for adults and children, Joey is an accomplished organist. He won first prize at the Dublin International Organ Competition and several other competitions, and has upcoming recitals at the Washington National Cathedral and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York.
Originally from Minnesota, Joey has degrees from Saint Cloud State University, the University of Kansas, Oberlin Conservatory, and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. As important as his sterling credentials are his strong faith, and his kind and friendly demeanor. When I spoke with Joey’s current Rector, he described Joey as the finest church musician he has worked with in 40 years, and an equally fine person and Christian.
Coming with Joey will be his wife, Erin, an acclaimed professional violinist and accomplished music teacher. They perform together as the Ripka Duo (http://www.josephripkaorganist.com/ripka-duo/). Erin and Joey have a delightful daughter, Clara, who is six years old.
Our music search received over 40 applications from all around the country, and several international applicants, as well. Among those applicants, the quality was superb, making the decision a challenging one. Throughout the summer, I was greatly blessed to work with an outstanding Director of Music Search Advisory Committee, whose members were: Lowell Adkins, Pat Castle, Sheryl Guernsey, Laura Lawrie, Earl Simmons, Irene Tseng, and Don Morse (a friend of All Saints’ who is the Minister of Worship and the Arts at Central United Methodist just south of us). With a professional church musician, three choir members, a composer, a supporter of our school Chorister program, and a member of our Friends of Music, we had an all star team searching for Scott’s successor!
The three finalists whom we identified all met with a range of people at the church and school, played an organ audition, and directed members of our Senior and Chamber choir. I want to thank everyone, both volunteers and staff, who were involved in making this search as thorough as it was.
As we prepare to celebrate Scott Youngs and his many accomplishments on October 1st at 11am, we can know that our music ministry will be in good hands for the years to come with Joey Ripka as our Director of Music, and eventually a new Music Associate, as well. We look forward to welcoming Joey, Erin, and Clara to All Saints’ in November.
“Shoulders’ Down": An Invitation to Respectful Conversation
We know that our nation is in a period of intense partisan division. Increasingly, we see those with whom we disagree politically not as fellow citizens to be respected, but as enemies. At the same time, All Saints’ has a wonderful history as a non-partisan, “big tent” church where people of different political and theological views can be friends, respecting one another and seeking common ground in our faith.
For some time, we’ve prayed, thought about, and discussed among our Vestry and others what All Saints’ role might be in helping to bring people together, mending just a few of the rips in our civic fabric. Some parishes, who are more united on one side, feel called to political advocacy. But what can we do, as an ideologically, politically, and theologically diverse community?
One step will be the formation of our new Diversity and Reconciliation Committee, established by our Vestry. As this group gets up and running this fall, it will help us think about our calling as Christians to help reconcile people across differences within our church and beyond, with God’s help.
As part of this work, we are partnering with a new organization called “Shoulders Down” (shouldersdown.net) for two experimental community conversations. The name “Shoulders Down” comes from the perception that when we are defensive, our shoulders rise, whereas when we are open and listening, our shoulders are relaxed and down.
Open to both All Saints’ members and those from the wider community, these events will gather those who wish to participate for structured, non-persuasive conversations where we share our stories around a set topic in small groups of 6-8 people.
On Tuesday, September 19 from 6-7:30 in our Saint Barbara rooms, our conversation will be: Does America Have A Promise To Keep? The questions will guide conversation participants to reflect and discuss what it means to be American for them and how well or not they feel America is meeting its promises to each of us and the world.
Each group will have a trained facilitator and participants will seek not to debate, or to convince, but simply to share with one another their perspective, and to listen respectfully as others do the same. By the end of the evening, likely no one will have changed their mind, but hopefully the participants will have deeper understanding of and respect for those with different views.
After two of these evenings, one in September and one in October we will reassess with “Shoulders Down” to see if a continued partnership makes sense for everyone involved. If this kind of reconciliation work interests you, come and join us this month and next, as we seek to heal our hurting nation, one conversation at a time.
August 24, 2017 Come Together: Faith Webbing and Intergenerational Connection
Of the four, core Christian practices central to our church’s mission (pray, learn, serve, connect), I think the hardest is to connect. We live in an individualistic culture: many of us don’t know our neighbors, community and civic participation are at an all-time low, and loneliness is pervasive.
Our families are over-programmed and over-scheduled, but under-connected, and technology often substitutes virtual relationships and experiences for real ones. Even at church, which ought to be a focal point for deep connection, many of us tend to worship and then leave, stressed out, with other things to get to.
The early Christians thrived, in part, because they were “thick” communities. As we read in the book of Acts, they not only prayed and worshipped together. They also ate together, shared with each other, and helped those in their midst with their needs, large or small. The early Christians spent real time together, not only formally at church but informally in homes, building genuine friendships.
As we have been planning our upcoming program year at All Saints', one point of emphasis has been to foster opportunities for intergenerational connection with each other. Church programs can’t make connection happen, but we can put people together in ways that make it more likely, for those who are interested and who put in the effort.
This Sunday at 9am, at our summer adult education time, our Children, Youth, and Family team, assisted by our 3rd graders, will be presenting an exciting, new tool for connection: faith webbing. Faith webbing is described as "a deep, purposeful, intergenerational approach to connecting youth to faith through a congregation. Its premise is to intentionally identify relationship voids in young peoples' lives and then to fill those voids with members from within the congregation.”
In other words, faith webbing is a tool for connecting our youth with intergenerational faith mentors, and a useful way of thinking about connection among Christians in general. Come learn about it on Sunday, or if you can’t make it, ask one of our associate clergy, Joie Baker or Holly Herring, for details.
August 17, 2017 Charlottesville, the Eclipse, and our Common Smallness
Charlottesville is a special place to me. I was a student there at the University of Virginia, and this summer I returned with college friends to celebrate our 25th reunion. And so I was sickened by the racism and violence by white supremacists there last week. As we prayed last Sunday in church, my hope is that this ugly incident will lead, by God’s grace, to deeper understanding and genuine racial healing.
We talk often of the diversity of opinion that is respected in our Episcopal tradition, but there are limits, and some beliefs and behaviors are clearly beyond what is acceptable. Meaningful discussion and debate can take place over the role of civic monuments and how we both remember and learn from history. But there can be no tolerance of racism and racial hatred either in our nation, or in churches (many white supremacists claim to be Christians).
As Saint Paul reminds us, our differences are nothing compared to the gift of unity that God gives us: “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
During this week of despair, following the events in Charlottesville, I’ve found comfort and even hope in a coming event. This week, on August 21, a rare occurrence will take place in the skies, as I’m sure you have heard. For the first time in 99 years, a total solar eclipse will pass from one coast to the other, from Oregon all the way to South Carolina.
Although we in Arizona are not on the prime path for the total eclipse, we, along with the whole continental United States will experience most of the sun being obscured by the moon. At 10:33am on the 21st, we will see the maximum coverage here, about 66% at its peak.
When you think about a solar eclipse, it is a remarkable cosmic coincidence: because the sun is roughly 400 times the size of the moon, but the moon is roughly 400 times closer to the Earth, the sun and moon appear about the same size when they line up just right. It is no surprise that eclipses have often been significant events that affected history.
On May 28th, 585 B.C. according to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Lydians and Medes were in the midst of a great and bloody battle, the culmination of a ten years’ war, when the noonday sky went dark.Both armies took the eclipse as a divine sign, laid down their weapons, and made peace, right then and there.
The August 21 eclipse of 1560 inspired young Tycho Brahe to become an astronomer, one of brightest ever. His work on telescopes and theories of planetary motion paved the way for his assistant Johannes Kepler’s breakthroughs on orbits and planetary laws.
And Albert Einstein’s revolutionary theories of space/time found concrete evidence during the eclipse of May 29, 1919, to the astonishment of the scientific community.
Eclipses have always mesmerized and inspired us. As a priest and not a scientist, part of what I appreciate about the eclipse that is coming, and the attention it is getting, is this theological point: it is good sometimes to be reminded that we are small.
We often live as if we believe ourselves to be the very center of the universe. We can become so focused on ourselves: on what will satisfy us or make us happy, on our ambitions and dreams, on how to be better than others, as if the world revolved around us. And all of that is certainly understandable, to a point.
But events like the eclipse remind us of just how small we are. For all our human accomplishments over tens of thousands of years, we are a blip on the radar screen, mere minute and transient lifeforms amidst the sweep and swirl of the cosmos.
Even our planet itself is but a grain of sand on the beach of the universe. As one of our Eucharistic Prayers puts it: “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.”
This sense of smallness is good, not because it diminishes us, but because it sparks in us a sense of wonder. It is not that some of us are small, and others large, but that all humans are equally small. As we watch the eclipse, we ought to feel wonder, amazement, and gratitude at this cosmic, divine show taking place before our eyes.
Perhaps that sense of wonder, of our common smallness, can help to bring us together as equals, however briefly, amidst our divisions. We are, all of us, huddled together, as tiny creatures on this terrestrial ball. The universe is too big for us not to look after each other.
August 10, 2017 On Not Majoring in the Minors: Orthodoxy, South Carolina, and Disagreement without Enmity
This week I read an insightful piece by the theologian James K.A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College and Editor of Comment magazine. On his blog
(forsclavigera.blogspot.com), in a post called "On orthodox Christianity: some observations, and a couple of questions" Smith criticized those who use the term “orthodox" in doctrinal disputes, except in matters related to the Nicene or Apostles' Creed.
It has become the habit of some to argue that matters of morality, especially sexual morality, are questions of orthodoxy, of the utmost importance (“orthodoxy" means "right teaching"). Smith clarifies that we can talk about the traditional teachings of the Church, but if we use the term “orthodox," it can really only properly refer to one of two things: the Orthodox Churches (in which case the “O" is capitalized), or essential matters settled by the Creeds (such as the divinity of Christ, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Second Coming etc).
Although Smith is not an Episcopalian, his view is a very Anglican one. One of our strengths in the Anglican tradition and Episcopal Church over the centuries has been our commitment to being solid at the core of our doctrine and flexible at the edges, leaving room for big questions and discussion. And so we continue to hold firm to the Creeds, reciting them every week in worship, while leaving space for respectful disagreement on any number of theological or political areas outside of the center. As Episcopalians, we must always be cautious when anyone, on the left or right, says that any matter not contained in the Creeds is settled and beyond disagreement, questioning, or discussion.
One reason why Smith’s piece caught my attention this week in particular is that, around the same time, the property disputes in South Carolina between The Episcopal Church and a group of Anglicans who left the denomination while attempting to take church properties, reached a major milestone. The State Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled in favor of The Episcopal Church, declaring that the breakaway Anglicans must return most of the properties, worth some $500 million (since by our Church laws, groups of people can leave our denomination, but cannot take buildings with them).
There may yet be another appeal, but after many years and millions of dollars spent, the case seems to be nearing its conclusion. This whole controversy in South Carolina could have been avoided and kept out of the courts had there been a clearer sense that the debates over morality, however important they were, were not core, creedal disputes over orthodoxy, but matters over which reasonable, faithful Christians can and do disagree.
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina would be far stronger in members, dollars, and witness to the Gospel today had the schism there not occurred. Of course, the departed Anglicans would say that these matters of morality are major issues of faith, and so would many on the other side, and they may both be right. The situation in South Carolina was complex, with plenty of blame to go around. But it is a shame, for everyone, that those issues could not have been worked out in good faith as brothers and sisters in Christ, respecting the dignity of every human being, without resorting to separation and the courts. No one can really be said to have “won" this bitter battle, given the damage done.
One thing that worries me about our national culture at the moment (and it creeps into the Church sometimes) is the tendency to "major in the minors," that is, to insist that what used to be disagreements (sometimes vehement) among friends are now insurmountable obstacles that make us enemies. We are rapidly losing our ability to disagree, while staying respectful and remaining in relationship with those who differ from us. A recent national poll demonstrated this well as it relates to our politics: over the last several decades, Americans feel about the same about our own political party, but our views of the other party have become far more negative.
I think of a Facebook friend of mine who, during the election, posted that anyone who was considering voting for a particular candidate should alert him, and he would unfriend them. I, for one, aspire to a range of friends with quite different views on all kinds of things, and I treasure a diverse church like ours in which a host of people with varied perspectives and beliefs can worship together, side by side, in the pew. Diversity of viewpoints can be messy, and even painful. But it can also help us grow.
August 3, 2017 Join Us On “The Path"
One of the lessons we learned from the experts at RenewalWorks when they helped us measure and explore our spiritual practices at All Saints’ last year, is that regular engagement with the Bible is a key indicator of spiritual depth and growth. Churches whose members regularly read Scripture in any way beyond simply hearing it in worship have a stronger, more vital faith.
It doesn’t matter how one engages with Scripture: through daily Morning and Evening Prayer, by reading the Sunday lessons in advance on our website, by keeping to an ambitious plan like reading the Bible in a year, or digesting it slowly by reading a page a day – any method will enhance one’s spirituality and help one better apply Scriptural lessons to daily life.
But sometimes we need encouragement. As with exercise or any healthy habit, it can be difficult to take on a new practice on one’s own. And so, for this coming program year at All Saints’, inspired by our RenewalWorks report, we will encourage each other by reading "The Path” together.
“The Path” (available from Forward Movement in paperback in both adult and children’s editions) will take us through the “greatest hits” of the Bible, the most important stories of the Old and New Testaments, using the same translation that we use in worship (the NRSV).
Each story will come with reflection questions to help us apply the passages to our own circumstances. By the end of our program year, the goal is for everyone in our church, of all ages, to have a basic familiarity with the Bible narrative, the story of God’s love for the world, and our place in it.
How can you help? We are asking everyone to buy a copy of “The Path” in either the children’s or adult version. We are conveniently offering them for sale for those who sign up. Feel free to round up or add on dollars, which will enable us to offer copies to those who cannot afford them. And any profits at the end will go to support our Children, Youth, and Family Ministries.
By having your own copy, you will be able individually or as a family to read through the stories at home. And then, on Sundays starting after Labor Day, both children and adults will explore the stories during our education time at 10am for the whole of the coming program year.
It used to be assumed that most people, and certainly almost all Christians, had a basic familiarity with the stories of the Bible. These days, that is no longer true. But rather than lamenting that sad fact, we are going to do our part this year to fix it, by teaching ourselves and our children the most important stories ever told, while having fun doing it. Come join us on “The Path"!
July 27, 2017 Why Do We Pray for the Sick?
Last week there was an outpouring of prayers and positive thoughts for Senator John McCain following the news that he is fighting brain cancer. Not only in Arizona, but across the country, we have (for the most part) been reminded of what is still good in people and even in our politics, as so many across the political spectrum have expressed support for him, and appreciation for his heroism, character, and dedicated service to our nation.
At All Saints’ last Sunday, we prayed for Senator McCain during our Prayers of the People, as I’m sure most churches in Arizona did. I know that many of us, myself included, will continue to pray for him, as he and his family walk this challenging part of his life’s path. But why do we, as Christians, pray for the sick, and what should we expect when we do?
When it comes to praying for the healing of others, the best Biblical examples come from the gospels. On several occasions, people come to Jesus asking him to heal someone close to them. For example, there is the centurion who asks Jesus to heal his servant. “Say the word, and my servant will be healed,” the centurion asks, and Jesus does so (Matthew 8:5-17).
But does prayer for someone who is sick actually make a difference, in our modern day? I would assert that it does, though not often in straightforward ways. I believe that God hears all our prayers, and I suspect most of us have prayed fervently for the healing of someone close to us. But the impact can be hard to see, except in retrospect, and even then is easier seen through a spiritual rather than a worldly lens.
When I was training to be a priest, I spent a year as a full-time hospital chaplain, and it was there that I learned the difference between curing (which involves the body only) and healing (which is more holistic). As a chaplain, I was often called into terminal medical situations (cancer, heart attack, stroke, car accident, gun shot wound), and only very rarely was there a miraculous “cure.”
But much more often, there was healing of the spirit, or in the family. On a number of occasions, I saw God working amidst a medical crisis to heal a family rift, give someone a new sense of purpose, or bring peace and a holy death, confident of the life to come. Several scientific studies have shown that prayer does positively affect medical outcomes for patients, but much of the benefit of prayer, in my experience, goes beyond the physical.
Part of what I experienced during my chaplaincy is that it is important what we are praying for. If our prayer is narrowly for a bodily cure only amidst a grave diagnosis, then what will it mean for our faith if that person dies? But if we can have the courage to pray not merely for a physical cure but for God’s healing, God’s love and peace, and for God’s will to be done, then we prepare ourselves for a wider range of possibilities.
Our prayer is not going to change God’s mind – that’s not how prayer works. But prayer can change us, can open our hearts. And I do believe that, somehow, prayer unleashes a positive spiritual force that affects things for good, often in mysterious ways.
I sometimes tell the story, from my chaplaincy year, of the man who came into the ER following a major heart attack. We prayed together, with his family. And just then, his brother, from whom he had been estranged for years, was rolled in with a much less serious condition, an injury. Before the first man died from his heart attack, he was able to achieve reconciliation with his brother, and a family wound was healed.
May we always have faith that our prayers for others are heard by God, and are answered, though often in different ways than we might hope or even imagine. To pray is always beneficial, for the recipient of our prayer, and for everyone involved. God brings life out of death and light out of darkness, and there is no situation, however difficult and painful, into which God cannot bring some kind of blessing, for those who have faith in Him.
July 20, 2017 20 Years of Harry Potter
This summer marks twenty years since the publication of J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Since then, Rowling’s Harry Potter universe has exploded, with books, movies, a play, and now more spin-off movies. Rowling has created a cultural phenomenon.
But the relationship of Christianity to the Harry Potter franchise has always been a bit bumpy. Many evangelical Christians have condemned the series from the beginning because of the witchcraft depicted in it, seeing it as promoting the occult.
But some other Christians have seen in the Harry Potter books, if not exactly Christian beliefs, then at least values compatible with the Christian faith. For several
years, a friend of mine who is an Episcopal priest taught a class at Yale Divinity School (my alma mater) on Harry Potter and Christian theology. Still other Christians have been essentially neutral on the matter: seeing no great spiritual benefit but no harm either in Harry Potter, finding the books and movies to be
engaging entertainment, nothing more and nothing less.
I find myself somewhere between the second and third camps. I’ve enjoyed the Harry Potter books and movies (I remember the excitement of a new Harry Potter book coming out, and the groggy satisfaction of reading late into the night to finish it). And my children adore them, both as books to read and as audio books, serving as our usual entertainment in the car, at the moment.
I don’t find myself as deeply moved by Harry Potter as I was by Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which was my obsession as a young teen. But there is much that I appreciate about Rowling’s writing, especially her creativity in developing a fully realized imaginary world, rich with detail and subtle humor. Rowling mostly avoids religion, although there are some undeniably Christian themes, especially in the last book of the series. I don’t consider Rowling's depiction of magic to be particularly troubling to my faith, any more than I find the Jedi spirituality of Star Wars to cause me concern. Christians, like everybody else, ought to be
able to appreciate a wide range of entertainment without getting too easily offended.
Indeed, if I dig a bit beneath the surface, there are some aspects of Harry Potter that I find quite relatable to Christian belief and practice. I’ll highlight three in
particular: mystery, friendship, and mentors.
Mystery. Harry Potter is a magical world of spells, charms, and mystery, all invisible to the muggle (non-wizard) eye. As sacramental Christians, we too believe that there is much more to the world than meets the eye. God’s creation is charged with meaning, filled with divine light.
And in the sacraments, we experience ordinary things made sacred by the Holy Spirit. Sacraments aren’t magical, but the ideas aren’t that far apart. One of the most important attributes of sacramental Christianity is the way it re-enchants the world (which is really just helping us see more clearly the wonderful things that God has made and done).
Friendship. One of my favorite aspects of Harry Potter is the importance of the friendship among Harry, Ron, and Hermione. In an isolating culture, we need real friendships more than ever. The Church in general ought to play a larger role in helping this happen, for Christian friendship is one of the most helpful tools in living a holy life in a complex world.
Mentors. In the world of Harry Potter, there are many mentors, who guide young Harry through the dangers of growing up. Although his parents were tragically killed, Harry is surrounded by a host of loving, wise figures: his godfather, teachers, and other adults. At its best, the Church is an environment in which children grow up with lots of inter-generational encouragement, and wise mentors for their faith life.
I, for one, am grateful for the past 20 years of Harry Potter. Christianity grows stronger when it is able to find common cause with aspects of the wider culture that are compatible with our values, even if they are not a perfect match. Since the Harry Potter franchise shows no signs of decline, hopefully we can enjoy and learn from it.
July 13, 2017 Welcoming and Reverent: On Bread, Wine, and Gluten-Free Hosts
About a week ago, the Roman Catholic Church stepped into a hornets' nest when it released an official directive through the Vatican. It wasn’t about one of the usual hot- button topics in Catholicism, but about something different: gluten-free altar bread for the Mass.
In a letter to bishops at the request of Pope Francis, Cardinal Robert Sarah of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments stated that the bread for the Mass cannot be gluten-free, although it can be “low-gluten.” Soon, the headlines were blaring: “Vatican Outlaws Gluten-free Bread for Communion” (BBC), and my personal favorite: “Gluten-free Bread for Holy Communion is Toast, Says Vatican” (The Guardian).
As is so often the case with controversies, this one was largely overblown, stirred up by the media, and (in some instances) by anti-Catholic bias. The reality is that this directive from the Vatican was nothing new, but was merely a confirmation of long-standing rules about the Eucharist. Gluten-free altar bread has never been allowed in Roman Catholic churches.
The Roman Catholic Church is quite specific in its requirements for the bread and wine for sacramental use, namely that the bread be “unleavened, purely of wheat” and the wine “from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances.” It is not surprising, therefore, that they have great specificity on the question of gluten-free altar bread.
While it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church is being unwelcoming or unkind to those with Celiac disease and others who require gluten-free food, it is helpful to remember that Roman Catholics have held to their precise rules about the Mass for 2,000 years, and believe that even the smallest details are central to a reverent, valid sacramental rite.
As Episcopalians, not surprisingly, we take a different view on the topic, though not as different as some might think. At All Saints’, we typically use bread and wine that are made specifically for sacramental purposes. Our wine, Mont La Salle Altar Wine, is a pure California port approved for the Eucharist. Our bread, Cavanagh Altar Bread, is made of nothing but pure wheat flour and water (holding to the ancient tradition).
Our bread and wine are just like those used in Roman Catholic churches (and probably are used by some of them). We are extremely reverent with the bread and wine once they have been consecrated, consuming any host that falls on the floor, quickly wiping up any spills, and diligently keeping the consecrated and unconsecrated elements separated (with the reserved sacrament stored with dignity in the church’s aumbry, with a lit candle overhead).
Where we differ from our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters on this topic is in our use of gluten-free (not just low-gluten) hosts, which we freely offer to those who request them, using the yellow card in the pews. We also provide a small, separate chalice with wine that has not touched our regular hosts. Our gluten-free hosts are made of rice flour, potato flour, potato starch and palm fruit oil (and so they are also soy and dairy free).
Why do we offer gluten-free bread while Roman Catholics do not? It is not that we are nicer or even necessarily more welcoming (which is a subjective determination), but that we have a slightly different sacramental theology. Ours is a more mystical and less mechanistic theology of the Eucharist.
Like Roman Catholics, we believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ (a doctrine called “the Real Presence”), but we do not require a more exact understanding of how this happens (as in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation).
For Episcopalians, it is enough to say that the elements are transformed into the sacrament, and that it is a divine mystery. As the old joke goes, the parishioner said to the Episcopal priest: “I don’t have trouble believing it is the Body of Christ, but I do have a hard time believing it’s bread."
It makes sense, then, that we take our Eucharistic elements seriously (you’d never find a loaf of raisin bread on the Altar) and hold to the ancient traditions in most
things, while leaving some room for the Holy Spirit to guide us into new, more expansive understandings (like offering gluten-free hosts to those who need them).
This is consistent with our theology in general in the Episcopal Church. We can be flexible in minor matters (as we see them) as long as we are faithful in the major ones, in order fully to welcome all into a life-changing encounter with our crucified and risen Lord.
If you hope you’ve heard the last of debates about the minutiae of the sacramental elements, just wait! The Episcopal Church is in conversation with the Methodists about sharing clergy and churches, which brings up the inevitable question: wine or grape juice? Suffice it to say that at All Saints’, and probably at most if not all Episcopal churches, we will continue with wine. But will the Methodists join us? And does it matter?
There is an underlying principle in all of this that is actually quite important: we are called, as Christians, to be both welcoming and reverent. Sometimes there are
tensions between those two ideals that need to be worked out. But they are both integral to our faith, for they reflect our love for God, and for our neighbor.
July 6, 2017 Saint Paul, Psychology, and the Limits of Will Power
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15)
One reason why we know that the Bible is "the Word of the Lord," inspired by God, and not just another book, is that it continues to speak universal wisdom afresh to each generation. Take, for example, the seventh chapter of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans (the chapter we are studying this Sunday at 9am, some of which we also have as a reading at two of our weekend services).
I suspect all of us have been in the situation that Paul describes, in which we know the right thing to do, and yet, inexplicably, do the wrong thing. To do the wrong thing when we are not sure it is wrong is much more understandable, but to do something wrong, fully aware of the damage it will cause to ourselves or others, is altogether worse and more confusing.
The selfish actions that we hate but do anyway can take any number of forms: cruel words to one who is vulnerable, sabotaging a co-worker, theft, betrayal, indifference to injustice, or the lesser offenses, like failing to be fully present to those around us, wasting our energies on unimportant things, sloth or gluttony.
This human weakness is present, it would seem, at very early stages of our development (an argument in favor of Saint Augustine’s theory of original sin, though that’s a topic for another day!). Our three year old will look at his mother or me, momentarily processing his decision, before going ahead and punching one of his big brothers. He knows it’s wrong, but I can see him delighting in the transgression, testing the boundaries.
The field of psychology is fascinating on the subject of will power. I am no expert, but I read on this topic whenever I can, because of its intersection with faith. For a time in recent years, much was written on the idea that will power is finite. We have more of it in the morning, and less of it as the day goes on, both because we grow tired, and also because of “decision fatigue.”
The more tired we get (or stressed or hungry), and the more decisions we have to make in a given day, the theory goes, the more likely we are to make poor decisions later, for example losing our temper, or giving in to the plate of cookies at 4pm. We know we ought to eat only one, but our will power is worn down, and we surrender to what we know is not good for us.
Lately, I’ve been reading more about the wisdom of removing temptation from our personal environment. If we don’t fill our pantry with store bought cookies, we are more likely to save our cookie eating for the special occasions when we take time to bake them. There are apps that can be set to keep our tablet or smart phone shut down for periods of time, if we need to be focused on another task or (even better) on our loved ones.
As we talk about in Lent, the more we can replace our spiritually unhealthy habits with healthy ones (internet or video games with reading or prayer, negativity with positive comments, envy with gratitude and generosity, work time with family time etc.) the better able we are to resist temptation and build a Godly life. But our ability to control our environment is limited (we may replace the cookies with apples at home, but what about the plate of them that appears in the break room at work).
The Good News of the Christian faith is that, whenever our will power strategies fail (and they do, from time to time), we can understand our situation spiritually. For Paul, the reason why we do the very thing we hate is sin, which controls us when we least expect it (“if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me”).
We do our best to live meaningful lives, and follow Jesus, focused on God and our neighbor, but when we fall short, we know it is not an individual failing so much as a natural, human one. All of us sin, for selfishness is part of our humanity. It is a consequence of our God-given freedom, and the flip side of our enormous capacity for generous good.
In life, we will exceed our wildest expectations in our good deeds, and we will fall crushingly short, but as Paul teaches us, through Jesus Christ, we are forgiven if we truly repent, freed from sin, and given a fresh chance continually, not as something we earn or deserve, but as our loving God’s free gift of grace.
June 29, 2017 As One Who Serves: Children, Human Dignity, and Service
Jesus said: "I am among you as one who serves" (Luke 22:27).
This week, 39 children and youth, supported by 14 youth mentors, and 16 adult mentors have been serving those in need all around the valley through our annual All Saints’ Kids for the Community program. I’m of the belief that this is one of the most important ministries we offer, both for the tangible help given to others on behalf of All Saints', and for the impact such service has on our young people.
Much has been written in recent years about the damage on children of “helicopter parenting,” the natural tendency to overprotect, spoil, and insulate from failure our offspring. Out of love, it is all too easy as parents to be too involved, slowing our children’s growth into resilient, self-giving people. Parenting that hovers too close and gives too much can lead to young adults who are selfish, fragile, ungrateful, and ill-equipped to learn from disappointment.
Ironically, in the time of Jesus the problem was the opposite. In the Roman empire, children were not spoiled; they were ignored. Children were considered less than human, and were meant to be neither seen nor heard. Wealthy parents (especially men) spent as little time with their children as possible, leaving much of the childrearing to their slaves. Unwanted babies were routinely abandoned outdoors, and physical punishment of children was often abusive.
And so, when Jesus, building on the Jewish tradition, considered children to be of equal value to adults, with inherent human dignity, worthy of love and even admiration, he was stating a radical view (“let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” - Matthew 19:14).
Today, our role as parents and grandparents (and the Church’s role) is meant to find a healthy middle ground that loves and values our children as precious gifts from God, teaching them right from wrong and imparting discipline and character, while giving them the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them.
In our mentoring, one of our most essential responsibilities is to teach them the value of generously serving others, which is at the core of Jesus’ teaching to love God and our neighbor. A young person who learns early on that they are meant to help others and treat them with dignity is more likely to develop a strong sense of gratitude, one of the keys to a fulfilled and meaningful Christian life.
All Saints’ Kids for the Community is just one way for our children to learn about and practice service to others, a key aspect of discipleship. Hopefully we can continue that spirit of loving service in our church and in our families in the year to come, following the example of our servant king.
June 22, 2017 Remembering Otto
Recently I attended my 25th college reunion at the University of Virginia at the start of our annual family trip to see relatives in Virginia. It was a fun and nostalgic reunion, with good friends from my undergraduate days. There were many happy coincidences and blessings during those college years that resulted in a great deal of personal growth, and lifelong friendships. Looking back, I can see the hand of God at work in my life in all kinds of ways.
Just after my college reunion came the news that Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, had finally been released after more than 16 months of brutal captivity in a North Korean prison. And then, this past Monday, days after arriving home in Cincinnati, Otto died from the traumatic brain injury he suffered while imprisoned.
What was Otto’s crime in North Korea? While there as part of a tour group, he apparently stole a propaganda poster as a souvenir. His sentence? Fifteen years of hard labor for committing a “hostile act." Fifteen years that, though shortened, turned into a death sentence.
I didn’t know Otto or his family, but his situation has been on my mind ever since he was detained in January of 2016. He made a foolish mistake, stealing something in a notoriously paranoid and autocratic regime. But when I think back to my 22 year old self, I made plenty of similar mistakes. I’m sure we all did. I just had the good fortune not to suffer any extreme repercussions. It is an astonishing and extreme act of cruelty that a young student’s prank resulted in his torture and death.
Which brings me, of all things, to Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which we are studying this summer. Part of Paul’s lasting legacy in Christian theology is the bracing truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” but that we “are justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3). In other words, every single one of us will make mistakes, large and small. We will lack wisdom, and act selfishly, and not think ahead, because we are sinful (that is, imperfect) creatures.
But we have a loving God who, far from expecting that we be perfect, knows that we are not. What God asks of us is not perfection, but repentance, being genuinely sorry for our mistakes, and seeking to learn from them and repair the damage done. In Christ Jesus, God offers us continual forgiveness and love, over and over and over again, with infinite patience.
This week, I am praying for the peace of Otto’s soul, and for his family and friends. And I am grateful for my many blessings, including that of my faith. When we look at North Korea, we see a horrifying inability or unwillingness to forgive Otto Warmbier’s quite trivial act. At the very opposite of the spectrum, we find God, who forgives not only our minor errors, but the major ones as well, out of immeasurable love.
June 8, 2017 The Trinity: God’s Blueprint
This weekend, the Church celebrates Trinity Sunday. Always the week after Pentecost, Trinity Sunday gives us the opportunity to reflect on the sacred mystery that there is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Holy Trinity is much more than a dry, academic concept; indeed, I believe that the Trinity is God’s blueprint for a healthy, joyful, and purposeful life. The
contemporary Roman Catholic spiritual writer Richard Rohr has written about the Trinity often, and I’ve heard him teach about it twice. One of his points is that we get stuck in adversarial, binary perspectives: us vs them, I get mine or you get yours.
But the Trinity is a model for community, for self-giving, for complexity, and for unity in diversity. Notice how a group dynamic changes any time a pairing grows from two to three: a couple that has or adopts a child, a work team of three, an activity. Often, when two expands to three, a different, more creative, more life giving relationship is begun.
This can also come into play in our decision making. In major life decisions, we frequently get trapped in binary choices, when better third options might be available, with a little creative exploration. For example, do I take this new job or not? It seems like a binary choice, but what about these deeper questions: what is it about the possible new job that interests me? Are there ways to integrate some of those qualities into my current job or my time away from work? The third way is often left unconsidered, but could be the most rewarding path.
I will not venture into our political challenges, except to say that our current winner-take-all, us vs them bitterness might be helped if more people were seeking "third ways” of compromise and innovative thinking about the great challenges of our time.
Individualism and binary thinking can both trap us in selfish, simplistic, negative, sinful, downward spirals. The Holy Trinity offers us an ancient and yet fresh approach: genuine community, complexity, unity in diversity, sharing, and loving for the good of all. It’s what we try to practice as Christians, following the teachings of Jesus, and the world could use more of it.
June 1, 2017 Pentecost, Joy, and Change
This Sunday, we come to the feast of Pentecost, and the end of the fifty day season of Easter. We also conclude our theme of joy, that we have kept throughout Eastertide in a number of ways, including in some of our sermons, Bible studies, and with other spiritual resources.
Pentecost is a day about change: it celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit that manifested itself in a miracle of communication, in what we consider the birthday of the Church. The disciples were changed through the Holy Spirit from a scattered, fearful collection of individuals into a strong, unified, courageous community of faith.
In the long season after Pentecost, we will pay attention particularly to the working of the Holy Spirit, which has so often been the catalyst for healthy change in the Church at large, in churches, and in the lives of disciples through the ages.
There is a connection between change and joy. Not all change is joyful (some change is painful). But much joy involves change (I say this as someone who can’t stand change!). True joy, which is deeper than happiness, often comes with leaving something behind in order to achieve a different state.
Think of what happens when a child is added to a family through birth or adoption. By many metrics, new parents experience change that ought to make them less “happy” (less sleep, less time for themselves, increased financial strain etc). And yet, most new parents experience a sense of profound joy.
Think too of the experience of graduation. Whether one is graduating from middle school, like our All Saints' Episcopal Day School 8th graders did recently, from high school, from college, or from graduate school, to graduate means both the celebration of an achievement, and also moving into a different phase of life. Graduation is a change that comes with leaving some important things behind, and entering into much that is unknown, and yet almost all go through this transition with a sense of joy.
And, of course, the sacrament most associated with change is baptism, when we are born anew and made members of Christ’s Body, the Church. Pentecost is a day that often includes baptisms, and we will joyfully celebrate two on Sunday. As we conclude Eastertide, and enter into the season after Pentecost, may we be open to all of the joyful changes God may be calling us to in our lives, through the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit.