Saturday, December 28, 2013

A time of quiet and peace

Christmas week off is one of the "soft" benefits of working for a college or university. As much as I despair during the frenzy as Christmas approaches, I greatly love the quiet descending after Christmas  has passed. 

Once I have gotten past the temptation to sleep late every morning, I begin to get up early, so as to say the morning office in peace, drink my coffee, and gaze out my study window to the view of treetops. Any goals I hope to achieve today can come later. The sun is up, the frost is upon the grass, and the luxury of an entire day awaits.

Is it a measure of the frenzy of our culture that we so jealously, greedily clutch at our free time? I know every day should have this quiet, contemplative space built in, but I do not always achieve it. Tasks call to me. 

But I don't have to do them now. Not yet. Let the quiet continue for a bit longer. 

This is the day The Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it 

Monday, December 16, 2013

St. Mary's, full of grace

Here, in the third week of Advent, I want to tell you a resurrection story.

OK, I know it's the wrong season. Bear with me. This won't wait until Easter. Besides, we're in a time of expectation, a time of hope.

Our Hebrew scripture reading for the third Sunday in Advent was Isaiah 35:1-10, one of my favorites. But this part stood out. Pardon my ellipses:

1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice  and blossom, like the crocus; 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing ... 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes ...  9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

This is a passage about restoration and a new beginning. It speaks of hope, of renewal, of new growth. The desert will bloom again. Dry sands will become a pool of water, where rushes can grow. And the ravenous beasts will be there no longer, where the people return singing.

Just as the land can be renewed, so can a church!

First, a little background. My two or three constant readers may recall that I left my old parish, St. Mary's, Haddon Heights, NJ, nearly six years ago, when I realized that strife between the Rector and the laity had become toxic to my worship. As the emphasis of teaching and preaching became more fundamentalist (oh, sorry, I really meant orthodox), lots of others left as well. At one time, another ex-parishioner calculated that at least 160 members had departed.  I was one of the lucky ones: I landed in a new parish that I found easy to love, and where I fit well into the common life. Some were not so fortunate, and did not find a new church home that fit them as well as St. Mary's had. Some, feeling betrayed, ceased going to church altogether. This is the greatest tragedy when there is Church Drama.

Time passed, and membership continued to diminish. This past autumn, the Rector departed the Episcopal Church, taking with him a few like-minded parishioners, and affiliated with CANA, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. CANA describes itself as "a missionary district sponsored by the largest and most vibrant province of the Anglican Communion, the Church of Nigeria." You can read about that  if you're interested. It's not my cup of tea, since they don't ordain women, won't marry same-sex couples, and seem preoccupied with sin. You can have your Church of Nigeria, as far as I am concerned. Oh, did I say that out loud?

But, in fairness, you can read about the Rector's decision to leave the Episcopal Church right here. The relevant posts are entitled, "Hello, I must be going," numbers 1-3.  They are not to be missed.

As the Rector departed, a small number of parishioners remained at St. Mary's.  All those remaining loved St. Mary's and were unwilling to give up on their church. In early November, 2013, our Bishop came to meet with all current and former parishioners who wanted to see St. Mary's continue. Current and former members were asked to sit on opposite sides of the aisle. The number of former parishioners dwarfed the number of those remaining, and nearly all the former parishioners had once had leadership roles in the church. Everyone was given a chance to speak, and were free to tell their stories. It was a tearful meeting, as former members described the changing atmosphere of their spiritual home, and why they had grown to feel unwelcome and unwanted, excluded from leadership and basically sidelined.  As the meeting wore on, the Bishop looked sadder and sadder, and told us he had not been aware of the depth of our distress. My late Grandmother's description would have been blunter: the Bishop looked as though he had finally discovered the proverbial turd at the bottom of the punchbowl.

But it was an honest meeting, and the news is good! The Diocese pledged to help restore St. Mary's in any way they could. They found supply priests, so services could continue. One of those has just become Priest-in-Charge, and is doing a wonderful job. A new Vestry has been elected.  But the best news is that people are coming back. Among them are some of those who never found another parish after they left St. Mary's. It is truly a family reunion. Returning members are greeted with joy, embraced as though they had never left.

And great things are planned: a hymn festival in February to raise funds in aid of the Philippines; a five-organist concert in the spring; several outreach endeavors. St. Mary's has come back to life!

I'm no longer formally a member, but a large part of my heart will always be at St. Mary's with my original parish family, as St. Mary's resurrection moves forward. 

Watch this space for more good news about St. Mary's!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Advent: What are you avoiding this year?

I did a little Christmas-shopping over the weekend. This year, due to spousal unemployment, we're giving very practical gifts: clothing, sheets, and other boring necessities (yawn). Actually, J. grew up getting necessities -- he recalls getting snow tires for Christmas one year. His family was very practical, a point of pride for them.

So I ended up in a long line in Bed, Bath & Beyond, the emporium of all earthly delights (honestly, I could browse there for days!). Ahead of me was a woman who seemed to be bringing home all those earthly delights -- every single one! She had two shopping carts filled with merchandise. Not only does this create a steering problem when you're the mistress of two carts, but it vastly increases checkout time for the humble souls behind you in line.  It also doesn't help when you feel the need to dispute the price of nearly every sale item.

But I digress. I'm not criticizing this woman's shopping strategy -- maybe she has 25 grandchildren to buy gifts for. But I had plenty of time -- plenty of time -- to stand there thinking about Advent, as I listened to "Jingle Bell Rock" (at least twice) on the store's sound system.

What have we done to Advent? Back in the days before electric lighting, before central heating, before antibiotics, before superabundant nutrition for many, Advent may have represented, for Christians, a time of sickness and impending shortages. It is cold in many climates. The harvest would have been gathered in, and you had to hope it would sustain your family through the winter. Daylight diminishes to its smallest daily portion; nature seems dead. Snow comes. Snow probably did not represent a skiing opportunity in the days past, or just a chance for kids to play. And it was a transit problem in the most basic sense.

It's no accident that Christmas comes when it does (many scholars seem to agree that Jesus was really born in the spring, after all). In late December, we are at a low point in the yearly cycle. For the same reason, our ancestors celebrated the Winter Solstice at this time, too, in an attempt to encourage the return of the sun. Things should be starting to look pretty grim in Advent. We certainly need Jesus to come!

But we've filled Advent up with shopping, parties, concerts. I am as guilty as anyone. Samuel Wells, writing in Learning to Dream Again, suggests that we are all generally engaged in "a gigantic displacement activity," as we fill our lives up with knowledge, activities, and stuff. What are we trying to displace? Are we trying to avoid the Big Questions? Disease, scarcity, cold, mortality, dying light? Loss of loved ones? Lack of meaning?

What are you avoiding during Advent?