Friday, November 25, 2011

Slow Down - Save a Life!

There are many ways to tell time. We use clocks and calendars. We mark perosnal time by birthdays, and anniversaries.  We knwo that a day has 24 hours, a week has 7 days, and a year has 365 days. One innovation of Western Culture is to see timeas a line. January begns; December ends.

But the Church tells time differently. The Church’s year is Christological: it is based in the life of Christ.  Reverend Jerome Berryman explains in his book Young Children and Worship, the Church “tells time by celebrating the events of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit.” These are divided into two cycles. A key word here is cycle—it indicates a circular movement, not a movement in a straight line. The two key cycles—Christmas and Easter—are divided into our six Church seasons: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

We begin the season of Advent November 27th this year. The first Sunday of Advent is also the first Sunday of a new church year.  The word advent comes from a Latin word meaning “coming” or “arrival,”especially the arrival of someone or something important. In Advent we wait for the coming of Christ: both at the end of time and for the rememberance of his birth among us. In our own lives, Advent can be a special time of learning to wait and slow down.

Margaret Wheatley writes that one of the crises of our age is the belief that we can ignore or negotiate with time.  This mis-guided belief, she says causes us to forget about the natural rhythms and cycles of life.  “Instead we believe that it’s a straight trajectory into the future, and we can go as fast as we please.   This can move us away from nature, from rhythm, from others, from God and even from a sense of place."  Wheatley adds that as people in the Christian tradition, and especially for those of us in liturgical churches like the Episcopal Church, it is time to say ENOUGH!  We must take time to think.  We must take time to reflect.  We must take time to slow down and enjoy the cycles of nature and our own lives.  Advent is a season that can help us do just this.

Advent can teach us to wait.  How does one learn to wait exactly?  Our culture is not a particularly adept at this.  It seems to teach us always to be in a hurry, to be impatient, and to want instant gratification. Some of the traditions of Advent such as the Advent calendar and Advent wreath are about the opposite – about slowing down and learning to wait.  How might we use them effectively this Advent?   As we await the celebration of Christmas, what might we be waiting to be born in our own lives?

Advent is a gift of time if we will only grasp it.  It is a time to move more slowly, spend more time with family, friends, and with God.

(Thanks to Carolyn Moomaw Chilton who writes and blogs as a spiritual discipline and an invitation to conversation with others. She is on staff at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia as the Assistant for Evangelism and Stewardship.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why is it so hard to pray?

Why is it that so many of us struggle with prayer? We forget to pray, and when we remember to do so, we hurry through it just to get it in.  Even when we take the time, our minds tend to drift, our thoughts scatter like a startled flock of starlings.  After all these years, I still don’t understand why something so important to me can be so difficult: no location is prescribed, no special clothing is required. No title or office is stipulated.  Yet, it sometimes seems as if I am wrestling with a greased pig!

It’s no wonder that our world is so afraid of prayer.  It has great power but is so difficult to control.  Consequently, so many avoid it.  Anything that has power and that we cannot easily control frightens us.

The reality is that it takes discipline, not unlike that required of an athlete who needs to practice a chosen physical feat over and over and over.  Only then is the action insinuated into nerves and muscles so that when it is “crunch” time, the action seems to flow effortlessly.  I need to learn and relearn that lesson itself over and over and over again.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

When You Thought I Wasn’t Looking

Hello friends.  It's hard to believe that it has been so long since my last entry here.  Needless to say, sometimes our busy-ness can overtake us.  In an effort to get back to my blogging, today I simply share something that came across my desk.  Perhaps it speaks to us when we think we are too busy to attend to important things!

author unknown
When You Thought I Wasn’t Looking
  • When you thought I wasn’t looking I saw you hang my first painting on the refrigerator, and I immediately wanted to paint another one.
  • When you thought I wasn’t looking I saw you feed a stray cat, and I learned that it was good to be kind to animals.
  • When you thought I wasn’t looking I saw you make my favorite cake for me, and I learned that the little things can be the special things in life.
  • When you thought I wasn’t looking I heard you say a prayer, and I knew that there is a God I could always talk to, and trust.
  • When you thought I wasn’t looking I saw you make a meal and take it to a friend who was sick, and I learned that we all have to help take care of each other.
  • When you thought I wasn’t looking, I saw you give of your time and money to help people who had nothing, and I learned that those who have something should give to those who don’t.
  • When you thought I wasn’t looking I saw how you handled your responsibilities, even when you didn’t feel good, and I learned that I would have to be responsible when I grow up.
  • When you thought I wasn’t looking I saw tears come from your eyes, and I learned that sometimes things hurt, but it’s all right to cry.
  • When you thought I wasn’t looking I saw that you cared, and I wanted to be everything that I could be.
  • When you thought I wasn’t looking I looked at you and wanted to say,’ Thanks for all the things I saw when you thought I wasn’t looking.’
How do we model Jesus to those around us, especially the littlest ones?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Another Take on An Old Story

Fred Plummer, from the Center for Progressive Chrisitanity, recently published this article.  It is a description of the Jesus of history that takes a little different tack -- not the usual Bethlehem-Nazareth-Jerusalem cycle with which we are so familiar.  I want to share this with you so that you can read and digest some of the insights that simply come with the reading. Don't be put off because it comes from a source that is labeled "progressive." There is nothing avant guard about it.  Feel free to comment after you have read it.

Just Click here to read the entire article. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, June 6, 2011

How Shall We Evangelize?

Because of its geographical distance, Ireland was out of the loop of the first round of major evangelization by the church. When it was evangelized by Saint Patrick, it operated underneath the radar of Roman control. Thus, its breed of Christianity grew up independently of much of the rest of the church. It was, to use modern missions terminology, an indigenous church.
Depending on who you listen to, Ireland was thoroughly Christianized between one and three generations–incredibly rapid growth by anyone’s standards. Thus, it becomes a great model for us to study.
George Hunter, in The Celtic Way of Evangelism that spells out the Celtic strategy for doubling groups contrasted with the Roman way:
“Bluntly stated, the Roman model for reaching people is: 1) Present the Christian message; 2) Invite them to decide to believe in Christ and become Christians and 3) If they decide positively, welcome them into the church and its fellowship. The Roman model seems very logical to us because most American evangelicals are scripted by it! We explain the gospel, they accept Christ, we welcome them into the church! Presentation, Decision, Assimilation. What could be more logical than that?
The Celtic model for reaching people works like this: 1) You first establish community with people, or bring them into the fellowship of your community of faith. 2) Within fellowship, you engage in conversation, ministry, prayer, and worship. 3) In time, as they discover that they now believe, you invite them to commit. “
This seems the perfect model for the way we do things at St. Mark’s.  With the tremendous efforts spent by the parish in reaching out into the community through its Jubilee Ministries and intentional hospitality the number of people touched daily by the “small” congregation provides an excellent foundation for the Celtic Model.  Last month alone, nearly 300 hundred people and were touched in one way or another.  That constant and abiding statement of care, concern, and presence is St. Mark’s way of fulfilling our baptismal covenant:

“Celebrant      Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
                 fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the

People          I will, with God’s help.”
-BCP, 304

Thanks to Josh Hunt information on The Celtic Way of Evangelism
by way of Sharon Pearson’s blog “buildingfaith”

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

"According to news commentator and Episcopalian Jon Meacham," wrote The Rev. Carolynne G. Williams,canon for pastoral care and elder ministry at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta, GA, " less than one-half of one percent of Americans serve on active duty in our combined armed forces. I was shocked at the number."

Our armed forces and the families of those serving are huge, in my mind. My father, who died in 2002 at the age of 75, served in World War II. My uncle Art, who is like my second dad, survives at age 88. He served not only in World War II but also in Korea. My cousin, Matthew, served in Vietnam, and a mentor and friend in the priesthood, Msgr. Bill Galagher, served in the First Gulf War (Desert Storm). Others dear to me fortunately served in peace time postings.  I was forunate that those who served and that have been dear to me were able to come home. We all know some, however, whose loved ones served gallantly but did not return.

Those that, as Lincoln said, "gave the last full measure of devotion," deserve at least a moment of silence out of respect and thanksgiving for the great sacrifice they made. When I was younger, in my hometown, the morning of Memorial Day was a sober affair.  A parade featuring living veterans in our community made its way from one war memorial to another. At each, an honor guard gave a wreathe was laid, there was a volley salute, taps was played and a moment of silence followed. This took most of the morning, timed to end at the main memorial in the center of town at just about noon. All flags were at half-satff until the noon bells rang. It was then that the somber celebration turned its attention to family, picnics, and events marking the beginning of summer.

Many veterans are buried in St. Mark's Cemetery. We mark their graves annually by placing small national flags at their headstone. Market Square in Lewistown is dominated by the War Monument. While we can sometimes fantasize about the gallantry of those who have fought our battles, they fought not for their own glory, but that we might have peace. So, in the words of Civil War General John A. Logan, "We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance."

How will you remember our war dead on this Memorial Day? Is this just another long weekend for you? Is this weekend just another opportunity to tap the screen of your iPad to download a coupon for a great sale? Don't misunderstand me. I do these things as well.

But, I believe that when we look into the eyes of those who have served our country and we have the opportunity to talk with them, we should seize the moment. There is pride and stability represented in those men and women. There is a respect that yearns to be shown in the midst of our overlooking the humanness of their experience. In our hurriedness, we tend to forget the costs of war, not only of munitions and logistics, but the priceless human costs of those that gave their lives and those who return, whose lives are forever changed by their experience.

On this Memorial Day, in the midst of our long weekend of sleeping in, shopping, rounds of golf, beach trips and finishing those last three books, all of which are wonderful and fun things to do and be a part of, let us pause for a moment or two to recall, reflect, and remember those who have protected our great nation and its place in the world.
Have a good Memorial Day.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Hot Cross Buns

It is one of the peculiarities of the observance of the great fast of Lent that several of the customs surrounding it have to do with food:  pretzels, simnel cake, and hot cross buns.  Hot cross buns are perhaps the strangest of these customs as they are sweet rolls that are eaten on the most important fast of all, Good Friday.
The origins of this very English custom are not entirely clear.  It has been suggested that hot cross buns originated in the pagan cult that preceded Christianity in Britain.  But the earliest historical mention of them is traced to a 12th century English monk who is said to have marked buns with the sign of the cross in honor of Good Friday.  A 14th century record tells how a monk of St. Albans distributed spiced cakes to the needy on Good Friday, inaugurating an annual tradition, though he carefully guarded his recipe.
Whatever their origins, there were certainly ideas associated with these buns that some would regard as superstitions.  Hot cross buns were eaten after sundown to break the Good Friday fast. In the Middle Ages, they were believed to have powers of protection and healing.  People would hang a hot cross bun from the rafters of their homes for protection through the coming year.  And if someone was sick, some of the dried bun would be ground into powder and mixed with water for the sick person to drink.
In the reign of Elizabeth I, when Roman Catholicism was banned, making the sign of the cross on the buns was regarded as popery and the practice was banned.  But neither Church nor State could suppress the popular custom, so legislation was enacted to limit consumption of hot cross buns to legitimate religious occasions such as Christmas, Easter, and funerals.  The familiar nursery rhyme, “Hot cross buns,” derives from the call of the street vendors who sold them. You can sing it too!
There are various recipes for the buns, but an authentic recipe should include currants and a cross either incised on the top of the buns or painted on with a sweet glaze.  Here’s a recipe to make your own hot cross buns.
Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns! One a penny, two a penny, Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns! If you haven’t any daughters, Give them to your sons! One a penny, two a penny, Hot cross buns!
Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns! If you haven’t got a penny A ha’penny will do. If you haven’t got a ha’penny, Well God bless you.

- with gratitude to Sharon Pearson

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Half Way There

Well here we are – about half way through Lent.  I’ve learned something again for the umpteenth time – some thing I have always known – I am a sinner.  On Ash Wednesday, I wrote about how Lent can be like a mirror in an unavoidable place that shows us an image of who we really are.  As of today, Lent 2011 has succeeded. 

As I set out on my Lenten journey, I promised to write a reflection for this blog each day.  In that, I have failed.  I promised myself that I would exercise each day to improve my health.  In that, I have failed.  I promised not to take sweets.  In that, I have failed.  Without going into much more detail, I can safely say that in every discipline that I undertook for this Lent, I have failed. 

That might be cause for great discouragement. 

However, the opposite is true.  My failures at these undertakings is only the mirror showing me that on my own, with my own strength, I cannot attain the life that God calls me to live.  My failures starkly remind me that without grace, I can do nothing well. 

It took three weeks to get here.  Now I can get to the business of letting God be God in my life.  I can finally put away the fantasy that I can do all these things on my own.  Am I throwing in the towel on my Lenten disciplines?  No way.  Only now, I have learned again that I can only succeed by the grace of God.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hail, Mary, full of grace!

The prayer, "Hail Mary," is more than the cry of desparation of a quarterback on the football field as he lets loose a high, long pass that may or may not result is tremendous gain. "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee" recalls the greeting of the angel Gabriel when announcing the plan of God to make Mary of Nazareth the vessel that would bear the world its Savior. This announcement, or "Annuciation," is recounted for us in the Gospel of Luke. On this day, exectly nine months before the celebration of Christmas, marks the conception of Christ in the womb of a simple Jewish girl from Nazareth. It recalls not only the announcement (which may have been quite startling to a young maiden) but also the deep confidence and trust that this woman had in the God of her ancestors. With confidence, she responds, "I am the handmaiden of the Lord, let it be done to me as you say."

We celebrate this day to call to mind that sense of confidence. It couldn't have been easy for Mary to contemplate what lay ahead for her. She was not yet married, yet she would be with child in a culture that looked on such events with great disdain. Having apparently violated the terms of her betrothal to Joseph, she would have been an embarassment and grave disappointment to her parents. Joseph would walk away from her. She would be shunned by her community. She would be labeled a "loose woman" for the rest of her life.

Still her answer was clear and unequival, "Let it be done." Interesting, too, is the fact that God did not foist his will upon her. He had chosen her and it would remain with her to decide whether this momentous action would take place. God had placed the salvation of the world in the hands of this youngster. What inner character enabled her to undertake this tremendous work. Bearing and rearing children is not easy in any age and is daunting even for adults that have planned for it. Having been betrothed to Joseph, Mary certainly knew that having children was in her future. But now? Even before she was married?
How many others did Gabriel approach but said, "No. Not me. That's not for me. Go away." Was Mary the only one? We will never know. But it is interesting to think about how special this particular woman was. She is the model for faith, like her ancestor Abraham, who had confidence and trust in God so total that he risked absoultely everything to answer God's call.

Today, the Church asks us to examine our own reponse to the call of God. Each of us, though not asked to become the God-bearer to a broken world, is called to accomplish something for God. Lent is the time when we take the time to search our hearts for what that might be. How willing will we be to say, "Let it be done to me as you say" when we discover what that is?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

How Suffering Can Teach

For many years, the well-known Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen pastored the residents and staff of the Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. Daybreak is a residential facility for the mentally challenged. The residents face many difficulties: savage inner voices, physical paralysis, epileptic seizures, disordered speech and thinking. The residence is filled with what many of us would conceive as frightening, even repellent, conditions.

Nouwen knew about revulsion. But he also came to know something important: those whose illness is visible teach us about our own brokenness. The residents of Daybreak might have been visily limited, but all of us are limited in one way or another. Often limited by invisible disabilities, we are bound by our secrets every bit as firmly as Nouwen's parishioners were bound by obvious weaknesses. "After years of living with people with mental disabilities," he wrote, "I hae become deeply aware of my own sorrow-filled heart."

Suffering can do one of two things: It can cause us to close down, or it can help us to open up. We close down in a vain attempt to protect ourselves from further pain, but it is a useless attempt. The way of human life is not the avoidance of pain. The way of a truly human life is to move through pain into love, to see ourselves in the suffering of others and others in our own suffering. This is one reason we reflect so carefully upon the passion and death of Christ during the season of Lent. As Isaiah's "Suffering Servant," Jesus shows us a truly human path.

For more on Henri Nouwen, visit

Friday, March 18, 2011

Caring Listening

I obviously find myself on the road very often. I drive back and forth between my home in Harrisburg and the parish in Lewistown. Add to that an occasional trip to our second home in Delaware and you see why I leasing a car will never make financial sense to me. When the weather is nice, I often drive with my windows down and my music playing very loudly. Music and listening to music is one of my favorite activities. I am especially fond of classical music and having added satellite radio to the mix has helped to broaden what I actually listen to.

I’m used to driving alone with my music as my company. Even with others in the car, I’m mostly silent. Being used to silence is a very important thing. Talking all the time means you never spend any time listening. Listening, in my opinion, is a lost art in our society. We spend too much time talking and not enough time listening. While I was in seminary, I had to attend mandatory formation sessions that centered on "active listening." Actually, I thought having sessions on active listening was ridiculous. Who would need such a lesson in the first place? Weren’t we all capable of listening? As we were taught about the importance of eye contact, nodding your head, and other actions, I found myself being agitated more and more by the sessions. One time, when it came time for questions from the seminarians, I indignantly raised my hand and asked whether all this wasn merely a trick to convince someone that you care about what is being said? In my mind, all these tactics were just fixes to what the initial element needed to be: caring.

Spending your time listening to just figure out what you’re going to say next is really not listening. Even those who engage in forensic debates will tell you that to succeed you need to carefully listen to and then assess your opponent’s argument. Caring about what is being said can be the root of change: wth friends who need advice, with parents trying to help adult children, with political discourse. It’s not just about giving your opinion. It's about caring listening.

Caring listening is also how I’ve come to see prayer. A lot of people pray out loud or silently to God, but how many of us really listen to what God has to say? I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have much patience when it comes to listening for what God has to say. I, like other people (and many important figures in the Scriptures), would like a more timely answer. "What exactly is it that you want me to learn?" "What exactly is your idea of becoming better through this situation?"

It’s especially hard to listen to God when I think that God is just not paying attention. Transitions associated with becoming the new rector to St. Mark's provides plenty of opportunity for me to spend time praying, "Just tell me what to do." I do believe God is paying attention, and in the spirit of active listening, I guess I should start paying more attention.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

He descended into hell.

At our midweek healing services here at St. Mark’s, we use the Apostles’ Creed during the Eucharist.  For some reason today, the phrase “he descended into hell” struck me with particular force.  At the same time, I had just been praying for an individual who has been struggling mightily with multiple addictions.  I am no expert, but I would say he has an addictive personality and is need of great healing. 

Countless thousands of people are making the journey through recovery.  I believe that these people truly experience hell in a way that few of us ever will.  They have lost homes, marriages, careers, the respect of their children and friends, and sometimes almost life itself. 

During recovery, most programs teach their clients to pray.  The model prayer is a simple one.  We know it as the Serenity Prayer.  The prayer is meant to remind the person in recovery that they need to abandon the fiction that they are in control of their behavior and that, in reality, they may actually be being controlled by their behavior.  People become convinced that t only a higher power can save them.  Many of these people come to discover that this higher power is, for them, the God they came to know as part of their own religious heritage.  Many individuals rediscover their Church or synagogue after a prolonged absence from religious observance of any kind.  More often than not, this follows a bit of healing connected with very old and deep anger at “organized religion.” 

So much of the religious teaching that people absorb as children is intricately interwoven with the stresses and sorrows of their own families.  Like everything else received by children, religious imagination needs to grow and deepen.  You don’t do most of the things now that you did as a child; it stands to reason that one’s faith and those things that support it will change, too.  The knowledge of having been raised from the living death of addiction is as good a place as any to start and a model of resurrection faith. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Finding the time

Almost everybody I know is much too busy, yours truly included. Finding quiet time alone is hard. “I’m just too busy to pray,” I will often hear.  It makes busy people feel guilty, at first, to sit in silence when they could be doing something.  It is important to remember, though, that when you sit in contemplative silence you are doing something: you’re tending your soul.  You’re working on the framework in which you live your life.  You need some time to listen to the Spirit.  In my experience, the time I have taken to do this has never ruined mu schedule.  “Deus providebit” (God will provide) I tell myself when I am worried about time.  And God always does.  Just as a laidback graduate school classmate from the South chided me, “You Northerners need to learn – when God made time, he made lots of it!”

Perhaps you will not be sitting motionless is a quiet room.  It may be that the time God provides will be time that you used to use in another way: staring into the distance while a passenger, or during exercise, or in a waiting room.  Washing dishes. Taking a shower.  It is often true that the mind and soul are quite available while the body is doing something repetitive.  This elegant economy should gratify even the most driven among us: you can put your previously unused spiritual energy into a more focused use while performing mindless tasks.  So even the most mundane activity can become holy, if it is accompanied by prayer. 

If you need a quiet place to pray, St. Mark's Church is open daily from 8 AM until 1 PM for just this purpose.  Stop in.  Take a breath . . . and hear God's voice.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Looking toward new life

"Lent" comes from an Old English word meaning springtime. In societies based in agriculture, such as those of the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe were until recently, early spring was the time when food was in the shortest supply.

Most domestic animals, except for breeding stock were slaughtered in the fall because not enough feed grain could be safely stored for all animals to survive the winter.  By early spring, although fish was still available, supplies of preserved meats (frozen or salted) began to run out, and warmer temperatures threatened to spoil what remained.

As the winter grain crops grew and animals gave birth and raised their young, the time of scarcity started to wane. The end of this period was often celebrated with a feast offering the first fruits of the spring harvest to God. The Jewish Passover incorporates these elements of this festival: a shepherd’s sacrifice and feast of young lambs and a farmer’s feast of unleavened bread made from the spring barley harvest. Because of the connection between the occurrence of the Passover and the resurrection, Easter was set to sprintime (in the northern hemisphere).

In his book, Cleansing the Temple, Theodore Wessling reminds us: “As a period of purification, Lent is not merely a period of bodily fasting. It is a period of general re- adjustment, of thorough renovation from the outer spheres of life down to the roots of its innermost fibers. We have only to glance at the chain of prayers which runs through the Lenten liturgy from Ash Wednesday to Easter to see the meaning of Lent. It is a chastisement of the body in order that the soul may grow. It is purification and liberation. It is a cure, and the fasts are meant to be medicinal. It is a sacred observance, nay, it is direct sanctification. It is the only route to freedom and fulfillment, for it loosens the grip of evil and leads us, worn and weary, to full and wholesome restoration.”

How does will our Lenten observance allow us to give birth to new life - the reason for the season at Easter?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Make or Break

Today is the Friday after Ash Wednesday. It is the third of the forty days we call Lent. To me, the third day is always the hardest. Think of the last time you started a diet. The first day was full of commitment and zeal. The second day was characterized by a little motivational guilt but was successful nonetheless. It was the third day when the temptation to "cheat just a little" became almost overwhelming.

Or when you determined to exercise and work out. The first day again was characterized with a certain zeal. "There, that wasn't so bad was it?" is the way you emerge from your regimen. The second day survuves because of the momentum and good feelings about yourself that the first day produced. Then it hits. The sore muscles emerge on the third day. You suddenly wonder if its worth it. "I'll take today off so I'll feel better tomorrow" becomes a silent mantra in an silent internal dialog. The third day can sometimes be the make or break day for any new discipline we undertake.

It's no different with the spiritual "exercises" we undertake during Lent. The Friday after Ash Wednesday becomes the make or break day for our personal disciplines to which we so zealously subscribed on Tuesday evening.

The beauty of this experience is that today is the ay that confronts us with the necessity of grace. It graphically demonstrate to us that if we set out to save ourselves, we will fail. Only by tapping into the strength that comes from without can we hope to attain the goals we have set for ourselves. In short, we need God's help. That help is ever present and is always freely given. That is the nature of grace, the nature of our relationship with God. All we need to do is to recognize that without that help, we will fall.
Today is a make or break day for Lenten observance. May the Lord help us to recognize that we cannot do it on our own. May we have the wisdom to turn toward the "mountains from whence come help.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


In the Old Testament, God commanded Israel to observe several set times of fasting. In the New Testament fasting was neither commanded nor forbidden. While early Christians were not required to fast, many practiced prayer and fasting regularly.  A spiritual fast involves abstaining from food while focusing on prayer. Practically speaking, this can mean refraining from snacks between meals, skipping one or two meals a day, abstaining only from certain foods, or a total fast from all food for an entire day or longer. For example, one may abstain from eating meat on Fridays. 
While many people fast to lose weight, dieting is not the purpose of a spiritual fast. Instead, fasting provides unique spiritual benefits in the life of the believer.  Fasting requires self-control and discipline as one denies the natural desires of “the flesh.” During spiritual fasting, the believer's focus is removed from the physical things of this world and more intensely concentrated on God. In other words, fasting directs our hunger toward God. It clears the mind and body of earthly attentions and draws us close to God so we can gain spiritual clarity of thought while fasting.
Fasting is not a way to earn God's favor by getting him to do something for us. Rather, the purpose is to produce a transformation in us—a clearer, more focused attention and dependence upon God.  As the Gospel lesson from Ash Wednesday teaches, fasting is never to be a public display of spirituality—it is between the individual and God alone. Contrary to some spiritual disciplines, there is no basis in the Scriptures to see fasting as a means of punishing or harming the body.
One thing is clear: the theology of fasting is a theology of priorities in which believers are given the opportunity to express themselves in an undivided and intensive devotion to the Lord and to the concerns of the spiritual life. This devotion will be expressed by abstaining for a short while from such normal and good things as food and drink, so as to enjoy a time of uninterrupted communion with God.  Our Lenten fasting, then, should help us to “put first things first” in our own lives and in the life of the community in which we live.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


As the years have drawn on, I increasingly avoid looking at myself naked in a mirror.  It’s the same reason I avoid looking at current photographs of myself.  Mirrors and digital cameras have an uncanny ability to reflect back to you what you actually look like.  And if you are like me, you more than likely do not like what you see.  Why?  Because each of us has an image of our self – of what we think we look like – and the mirror or the camera often shatters that image.  When I see a photo of myself in my thirties, I often remark how that man in the picture lives inside of me – somewhere!  I notice how much less hair I now have, how the dreaded “turkey neck” has appeared, how the wrinkles make me look older than I feel. 
The funny thing is that other people see me the way I appear in the mirror all the time.  They have no preconceived idea or image.  They see me and they love me with “added” weight, thinning hair, and wobbly skin under my chin. Funny. That’s the way God sees me – and God loves me nonetheless – loves me more, I dare say, than I love the real me. 

Ash Wednesday begins the liturgical season of Lent.  Lent for me has become a time of standing in front of a mirror, naked – a time of making myself see what is really there so that I can start loving the me that lives, not some fantasy image of myself.  It is a time for aligning the way I see things with the way that God sees things – only then can I begin to experience the love God has for me, a love great enough to sacrifice the life of God’s only Son.

When looking into the mirror, I may see things that I don’t like.  If I really don’t like them, I can set to work to change the things I can, to accept the things I cannot, and to seek the wisdom to know the difference.  This is what Lent is for – seeking that wisdom. 

This Ash Wednesday I resolve to stand naked before God and pray that in the days to follow, I will begin to see as God sees.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Shrove Tuesday - Mardi gras

Shrove Tuesday is the term used in the English speaking world to designate the day before Ash Wednesday.  

The word “shrove” is the past participle of the verb to shrive or to obtain absolution for one’s sins by confession and doing penance.  During the week before Ash Wednesday (called Shrovetide), Christians were expected to confess their sins and to receive a penance that they would carry out during the penitential season of Lent.  That way, by Easter, the individual could be assured of forgiveness and so celebrate the full joy of the Resurrection. The popular celebratory aspect of the day developed long before the Reformation and paralleled the celebrations of Carne vale (“good-bye to meat”) or Mardi gras (Fat Tuesday) that developed in areas more commonly associated with Catholicism (latin speaking countries like Spain, Italy, and France).

Regrettably in the United States, the day has been increasingly divorced from its religious roots (like so many other significant days in the calendar) and has become occasion for raucous behavior and, too often, gratuitous drunkenness.  I would probably be less cynical about contemporary celebration of Mardi gras if the spirit of Shrove Tuesday was recaptured, that is, that it was a genuine release of energy so that one could get about the serious business of self-examination and self-discipline so as to result in a genuine change of heart and life. 

Regardless, Shrove Tuesday is upon us.  It is time to let loose for a moment so that we can enter more completely into the heart of Ash Wednesday with a “firm purpose of amendment” that will result in a better us six weeks hence.

For details on Ash Wednesday services and Lenten programs, see our website at

Thursday, March 3, 2011

John and Charles Wesley: The Methodists

For two years when I was in college, I spoke these words almost daily, "Coming to you live from the John and Charles Wesley Chapel on the Campus of Houghton College . . . " As the manager of the campus radio station, it was my task to announce the boradcast of the daily chapel service at exactly 11:45 a.m..
Today, the Epsicopal Church formally commemorates these two towering figures in the life of Anglican Chrisitianity.

John Wesley is considered to be the father of Methodism. His brother, Charles, became one of the most prolific English-speaking poets, composing more than 6,500 hymns. Methodism became a highly successful evangelical movement that encouraged people to experience Jesus Christ personally. But who were these prolific Christians?

The Wesley brothers, John born in 1703 and Charles in 1707, were leaders of the evangelical revival in the Church of England in the eighteenth century. They both attended Oxford University, and there they gathered a few friends with whom they undertook a strict adherence to the worship and discipline of the Book of Common Prayer, from which strict observance they received the nickname, "Methodists."

Having been ordained, they went to the American colony of Georgia in 1735, John as a missionary and Charles as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe. They found the experience disheartening, and returned to Enlgand. There, three days apart, they underwent a conversion experience. John, present with a group of Moravians who were reading Martin Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, received a strong emotional awareness of the love of Christ displayed in freely forgiving his sins and granting him eternal life.

Following this experience, John and Charles, with others, set about to stir up in others a like awareness of and response to the saving love of God. Of the two, John was the more powerful preacher, and averaged 8000 miles of travel a year, mostly on horseback. At the time of his death he was probably the best known and best loved man in England.

Although Wesley found it natural to approach the Gospel with habits of thought formed by a classical education, he was quick to recognize the value of other approaches. The early Methodist meetings were often led by lay preachers with very limited education. On one occasion, such a preacher took as his text Luke 19:21, "Lord, I feared thee, because thou art an austere man." Not knowing the word "austere," he thought that the text spoke of "an oyster man." He spoke about the work of those who retrieve oysters from the sea-bed. The diver plunges down from the surface, cut off from his natural environment, into bone-chilling water. He gropes in the dark, cutting his hands on the sharp edges of the shells. Now he has the oyster, and kicks back up to the surface, up to the warmth and light and air, clutching in his torn and bleeding hands the object of his search. So Christ descended from the glory of heaven into the squalor of earth, into sinful human society, in order to retrieve humans and bring them back up with Him to the glory of heaven, His torn and bleeding hands a sign of the value He has placed on the object of His quest. Twelve men were converted that evening. Afterwards, someone complained to Wesley about the inappropriateness of allowing preachers who were too ignorant to know the meaning of the texts they were preaching on. Wesley, simply said, "Never mind, the Lord got a dozen oysters tonight."

Charles was the better hymn-writer of the two. He wrote over 6000 hymns, including about 600 for the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
Some of the better known are the following:
A charge to keep I have
And can it be that I should gain
Author of life divine
Christ the Lord is risen today
Christ, whose glory fills the skies
Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire
Come, O Thou Traveller unknown
Come, thou long expected Jesus
Forth in Thy name, O Lord, I go
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild
Hail the day that sees Him rise
Hark, the herald angels sing,
Jesus, Lover of my soul
Let saints on earth in concert sing
Lo, He comes with clouds descending
Love Divine, all loves excelling
O Jesus, full of pardoning grace
O Love Divine, how sweet Thou art!
O Thou who camest from above.
Oh for a heart to praise my God
Oh for a thousand tongues to sing
Our Lord is risen from the dead
Rejoice! the Lord is King
Soldiers of Christ, arise!
Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim
John and Charles Wesley are fondly remembered for reuniting the head and the heart when it comes to matters Christian. They put flesh back on to dry bones. In this way they were true prophets and we rejoice in their accomplishments.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

John Chrysostom: A Practical Preacher

Today is the Feast of St. John Chrysostom, one of the greatest Early Church Fathers of the 5th Century, born around 347 AD. St. John became a monk and was ordained a priest to serve the Church in Antioch where his eloquent preaching on the Sacred Scriptures earned him the title of "Chrysostom," meaning golden-mouthed." In 398, Chrysostom was called upon to assume the responsibilities of the Patriarch Archbishop of Constantinople,much to his chagrin. This reluctant patriarch nevertheless fulfilled his duty with extraordinary energy and courage. St. John Chrysostom's call to repentance and moral reform won him the opposition of the nominally Christian Empress who had him deposed and exiled on trumped-up charges. But his preaching and boldness inspired the hearts of the people of Constantinople who had great affection for him. His devotion to the written Word of God was matched by a love of the Eucharist and of divine worship. To this day, the principal "Byzantine" liturgy celebrated by most Slavic, Greek, and middle-eastern Christians is known as the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. St. John Chysostom, who died under the harsh conditions of his exile in 407, will always be remembered as one of the greatest of the Early Church Fathers and one of the greatest preachers of all time. His beautiful but always practical bible teaching has earned St. John Chrysostom the title "Doctor of the Church."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Below the Winter Snow

When I was in seminary in Western New York (yes, Buffalo) we called this time of the year "tunnel months" because it seemed as if the winter cold had always been with us and would never leave -- there was only one gray day after another -- like walking through an interminable tunnel.  This is the cold, dark time of the year, the time of early evening darkness, of ice and snow and bitter cold. Even though, in reality, the days were shorter a few weeks ago, we no longer have the warmth and glitter of Christmas music and decorations to to distract us. We are quickly tiring of the cold and dark.

Interesting how retailers know of our frustrations at this time of the year. Direct mail and e-mails come flooding our real and virtual mailboxes with the promises of spring and warmer weather. Flower and seed catalogues have started to arrive. Spring and summer clothes are making their debut -- all perfectly timed to exploit the tunnel months.

Even as I look out of the window of the parish office, I am struck by the fact that some of the plants never lost their green. I know that the shrubs will flower and bloom. The holly bush still has bright red berries to remind us that the cold and dark of winter will give way to new life.

Anyone who gardens knows that winter is a time of dormancy. Dormancy, however, is not lifeless. The seed that lies beneath the winter snow bears the promise of new life that will emerge when the sun (which rises daily even when we can't see it) finally warms the spring air.

Has the life of God grown dormant in you? If so, there is no need for despair. Like the winter flora, that life waits only for the warmth of the sun and the gentle spring rain to bring it forth. While we wait, we are not lifeless. God's grace warms us as we seek to break through. As the days lengthen, hope for the sun. As the storms pass, recognize that the snow stays not as long -- spring warmth is on its way.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

January 25th - The Conversion of St. Paul

Carravaio's "Conversion of St. Paul"

The Conversion of St Paul, which all Christendom celebrates today, serves as inspiration to us. It was on the Damascus Road as he sought to continue persecuting the Church that Saul of Tarsus experienced his conversion and became Paul the Apostle.

"Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him.
And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,
"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
And he said, "Who are you, Lord?"

And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting;
but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." (Acts 9.3-6)

Ever since, "The Road to Damascus" has become a symbol for a conversion or a change in the direction for one’s life.

We have freedom to be sinners, or to be saints. God hopes we will be the latter. He hopes we will take the road to Damascus -- to be changed. But change is never easy.

We may despair at the prospect of living a saintly life. However, we can rely on grace to transform sinners into saints. We need not do extraordinary things like many saints did, nor do we need to shed our blood like the martyrs. Grace transforms ordinary things – whether at work, in our relationships with others – into occasions of holiness.

In our work, we can practice dedication and humility in the service of others. Government and elected officials can discharge the duties of their respective positions with honesty, promoting justice, peace, progress and happiness. Magistrates and law enforcement officers can uphold justice and the rule of law moving us towards equality, peace and unity. Health workers and institutions can practice compassion in providing health care. Laborers can avoid backbiting nor stepping on others just to “climb the ladder." We can all refrain from speaking negatively of others, instead providing a word of comfort and forgiveness. Rather than sowing discord, groups can work together for the common good, not their personal interests. We can learn to value integrity, efficiency, compassion, simplicity, humility and honesty can be their own reward.

We may not experience the same dramatic transformation as St Paul did. We may journey on our own "road to Damascus" slowly, gradually. Most importantly, we must begin. We must decide to take those first few steps to experience a change of life, a whole new direction, with a sense of repentance and a sincere determination to right the wrongs we discover.