Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Of Endings and Beginnings

This Blog has now been wound up, but the e-address (URL) of the new incarnation of Life is Full of Surprises! will be posted here shortly....

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Short Month?

Here we are on the first of February, the eve of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, and there is a strange sense of excitement in the air. Nothing to do with lectionary or liturgy I’m afraid to say, but a popular celebration that we have made it through the month of January without any severe weather. A brief five inches of snow fell ten days ago, but that melted and was washed away within a short time, confusing both the birds and the daffodils (which are sprouting in my driveway.)

To many people this may not be the most exciting of topics, but for a small east island community that this time last year had had its third major snow storm it is cause enough to celebrate. By Candlemas 2011 there was a foot of hard snow on the ground, much of which was to remain until middle March. Last winter the line “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone” was never more apt.

Of course all that could change in the weeks ahead, but even if Mother Nature decides to send a storm we can take it – for spiritually and psychologically we will be ready for it. After all, Easter is only some eight weeks away!

"February makes a bridge and March breaks it."
(George Herbert)

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Ego sum ...

To claim that a car service waiting room can be the source of revelation would be a bit of an exaggeration, but my visit to the Toyota sales building last week did teach me a thing or two about a cultural change in the English language. My car was due for its first tire and fluid level check-up, so I had booked a service appointment at 10:00 a.m. and dutifully showed up on time. I was greeted by Bonnie, the duty sales manager, who cheerfully took my details and told me that the wait would be about an hour in length. Not a problem, I replied, armed with my iPad. I’ll just take a seat. And that I did.

Sure enough, at near the stroke of eleven, Bonnie’s loud voice called my name and I reported back to her desk like a schoolboy collecting homework. All was well, I learned. And the work carried out? “I rotated your tires and checked brake fluid and coolant levels – and all’s fine. Oh, and I also checked your wiper blades. You’re good to go!” Remarkable, I thought, as I wandered off in search of my serviced car. How did she do all that without ever leaving my sight? Is this a new understanding of the active verb? Or some modern corporate expression?

I suggest it is a hybrid of many things, for in this part of the world I have heard many active expressions that when analyzed turn out to be anything but active. I recall a man telling me that he had planted hundreds of daffodil bulbs in his garden, whereas in reality he had paid a work crew to do just that for him. And a couple announcing that they were redesigning their garden – whereas in truth they were paying someone to do just that.

I think I’m preaching this Sunday …

Sunday, January 29, 2012

"He Spoke with Authority:" Thoughts delivered on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29th, 2012

Oh to have been a fly on the wall of that synagogue in Capurnaum. Some sermons ought never to be recorded for posterity, but this one should have been!

They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.

And again: They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!

Notions of, metaphors of authority are very difficult to pin down. It’s fair to say that we all recognize authority, but when it comes to describing exactly what it is we find it very difficult.

Perhaps a weakness we share from time to time is confusing authority with rank or office. When a naval chaplain I would occasionally preach this message to congregations that included admirals – and always took delight in ruffling their feathers. I would ask questions such as: When a ship’s weapon is broken, who has the greater authority? The Commander who gives the order to repair, or the Petty Officer who knows how to swiftly and effectively carry out that repair?

Shortly before I was ordained I was taught that as a priest I would have the gift of authority. This was to trouble me for many years, as I have not at any time in my ministry felt authoritative, but came to understand it as an authority bound up with celebration of the sacraments and the sharing of those sacraments with the people.

That’s not to say that some clergy don’t like to play the game of rank. The sub-culture of self-importance (more than) occasionally raises its head within the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican tradition. It was an English Bishop of Worcester who, in my father's study, was heard to say, “The Duke of Edinburgh and I both agree that we dislike name-droppers.”

And a few years ago a couple wished to celebrate their marriage vows in a prominent Manhattan church, and requested of that church that I preside over that celebration. The request was denied, because, in their own words, “We do not entertain provincial clergy.”

True authority remains elusive. A story goes that Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, once had a major argument. Albert stormed out of the room and went to his private quarters. Victoria followed, found the door locked, and began pounding on it. “Who’s there?” Prince Albert asked. “The Queen of England,” was the reply. But the door remained locked. More pounding followed, but then silence. The next sound was that of a gently tap. “Who’s there?” Albert inquired. The Queen replied: “Your wife.” Prince Albert opened the door immediately.

Jesus taught them as one having authority.

What does this mean, and why were the people astounded?

Well, small amounts of anecdotal humor may teach us a few things, but when it came to the religious leaders and teachers of faith in the time of Jesus there was little reason for the people to smile.

From the corrupt High Priest and his entourage, to the scribes and most of, but not all of the Pharisees, the religious life of Israel was asleep. Rituals continued on high days and holy days, of course, and the Sabbath observance was a part of the rhythm of weekly life, but there was no energy. No dynamism. No voice that echoed the radicalism and power of the Hebrew prophets of old.

Until that Sabbath day in Capernaum, that is.

But it was not only on that occasion. Wherever he went, from Galilee to Samaria, and all the way to Jerusalem, Jesus woke up the people by his teachings. And the people recognized in him that authority that had been missing for generations, and which their settled religious leaders and teachers did not have.

It is a divine gift that we have many of those words – many of that teaching. Witnesses passed them on. People remembered them. Writers put them on pages. And that is good news for us. Literally good news, for it is Gospel.

There have got to be moments in the lives of every single one of us when faith and belief seems dry, routine, unexciting, empty. (How many negative adjectives do we need?) And although it’s not a panacea for all spiritual ills and doubts, I recommend that we return again and again to the words of Jesus.

And to approach them with an open mind and heart, leaving our personal baggage behind. Hear them afresh – and allow them to address us.

In a time and society where there appears to be no clearly-defined voice of authority, and where so many people rail against the very notion of authority, the teachings of Jesus remain. And they continue to astound!

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Flurry of Activity

Against all our optimistic hopes it seems that our small part of the world will receive the first snowfall of the winter over the next twenty-four hours. Not that much. Perhaps an inch or three. Very seasonal, given that it is January on Long Island. Of course the snow will fall on the wrong day, for no child or teenager wants snow at a weekend. And it will melt very quickly, for which the birds will be grateful. All in all a mere passing shower.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Epiphanies of Long Ago

No, nothing to do with mysterious magi arriving, sand weary, on ships of the desert, but with my own personal memories of this season and time. You see, Epiphany has never truly been a highlight of my church life. Then and now. Then, and by that I mean the days of my childhood, it was something that my father did in church on a weekday; now, even though I hear of some parishes celebrating and processing on the feast of the Epiphany, it seems to have been relegated to a “Sunday After” category. Just as we have “All Saints’ Sunday” and mid-week patronal festivals are transferred to the Sunday before their actual date, so we celebrate the mysterious strangers on a day that is much more convenient to the modern churchgoer.

Yet my boyhood Epiphanies were exciting events because they involved gifts. Not gold, frankincense and myrrh – but chocolate! Each Epiphany night, when my father returned from the sung eucharist, he would set out a large plastic and cardboard snowman (named “Piff!”) in the middle of the room, from which extended a dozen or so coloured and numbered ribbons. We would take it in turns throwing dice and depending on our score would tug on a ribbon as the snowman was lifted up. Our prizes, usually large bars of Cadbury’s chocolate would be on the other end!

Simple pleasures, probably frowned upon in today’s health-correct society. But what a sweet way to end the season of Christmas!

Friday, January 6, 2012

A New Year

Over twelve days since Christmas, and six days into this year numbered 2012, and my pen has been frozen. There has been simply so many other distractions, other tasks, other plans and thoughts on which to focus that even sermon writing has suffered! (Could they get worse, I hear some think!)

Now that the dust of the season has settled and we move into the weeks of the Epiphany it is time to regroup.

And maybe move on. I am exploring, with the help of my new iPad, the possibility of relocating this column, and will make that decision within the next few days. You will be the first to be told, honestly.