Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Changing the Church to Change the World

Sports-oriented parents with school-aged sons and daughters frequently find themselves involved in tournaments on weekends. Many of those tournaments occur in distant cities. Planners for these events now schedule games and matches throughout Saturday and Sunday.
Sunday sports commitments directly impact worship attendance among a demographic that congregations say that desperately want and need. Young families.
Now if our pews were already jammed and our coffers overflowing, we might hardly notice. Or, we might simply acknowledge this hectic phase of life with some nostalgic compassion for a time gone by for us and a hearty relief that our own schedules have slowed to a more manageable pace.
Gerard Sekoto's "The Soccer Players"

But our situation is very different.
While some congregations are growing by leaps and bounds, many are struggling to maintain their membership numbers. Others watch with increasing sadness as attendance and resources steadily dwindle.
So I understand when I hear clergy and laity alike scold these sports-devoted families in absentia. “They ought to bring their children to church! They’re teaching those children all the wrong values! They don’t know the Bible!”
Failing to see the irony, they then ask, “How can we make them come to church?” The irony I mean is this. Who wants to worship with a bunch of judgmental scolds?
As I said, I understand that some respond this way. But I also believe that such a response is completely misguided. 
Here’s what I mean.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

One Step in the Wilderness

The Pacific Crest Trail is considered an extreme challenge for even the most seasoned, well-conditioned hiker. Unlike its east coast sister the Appalachian Trail, you can walk the PCT for days without seeing a soul.
Starting at the US-Mexico border, the trail stretches north all the way to Canada. The lowest point along the way is 140 feet. The highest elevation is over 13,000 feet. Hikers contend with desert heat and the subfreezing chill of snowy mountain tops; with lush, rainy forests and dusty stretches with no water for miles.
When she was 26 years old, Cheryl Strayed walked 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail all alone. Her trek started in the Mojave Desert and ended at the border between Oregon and Washington. 
Cheryl began her trek with no prior hiking experience. Despite her fleeting good intentions, she had done no physical conditioning to get ready for the rigors of Rocky Mountain terrain. 
Stanley Spencer's "Christ in the Wilderness--Driven by the Spirit"

The first time she actually packed her backpack and strapped it on was the very day she got on the trail. That’s when she discovered that she could barely lift it off the ground. 
Her first steps in those new hiking boots came the same day. Those new boots rubbed terrible blisters on her untrained feet, and she learned only well into the hike that they were a size too small.
Along the way, she encountered rattlesnakes and bears. Pushed through daily exhaustion, tedium, boredom, and loneliness. Endured gnawing hunger and debilitating dehydration. Lost her way and her hiking boots and most of her toenails. And she found herself. 
Or more precisely, the trials of the wilderness molded her.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Changed into Fire

At the reception for one of my recent visitations a friendly parishioner asked me, “What are you giving up for Lent?” 
For some reason the question caught me off guard. Groping for a sensible answer I mumbled something about giving up sweets and forgoing meat on Friday. 
My answer clearly left him a little deflated. He said, “That’s just kind of standard isn’t it?” He was expecting something edified and spiritually mature from his bishop. Instead, he got a quote from Lent for Dummies.
Frederic Leighton's "Flaming June"

My mistake was to search for something sensible to say. That’s because Lent reminds us that following Jesus is not sensible.  As Bishop Michael Curry likes to say, it’s crazy
And here’s why.
Lent reminds us that following Jesus is not about giving up this, that, or the other thing among the many things of our life. Jesus is pretty clear. There is only one answer that Jesus wants to the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”
My life. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Seeing the Big Picture

Denali is the highest mountain in North America. Like me, you probably grew up calling it Mount McKinley. The indigenous people named it Denali long before we claimed Alaska as the 49th state in 1959.
The first attempt to scale Denali was in 1903. Renowned climbers vied to be the first to make it to the top. In 1906, Frederick Cook claimed success. Pictures of Cook standing on the summit of Denali appeared in newspapers around the globe.
Almost immediately fellow explorers like Robert Peary raised doubts, calling Cook a fraud and the alleged achievement a hoax. The controversy remained unresolved for decades. Finally, years after Cook’s death, a researcher recovered the original photograph of Cook supposedly atop Denali.

N.C. Wyeth's "Louise Loved to Climb to the Summit..."

Cook himself had provided the picture that appeared along with the newspaper accounts of his feat. Before sending his photograph to the papers, Cook had cropped it.
When looking at the full picture, you can see taller peaks in the distance. Cook was clearly standing on a shorter mountain elsewhere in the Alaska Range. In the picture he provided to newspapers, those higher peaks had been cut away. Cook was distorting the true picture.
There’s a lot to consider here. The temptation to embellish our accomplishments. The fear of being found out. The personal cost of hypocrisy.
But I invite you to join me in considering something else. Cook’s story illustrates a challenge inherent in the spiritual life, the very challenge that Jesus’ Transfiguration presses us to ponder. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Divine Epidemic

For a variety of reasons, some parents refuse to vaccinate their children against contagious diseases. Among these parents, some have no particular problem with vaccinations as such. They withhold vaccines from a particular child whose immune system rebels against such medications or whose respiratory system crashes in response to inoculations.
Another group of parents harbor deep suspicions about vaccines, believing that, contrary to overwhelming scientific evidence, injections meant to prevent diseases like measles, mumps, and whooping cough actually cause autism.
Until recently, criticism of anti-vaccine parents has occurred at the fringes of media and social media. With the December measles outbreak at Disneyland, the discussions about vaccinating our children have multiplied across media outlets.
Stanley Spencer's "Tea in the Hospital Ward"

The Disneyland outbreak has affected about 100 people across the states so far. Most people did not notice an earlier outbreak in Ohio. A group of unvaccinated Amish missionaries returned from the Philippines infected by measles and the infection spread to 383 people.
Some people argue that vaccinations should be mandatory. As you might imagine, parents of infants too young to receive vaccinations fear the prospect of sitting with their baby in a pediatrician’s waiting room next to an unvaccinated child harboring a contagious disease and perhaps not even showing its symptoms yet.
People fear an epidemic, especially an epidemic like measles. It’s a disease whose incubation time is around three weeks. The person sitting right next to you, looking fit as a fiddle, could be oozing the potentially deadly germ from his pores all over you and your loved ones.
That’s the nature of contagion. We spread diseases to each other simply by being together. If we don’t prevent a contagious agent or quarantine that sickness when it does occur, we risk an epidemic.
Given that we associate contagion and epidemics with debilitating and deadly diseases, it may seem incongruous to you when I say that God has started an epidemic. Not an epidemic of deadly viruses or bacteria. But an epidemic of eternal life.