To Bless or Not To Bless

That is the question I have for Monday.

For the liturgical snobs out there, I know that it is Lent and we aren’t encouraged by Michno to bless in Lent, but to recite a “prayer over the people,” as was the most ancient custom of what would become the blessing much later.  It is a little bit semantic, but an interesting difference nonetheless.

As I’ve been rereading my Hatchett and Mitchell commentaries on the Book of Common Prayer (and the aforementioned Michno classic A Priest’s Handbook), I am coming to the fundamental question: should we do a blessing at the dismissal on ordinary Sunday mornings? And if not, might there be a seasonal time to include them?

The history of the way we conclude the service is pretty mixed, having nothing after the Eucharist before the 4th Century, and concluding with a postcommunion prayer or prayer over the people as the norm for many centuries after that.  The custom was actually an intentionally stark contrast to the pomp of the procession, having the bishop or priest conclude with a prayer and then departing. The effect of this was to highlight the imperitive to go out and do ministry in the world, rather than cloud it with the pomp of the beginning.

All of that excitement at the beginning is, of course to boost us up for worship, preparing ourselves for the sharing of the Word and Sacraments, and the conclusion was intended to contrast it; as if to say “OK, we got you ready; now go! Don’t wait for me to tell you what to do!”

Naturally, the pomp developed at the end, as well, swelling up, first with a short musical prayer, then replaced with a full hymn, and the postcommunion prayer, a blessing, and a formal dismissal. Liturgically, the rubrics for Rite I require a postcommunion prayer and a blessing, while making the dismissal optional. The rubrics for Rite II, on the other hand, require a postcommunion prayer and dismissal, but make the hymn and blessing optional.

Marion Hatchett points out that the blessing as we know it really only dates back to the 16th Century. Its most important role in the Prayer Book comes in two of the ordination rites, as the new priest is asked to offer a first blessing of her ordained ministry just minutes after it has happened, and the new bishop is given an elaborate blessing to sing or say at her ordination. Hatchett suggests that the rubric making it optional is a great opportunity to use different blessings, while Leonel Mitchell reminds us that the blessing is in fact optional.

So here it is: should we bless every Sunday? If so, isn’t it redundant and diminishing the potency of the worship? If not, when might we?

My own gut is leading me toward the first millennial customs, rather than the medieval or post-medieval ones (my own operating bias, anyway). I am intrigued by the sparse vision of concluding the Eucharist with a simple postcommunion prayer and dismissal, with the people scattering.

I am also wondering if there might be a time in which the blessing could be highlighted or given real prominence if used at specific times such as Holy Days. Or perhaps in the seasons of Advent (anticipation and hope) and Easter (joy and rebirth) when a blessing might take on a more profound meaning. I’d love some feedback, here and on Facebook and G+.

Simple Things Are Bad For You

Simple foods really are bad for us. Nutritionally, they are too easily digested, which is actually a bad thing most of the time. Heavily processed and enriched grains and sugar go through our systems inefficiently and cause us to consume even more of them. Complex foods like raw broccoli, whole grains, and proteins, are healthier. I think of consuming sugar as being like rocket fuel (an idea many of my childhood friends probably wished were true); which isn’t really designed for a Camry or a Yaris.

At the same time, we have a deep desire for simplicity, just as we crave sweets and simple carbohydrates. Because we desire simplicity, our brains confuse that desire for something it is not. This problem is easy to see with food because we know the complex foods are better for us, not because they are complex, but because of the pervasiveness of health education. We understand which foods are better, but not why. We have been trained to understand which foods are healthy and to spot them on sight. Choosing to eat healthy foods is therefore up to us.

It is no wonder that we mistake simple and easy to digest for beneficial. The distribution of health information belies our very ability to understand it. They made it simple, but it is in the complexity that we come to understand it.

Notice the tagline calls it "A mind-bending vision of reality"

Notice the tagline calls it “A mind-bending vision of reality”

I just watched the film Sucker Punch and it illustrates this concept better than anything I’ve ever seen. It’s complexity comes not from an intricate plot or sophisticated dialogue, but from wrestling with a problem so pervasive and ingrained in our culture that we scarcely recognize its rootedness: abuse. Physical, psychological, sexual, engendered, paternal, and familial abuse. From the opening sequence, we are introduced to a young woman, legally an adult, who is named only in the fantasy world (Baby Doll).  She is still metaphorically and literally imprisoned by her step father, aided by a system that more easily protects the abuser than liberates the victim.

The film’s method of storytelling likewise exposes this painful truth by showing how inadequate the simple response to this subject matter really is. She is trapped and alone. In a different, simpler story, this would devolve into revenge fantasy or torture porn: movies which thrive on the inhumane combination of sex and violence that certainly degenerate the moral character of the viewer. Or it might be the bubble gum chick power plot most reviewers mistook it for. But instead, the film reveals the permanence of systemic abuse, both personally (in the life of the young woman) and legally (as nearly all of the film’s women struggle to be heard despite the abuse they receive within the system. We see them outside of the fantasy only for a brief moment, but their participation throughout the film reveal a communal struggle that transcends both the fantasy and “real” worlds of the film, but represent the universality of women’s struggle with systemic abuse.

The film’s feminist critique and deconstruction of The Woman’s role in society is so clear to a viewer willing to wrestle with complexity, that is frustrating that so few critics were able or so willing. Julie Clawson, in her response from last summer, succinctly describes the bredth of its feminist critique. Zack Snyder, the film’s writer and director has made the subject so incredibly engaging precisely because he does not approach this complex subject as if it were simple, or employing simple methodology. Instead, Snyder, has created a story that is complex in both it’s critique of society’s response to abuse and in its approach to victimhood. He explores, not the superficial, but the realistic avenues victims have in claiming victory after or within the abuse using a facade of the fanciful or fantastic. Make no mistake, the entire context of Baby Doll’s world and actions are entirely realistic—including the violent fantasy world she uses to survive—as her use of fantasy is a demonstrably real response to victimhood.

It is no wonder such a film would be panned by critics who not only fail to recognize the critique of more traditional portrayals of womanhood and sexuality, but fail to recognize the necessity for true complexity. Preferring a spoon-fed challenge that is clearly labeled as such, rather than one presented as a riddle or perhaps “mislabeled” as simple eye candy.

It is, in fact, the challenge of discovery that is good for us, the dealing with complexity squarely so we don’t weasel our way out that is essential to our development. So go, eat some raw vegetables, watch some subversive cinema, read some Gospel of Mark and deal with its complex portrayal of Jesus, and wrestle with the very real problems in our country of physical and psychological abuse, human trafficking and 21st Century slavery, violent and oppressive sexual exploitation and I defy you to make the case that simple is good. Not on this. Pretending this is simple is but a fantasy we use to cope with rather than challenge the systemic violence of our world.

Inside the Cacophony

a Homily for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, B

Text:Mark 9:2-9

I walked into my poetry class completely unprepared for what was about to happen. This was years ago, back when I dreamed of becoming a writer, a playwright or poet, actually. Or at the very least the teacher of writers. It was our second class and we were to bring in a new poem we had written in the last two days, already heavily edited and prepared for harsh criticism. Apparently, I was ready for neither. The poem I brought was a bit cliche and trite, but worse, I had violated the first rule of creative writing and was called on it.

What I did was this: I used music language to describe a scene rather than write the scene musical. In other words, I told, rather than showed. And no, I will not show it to you.

As a creative writer, the evangelist we know as Mark is terrible. He violates that first rule repeatedly. And he does so this morning. He doesn’t record Jesus’s words, he simply reports that:

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen

Of course, this would seem like no big deal if it were any other gospel passage. But he did it in this one: The Transfiguration. A passage so visual, so full of engagement, the screen adaptation would need a $200 million budget and Michael Bay directing it. Huge. Explosions. Incredible visual effects. This is as big a “show” passage as it gets and Mark turns it into a “tell”. Even his big miracles with a cast of thousands are intimate, one-cut scenes compared to this one. And notice that we don’t get any Jesus dialogue at all.

The irony, of course, is that this is one of the most important passages in the Greek Scriptures. We get two times in which GOD tells the people who Jesus is: at the baptism and here. GOD speaks from a cloud.

Such an important passage would certainly deserve pages and pages of script, with lots of effects and weighty dialogue. We get 8 verses with two lines of dialogue: Peter’s ridiculous assertion and, you know, GOD, who says listen to this guy.

Wait a second, did you notice that? What did GOD say?

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Listen! GOD shows then tells. I’m starting to think there’s something intentional in Mark’s writing.

He has this big visual gospel, with blinding light, the presence of two dead men that somehow Peter is able to identify on sight (I’m not sure how since there are no pictures and they preceded him by, like, 1,000 years), and a talking cloud that has descended upon them. And GOD says “listen.” He’s conjured up these big visuals, like the Spirit descending like a dove at Jesus’s baptism, but his message isn’t “watch,” but “listen.”

It is no mistake that this gospel is so visual and then speaks of listening and Jesus orders his people to tell no one. GOD needs us to hear in the midst of other stimulation! But I think it also has to do with something else.

This passage occurs right after the primary pivot point in Mark’s gospel. All the way up through the first half of chapter 8, Jesus is leading his disciples all over the place, then he turns his face to Jerusalem. We get this important passage in two parts in the lectionary and they must be taken together. He begins by asking the disciples who the people say he is: John the Baptizer, Elijah, one of the prophets. Then he asks, “but who do you say that I am?” and Peter jumps up “The Messiah!” Which, of course, is right. But that excitement is short-lived because Jesus proceeds to tell his disciples all about the trip to Jerusalem, with his coming execution! Peter jumps up again “We won’t let it happen!” to which Jesus rebukes him with the famous line: “Get behind me, Satan!” Today’s passage occurs six days after this. This is what they’ve just covered. Jesus has turned all of his attention toward the cross and told his people this and they have refused to hear him. Then he takes a few of them up a mountain and GOD tells the three to listen to Jesus.

The disciples, of course, can’t. They hear parts, but they can’t get it all. They reject this important message because they don’t like the process. They liked the process when they thought Jesus was a conquering hero that would overthrow Rome with his sword, not the weak teacher executed for sedition. Even we have trouble addressing this message of Jesus’s transfiguring the world with love and mercy. We, so often, are those disciples, rejecting Jesus’s very words.

And yet, let’s take a minute to recognize that Jesus took these dimwits up a mountain to see and hear something. The message they heard was more important than any other:

“listen to him!”

This week, the season after Epiphany comes to a close. Tuesday night is the last hurrah. Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday. The paczkis are in the stores. The following morning ushers in the next season. A season of penitence and introspection. But it is something else. It is a season of listening. Of quiet, or more precisely, of quieting the noise around us so that we can listen. Because it requires silence to hear that still, small voice, whose calls to us come most often in whispers and quiet moments. Moments that remind us of the mission.

As we live it up for a few more days before Wednesday, when we pack the Alleluias away for a few weeks, let us get ready to quiet our lives just a little so that we might do the very thing GOD has asked of us: to listen.
Only then will we be forced to deal with an even more difficult question: what if we hear something?

Throw Your Process Off a Bridge

It has become clear that we are in an age in which process and system are colliding.

Our institutions aren’t failing because they are institutions (and our government isn’t failing simply because it is government).  They fail because the process is obstructing the system.

What I mean by process and system are simply the difference between rules and the entire legal framework. So the process is the current approach to dealing with aspects of the system.  Process is how you call Waste Management to set up trash collection.  System is municipal trash collection itself.

When Jesus railed against the Pharisees in front of the Pharisees, he attacks their process, and not their system.  He affirms that He loves The Law (System) but hates what they’ve done with it, namely their sub-laws (Process).  His argument is for good Jews to throw the Pharisaical process off the nearest bridge.

The prime evidence for our own problems today is Congress, which according to historians, really is as bad as we think, needing to go back to pre-Civil War era to find such dysfunctional government. This dysfunction, is of course, intentional. As if that makes it any better. The process is being used in a way that seems inconsistent with the system. If you think about it at its most base level, the process (small legal measures) is being used to expressly keep the system (the government) from even fulfilling basic functions, such as paying employees timely, compensating for services rendered, or putting professionals in the jobs for which they are highly qualified.  This is clearly a process problem.

The church and the culture at large are flailing at a time in which we most need both conviction and compassion. It is high time we say “screw it” to the process and start preparing the way for the Kingdom.

Love Poem

What is love but speculation?
We carefully construct our appearance
and speak reasonably and passionately;
a courting ritual so deceitful and ambitious
in its attempt to win loyalty and devotion.
And yet, it is love that enters in
behind lust and desire. It eats away
selfish demands, revealing joy and
childish giddy inhabiting even stern moments
of solitude. Our love, as specific
and anonymous as St. Valentine,
brought by circumstance, is a fragile,
eternal string, banding our fingers and
binding our lives. The love that we share
is not ours, but it is for us to own.

Today I own my love for you, my Love.

Roman Catholic Bishops Out of Control

English: Percentage of Catholics in the World

No, I have no evidence of miters run amok, but if anything describes the Roman Catholic Church in the last millenium it is the word “control”.  As Tim Padgett of Time argues in his piece on the birth control debate, that is the one thing Roman Catholic Bishops have lost.  More precisely, they have lost power and influence in the wider society and no longer speak for most Roman Catholics, particularly on grounds of human sexuality:

Not on abortion or the death penalty (a majority of Catholics believe those should remain legal); on divorce or homosexuality (most say those are acceptable); on women being ordained as priests and priests getting married (ditto); or on masturbation and pre-marital sex (ditto again, Your Excellencies).

English: picture of pope paul VI Español: foto...

Pope Paul VI - Image via Wikipedia

And especially not on contraception. Ever since Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s senseless ban on birth control in 1968, few doctrines have been as vilified, ridiculed and outright ignored by Catholics – evidenced by a recent study showing that 98% of American Catholic women have used some form of contraception. It’s hard to believe, as the bishops would have it, that those women simply succumbed to society’s pressure to do the secular thing. They’ve decided, in keeping with their faith’s precept of exercising personal conscience, that family planning is the moral and societally responsible thing to do — for example, preventing unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortions. And it explains why a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found most Catholics support the contraception coverage mandate even for Catholic-affiliated organizations. Presumably most endorse Friday’s compromise.

Padgett makes several good arguments, particularly in encouraging the media to stop acting as if any bishop’s opinion is a universally-held belief by all Catholics.  For me, just as striking, and under-examined is the link between Catholics and conservative evangelicals.  He refrences it, to make his point about the decline in Roman Catholic influence:

Far more Evangelical Protestants, according to the PRRI survey, back the bishops than Catholics do. But that hardly makes the bishops, when it comes to the more independent Catholic vote, the same force to be reckoned with that they were in the 20th century.

And this held true in the political and election results since, at least, 2004, when a conservative evangelical faced off against a Roman Catholic in the presidential election.  This is a much more significant development for catholicism than decline of power or control: that so few devoted Catholics support church teaching and so many evangelicals do.  What becomes a church that loses the hearts of a majority of its supporters, but gains inroads with a group, decades ago seen as antithetical? Surely the effects of this will be staggering in the coming decade.

No Level Playing Field For Small and Big

I used to have a reoccurring conversation with a friend in college about equality.  He is a libertarian and argues for minimal interference and rules.  I am not.  He would talk about the level playing field between he and minorities, including women.  He argued that they had the same chances he had.  I pointed out that he is 6’4 and gigantic.  He has a deep, booming voice and is incredibly imposing.  I would watch shy young women of 5’3 make no attempt to engage him in class, because he was forceful and physically dominant.  He also used (perhaps unintentionally) his size to his advantage.  Between a big man and a small woman, there is no level playing field, when the playing field is a social/academic one.

Of course, these women had their own advantages, but these require overcoming the advantage his aggressive style gives him.  He gets a head start when he walks in the room because the natural inclination of everyone else is to cede to his aggressiveness.  Even a defensive or counter-aggressive posture means the interaction plays out on his terms.

I took this photograph.

Image via Wikipedia

I was reminded of this when I listened to a story about a new tobacco bill this morning on Michigan Public Radio.  This new bill, like bills popping up in Washington and Virginia sponsored by the tobacco industry, targets small tobacco shops for a tax increase based on the big business playing field.

The foundational argument is simple enough: if you produce cigarettes, you should be subject to the state’s per/pack tax.  This sounds fair and balanced.  Until you focus on how different these operations are.  The big cigarette companies produce their product on a massive scale, with streamlined distribution systems creating a low-cost product cheaply, efficiently, and nationally. The independent tobacco shop allows customers to hand-roll the cigarettes or use a machine to roll the local product they purchase with some efficiency. No mass production, national profit stream, or infrastructure investment that produces cheap goods quickly. This playing field is only level for big business, because it is their field and their business model.

The idea of the level playing field only works when controlled for nearly all major differences.  The Detroit Lions compete against the Green Bay Packers under the same rules, cost structure, and relative resource pool. This means that the differences are minor: coaching, style, talent evaluation, draft success, injury prevention, conditioning, etc. We wouldn’t put my hometown Alpena Wildcats up against the Lions and expect them to compete.  Their differences are major: high school students, smaller talent pool, financial resources, etc. To speak of a level playing field in such broad terms and with such ideological rigidity is to believe that it is sufficient to have the Wildcats compete against the Lions at Ford Field in Detroit. In the most technical sense possible, the Wildcats have a literal chance of winning, but no conceivable chance of winning short of miraculous intervention. We couldn’t beat Traverse City!

The problem with the conversation is that we speak about this as if the only variable is the playing field.  If we keep it level, the grass trimmed, and the lines painted, we will have a fair contest.  But we ignore all of the ways in which, even the most neutral of sites doesn’t make a contest fair.

Perhaps the problem is that we even see it as a direct contest. What the big tobacco companies do is mass produce cigarettes to the masses. The small tobacco shops are local businesses catering to a niche market and innovating their craft product to their local community, the very stuff of our politicians’ rhetorical support. Why change the competitive environment for purely ideological reasons when the end result will be an actual decrease in the type of competition we cherish?

[NOTE: Please do not read this as an endorsement of smoking.  It is not. I do not smoke and am no friend to the tobacco industry.  This seemed like the perfect example of not only ideological hypocrisy, but a confusion of priorities.]

Outside the walls of the city

a homily for Epiphany 6B                       Text: Mark 1:40-45

Nudy Trees

My daughter and I have this little game. We point out the nudy trees to one another. She shouts: “That tree’s nudy!” Then she squeals and says “there’s another one!” I do it too.  Then I point to another one that has lost most of its leaves and call it a “nearly nudy one.” She looks, her eyes widen, and says “Let’s look for nearly nudy trees!”

It goes along like that for a while. We point out to one another which trees are nudy, which are nearly nudy, and which ones are still fully-clothed.

This went back to this past fall, when I was explaining autumn to her. She had asked what had happened to all the leaves. I told her that they fall off when it starts to get cold outside. This, of course, makes them “nudy”. I also pointed out that conifers, which have needles, aren’t bare. So some trees are nudy and some aren’t.

Bridging the gap between these two stories (our looking for nudy trees and my teaching her about the season) requires something of you, the listener. You have to know my daughter. You have to know what excites her and surprises her. What she finds funny and risqué. She must make sense to you.

Knowing Jesus

For our gospel to make sense, we have to know Jesus. We have to “get” Him. What excites and surprises Him. So let’s backtrack for a second. In the first chapter of Mark, we get a big arc all in one short space:

  1. Jesus is baptized by John and begins his ministry
  2. He calls disciples to follow Him
  3. Then He jumps right into it

And His ministry is about

  1. Proclaiming the Kingdom of GOD
  2. And healing the sick.

And he moves from simply healing sickness to healing demon possession: all of this and we’re still in chapter 1! Then it builds to something bigger than possession: The Leper.

Let’s think about The Leper in context. Diseased. Infectious. Dying. He is driven outside of the walls of the city to protect the people. For the city, this is a matter of survival, so he has been literally cast out.

The Leper is visually frightening; the markings on the skin, like a warning: Keep Away! The fear of contagion is more infectious than the disease itself. The lack of scientific understanding—and the unwillingness to try.

Chapter 1 is concluded with Jesus healing the ultimate outcast. One so frightening and other that even we dare not imagine this as someone’s father or son, afflicted and pushed away.

Ritual Purity

So when the man with leprosy walks up to Jesus, what happens? [he asks for healing and Jesus heals him.] Jesus doesn’t run away. Then what does Jesus tell him to do?

  1. Tell nobody
  2. Go into town and get ritually purified

We don’t know about the second one, whether or not the man chooses to get purified or not, but we know he ignores the first. It says:

But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Why can’t Jesus go into town?

Is it His new fame? Or could it be His own ritual impurity? Is He cast out? It is easy enough for us to dismiss these notions because of Jesus’s divinity, but what of his humanity?  He is, after all, a deeply devout Jew. He touched a diseased man and has not been ritually purified.  In fact, he really did get his hands dirty. So does Jesus really become an outcast? The difficult answer is yes! But unlike the man with leprosy, who is ignored, forgotten, and left to die, the very last words, the final clause of chapter 1 is

“and people came to him from every quarter.”

Into the Wild

Cover of "Into the Wild"

Cover of Into the Wild

Jesus pulls us from the protection of the city walls and out into the wilderness with the beasts. That’s the scope of His ministry in chapter 1. And for us. He calls us out to follow and then he takes off for the wilderness.

It is in the wild that the need is. Outside the protective city walls are the sick and the lonely and the hurting. We are called to minister to the most in need. The fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, sisters and brothers who are pulled from their families, walled apart from one another. One locked within a city of protection and the other locked out in the wilderness. We are called to heal these broken relationships and this sickness of separation.

Let’s follow Jesus out into the wild, leaving the 99 in safety as we go after the lost sheep. Let’s find the places in our surrounding community that most need protection, that most need Jesus, and risk our own ritual purity. To follow Jesus, we need to get our hands dirty.

Destination Unknown

Text: Mark 1:29-39


This gospel is like life: it has a lot of distractions.

There are lots of details we could run down; tangents we could explore: These new disciples, their mom and her mysterious ailment, the demon possession.

This gospel, on the other hand, is actually about the gospel.

It is about moving, finding, and proclaiming the good news to people that need it.  And this is no easy task.

It starts with Jesus’s baptism, the calling of the disciples, Andrew and his brother, Simon (Peter) go first, and then they get moving.  For these new disciples, it is a sprint.  They are off, trying to keep up with this guy who zags when they expect him to zig.  He doesn’t just talk about stuff, he gets right into it.

No wonder the disciples never know what’s going on.  We wouldn’t.  We don’t.

Not one about demons!  Please, can’t we pick a different one…

To get a handle on it, maybe we should look at one of those tangents: the demons.

Jodi-Renee Adams, in her reflection on this gospel, writes this candid response:

Demons wig me out. I’ve spent the last few years trying to avoid having to form a theology, philosophy, or even an opinion of demons. I’ve tried even harder to avoid being one of “those” evangelicals who prays that Satan would keep his grimy mitts off of the sound system or out of the weather during the youth group ski trip.

None of the people in the synoptic gospels know who Jesus really is or where he’s going.  Only the demons. And when they threaten to reveal the truth, he shuts them up.  The disciples aren’t supposed to know what Jesus is up to, and neither are weThis is why it’s hard!  We have to trust and follow Jesus where he’s going.  We’re to follow Him.  We’re to zag when Jesus zags.

Adams continues by arguing that the gospel isn’t just about understanding Jesus intellectually, but personally, at a gut level. Proclaiming the Good News is reflected in Jesus’s speaking and healing (reconciling).

The way, then, is not drawn out like a script to follow, but a pattern: a way of being.

Getting to know you!

Since I’m new here, I’d like to get to know the people of St. Paul’s and our diverse talents.  A show of hands:

  1. Who here is creative/artistic?
  2. Who writes well?
  3. Who are our pray-ers? (public and private)
  4. Who are our strategizers?
  5. Who are our lovers?
  6. Who are our stallwarts?  (people who are a part of everything)
  7. Who haven’t raised their hands?

Awesome!  We just formed our

  1. Worship team
  2. Communication team
  3. Prayer team
  4. Planning team
  5. Newcomers and Pastoral Care team
  6. Fellowship team
  7. And some free agents

Don’t worry: I’m only half kidding.

Jesus has given us an opportunity to follow Him and St. Paul’s has an opportunity to find out what that means: proclaiming the Good News in words and actions and through all these other gifts.

And I am incredibly thankful to be participating in that ministry with all of you.