Rector's Ramblings August 14, 2019
This week my Jeep goes in for its third transmission replacement in the months I’ve owned it. I bought it knowing the transmission needed to be replaced; it was priced accordingly. Unfortunately, the company that manufactured the original transmission has had some issues, so it’s been replaced under warranty once already. In diagnosing what’s wrong, we’ve had to rule out several things, particularly for the second replacement. So far, I’ve replaced the rear main, the clutch, and the shifter. (The first two of the three were done with the first transmission while it was out.) Now there is no question that the problem is with the transmission itself.
Problem-solving can be like that, can’t it? In my last parish, there was a leak in the rectory that took a long time to find. That water found an uncanny path through an outer wall to show up in the kitchen ceiling. We assumed it was a plumbing issue with the bathroom above. How frustrating it was to realize after many attempted repairs that it was a leak around a window instead. Even then, it took removing all of the siding from the house on that side to find it. It was time-consuming and expensive, but in the end, it was the only option. It was a process of trial and error, but we finally solved it.
These are the stories and experiences that make us reluctant to tackle some problems, right? There is innate self-preservation that causes us to ignore things that we know could be more involved. There is a sub-conscious effort to convince ourselves that such problems aren’t that bad. Other times it’s a kind of irrational wish that they will solve themselves so that we don’t have to deal with it. When we're rational, we know that ignoring problems usually makes them worse. Such tactics cost us more in the long run!
Then there are the problems that aren’t as simple as a single cause and effect matters. Some issues are complex and resist simple trial and error. I learned back in high school science that controlling variables is essential when testing a hypothesis. Many variables simply resist control out in the real world! This complexity also adds to a reluctance to tackle problems, or at least an inability to know where to start. There is a point at which the options and the opportunities are so high in number that we can’t choose which one is likely to be the best bet.
Perhaps the last challenge to problem-solving are the factors that work against finding solutions. When an expert tells you that the lump you reported isn’t anything to worry about, you’re less likely to pursue it. Sometimes it turns out they are wrong, and we find out later it is cancer. Sometimes we won’t allow ourselves to believe that there is a problem. My child/pastor/company/party/friend could never do something that constitutes a problem, and we ignore it. When the principal calls or the pastor gets arrested, however, we realize we were wrong.
All of this taken together explains why we have so many big problems that go unresolved. A leaky roof and a faulty transmission are one thing, but problems like low reading outcomes in a district, or immigration reform that is both humane and effective, or the collapse of respectful dialogue and cooperation in public arenas are an entirely different matter altogether. The latter examples represent things we can’t solve on our own. The last example is probably the biggest reason many big, national problems aren’t addressed, but it’s a problem in and of itself! The reality is that such problem solving, or even problem “addressing” will take a tremendous amount of work; it will take time and humility; it will take creativity and humility; it will take selflessness to meet the cost; it will take a generation that isn’t concerned with winning points against those who have different ideas, but working with all the ideas on the table to find something that we can at least try in an effort to chip away at the problem. Some, perhaps many, will fail, but with each, we learn, and with each, we get closer to the solution(s).
We all tend to suffer from the phenomenon of discounting the future. On one level, we know what the long-term looks like for a lot of these issues, and it isn’t good. All of the motivations to ignore and challenges to motivate gain traction, however, because what we see and feel right now is always more important than tomorrow; today is much more motivating than an unknown fifty years in the future. Inaction is rarely the solution to a problem. That’s why we should celebrate those who are trying and help where we can. That’s why we can ask ourselves what we can do, as limited as we may be in our ability to make things better. Will our advocacy, our dollars, our letters, our voice, our questions, our ideas, or our prayers be effective? If there’s any chance that the answer is yes, it’s our responsibility to offer them.
I know it’s frustrating to stare down at the big hairy problems of our day and not know how we fit in. That doesn’t mean we get a pass. I learned a long time ago that I hold the key to a lot more doors than I would have guessed. I learned it from a great philosopher, a strange, yellow-orangish, hairy creature in my childhood. He may have only been a character in a children’s book, but it was a message that has stuck with me: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not!” That philosopher was Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, of course, and he wasn’t wrong. He still isn’t, as far as I can tell.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can,and wisdom to know the difference. Amen.
Rector's Ramblings August 7, 2019
What follows is a reflection I wrote up for the Diocesan weekly newsletter. I’m sharing it here also, because it pertains to everyone in the Diocese, and also explains a little bit about one of the places I go on vacation!
The Diocese of Georgia’s Clergy Cottage in Saluda, NC has quickly become a favorite destination for our family. We’ve utilized the cottage on a number of occasions in the years I’ve served in this diocese, and each time it has provided a place of respite and retreat, while also serving as a launching pad for adventure. Some of those adventures have made for great life-long stories, like the time our youngest was bit on the foot by a copperhead while hiking in nearby Dupont Forest. Don’t let that dissuade you; she was fine, and we have snakes here, too. What we don’t have here are the mountains and the cooler weather!
When I speak about the Clergy Cottage, I sometimes find it hard to describe it accurately. It’s a quaint little cottage, about one hundred years old. It is simple and cozy, in a quiet street in the cool little town of Saluda. I have heard some call it “rustic”, but I don’t think that’s a fitting description, per se. It isn’t showy, by any means, but it has amenities that I don’t think apply to rustic structures. It has a small, but full kitchen and a full bath, and there are window air conditioners for use in the main living area and the upstairs bedrooms (there’s also a master bedroom downstairs), and it has all the pots, pans, and utensils needed to stay in for meals. Each of these amenities is simple, yet sufficient for a place of retreat, which is what the cottage was designed for.
In 1893, the Clergy Housing Association was formed with a vision for a series of cottages to be made available for clergy in southern dioceses, to have an opportunity for “rest and charge” as they enjoyed, “the salubrious atmosphere” in Saluda. The first cottage was built in 1901, and the original model was for just a few clergy, perhaps as few as one family, to enjoy the cottage during the heat of the summer months. Donations were accepted from individuals, parishes, and dioceses to build on the nearly eight acres donated for this purpose, which is how Georgia came to eventually have its own cottage. The Georgia house and the South Carolina house were the last two that remained from the Association, and the Georgia cottage alone remains in ownership of the Episcopal Church to be used for this purpose, decades after South Carolina sold theirs to a priest from that diocese.
For us, the affordability of the cottage makes it a great option for a family getaway in the summer. While my wife and I would enjoy it on our own, our two girls love it as much as we do. When we did not reserve a week at the cottage last summer, they were sorely disappointed! We find the setting to be refreshing, and we have never run out of things to do in the surrounding area. With DuPont Forest and Pisgah National Forest nearby, we can find lots of trails and waterfalls to explore. Surrounding towns, like Hendersonville, Brevard, and Asheville (to name a few) are great day trips. Saluda itself is a quaint little town with a good vibe, good restaurants, and eclectic shops. From the Clergy Cottage, we’ve been able to experience hiking, tubing on the Green River, antiquing, shopping, wineries, breweries, the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail, Shakespeare in the Park, small town festivals, and so much more.
The cottage itself is quirky, and it has an amalgamation of interesting furniture and decorations that only God would know the original source for. I can admit it wouldn’t be for everyone, but we find it to be a soul-feeding place to call home for a week at a time. Sitting on the porch rockers and listening to the trees as they sway, or reading a book in the living room at night, with a cool breeze gently coming through the window are favorites of ours. Perhaps you’ll have to try it for yourself. Clergy get first crack at the annual calendar, in keeping with the mission of the cottage, yet after a certain point, the open weeks are available to anyone in the Diocese of Georgia. It’s a gift that our diocese has such a resource, and the best way to be good stewards of the vision that created it, is to use it. I know our family is grateful to those who made and still make it available. I hope the hospitality and the ministry of the Georgia Clergy Cottage continues for many years to come.
Rector's Ramblings July 31, 2019
I write a lot. I knew writing was a part of ministry, but I don’t think I realized just how much writing I’d be doing when I went off to seminary. It’s one of those things “they” don’t tell you, and you figure out along the way. Granted, I suspect I write more than many of my colleagues, if for no other reason than I write these ramblings week after week. Even so, ministry means putting pen to paper, or these days, finger to keyboard. What’s interesting is that I now have a nerdy set of statistics on my writing.
Back in February, I downloaded a piece of software called Grammarly. It’s a web-based spelling and grammar tool, not unlike what word processing software uses to do the same. Grammarly has a bit more power when it comes to grammar and making recommendations about word choice or phrasing. It’s much smarter than Microsoft Word’s built-in checker by comparison. Since I do most of my writing in a hurry, having some help with punctuation, spelling, and grammar is beneficial. The software automatically scans my emails, anything I type on the web, text messages I send from my computer, and any documents I cut and paste into the desktop module. I also get periodic reports on my usage.
For example, as of today, I crossed the 250,000-word mark since I started using Grammarly. That means in about four months, (I was away and not writing on my computer for more than a month since February), I have written the equivalent of five hundred single-spaced pages of text. And that doesn’t count everything I’ve written. Because the module that embeds in Word hasn’t worked for my Mac version of the software, Grammarly hasn’t registered all of my writing. I can manually use it for text I copy over from a Word document, but I don’t always do that. Given this reality, I wonder how close to one million words I might get in twelve months? I average 15-16,000 words a week, again, not counting all of the Word documents I create. My highest week using Grammarly was apparently this past week at 21,775 words!
Grammarly tells me I’m more productive than 95% of their nearly seven million daily users. I also apparently use a more extensive vocabulary than 97% of users, with 2,616 unique words used (I believe that’s cumulative). Now, I don’t rate as high on accuracy, (only 40th percentile this week), and I think I know why. One, I write quickly. I am often getting words on the screen as fast as possible while I’m processing the sentence or the thought, or taking notes in a meeting, knowing that I will go back to edit later. I also tend to skip certain articles when I’m not writing in a narrative style. I get “gigged” on commas and periods, because of speed and the fact that not all of my writing is done in complete sentences (hence no periods!). The software doesn’t know exactly what I’m writing and why, so it is always evaluating whether everything is in the place my tenth grade English teacher may have expected it to be.
I suppose all of this means I am loquacious (hello, 2,617th word!). I am certainly a lover of words. Words matter a lot to me, perhaps because I read and write so many of them. Semantics matters to me as well; not just the common or intended meaning of words, but the significance of them and how they are used. I notice particular words and try to establish why a particular word might have been chosen and whether there is more than one interpretation intended. This is, no doubt, why I enjoy learning other languages and puns. In both cases, words often mean multiple things at the same time. Words, therefore, must be used carefully and thoughtfully. We could all stand to measure our words more carefully and also take care as we judge the words of others. We’re in an era where words are indeed being used to convey multiple meanings, and also used as weapons to send messages to those with ears to hear. Sometimes hearing the intent behind the language is not as easy as we might assume, which is why Jesus made similar comments.
Preachers often quote Psalm 19 when they pray before a sermon, “May the words of my mouth…always be pleasing in your sight, O Lord…” I don’t think that should be reserved for preachers alone. It’s a lesson we all learn as kids in various ways, yet many of us forget along the way. In an era when so many words are lobbed back and forth without care, or worse, with hateful intent, perhaps we could stand to meditate on the plethora (2,618 words, thank you) of insights on words provided by the ancient wisdom of the book of Proverbs (below). We could all stand to choose our words wisely and carefully these days, and to speak them in love whenever possible, no matter how many we use.
Meditation on Proverbs (NLT):
- Evil words destroy one's friends; wise discernment rescues the godly.Proverbs 11:9
- It is foolish to belittle a neighbor; a person with good sense remains silent. Proverbs 11:12
- Your own soul is nourished when you are kind, but you destroy yourself when you are cruel. Proverbs 11:17
- A gentle answer turns away wrath, but hard words stir up anger. Proverbs 15:1
- Gentle words bring life and health; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit. Proverbs 15:4
- Kind words are like honey – sweet to the soul and healthy for the body. Proverbs 16:24
- A person’s words can be life-giving water; words of true wisdom are as refreshing as a bubbling brook. Proverbs 18:4
- Words satisfy the soul as food satisfies the stomach; the right words on a person’s lips bring satisfaction. Provers 18:20
- Wise speech is rarer and more valuable than gold and rubies. Proverbs 10:15
- Telling lies about others is as harmful as hitting them with an ax, wounding them with a sword, or shooting them with a sharp arrow. Proverbs 15:18
Photo Credit: “Typing photo” used with permission by www.instructionalsolutions.com.
Rector's Ramblings July 17, 2019
While on vacation the last two weeks, I very much enjoyed the opportunity to worship with churches where I was not required to be on or up front. Both Sundays I was away, we worshipped with a St. James; St. James, Hendersonville, NC, and St. James, Lancaster, PA. The latter is my home parish, and while I wasn’t there in person, I enjoyed worshipping from my living room the morning after we returned from our travels. St. James in Hendersonville was an enjoyable Sunday morning in a beautiful church with friendly people. It was our first time visiting, and I’m glad we were able to worship there.
My Livestream participation in the liturgy of St. James, Lancaster was special, not just because I grew up there and spent my first three years of ordained ministry there, but because this was the Sunday they were decommissioning the church’s organ. I decided I wanted to watch from afar rather than attend another church closer to home. It was most definitely the right choice for me.
My love of organ music is the direct result of that instrument and those who have played it. In my lifetime I can say, conservatively, that I have heard that organ played more than 10,000 times, if I count up all the hymns, postludes, concerts and such that I experienced from the time I was in my first year of life. It will be some time before I can say that a minority of the Sundays in my life were spent in that sanctuary listening to that organ. For now, that space and that organ represent nearly two-thirds of my Sunday morning experiences. Put in those terms, it’s understandable (to me) that I felt some real emotion as the organ was prayed over and played for the final time on Sunday.
Music, church music, in particular, has been a big part of my life, particularly my formative years. I’ve written about Frank McConnell (Mr. McConnell, as we called him), the organist who played at St. James for more than 50 years, in a previous rambling. His time on the organ bench covered more than 48 years of this organ’s 72-year lifespan. Like the humans who play them, organs have life spans, too. Depending on the instrument, they can be repaired and reworked, but at some point, the work becomes near replacement, especially when it involves electronics to make the pipes work correctly. This particular organ was rebuilt once and rehabilitated at least once, and was to the point where it would need near complete rebuilding again. It was getting harder to keep in good working order for a reasonable investment of money. The team that studied the options decided to make the switch to a digital instrument.
Digital organs, while they have improved tremendously in quality in the last 10-20 years, will always lack something to certain ears. Digital organs also have some upsides that appealed to St. James, too. They will be reclaiming a significant amount of space left by the removal of pipes. As a land-locked historic building, space for a growing congregation is precious. And, as St. James has continued to expand their musical horizons on Sundays and for special services, the digital organ will give them options for sounds they cannot get otherwise. When the congregation does hear the sounds of a pipe organ, it will be a series of recordings of real-world pipes from somewhere, but it will not be the unique, soulful sound of the particular instrument I grew up with. That is a real and genuine loss to be grieved, and so I do.
This is not to say I don’t support the parish in its efforts. While grieving the end of the life of this organ, I also rejoice with the parish for the new era that awaits with a new instrument that will draw people to praise God for decades to come. Many years from now, when that instrument reaches the limits of its lifespan, it will likely be grieved, too, I have no doubt. Things change and die, and there is often new life and new growth. I think there’s some theme like that in scripture… I wrote to the Rector at St. James after the service, to thank him for the pastoral approach he took as the organ was decommissioned. There was an acknowledgment of the family that donated the organ, memorials associated with its life, those who played it, and its central role in worship for such a long period.
I pulled out my phone and made a recording of the postlude as it was played via Livestream this Sunday. It was the same piece played at the dedication of the organ in 1948; Improvisation on “Now Thank We All Our God,” by Sigfrid Karg-Elert. I don’t know how often I’ll revisit it, but it’s nice to know I captured just a bit of sound from the instrument that I sang with so many times; the instrument that played at both my grandparents’ funerals, at my confirmation and ordination, at my wedding, and at the baptism of my eldest. The gift of music on such occasions is both fleeting and eternal. As the strains die away, they do not leave us forever. We carry them with us, even now. I know I do, and I will.
Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done,
in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace,
and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills,
in this world and the next!All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns
with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God,
whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore. Amen.
Rector's Ramblings June 26, 2019
This week the Christian blogosphere and news cycle was filled with news of the how different Evangelicals can be when it comes to news from our southern border. Russell Moore, who is the chief ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention, an evangelical’s evangelical, was ridiculed by Jerry Falwell, Jr., who now runs his father’s Liberty University. Here’s what transpired on Twitter. Note, I saw this in the news, not on Twitter. I only use Twitter when I’m at General Convention!
Russell Moore tweeted the following earlier this week: “The reports of the conditions for migrant children at the border should shock all of our consciences. Those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and compassion, especially those seeking refuge from violence back home. We can do better than this.”
Falwell’s response was: “Who are you @drmoore? Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you authority to speak on any issue? I’m being serious. You’re nothing but an employee - a bureaucrat.”
Twitter did what it does after Falwell’s tweet, and challenged him for his extremely unbiblical and un-Jesus-like response. “Jerry Falwell” began to trend on Twitter, and not in a good way. Perhaps the best response I saw was from the Twitter account labeled @JesusofNaz316: “Jerry Falwell, Jr does not represent the views or opinions of the staff and management of the kingdom of heaven.” Indeed. The exchange is ironically sad and funny at the same time, but more importantly, it is a deadly serious exchange. Why? Because too many Christians are inclined to challenge a prophetic and faithful approach to a topic because it doesn’t match up with a party line. In this case, it does cost the lives of children.
At the end of the day, we can disagree continually about border policy, immigration policy, and who should be allowed into our country. That’s the way the process works. There should be no place to disagree, however, about what constitutes appropriate care for children in custody. The reports about three hundred kids in a space for 100, underfed, without adequate medical care, without adult supervision for toddlers, some without diapers, should shock our consciences, even if we’re dealing with a raging case of issue fatigue when it comes to the border. It’s not acceptable, no matter how they got here, how we got into this situation, and it should not be allowed to continue.
US Customs and Border Protection has basically acknowledged that they lack the proper funds and facilities and agreed that this situation requires, “humanitarian funding to manage the crisis”. Christians of all stripes and denominations should be exercising their public responsibility to engage the political process to tell our elected representatives to fix this crisis. We don’t have to stake out positions on the wider border debate, just let them know that kids cannot be treated this way in this country, in this day and age. It’s not yet been dealt with, although as of today, we have dueling funding resolutions from the House and the Senate. Perhaps we could set aside our partisan ideas about larger border policies and just agree that we need a solution to this specific problem, and that we need it quickly. It’s not about Republican vs. Democrat; it’s about loving the ones Jesus calls us to love.
Mr. Falwell doesn’t speak for all Christians, thankfully. While I may be on different pages than Mr. Moore on a host of topics, our Christian understanding of a proper response is in sync. We can do better.
Father, you are a defender of the defenseless, protector of the vulnerable, and restorer of broken relationships. Stretch out Your hand to move miraculously and bring resolution to this crisis. Jesus, heal the broken-hearted and bring comfort to all who mourn. Holy Spirit, release divine solutions to our leaders! Break the spirit of division and contention! Let Your Kingdom purpose be advanced! Stop the chaos! Bring order and peace! God of Heaven, give each person Your heart for this situation. Let Your kingdom come! Use us to speak out, act, and represent You to our civic leaders! Bless those who uphold righteousness and justice! Show Your power and Your glory in this situation! In Jesus’ Name! Amen.
(Slightly adapted from Center for National Renewal – bring a flair of the evangelical prayer style to bear.)
Statement from CPB to PBS following their broadcast on the crisis on June 21.
Rector's Ramblings June 19, 2019
Having been away from the house for three full weeks, we had some “opening” of the house upon our return. When we are going to be away for more than a few days, we turn off water heaters, raise the temperature on the thermostats, and try to unplug anything that’s not essential. We also clean out cupboards and the refrigerator, too, making sure that things that could spoil in our absence don’t become an issue. Regardless, it is not uncommon to go to the pantry and get something and discover that it has gone stale in the intervening days or weeks.
Surprisingly, we didn’t have too much that falls into that category this time around. The miracle of preservatives ensured that several dry foods, well-sealed, survived the time away without incident. There are few things worse, in my culinary world, than getting a cracker out of a box and getting that mushy, stale crumble instead of a flavorful crunch. Sometimes it’s enough to make you want to spit it out instead of finishing the chew and swallowing!
Food is not all that goes stale. Sometimes life, work, vocation, hobbies, and many other things can become stale over time, too. It’s often not an immediate process, but more of a long term gradual process as environmental factors in our lives work on things. This is one of the reasons why this recent trip to the Holy Land was so wonderful. I wouldn’t say I had sense a staleness in my ministry or in my preaching, per se, but continuing formation is as essential for priests, as it is for many vocations. There are a number of jobs that benefit from, if not require, continuing education and opportunities for growth. Mine is one of them.
Each year, our clergy are given two weeks of continuing education leave from the parish as part of the expectations of our ministry. Some of it can be saved up and used for longer or more in depth opportunities, like an advanced degree, or it can be used each year as it comes available. All of our programmatic positions include continuing education leave. This trip to the Holy Land is the most formal, and certainly most intensive, continuing education leave I’ve taken in my six years at Christ Church. I’ve used it for conferences, General Convention, a CREDO wellness retreat, and a few others, but I haven’t worked a “continuing education” plan the way my mentors have encouraged me to. At some point I’ll pursue a Doctor of Ministry, but the timing hasn’t been right.
This trip, however, was an intense time of formation on several fronts. The historic learning about the environs of Jesus’ ministry was fascinating, even as the modern landscape doesn’t always reflect what things looked like two thousand years ago. Other aspects have been preserved for the entire period since Jesus’ days. It helps bring much of what I’ve read and studied into focus in a way that is hard to express, yet palpable all the same. The peacemaking aspect of this trip was also deeply instructive, as I think about my role as teacher and prophet in the 21stCentury with Glynn County as my context. Such work will continue to influence my efforts to serve the wider parish in which I serve, with the classical understanding of a parish being more than the property or the members of a congregation, but the local community in which a parish is centered. Sometimes, clergy and parishes alike forget that their priests are not chaplains, called only to serve those who fill out pledge cards or get newsletters. Ours is a ministry to God’s people wherever they are, seeking justice in our communities, and professing the love of Jesus to any and all through a variety of means. In this context, again, this trip was inspirational.
To be clear, this trip to the Holy Land and Jordan was not a vacation! It was packed with learning and reflection for twelve hours almost every day for its duration. That means I returned from it exhausted, but certainly not stale. Quite the contrary. It was inevitable that my first sermon back would include reflection on something from my trip, as this past Sunday’s Trinity Sunday sermon did. As one person reflected, as they greeted me after church, “If that’s the kind of sermon you give after time away, we should send you away more often!” That is why we send our clergy and ministers away. And I’m grateful for it.
Thank you to Christ Church, as an institution, which allows us time and space and resources for such formation. Thank you to our leaders, lay and staff, who pick up responsibilities while I am away. Thank you to parishioners, who understand our need to have such opportunities and graciously wish us well in sendoff and warmly welcome us home after we return. This most recent trip has been transformative, and I am deeply grateful to each of you, and to the God who continues to call me into fresh places of ministry and devotion. Nothing stale here at all.
Take my lips, O Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rector's Ramblings June 5, 2019
Today marks the end of our Holy Land tour. About half our number is continuing on for a three-day extension to visit Petra, in Jordan. In some ways, this has been a long trip, and in other ways, it has passed in the blink of an eye. It feels like our first day in Jerusalem, visiting the Western Wall, was a lifetime ago. It also feels, as we leave Israel, that we just got here. It is a beautiful and multi-faceted country, full of history and complexity, to be sure.
That complexity is one of the standouts for me, but I’ll come back to that. I want to start today with a story from my time in seminary, an event that was in my mind as I prepared for this trip and has returned to my thoughts over and over again. One of my favorite professors at Sewanee was a great storyteller and preacher. Many of us took as many of his Greek and Pastoral Care electives as we could, in the hopes that we might absorb just a bit of his wisdom.
One day, as we were translating Luke’s story about the resurrection, he slipped into storytelling mode. He explained his own travel to the Holy Land and how eager he was to visit the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem. As often happens, the line into the inner chapel was very long, which builds the anticipation even more. As you go into the shrine/chapel, there is an initial chamber accessible by stooping low through the doorway. It is lit by a series of candle lanterns and contains some statues and other art. The inner part of the chapel can hold about four persons, accessible through and even lower doorway. There is a small altar with an icon of Jesus, again, lit by candles.
Like my own experience, he told us how powerful it was to be in that place, even if it’s not “exactly” where the tomb was. It’s hard to tell after all. Like most things in Jerusalem, the parts you see are often built over top of the actual location, rock, etc. The tomb itself is a good two meters lower than the part you get to visit. At any rate, as he shared with us, as you leave the tomb shrine, carved in the stone lintel of the door are the words (in Greek) of the angel in Luke’s Gospel: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he has been raised.” My professor’s point was to remind us that his (and therefore perhaps our) pursuit of such holy sites is interesting, but not what Jesus has in mind for us. Following Jesus is not about living in the past or venerating history beyond its due. Instead we are to seek the living Christ out in the world where he is at work without ceasing.
We met with a number of persons on this trip who spoke to us about present-day issues that the Holy Land faces. Several of them thanked us for not coming to Israel only to see the dead stones of history, but also to see the living stones still here in the holiest city on earth. While living stones is often a term applied to Christians in Jerusalem, specifically Palestinian Christians, who are directly descended from the first Christians, at least two of our speakers applied it to living people of the Abrahamic faiths in this place. Much of our trip allowed us to see and learn about the history of this place from the perspective of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and included present-day struggles.
I have learned a great deal about the vision and spirit of the Nation of Israel, and I have also had to confront the reality of the struggle that Israel’s creation has caused to those who were already living in this land. As you probably know from a lifetime of wars involving Israel and so many headlines about Israeli, Arab, and Palestinian conflicts, it’s not a problem with an obvious solution. As we heard from speaker after speaker: “It’s complicated”.
Despite the many complications, however, I am leaving Israel with hope for a peaceful and just future, for all those living in the historic land we also know as Palestine. There are many, many people working and praying for peace, making sure that hope is not extinguished by hatred, and choosing to love where others want to give up and fight. I look forward to sharing more details with you in time, but for now, I ask you to pray for the Peace of Jerusalem that has been so elusive for so long. There is too much at stake if peace does not come. It’s not just the stones we visit and take photos of, to say we “went there, saw that.” More important for us are the living stones who are torn by violence and hobbled by hatred. This is where the risen Lord is to be found - where he’s always been: working for hope, peace, and love. We should expect and work for nothing less.
Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace. Give to us and the people of all the nations a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that all of your people may use their liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Rector's Ramblings May 29, 2019
I don’t have a lot to reflect on after 48 hours in Jerusalem. Actually, that is inaccurate. I have very much to reflect on, yet I have not had a lot of downtime for that reflection. Our first two days of this pilgrimage to the Holy Land have been a whirlwind. At 6:30 am local time yesterday, we set off to begin our trip by visiting the West Wall and the tunnels beneath it. We spent the entire day in the Old City, exploring the area, and just a small amount of the historical and religious richness it holds.
We were able to walk the Via Dolorosa, which we know as The Way of the Cross, the historic route that pilgrims have walked for centuries, that Jesus is believed to have walked from his trial to his crucifixion; the same route that marks the 14 Stations of the Cross we still pray each Good Friday. Within a couple of hours, we went from the holiest of sites in Judaism to the holiest of sites in Christianity, as we visited the church of the Holy Sepulcher, which contains within its walls both the traditional site of Christ’s crucifixion and Christ’s burial. There are chapels built over both sites within the larger church and simply to be in the vicinity is awe-inspiring.
In our second day, we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance facility in Jerusalem which houses the Israeli National Holocaust Museum. We also visited Mt. Hertzl, and the graves of some of the most important Israelis in Israel‘s relatively short history. We were able to discuss how this region has been rent by wars and how some have worked fervently for peace as a result. We talked with an imam, a Palestinian Christian leader who works for peace, and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor who discovered a treasure trove of letters in his ancestral home that no one had ever talked about, spanning the lead up to and early part of the Holocaust. Just this evening, we met with two men from the Parents Circle Family Forum, a group representing over 600 families who have lost love ones in the violence associated with the Israeli occupation. The men, one Palestinian, and one Israeli, learned to form a friendship of understanding over the shared grief of having lost children to senseless violence.
Although one of the hopes for our trip is to learn how we can make peace with those who might form our natural enemies, I confess that two days in, I am also aware of a sense within myself that lasting peace in this city will be nearly impossible in the short term. We have two tour guides with us throughout each day, one Palestinian, and one and Israeli, and they are not shy about sharing their differing interpretation of the importance of sites, and the history and politics that has created such a mess for so many. Even people who want to work towards peace seem to be at a loss for a true starting place for equality and justice, not even agreeing on the meaning of what happens today, let alone what has happened in the last 10 generations.
I am sure that by the time our trip is over, I will be swimming in even more complexity and greater understanding at the same time. Have no fear, you will have a chance to hear (put up with) my reflections on these experiences in the months to come, as I suspect you already know. These insights and experiences will certainly work their way into other ramblings and sermons. Please keep our group of 44 pilgrims in your prayers, for safety, but more importantly for open hearts and minds, as we listen for the rushing of wings as the spirit passes amongst us and those we meet. I am humbled and moved by the holy places we are visiting; that they can call us to something new, not just leave us to reflect on the past. This time is not just about absorbing tourist experiences for me, but about insight and understanding about the roots of our faith and also where we might find growth for its future. We’ll see how things shake out in the days to come!
Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace. Give to us and the people of all the nations a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that all of your people may use their liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Rector's Ramblings May 22, 2019
This past Sunday I preached about the ongoing need to support Burroughs-Mollette Elementary School (BMES) in Brunswick. BMES is still the poorest school in Glynn County, and actually for several counties around (based on the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches). When compared with all the elementary schools in Glynn, Brantley, McIntosh, and Camden Counties, Burroughs Mollette is the poorest by this measure. And, as research has shown over and over again, poor schools, where the majority of students are poor, have worse outcomes academically. It’s not so much that children in poverty can’t learn and can’t excel, but rather that when a school is predominantly poor, there is a strong negative correlation between that widespread poverty and performance on standardized measures. [Photo Credit: The Brunswick News]
On one hand, I could not care less about standardized test scores. I think standardized testing is ruining education in many parts of the country. We tend to lay a lot of our complaints at the feet of the Common Core standards, yet teaching for standardized tests has a long history before the current standards became the measuring stick. This leads to an unhelpful system of awarding teachers, principals, schools, and school districts based on the standardized scores that are recorded each year. The anxiety that accompanies such systems is palpable all the way from Atlanta, down to my dining room table. This might ultimately be a way to get some special attention for schools like BMES in the end, but I doubt it. When we realize that poor schools will rarely measure up on achievement measurements, maybe we’ll decide to change the school make-up or change the way we measure the students.
I say this because there is research that shows that poor schools can measure the same growth as wealthier schools, maybe even better growth. That is, when the measure is not a standardized universal instrument that puts all children of a particular age in the same category, but is instead based on individual achievement and growth over a period of time, poor schools canhold their own. In some cases, poor schools are able to achieve higher growth scores than their wealthier counterparts, yet such results are rarely quantified or rewarded. Poor students tend to start behind their peers, which means they finish behind their peers, which means they will often lose out on comparative systems of reward. The standardized scores of poor schools will always lag, sometimes dramatically. That helps explain why BMES’ GA Milestone scores (the GA standardized tests for 3-5thgrade) range from 2.5 to 15.2 on a scale of 100 for the various grades and elements of testing. This compares to scores that range from 66.3 to 88.2 at the county’s wealthiest school, Oglethorpe Pointe Elementary. Keep in mind that students from similar neighborhoods to BMES students tend to perform better at the wealthier schools they are bused to. It’s not an ability issue, it’s a poverty issue.
To overcome the poverty challenge in education takes a great deal of resources, commitment, and creative thinking. It can be done. When I mentioned Lebron James’ efforts in Akron, OH, on Sunday, it was a prime example of what creative approaches can achieve. While the kids in the school he supports still lag behind wealthier schools in standardized test scores, 90% of the kids in the school outperformed 99% of students nationally, when measuring individual growth (when comparing pre and post-test scores). If those efforts can be replicated semester over semester, year over year, grade over grade, it is feasible that students once written off as lost causes could end their public school careers on par with their peers who face far fewer challenges in academic achievement. It’s a hope, and it’s a start, and we have to start somewhere.
And what does this have to do with us? It means we need to get active and creative, and most importantly, hopeful about what is possible for BMES in the future. To that end, we are going to continue our efforts to support the school overall, recognize teachers, and continue facilitate tutoring for afterschool and dyslexia spectrum kids, among other outreach initiatives. We are going to reward kids for their standardized test scores, in part to celebrate high achievers, and also to help others learn that (even though many of us don’t like them) standardized test scores matter to the school and the future success of their school. Think of it as apathy-busting and excellence-rewarding at the same time. We’re also going to start a reward program at the school through Glynn Episcopal Ministries. Borrowing ideas from what works in better resourced schools, I think we can establish an instant reward program that incentivizes achievement in reading, math, and behavior all at the same time.
When children are rewarded as they do something, research shows it can be a huge motivator. Grades and test scores aren’t big motivators for most kids, especially those who know that they tend to get more wrong answers than right ones. Finding ways to celebrate the small successes and small gains is not a throwaway; it is the only way. We’ll need some volunteers to help put the program together and support teachers in using it. We’ll also need some financial resources and donations to provide the incentives. If we are able to create a “Tiger Dollar” system, the kids can accrue dollars for successes, and then use them to buy things in a “store” that would be open once a quarter and offer everything from toys to books to candy. Every child has a chance to earn rewards, not just the high achievers.
I’m going to put it on the calendar right now: Sunday, June 23, I am going to host a meeting at 12:30 pm for those who want to help think through how we can facilitate such a program. Please join me if you have ideas or interest in something like this. And if this isn’t your thing, consider being a mentor or a tutor. You need to attend a training session in order to go into the schools, but these programs change lives. Te Boles’ dyslexia tutoring outreach is also a good place to invest your energy. She will train volunteers how to administer the Barton Method, and the more tutors we have, the more kids we’ll be able to help.
This past week I spoke to the entire student body at BMES as a part of an end-of school assembly. These are kids who are more than numbers and test scores. These are kids who, in some cases, are living in situations I can scarcely imagine. The heartbreaking thing is that you can see it on some – not all – of their faces. But I won’t let myself see a gymnasium full of kids for whom there is no hope. I want to work with the school; with teachers and staff; with the parents who are able to raise the bar; with a community that cares for these kids, as if they are their own, and give it everything we’ve got to make it better. I don’t think we can eliminate the poverty in the near future, per se, but a generation or two of better-educated children will certainly help. Kids who grow up to have options, real options for a better life, whose own kids will then have options for more success, is where my hope lies. Hope, with a lot of love and a lot of hard work, is really all we need.
God of knowledge and wisdom, we pray to you for all the schools across this country. We remember them in their variety, in their differences, and in what they share. Give us open doors, open minds, and open hearts that we might accept, learn, and love everything and everyone whom you give to us to teach. Help us to share our lives and what we have, and to learn from all those who are in our schools. We pray in the name of Jesus who opened his arms to all, young and old. Amen.
Adapted from a prayer by John F. Smith
Rector's Ramblings May 15, 2019
A few years ago, I rambled about a game I used to play on my cell phone, Clash of Clans. My nephews had gotten me started on it, and I stuck with it; we were in a “family clan,” and it was a way to interact with them. Over time, we all basically stopped playing the game. It got old. In some ways, it was a passive game; when you were battling someone, it was your troops going up against their preset defenses. There was no other person actively playing against you, not even a computer. That may be why the company that created the game created a spin-off version, as play of the original, at one time the highest grossing game in the iTunes App Store, began to trail off.
Their successor game, using many of the same ideas and figures, is Clash Royale. Unlike its older brother, CR is a live action game. Each player builds a battle deck of eight cards. You might choose to have wizards, giants, goblins, barbarians, Valkyries, dragons, and a host of other options; there are more than ninety cards available. Each card costs a certain amount to play, they have unique ranges on the board and have varying degrees of speed, strength, and durability. The object is to destroy more of your opponent’s castles than they destroy of yours. You start with three, and if someone gets all three, they win. Oh, and you only have three minutes per game to win.
Without going into all the details, (there are too many to do so here), this is a fast-paced game of strategy. It’s like chess on steroids. You have to know what each of your cards can do and try to anticipate how your opponent will play theirs. You can only see four of your cards at a time, and they rotate through as you use them. There are combination plays that can be very effective, but every attack meets an equally effective defense at some point. I love playing the game. It’s addictive, and it hasn’t gotten old the way the predecessor game did, and it shows in the level of play through the app. The global participation is as much as 100 million at the moment. The game’s creators have created a gold mine. At the end of last year, it was reported that they were making over $1 million per DAY.
I’ve been playing the game to some degree since it launched, so I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I win more matches than I lose and I tend to float near the top of my “clan” even though I don’t play nearly as much as some others. Some folks play it throughout the day, all day long. I can’t do that. At any rate, for all that I know my cards and their abilities, for all my experience in seeing all sorts of combinations and decks, sometimes it all comes down to luck. Sometimes the cards don’t come in the “right” order, meaning that whatever I play, my opponent seems to have predicted and counters right away. Or, whatever they play, I can’t seem to defend because the card I need hasn’t rotated up yet. It’s frustrating to know what needs to be played, yet I’m unable to play it. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the cards come perfectly timed to dominate a match, but of course, in those moments I’m more apt to chalk it up to my prowess than luck. Naturally, right?
Well, darn if life isn’t like that. We tend to take credit for the things that go well; it couldn’t possibly be luck when things go our way. It’s because we’re talented, hard-working, and attractive. Right? It’s like living in Lake Woebegone, where everyone is above average.
But on the other hand, no matter how skilled we are, no matter how well we’ve tried to plan, sometimes the cards just fall the wrong way, and we lose. We may look to God and complain, or we might internalize it and blame ourselves for our failures. Rarely are either an appropriate explanation. Not that we don’t make mistakes, but life is just full of surprises we can do nothing about.
Most of us have been at this life thing for a while. I think many of us win more than we lose, fortunately. But we do face some losses. They are annoying and frustrating, and painful, but there it is. Most of them are relatively minor losses, and we take whatever cards we have and make do as we move ahead. Other losses are more impactful and can cause us to change direction entirely. My only hope is to remind us that sometimes life just happens, and we won’t benefit from trying to assign too much meaning to it, divine or otherwise. The name of the game is adaptation, graceful learning, faithful effort, and daring adventure. If we can embrace those things, we’ll always win in the end.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thank thee for all thou hast given and for all thou hast forgiven; for thy hidden blessings and for those which in our negligence we have passed over: for every gift of nature or of grace: for our power of loving: for all which thou has yet in store for us: for everything, whether joy or sorrow, whereby thou art drawing us to thyself through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.