Annual Ash Wednesday Post (or sometimes a cigar is a metaphor)

A blessed Ash Wednesday to you.  Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return!

As you can no doubt tell, I enjoy a good cigar.  I recognize that in this day and age enjoying a totally natural product produced from the “evil weed” is probably one of the few “vices” that are totally unacceptable in respectable society, but I have always been a bit of a contrarian.

I smoked my first real cigar at the tender age of 25 and found that I enjoyed it tremendously.  Part of the enjoyment was the trip to the tobacconist’s shop, and the experience of being walked through the humidor and discussing the various options available for my palate.  I also loved the ritual of lighting up, and the camaraderie I found amongst my fellow enthusiasts in that small tobacconist’s shop in Dayton, Ohio.

I was in seminary then, a student at United Theological Seminary working on an MA in New Testament.  I did not have much “walking around money”, but could always find a few shekels for a good cigar, and once a week would make the trek to the Boston Stoker on North Main.  There I would read, or write, or more often end up in a far-ranging conversation with folks from all political, religious, and irreligious persuasions.  There was never a dull moment, and though the conversations could get a bit heated, we all enjoyed each other’s company, and of course, the cigars we smoked together.  Over the years, I added pipes and good English tobacco to my repertoire, but no matter the smoke, the conversations were the same.  I do miss those days.

Hence the first purpose and name of this blog, as I need a place to have a good conversation that is centered on a common identity.  While, I will probably discuss the “evil weed” from time to time, the common identity here is a love of Jesus and a commitment to be a faithful disciple.  I invite you to join me on that journey.

The second reason for the name is that a humidor is capable of keeping a cigar fresh for an indeterminate amount of time, and allowing it to age to perfection.  I have cigars in my humidor that are fifteen years old, and are as fresh as the day I bought them, but have matured, aged, “gotten better” over the years.  I think the historic faith of the Church in many ways is like the humidor in that it keeps us fresh and helps us to mature in Christ.  I suppose, we could also be likened unto the humidor, as we keep the faith fresh, but I probably should not push the analogy to its limits.

Why is it appropriate to begin on Ash Wednesday?  Well, let me tell you a story.

I recently enjoyed a very special cigar as I was working my way through a demanding text.  I was alone, and thought it a good day to dive into my reserve.  That particular cigar was a Tatuaje robusto, and it has been aging for four years and was a thoroughly delightful creamy smoke. In fact, I delighted in this cigar so much, that I closed the book and just enjoyed the experience of the taste, the smell, and watching the smoke curl toward the ceiling and fill the room with its aroma.  It tasted of heavy cream, cinnamon, clove, and a slight hint of pepper.  The room note reminded me of “Blanc” incense.  So, I just sat back and relaxed, and tried to make it last as long as possible.

Unfortunately, as with all good cigars, at the end of the hour there was just a pile of ash left in the tray, and a memory of that smoke upon my taste buds.  I was sorely tempted to open the box and smoke another, but realized that would not be a wise decision, and looked with a bit of melancholy at the remains of what had been a great cigar, and was not but just a memory.  This is the fate of all cigars, and pipe tobacco, no matter how expensive, how great, how cheap, or how terrible, all of them become just a pile of ash at the end of the day.  They burn up, they burn out, and they are no more than a memory.

Is that not the lesson of Ash Wednesday?  We are all destined to be just like that great cigar.  No matter our station in life, rich/poor, wise/foolish, Republican/Democrat, beautiful/homely, or any other label, we are all destined to become nothing but a pile of ash.  We will die.  This is not because we are “used up”, but because of the effects of Sin.  As the Good Book says, “The wages of sin is death”, and we all get paid.

However, this is what makes the Christian faith different; we have hope beyond the ashy-ness of our existence.  Because of Christ: his Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, we have hope that this mortal body, though used up and ashy, will be raised and made new.  Because of Christ: death is not the end, and those who are found in Him will be raised like him.

On this day, when we remember our mortality, our common destiny to be put a pile of ash, let us repent and return to the Lord who can raise a pile of ash to new life.

May you have blessed Ash Wednesday.

Veterans’ Day 2016

107th_Cavalry_Distinctive_Unit_InsigniaLast Friday, I had the honor to serve as the keynote speaker for the Veterans’ Day observances at both Tri-Valley High and Middle Schools.  It was a privilege to address the young men and women of that community.

The focus of my address was simply on service, and placing ourselves second to others.  This is effectively what our Veterans have done.  Each of them, whether volunteers or draftees, stepped forward and signed on a dotted line for service before self.  Each of those who served honorably deserve our respect and gratitude being willing to serve when this nation called.  Whether or not we agree with the politicians and their maneuvering that brings, or has brought, this nation into conflict, the men and women who have served deserve our thanks.

So, what is the best way to thank a veteran?  Parades, programs, and discounts are nice, but I believe I speak for most veterans when I say the best thank you is to be of service to your fellow citizens and pass on the respect for, and love of, the freedoms so many have served (and died) to keep.
To all the old troopers, especially those of the 2-107th Cavalry, Scouts Out!
And don’t forget Fiddler’s Green.

Bastille Day

Terror in Nice.  Jesu, Mercy. Mary, Pray.

Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny’s
Bloody banner is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak our fields!

What does this horde of slaves,
Of traitors and conspiratorial kings want?
For whom are these vile chains,
These long-prepared irons? (repeat)
Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage
What fury it must arouse!
It is us they dare plan
To return to the old slavery!

To arms, citizens…

What! Foreign cohorts
Would make the law in our homes!
What! These mercenary phalanxes
Would strike down our proud warriors! (repeat)
Great God! By chained hands
Our brows would yield under the yoke
Vile despots would have themselves
The masters of our destinies!

To arms, citizens…

Tremble, tyrants and you traitors
The shame of all parties,
Tremble! Your parricidal schemes
Will finally receive their reward! (repeat)
Everyone is a soldier to combat you
If they fall, our young heroes,
The earth will produce new ones,
Ready to fight against you!

To arms, citizens…

Frenchmen, as magnanimous warriors,
Bear or hold back your blows!
Spare those sorry victims,
Who arm against us with regret. (repeat)
But not these bloodthirsty despots,
These accomplices of Bouillé,
All these tigers who, mercilessly,
Rip their mother’s breast!

To arms, citizens…

Sacred love of the Fatherland,
Lead, support our avenging arms
Liberty, cherished Liberty,
Fight with thy defenders! (repeat)
Under our flags, may victory
Hurry to thy manly accents,
May thy expiring enemies,
See thy triumph and our glory!

To arms, citizens…

(Children’s Verse)
We shall enter the (military) career
When our elders are no longer there,
There we shall find their dust
And the trace of their virtues (repeat)
Much less keen to survive them
Than to share their coffins,
We shall have the sublime pride
Of avenging or following them

To arms, citizens…

 

What do I have in my bag of Trix(R)?

As a child I used to love finding the prize at the bottom of the cereal box.  Inthose days of yore the prizes are actually pretty good. Who could not resist a slimy stretchy hand or a wall climber?  It was  the prizes that determine the type of cereal I would beg mom would buy each week.  If Sugar Smacks® had a better prize than Froot Loops®, then of course I would Dig ‘em®!  I believed that the prize helped make the cereal taste better and maybe even allowed for a more meaningful encounter between me and my potential breakfast.

It wasn’t until my cynical teens that I figured out it was simply a marketing gimmick designed to sell cereal. It was quite a surprise to realize that the major brands did not really care for much more than selling cereal to the unsophisticated child who would demand that mom buy the right kind.  Oh well, as a child, like a child.

This came to mind as I was preparing for the Pentecost liturgy this week, as I was reminded of all the gimmicks I have either seen used, or to my shame, have used on that day.  Readings in foreign languages? Check. Doves on fishing poles flying through the congregation? Check.  Red Balloons? Check. Sharing of Bid Red Gum and Atomic Fireballs to give us tongues of fire? Check. Shaking of key rings simulating wind chimes to symbolize the wind of the Holy Spirit? Check.

Now, each of these were designed to make the liturgy more “meaningful” and allow for greater “participation” in the meaning of the day.  In the end, they were nothing more than an attempt to be cool, or hip, or sell the service as something different and unique. Thus, they said much more about the promoter than the day, and subtly promulgatged a belief that the the power of Pentecost could not be known without a little help from its friends. Frankly, however, the real inspiration behind them was not to make the liturgy meaningful, but a belief that the liturgy could not speak for itself or had no real power, and needed us to jump-start a “meaningful” (read “emotional”) experience through our “creativity”. 

So what could possibly be wrong with reading the lessons in other languages?  Nothing, if a significant number of your members speak that language.  Otherwise it is just a show of how learned the clergy and members are (hey, read the Gospel in Greek!), or a calling out that we have one or two who actually know a foreign language.  Of course, we then forget that most won’t actually hear the lesson in their native language, which was kind of the point of Pentecost to begin with as, “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2.11). But, hey, why should we have intelligibility when foreign, or ancient, languages are so cool and fun? 

As for wind chime keys, remember that entrance of the Holy Spirit was not like a soft summer breeze, but was “a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house” (Acts 2.2).  Mighty rushing winds don’t make soft tinkling sounds, they overwhelm.  We aren’t being tinkled on Pentecost, we are being rushed over and changed.

No, none of those for me this year.  I believe that the Liturgy itself speaks the importance of this day for us as believers.  We do not need to add gimmicks to increase its meaning or emotive impact.

However, if you desire to find the full meaning of the Liturgy and be challenged/changed by it,  just do what the Church has done throughout its history.  What is that you ask?  Well, pray throughout the week for your mindful attendance, your fellow Christians’ attendance, and your clerical leadership.  Pray that the clergy are filled with the anointing of God in bringing the homily and presiding over the liturgy.  Conduct a self-examination to see where sin is operative in your life, is keeping you from living the Gospel life, and bring that with you to the confession.  Read holy works, Scripture and others, throughout the week and mediate on the readings for the Sunday.  Remember that you are not just celebrating a Sunday in May, but Pentecost, or Trinity, or Proper 15, and if you have to miss remember that you are not just missing a Sunday, or a service, but a particular Sunday and say your prayers.

We do not need gimmicks to worship.  We simply need to be prepared.

Although, if I could figure out a way to light foreheads on fire….

No es muy frio o muy caliente

“Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matt. 5:37 ESV)

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!” (Rev. 3:15 ESV)

Our Lord spoke quite a bit about the power of choices and keeping things simple.  Unfortunately, we have a way of complicating the obvious and trivializing the momentous.  One of the greatest ways we do this is by our presence, or lack thereof, in the church of our choice. 

Yes, I said it. While I would like to believe that the marketplace, or politics, do not rule which church we attend, they do.  We are truly American Post-Modern Individualist consumers and whatever we desire, we can find a church that provides it or teaches it.

The problem is that we treat churches like a brand of soft drink bought at the local convenience store, when it should be treated more like a house.  The soft drink is designed to be consumed in one sitting and meeting a single “need”.  The home is an investment in something solid. This requires constant investment and maintenance, but done properly it will last for generations.  I could not imagine changing a home as quickly as I do soft drinks.  Choose a home and stay as long as it meets your need for shelter. Feel free to choose based on the style and structure, and whether your family and all your stuff will fit in it.  However, once the choice is made, make a vow for a little stability, as far as it depends on you. Above all, resist the temptation to keep an alternative house always at the ready, for then you will never really be at home.

This  came to me as I was considering how to respond to a request to sojourn at St. M’s from a very nice couple, associated with another (not Episcopal) congregation in the area, who are at odds with the lead pastor. What they desired was not a respite period, but for welcome only on the days when this particular pastor was the lead in the service. In no way is this healthy, for either party.

So, my advice would be to make a choice to offer up their dislike in prayer through the power of the cross and continue to attend their current church, or make a clean break.  Taking a week or two off each month to attend another service to avoid that pastor is not healthy for them or the congregation. The Church is a place where real relationships exist, including bad ones that we need to work through, and where the Body is made poorer by our absence.  Be in or out. Don’t limp between two opinions. Let your “yes” be “yes”. Don’t be lukewarm.

That being said, there are times to make changes.  Not, all relationships can be healthy. Sometimes we want different worship styles, or more and different programs.  Sometimes a Methodist realizes he is actually an Anglican!  However, if you find yourself to be in this situation, or cannot reconcile your relationships, you owe it to your current church and your potential new one to make a clean break.  Anything else is unfair to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Then, if you are departing because of a broken relationship, go to confession for your own part in that break-up.

Any church is like a house, it is what you put into it that makes it a home.

NB—for clarity, I am speaking about church, or pastor, hopping in general, and not about part-time status in retirement or “snow birding”.

Oh the irony…

Obviously, I must not have had any thoughts since I have not posted since Good Friday.  Not, strictly true, but nothing worthy of recording or publicity.

Seriously, though, as I have been preparing for this Sunday’s homily, I noticed that the reading from Revelation has been cut in an interesting way.  According to the Revised Common Lectionary (of which I am not a big fan in any case), we are to read Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20-21.  Three verses are removed from the lesson.  Do you think this is done to simply shorten a long lesson, or could there be another reason?  I submit it is due to a penchant for not wanting to deal with uncomfortable verses, or simply verses we do not like.  This type of editing reminds me of Connie Booth asking John Cleese for The Standard Book of British Birds (the expurgated version, the one without the gannet, they wet their nests).

I have highlighted the removed verses below:

‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

14 Blessed are those who wash their robes,* so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practises falsehood.

16 ‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’
17 The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; 19if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

20 The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.

So the editors decided to cut the verses warning about adding and taking away from the book?  Ironic, no?

Of course, I could be wrong.

For those who wish to see Monty Python’s bookshop sketch click here.  (Warning: language).

 

 

 

Good Friday

“The functional avoidance of Good Friday among many Christians is a heresy of long standing. Its tacit justifications seems to be that Easter Sunday signals a victory so complete that God effectively annihilated Golgotha. Such confusion makes for a theology that is not merely bad, but heartless and even dangerous. It…dares to attempt what even God refused: obliterating the wounds of Christ Crucified.”–Clifton Black, “The Persistence of the Wounds, in Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 57.  Quoted in The Crucifixion by Fleming Rutledge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 65.