Friday, December 18, 2015

the problem with Advent

I heard a story on NPR last night as I was wending my way back from the Northern Tier.  It was about the profession of futurism and those who, by intuition and inference based on elite, non-mathematical statistics, predict all manner of things in our geo-political world.    The radio host interviewed Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner about their new book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction and talked about their experience in the field of practicing strategic foresight.  They discussed military and political uses of this practice in our country and also related the exercise to the more mundane parts of our lives- like determining whether or not we’d have snow for Christmas.   Like a lot of NPR programs, I found it fascinating and was grateful for the company as I plowed my way down RT 11/15 with 18-wheelers as my only other company.

And then I got theological, as I sat behind the wheel.  I started thinking about Superforecasting and Advent.

You see, Advent is problematic.

It could use a little superforecasting.

 Advent is the season of expectation and hope that, statistically speaking, could go either way, in the end.    It’s not a done deal with a guaranteed outcome. Now, there’s no doubt, on the first Advent, that there was to be a culminating event- a birth.  Anyone reading this who’s ever been nine months pregnant knows that even though it seems interminable, at some point, the pregnancy will come to a close and a baby will be born.  And I’m sure that the Holy Mother knew, bouncing along on that donkey to Bethlehem, that her time was drawing nigh.

But in our modern day Advent, we are hoping for, expecting, something a little different.  We are hoping for Jesus to be born anew, in our hearts.  And that’s a little risky.   It’s not risky because God might make other plans… but it’s risky because we might not be prepared, or “catch” God when God shows up.   The problem with Advent is that its outcome depends on our ability to receive the gift that God has in store for us:  the gift of power and peace, delivered in the package of a tiny babe.

Many of us participate in Advent devotions that, like Lenten practices, aim to incorporate something new into our spiritual disciplines that will help to prepare us for receiving Christ.  There are books to read, candles to light, and calendars to help us mark the time.  The Advent readings on Sundays invite us to reflect on the concept of time, as God knows it, and on the might and mystery of redemption.  It is John, though, who shouts at us and gets us to pay attention:  “Repent.”    I interpret this call for repentance as a call to turn ourselves around, and to open ourselves again, to God.  The Greeks call it “metanoia,” or “turning,” and this “turning around” is how I practice preparing my heart for Christ.    Turn from the distractions of daily life. Turn from the pattern and demands of the calendar, turn from routine, turn from the usual, and open oneself to what could be-  the possibility of deep peace, inner harmony, acceptance, vitality and new life.  That’s what awaits us in the manger, if we are open to receiving the gift.

I don’t know what the superforecasters might say about the risk of Advent; if we do the work and open our hearts, if we turn to Christ, will he appear?  Without any technical training in the art of futurism, I’m willing to say, “yes.”  Prepare your heart, and receive the Christ.

Blessings for a holy Christmas.

* the blog will be suspended for the next 2 Fridays as we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity and take a short Christmas break.  Look for the next Compass Point on Jan.8th.

Friday, December 11, 2015

gathering steam

In the past couple of weeks, it feels to me as though some of the projects and initiatives that we’ve been talking about are beginning to gather steam and take on some movement-  this is exciting to me.

The timing of our beginning together- just after a General Church convention, just before our own diocesan convention and the beginning of the of the “program year,”-  this beginning has been full of activity, generating ideas and receiving programmatic mandates that we’ve taken on in the form of resolutions.  And now, we’re getting started.  Gathering steam.

At last week’s Council of Trustees meeting we parsed the convention resolutions and got to work forming the new Social Justice and Equity Committee (if you’re reading this and want to join up, please contact my office and we’ll direct you to the convener of that group).  This committee will serve as an “umbrella committee” to organize and share information between all of our social-justice-oriented groups and help to share the good news of the work that is taking place around our diocese.  My hope is that this committee will focus on communications as one of its top priorities and work with our diocesan staff to inform and invite us all to this important gospel work.

At Standing Committee, we welcomed the new members and new leadership and dug into the work of understanding the role of the Committee and its responsibilities in our diocese.  We started with setting group norms- an important way to set baseline expectations for working together in covenant community. 

The Commission on Ministry has been reviewing the recommendations that I have made to them regarding the ordination process and we’re making headway on the discernment of an increasingly clean and clear practice that supports those who are exploring their call to serve God.

The group of individuals that showed interest in addressing the refugee cause has organized their “Advent through Epiphany Opportunity” and, after interviewing our brothers and sisters at Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, have determined that the first step for us will be to collect gently used pots and pans, new pillows and small toys for children.  This in-gathering is the first initiative in what I expect will be a long and developing project to support the refugee resettlement effort. (For more information on this, contact Loretta Collins at

The anxiety that I have felt watching the local news, learning about gun violence and mayhem in our city of Harrisburg was given a productive outlet as I attended the One Nation Harrisburg Community Meeting last Sunday night at the Boys and Girls Club on Berryhill St.  A dozen or so parishioners from St. Paul’s, St. Andrew’s, St. Stephens and Sycamore House also attended this meeting in which testimony was heard from residents of the Alison Hill and Uptown neighborhoods and committees were formed to take on the systemic issue of violence.  Later in the week, I met with Representative Patty Kim and talked about ways that we might offer the resources of the Episcopal Church to assist in the effort of ending lethal gun violence.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks.

I am encouraged.  Encouraged by the movement on all of these fronts, but even more, I am encouraged by the deep desire in our Church to build God’s Kingdom.  Each of us has gifts, each of us is called to discern the best way that we might participate… and then, we are called to act.  For some of us, that action includes using our leadership skills of organization and motivation.  For some of us, the call is to be a “worker bee,” following the direction of others.  God love the worker bees!  And still others of us are called to support the cause in prayer.  In one place where I served, the prayer team was one of the most vibrant and important parts of our congregational development effort.  And, so it is:  prayer is a powerful tool for us as we participate in God’s mission.  It is an essential part of what we do.

So, keep praying.  Keep building.  We’re gathering steam and moving along. We’ll need to pace ourselves, some- we’re in this for the long haul- but doesn’t it feel good to be on our way?

Friday, December 4, 2015

time, the ever-rolling stream

For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.

Psalm 90:4

If I’ve learned anything in the past five months, it is that Pennsylvania is one giant commonwealth. Oh, I was told during the interview process, “You know, this is a pretty big diocese.  You’ll spend a lot of time in the car.”  I nodded, telling folks “not to worry, I love to drive.”   During the walk-about week we traversed the diocese in our coach bus and learned first-hand of the distances involved; I found it all to be part of a grand traveling adventure... and then, in July, when I began my work here, I started to learn, for real, what it means to cover a territory that extends north to New York, south to Maryland, reaching far west to Bedford and east to Lancaster.  I was given the keys to a 2015 Subaru Forester, a very able executive assistant to help manage my schedule and… I was off.

The challenge in all of this is not in the driving- the car is perfect, the roads are well maintained (if not constantly under repair…) and the scenery is bucolic to say the least (silos, golden waves of grain, deep blue mountains, sherbet-colored sunrises and sunsets)-  no, the challenge is in deciding how to best manage one’s time, how to arrange the week’s appointments so the time in the car (and the fossil fuel burned) makes sense.  Good sense.

Advent is all about time.  The measure of time.  We spend the season waiting, anticipating, hoping for the arrival of the Messiah.  One of the temptations is to look through the season to the finish line (Christmas!) and neglect to savor the hours, days and weeks that make up the Advent season.  The challenge is to look forward with anticipation to the birth of the babe while savoring the pregnancy.

In these past weeks I have asked to spend time with our retired clergy of the diocese.  We have a goodly number of clerics in this diocese who have served, faithfully, for a great many number of years (some have served upwards of a half century)  and my hunch is that there are great lessons to be learned from their collective experience.  And so, I’ve been making my way to different regional centers- Lancaster, Williamsport, and Huntingdon, so far- to spend time with these folks.   What a richness in their stories.  I’ve heard about parish life in its evolving nature, about the relationship of bishop to clergy, about the practice of pastoral care, liturgical reform, striding with grace through the changes and chances of our common life, and about leading change in the name of progress.  This “dip” back in time has informed my understanding of the current reality that we call “Episcopal diocesan life in Central Pennsylvania” and it has been time well, well spent.  It has been time for me to learn, but even more importantly, time to build another layer of relationships among the people here as we continue our work together.

The message, then, for reflection, is this:  how are you managing your time in this Advent season?  What intentional choices are you making to move through this sacred season in a way where time is spent as a valuable commodity, a treasured resource that opens the door to deepening relationships, growing understanding, and a rounding of self in relationship to God?

Time is our resource for making ready.  How will you choose to prepare?