Friday, May 27, 2016


“Life is made up of marble and mud.”
                                    Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is the season of graduations.  Women and men, boys and girls will take their turn this month crossing stages in flowing gowns and teetering mortarboards to shake the hands of their academic mentors, receive their sheepskins and march into their own particular futures.  I have seen the proud documentation of several graduations on Face Book already this season, and I look forward to two events for our family in the upcoming weeks as my niece and nephew both complete their high school years and participate in their commencement exercises.

I don’t know if schools produce yearbooks anymore.  In the digital age, where letters have given way to emails, photo albums to computer files of pictures, and hard-covered books to their electronic cousins found on Kindles or tablets, it’s hard to know if the  high school yearbook still exists.  My hunch is that it does- because of the power that is has for us in its sentimental capacity.  That one book – the high school yearbook- carries the lives of an entire group of people- a high school class- at their most poignant, their coming of age.  High school year books give testimony to the critical passage from childhood to young adulthood and display in all their glory and awkwardness, the finding of self.  Or, at least, they display the beginning of the shape of the adult as exercised in the limits of the high school construct.

I remember being quite diligent about the choices that I made in selecting my own high school yearbook persona.  It was my chance to create a lasting statement about who I was, at age 17, and how I wanted to be remembered, years later, by my classmates.  I was a bit of a rebel.  It was the mid- 1970s.  The chaotic, revolutionary 1960s had faded, some, and in my mind and the mind of my friends, the 1960s had been transformed to a romanticized era of freedom, passion and hippie-dom.  Most of my close friends were academic and musical marvels, achieving hand-over-fist in scholarly pursuits and attaining accolades in chamber groups and select choirs.  I was a step away from all of that and found my place playing a supporting role to the cast of our classes’ brightest and best and a home in the semi-hippie persona, or Hippie re-dux or Hippie 2.0.   In the affluent, white, suburban, colonial New England town where I lived, the Hippie 2.0 persona that I achieved was expressed in a comical mix of Earth Shoes and patchouli; Fair Isle sweaters and bell bottomed corduroys; the soundtracks of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Eric Clapton; and lemon verbena tea taken with the occasional clove cigarette.  Oh, it’s painful to even write it down, now.

For the yearbook, I insisted on my photograph being taken out on the soccer bleachers.  Many of my classmates went the traditional route using formal portraits taken in a studio, but back in 1976, Hippies 2.0 insisted on “candids” taken en plein aire.  We loved soccer (and the adorable English teacher who coached the boys soccer team) and by claiming a preference for soccer we imagined that we were making an anti-establishmentarian statement against its popular sports rival, Football. (I have the distinction of never attending a high school football game. Not one.)

And so, there I was, on the soccer field bleachers, in my grey crew neck sweater with jeans that were slightly frayed at the hem, all too aware of the baby fat that I still carried around, and my stick straight hair.  Oh, what a self-conscious age.

The quote that each of us chose for our yearbook was as important as the photograph.  I found the wisdom of Nathaniel Hawthorne to work for me, in his words, “Life is made up of marble and mud.”  I confess to not actually lifting this quote from a revelatory reading of one of Hawthorne’s novels- honestly, other than the required reading of The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables and a 10th grade field trip to his home in Salem, MA I can’t say that I was particularity attached to Nathaniel Hawthorne or his works, but I loved that image:  marble and mud.  I believe it came to me one night as I poured over a copy of Bartlett’s Famous Quotations,  with the yearbook deadline looming. The cool, elegant purity of creamy white marble… against the gritty, mineral-y, mess of mud.  It seemed to reflect my life-view at the age of 17. And so, I claimed it: “Life is made up of marble and mud.”

When I think of all of this now, I feel a certain nostalgia for those years…. and a gratitude for having 40 years’ distance between then and now. Coming of age is rarely graceful, often painful and can yield a few nicks and bruises.

My prayer, in this season of graduations, is that each individual who steps across the stage knows that they are holy and blessed and loved.   Because, life is, indeed, made  up of marble and mud.  There is great beauty and grace to behold in this world, and plenty of messy bits to work through- it’s all part of becoming.   God delights in us- in all of our ages and stages-  may we always have that touchstone of knowing our own blessedness and of God’s deep and abiding love for us.

Share your high school quote with us.  Can you remember?

Friday, May 20, 2016

the question

My word on “How Can We Get Young Families to Come (Back) to Church?”

There is no doubt that on almost every Sunday afternoon-  after the worship service in which we hear the Word of God, are nurtured at the Table with the sacrament of Holy Communion and enjoy all of the aesthetic benefits of an Anglican liturgy that  connects us to the Divine; after the potluck luncheon featuring some of my favorite church-suppah specialties-  deviled eggs, corn pudding, macaroni & cheese, jello salad and tea sandwiches; after we settle down around a couple of folding tables  and introduce ourselves around the Vestry circle,- it will come:  THE QUESTION.  You know, THE QUESTION:  “How Can We Get Young Families to Come (Back) to Church?”

It is, hands down, the most pressing question on the collective minds of  vestries in our Church.

THE QUESTION is not always the first thing that comes in these meetings-  in fact, it is usually offered up towards the end of the meeting as the big solution to what ails the parish-  not enough money, not enough people to take on the ministries that keep the Church going, no one to step into the shoes of the current leaders who have been serving for decades and who are looking around for their successors...  THE QUESTION is a conundrum… and the elusive answer seems to hold the hope of the congregation for its survival and its success.

And, I am always overwhelmed by its asking.  Because the answer is so large.

THE QUESTION really begs asking questions in return… that will allow for some honest self-study on the part of the parish.

Here’s a start:

1.    Ask- what in your parish is nurturing for young families?
If a family arrived at your church on a Sunday morning, what would they find? A welcoming and warm community, for sure, but then what? Is there a plan to accommodate children in the service? A children’s class or materials for use in the pews? Are there programs that are geared towards the concerns of young parents like parenting classes, a play group, an after school program, homework club or a “Parents Night Out” program where children come for an early evening supper and activity while the parents go out for their own dinner?  Are there inter-generational activities that treat the family as a spiritual unit who can learn and pray together?  Are there ways that the church can nurture the families in their faith formation at home?   Is there a way to invite conversation with parents and ask them what they need, spiritually, for their own formation and support.. and helps to equip them as their childrens’ primary spiritual guides and teachers? And, if you have all of these materials ready to go, is there a logical way to let people know that you are ready to welcome them? (They probably won’t find their way to you on their own.)

2.    Is it clear that you are willing to shift your practices and patterns to welcome a new demographic into your church?  Is your congregation ready to move some pews out and create an area where small children can move around on the floor during the service?  Can the congregation tolerate the sounds of small, happy voices during the liturgy?  What about the unhappy voices? Will older children and teens be welcomed as assistants in the liturgy- acolytes, lectors, intercessors and ushers in a way that honors their participation as members of the Body of Christ? How can the inter-generational reality allow for a “satisfactory church experience” for all?

3.    Young families are not the best choice to assign leadership duties- how can you mentor them as they grow into leadership roles?  The temptation when a new family joins the church is to invite the parents of young children to teach Sunday School and to join committees just months after their arrival. How can we employ a culture of invitation that does not overwhelm new participants and also makes room for their new- and creative- ideas.  How can we stretch to embrace the new gifts of fresh expertise and enthusiasm and resist giving voice to our favorite church adage:  “We’ve always done it that way.”

4.     Are there activities and projects that will be appealing to young families- concrete ways that people can make a difference by participating in parish outreach and mission programs?  The consumer culture of the attractional church (Church has something to offer, people come and “get it”) is passé. People who are willing to come and spend a Sunday morning together want to have opportunities to make a difference and to participate in meaningful work that will transform the neighborhood and the world. This is especially true for teens and young adults. 

And then, there’s this:

Is THE QUESTION the right question to be asking, anyway?

 The whole premise of THE QUESTION is built on the assumption that if we can “get more families” to join us, then our Church (read: Institution) will be able to continue on as it always has.  In truth, our society is changing and the needs of young families today have shifted.  Levels of commitment and community participation have shifted and, in a culture of over-load, it may be that what young families really need is sanctuary and peace, not more to do.  The “point” of the Church is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP pg. 855) and, in our urgent need to keep the ship afloat, I think that sometimes we have forgotten where we are supposed to be heading.

If we want more young families to come to Church, it should be so that we can show them Jesus’ path of peace and love. We should be focusing on making our time together extra-ordinary and provide an antidote to the madness that pervades our  secular culture in which achievement,  self-focus, and climbing to the top prevails.  Parents want to do well by their children. The teachings of Jesus offer a framework for living that is deeper and more profound than any “character building” social studies program delivered in 30-minute, weekly lessons at elementary school.

I talk ad nauseum, about the “Missional Church.” I talk about getting out into the neighborhoods and exploring what God is up to in the local areas where our churches are planted.  I urge our clergy and lay leaders to engage those right around us, in our local mission field.  My guess is that, for many congregations, the local mission field has plenty of young families within a stone’s throw of the church.  Our call is to listen, carefully, to what these neighbors need- in order to live healthy, whole lives- and to reach out, through the church, to offer those paths of reconciliation, healing and growth.    It’s a shift in thinking-  from “how do we get them to join us-“ to “what can we do to give them the ‘peace that passes all understanding’?”

If you’ve made this shift at your church, how have you done it?  And how are the families whom you have embraced growing in Christ? 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Veni Sanctus Spiritus

Waiting on the Holy Spirit-

I signed an email to a friend yesterday, with this phrase, “Waiting on the Holy Spirit” in reference to a bit of discernment that I am doing and my hope to get a nod from the Holy Spirit to help in my decision making…

I laughed as soon as I typed it because, in spite of my own theological belief that God is always present and it is our work to open our hearts and minds to God, I sometimes regress to the place of calling on God- as though I am dialing in a song request to the radio or placing an order at the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through. 

Come Holy Spirit. 

Veni Sanctus Spiritus.  It is an ancient hymn that we sing (one of my favorite renditions- Jacques Berthier’s Taize version is linked at the beginning of this blog) and one way in which we call upon the Spirit to come to us.

It’s only fair that we think this way-  the biblical accounts of the Holy Spirit confirm the Spirit’s absence… and then… presence:  at the very moment of creation, the Holy Spirit comes and broods over the waters; at Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descends from Heaven as a dive bombing dove; at Pentecost the Spirit arrives in wind and tongues of fire, descending on the heads of the apostles.

But I prefer to think the the Holy Spirit is with us all of the time, and that the praying and waiting that we do when we sing or pray “Come Holy Spirit” is more about preparing our own hearts and opening our own eyes to the power of God around us all the time.  We need just to be open and receive.

The Holy Spirit is known to us as a Comforter, Advocate, as the “Lord of Life”, and the “Breath of God.”  I like to believe that it is the Holy Spirit that gives me the gumption to do difficult things when my own human sense of vulnerability might otherwise hold me back.

At Confirmation services, I have the distinct honor to lay hands on the heads of confirmands and bid the Holy Spirit, “come.”  Honestly, this is one of the more powerful things that I get to do as a bishop of the Church, acting as a “conduit” of the Spirit of God, flowing through me into the bodies and souls of the confirmands. It is a holy moment and an intimate experience as I connect soul to Spirit.

At the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, priests of the church ask, “We pray you, gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the sacrament of the Body of Christ and his blood of the New Covenant.” (Holy Eucharist Prayer B) I always pause at this moment, inviting my own senses to catch up with the Spirit’s presence among us.

I wonder how you perceive the Spirit.  Is it as an empowering force?  A Comforter? As a teacher? (John 14:26)  Is the Spirit a sanctifying force in your life, making you holy and bonding your soul to God?

I often slip up when I pray at the beginning of my sermons and dedicate the time in the pulpit in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”  It’s a product of my early church training (1928 prayer book) but also, I think, a profound theological statement of the mysterious nature of God.  As much as I like to think of God as ever-accessible, ever-present and my strength- my crag and stronghold-  I like the bit of mystery that Holy Ghost retains.  After all, God is not like my best girlfriend with whom I can share a good laugh or cry over a glass of wine… God is my salvation and my eternal hope. There’s something mysterious, powerful and infinite about that , and for that, I am glad.

How are you and the Holy Spirit doing together?

Call Veni Sanctus Spiritus, and let your heart be opened.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

West Branch Day 3

After a weekend full of new experiences for me-  learning about Muncy,  making my first trip into a prison, visiting the Bald Eagle Project, enjoying dinner with the GLEAM folks at the airport, hanging out at the First Friday in Downtown Williamsport, trout stocking, leek hunting and meeting new friends at the Christ Church community dinner, I figured that Sunday would be… like lots of other Sundays:  Church. At 8 and 10.

And it was-  but it was special, too, in new ways for me.  I got to stand at the altar with my cousin Charlie Plankenhorn who assisted at the 8:00 service (how I wish my grandmother and mom could have seen that!) and he brought me some old family photos for me to take home. One of them was of me at age 15. Yikes. (bad hair, bad sweater, bad bell bottom corduroys.)   The service was in the chapel at Trinity, Williamsport where we had a small congregation of about 15 or so.

The 10 AM service included the sacramental rite of Confirmation which was the first time that I’ve participated in a service with students who have been through the “Confirm not Conform” program.  The service featured each of the 5 confirmands reading a bible verse that they had chosen as their special verse and then speaking about its significance for them.  The variety was great- something from Joshua, I Corinthians, Hebrews, a psalm, and the gospel of Matthew. Their speeches were brief but well-written and it was a joy to see them each step into the pulpit and deliver their address.  I especially liked how each child was called forward with the phrase “N., Come and Teach.”  There were two adults who were received into the church at this service, too, which is always a moment of grace; I am moved by those who choose to affirm their choice of a new church home in this way.

The service also featured some ladies of the parish who were wearing hats for the first annual “hat wearing Sunday.” It was the final Sunday of the program year for the excellent college-aged section leaders who support the choir, and they sang a lovely motet on their own.  The anthem that was featured was Friedells’ “In the Spirit’s Tether” which is one of my very favorite choral pieces on the theme of the Holy Spirit.

This was my second visit to Trinity (Palm Sunday was my first) and it felt comfortable and easy.  I even recognized some of the parishioners!

I’ll be back on Tuesday night in Williamsport leading a seminar on ministry to children with Special Needs but for the next 36 hours or so, it’s back to Mechanicsburg and the Cumberland Valley.

We’re having trout tonight, and asparagus and sautéed ramps-  edible mementoes of our fine 3 Day trip to the West Branch Convocation!