Saturday, 19 December 2009

Washington D.C. and a blizzard

American eastern coast states from Virginia all the way up to New York are being assailed by an early and major blizzard. The storm is expected to hit Connecticut and New York tomorrow.

It’s been tough for those who live in northern Virginia, Washington D.C., and Maryland. Driving is dangerous, and many airports have been closed. Annapolis, MD reported 20 inches.

There is some humour here. A friend in Maryland wrote (with affection) that her cross-dressing neighbour was shoveling snow in his cheer leader outfit.

‘Tis fortunate for most that this is a weekend storm.

Fortunate for most, but not for all.

Spare a thought for those retailers who have counted on sales during this weekend before Christmas to come out even. The paucity of shoppers will affect them deeply.

Some will go out of business. Others will lay off workers. A “winter wonderland” is lovely enough, but it will spell desolation for some owners of retail businesses and their employees.

Friday, 18 December 2009

The foolish piety of a loner

In the days when I was much more self-righteous and snotty than I am now (it’s not all gone), I would take pious delight in refusing invitations to parties during advent.
That piety helped to mask the fact that my gregarious outer man masks a truly inner loner.
I am a loner, but I have already been to two holiday parties this year. In both cases, right up until the moment I had leave my home I yearned for a sneeze which could be translated into a cold, and thus provide a great excuse not to attend.
Today’s party was down in Venice and it was for the out gay men at my Church a.k.a.  “The Belles of St. Boniface”.   
I’d hoped that my car would not start, or that it had a flat tyre. “No such luck” I muttered as I began the 25 mile ride to my hosts’ home in south Venice.
Once there, I had a lovely time.  The hospitality was gracious, and the food was good.  
 (Not to rub it in for those of you who live in colder climes, but it is nice to be able to eat outdoors by a swimming pool in mid December!).
I had a long conversation with one of the other retired Priests at St. B’s and his wife. (They were there as gay-friendly parishioners).  I’d never before done anything more than shake their hands, so it was good to get to know them a little better.
Most of all, it was great to enjoy the sociability of a party, and who cares if it is still advent.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Santa, and being nice.

The recorded music which is broadcast at one of the local supermarkets has been telling me since mid-November that “Santa Claus is coming to town”, and that “he knows when you’ve been naughty and he knows when you’ve been nice”.

Santa has not yet arrived, and frankly, I am tired of being nice!

What is it with cats?

My junior cat Adelaide consistently ignores me. But she demands attention the moment I sit down in an armchair to read a book.

On the other hand, my senior cat Ada will seek attention only when, (a) I am trying to nap on the sofa, or (b) when I am enthroned on the toilet.

My next door neighbour is a very angry and hostile woman. I hear her frequently when she is yelling (and cursing) at the mail man, the landscapers, the UPS man, or the trash collectors --- or me. And I mean frequently.

I can hear these angry diatribes from inside my house.

Yesterday it was the turn of her care-giver who had done something wrong, or failed to do something right. My neighbour told the care-giver that she was “stupid”; that she “never listened”; and that it “was her fault”.

This excoriation was launched before that care-giver had gotten out of her vehicle.

I try to believe that my neighbour has a great deal of self hatred which gets projected onto others.

Whether or not that is so, she certainly demands attention.

But I wish that she believed in Santa, and/or chose to be nice.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Anxiety in the face of abundance

The First United Methodist Church in Sarasota hosted its 7th annual Christmas Banquet for homeless and needy people.
It’s a classy affair. The tables are set with linen table cloths and good cutlery etc.  Each table has a magnificent and seasonal centre-piece –  a different one on each table -  made by church members in a friendly competition.
Church members wait on tables, and the food is more than excellent:  turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, dressing (stuffing) and good vegetables – followed by excellent homemade desserts.
The whole event runs like a well oiled machine. I estimate that there were close to 200 guests, served by about 50 volunteers.
Congratulations to the members of First United Methodist Church, for this extraordinary hospitality. The event is as far from a “soup kitchen” as you could imagine. It is truly a banquet.
My role was to “work the crowd” as folks lined up outside the Church.  Many arrived more than an hour before the Banquet began.  I knew about 70% of the guests, and they knew me.
Some asked me to pray with them.  I joshed and wise-cracked with others.  I tried to shake every hand, as a sign that “you are welcome”. Mostly I tried to be a non-anxious presence in the lives of those guests who were concerned in case there would not be enough room or food for them.  I also had to fend off the bull sh-t of those people who assured me that they had a special and unique reason to be placed at the head of the line.  I said to one of them -  “you cannot bull sh-t a bull sh-tter”  -  in other words “I know your game, for I too have played it”.
As I drove home I mused on the theme of “anxiety in the face of abundance”.
That’s a common enough feeling not only for homeless people, but also for those of us who are relatively well heeled. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Jack Chrisman's sermon at St. Boniface, Siesta Key, FL on 13th December 2009

The Revd. John "Jack" Chrisman has enjoyed two careers.

The first was in the U.S. Navy from which he retired as a Captain.

The second was as a Priest in the Anglican Communion. He trained for the sacred ministry in England, then served parishes both there and in the U.S.A.

Jack and his wife Donna washed up in second retirement on the shores of Sarasota. We have become good friends.

Jack preached last Sunday at St. Boniface Church, Siesta Key where both he and I are Priest Associates.

I was greatly "fed" by his sermon which is reproduced here (with his permission).




Holiness and madness -- like genius and insanity -- have traditionally been viewed as closely associated.

It does not take any stretch of the imagination to see John the Baptist take his rightful place among those religious leaders who, by their radical relationship with God and their unorthodox style of teaching, have been used by God to stir up faith. This is traditionally is called stir up Sunday from that phrase in the collect.

These Spirit-infused men and women come from all walks of life. Some, like the prophets of Israel, have back grounds an varied as sheepherder, priest, scribe and farmer. Yet they share a common trait in that they teach in ways designed to unsettle the conventional wisdom of the day.

They practice spiritual "Shock Therapy", they "deconstruct" the carefully constructed cultural reality to make way for the discovery or rediscovery of the reality of God. They are divine eccentrics, and they use their unself-conscious eccentricity to express God's alternative way of life as a summons to unfasten ourselves from the structures that penetrate and permeate and govern our ordinary lives.

By virtue of their very being, these "mad" people of God create conflict -- much more than they bring harmony or peacefulness. That is perhaps why they usually don't live too long.

Since they refuse to derive their living from the world, they can't be bought off, and they can say what God gives them to say.

They are fiercely independent -- making them opt for strange ways of subsistence, like eating grasshoppers and wild honey, and wearing scratchy camel-hair

Did you ever wonder why the Gospel writers felt it so important to point out what John ate and wore? I think he is the only man in scripture who gets this kind of treatment

Well, it was to point out that very apartness and independence. They are not big on compromise; they have no fondness for or toleration of politics, they aren't into making everyone feel good about themselves, about building collective self-esteem or any of the other psycho-babble we hear so much of these days.

Therefore, they are not just out of step with the world, they are "upside down" in it. That is why they can broadcast God with abandon and exercise their twofold ministry of protest and awakening, whether they are addressing royalty or public officials, large groups, or their closest followers.

In their untamed holiness -- in their "Holy Madness" -- they both fascinate and repel . They see that the cultures they address as people waiting at a railway station for a train that will never come, or for a train whose destination is death. And in their God-drunk, God-driving way, they jar their people out of their spiritual stupor, but always with the intent to bring them to faith through amendment of life.

When asked why she used images of the bizarre and grotesque in her writing, Flannery O'Connor, a woman who herself was possessed of "Spiritual madness"? replied, "To the hard of hearing you shout; to the blind you must draw large and startling figures." that sums up the ministry of the prophets in general and John the Baptist in particular. Often there is no softer, easier way to get across saving truth.

The eruption of John The Baptist into our lives during these weeks every year in Advent signals a necessary lesson that the Church insists we take in every year.

And this lesson does much to delineate "Holy madness" from just plain madness.

Unlike so many "anointed" people who have succumbed to excessive egoism, self-importance and self-promotion, and we know them don't we? -- the Jim Jones's, the Baker's or the Swaggart's of the world -- John reminds us that WE are to be instruments of the work of God in the world.

WE are meant to be servants, not sensations, WE are not the ends, but one of the many means. In other words we should be ever watchful that conviction does not evolve into conceit.

That is the hallmark of John's ministry. At what must have been the height of his popularity, when "the people of Jerusalem and all Judaea were going out to him, and all the region of the Jordon, and they were baptized by him .. confessing their sins" (Mt 3:56), John points to the One whose sandals he is not worthy to carry, the One who will baptize them with "the Holy Spirit and fire." (v.11).

John's way therefore is the way of instrumentality -- and his way is to be our way as well. Unless we are clear on the Source, we remain untransformed, and our spiritual experience inevitably becomes harmful -- a toxic side-effect from the cure the experience was meant to be.

An admirer once asked Leonard Bernstein, the celebrated composer and conductor, what was the most difficult instrument in the orchestra to play? The great maestro replied without hesitation, "Second Fiddle. I can always get plenty of First Violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm now that is a problem, and yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony."

This is one of the most significant Advent truths that John the Baptist brings to us, though "playing second fiddle" is often considered a step down in our culture, it is always the posture of the disciple of Christ Jesus. The way of self-promotion must give way to personal transparency, The desire to "be better than" must submit to the desire to "be the servant of".

It is the posture that I would recommend to you this Advent Season. It is the posture that Barrie Shepherd captured so very well in the marvelous prayer that reads:

"As I begin this day, become flesh again in me, Father. Let your timeless and everlasting love live out this sunrise to sunset within the possibilities and impossibilities of my own, very human life. Help me to become Christ to my neighbor, food to the hungry, health to the sick, friend to the lonely, freedom to the enslaved, all in my daily living." AMEN and AMEN

Monday, 14 December 2009

God is in his heaven?

I write at 9:40 p.m. on Monday 14th December 2009.
My home is so peaceful.  The cats, Adelaide and Ada are resting comfortably.  My dog, Penne has been a wonderful “friend” all day.
The Florida weather has been most favourable, enabling Penne and I to take some lovely walks.
I’ve done “normal” things - eating, shopping, laundering sheets and towels, visiting the library etc..
I also did some laundry and shopping for my good pal Ben (he is still relatively immobile following his ankle fracture).
Later in the day my good friends Ron and Charlotte brought dinner to Ben’s home, and we feasted on their excellent fish soup and fabulous salad. Bob, another friend, joined us.
I’ve wanted to say “God is in his heaven, all’s right with the world”.
But the restless part of me has also been present. 
Yes, it’s been a wonderful day. But it has also been a hellish day for so many people in so many places in our world.
So, on this good day I have also meditated on Bob Dylan’s song.  It is not great poetry, but it is a “thousand percent” more evocative than our dreary Episcopal hymns!
This song of the 60’s speaks to my agony as I angrily weep for the wars of our world.
It is a song for my “peeps” – the American and British troopers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is also a song for those Afghan and Iraqi children who are victims of the violence which they cannot understand.
Blowin’ in the wind

How many roads must a man walk down
Before they call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
How many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many years must a mountain exist
Before it is washed to the sea?
How many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn't see?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
How many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take 'til he knows
That too many people have died?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Hymns at Church in Sarasota today (published Dec 13th and revised Dec 14th)

Soon after arriving at my parish Church this morning I scanned the service leaflet, and then let out a groan.

I wanted to leave right away.

That was not because of the congregation, or because of the ministers.

My parish has a more or less lively congregation.

It has superb ordained ministers.

The parish prides itself on being “progressive”, and I have no quarrel with that.

So, why did I want to leave?

It was on account of the hymns for the day, which were anything but progressive. That’s not the fault of the parish. It’s the fault of the Episcopal Church hymnal.

We opened with “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry” (Episcopal Hymnal #76), and ended with “The King shall come” (Episcopal Hymnal # 73). These two (predictable) Advent hymns share banal, prosaic and pedestrian texts; and dreary tunes. Neither of them has a word or melody which might excite the imagination.

So we sing them on account of their familiarity. Indeed they are so familiar that we do not have to think about their miserable texts. (Were we to examine the texts we would be tempted to say “that’s crap which I do not believe”).

Truth to tell, we also sang a hymn which was new to the congregation “Who is this crying at Jordan?”, (Episcopal Hymnal # 69). It has an unexceptionable text, set to a good and challenging tune.

Here’s the problem.

The first hymn dates from the 18th century. The last dates from the 19th century. Only the middle hymn was from the 20th century – (but it is written as if World War II, and the Holocaust, and the age of nuclear weapons had never happened).

In other words, (with all due respect to the wisdom of earlier generations), we are compelled to sing words from previous times –words which do not speak to our present situations or to the mission of G-d in 2009/2010:  --  as ever mission of justice to the oppressed.

Through the exclusive use of the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, we are compelled to sing a theology which chiefly is sin and self focused, and has rarely a word about the justice of G-d, or the plight of the oppressed, or the goodness of creation.

We are also compelled to sing hymns which are almost invariably written in western Europe or north America,  Our hymnal all but ignores the rich hymnody which is the gift of African, South American and Asia Christians.

The hymns we sing contradict or dilute the progressive and universal worlds of the bible, and of the life of faith of a world-wide Church.

But I am glad that I did not walk out of Church this morning, for boy-oh-boy we were fed and nurtured by a magnificent sermon. The preacher has promised to send it to me, and I will publish it soon.

Lord above – may we be fed 92% by the preaching and by the sharing of the bread and wine - but no more than 8% by our dried up hymns.

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