Wednesday, November 30, 2011


In the Gospel reading for last Sunday, Advent 1, Jesus warns his hearers about the future.  The short version of what is says is, “Wake up! There is going to be a catastrophic event some day.  Don’t be caught off guard!”  Jesus seems to be making the point that we are spiritual sleepwalkers and need to wake up.
What is spiritual sleepwalking?  Perhaps it means we have become so accustomed to hearing about murder and other acts of violence in our community that we are become desensitized to the horror.  At worst we don’t notice; at best we shake our heads and say, “What’s the world coming to.”  But are we truly outraged--outraged enough to try to change the systems that foster such violence?  If we’re sleepwalking, the answer is probably “No. Not really.”  Jesus says, “Wake up!”
Sleepwalking can cause us to allow our purpose in life to shrink to the mundane without even noticing.  Once we may have believed we were called to something noble in life or that we could somehow make a difference.  But over time, we may lose our passion and sense of mission.  I know in my own case, the idealism of my twenties has suffered from my nodding off from time to time.  It takes my spiritual chin hitting my chest to rouse me to the creeping cynicism that has set in.  “Wake up,” Jesus says. 
Sleepwalking results from a slow mist gathering over our spiritual eyes that allows us to miss that our moral compasses is swinging away from true north.  In light of the number of local public officials that have been found to be less than fiscally trustworthy in the last several years, I’ve asked myself how this happened.  I suspect the first time they stuck their hands in the cookie jar, it was with some trepidation, guilt, perhaps even fear.  When they got away with it, the second time was easier.  Eventually, it was the new normal as the mist slowly but certainly clouded over their eyes.  While none of us is likely to have this level of sleepwalking, we might look to the “smaller” ways in which we have done the same: the fudging on income tax deductions, the unreported income, the pens and paper clips that have come home from work with us, the sick days when we weren’t sick at all.  Jesus says, “Wake up!”
One more example of sleepwalking will be enough.  Human life is fragile.  The end often happens well before we’re ready.  We’ve all heard stories of the people who quarrelled just before one left for a journey.  Maybe their last words were, “Go to hell!”  And then one of them dies in a wreck or from a heart attack.  We end up wishing our last words were, “I love you,” but it’s too late.  Again, in my own case, I’ve procrastinated making a phone call to a friend for no good reason at all only to learn my friend has succumbed to cancer or organ failure.  We need to be awake to the transience of life rather than sleepwalking.  If we were, we would find many more opportunities to be compassionate, supportive, or just plain nice to others.  “Wake up!” Jesus says.
Advent is a time of expectation.  A time when we prepare ourselves to see the wonder of Jesus’ first and second coming with new eyes, to re-appreciate what it means for us.  Jesus says, to do that well, “Wake up!”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Teaching Thankfulness

This being the week in which Thanksgiving falls, it seems likely you’d expect a Thanksgiving musing from me.  While I considered going countercultural and not blogging about it, I finally folded. What prompted it was an article a friend sent me written by an economists Brian Wesbury and Robert Stein.
Wesbury and Stein begin their article by writing, “Thanksgiving is about the bounty of this great land, and the plenty that ingenious and hard-working people have been able to create.”   I’d say it differently.  I’d say, “Thanksgiving is about being thankful for the resources God has made available and for the gift of creativity and perseverance given to us that allow us to translate those resources into bounty.”  While no one would suggest that bounty is equally distributed in our country, most of those with bounty have historically been concerned about those without.  We are a giving nation, even in hard economic times.  Additionally, Americans have been in the forefront of those who “invented medicines, technology and production techniques tht have lifted standards massively,” say Wesbury and Stein.  No argument here.
But the authors go on to be shocked by the answers when a Pew Research survey basically asked those polled if they thought our country was a very good place to live as compared to other countries.  In the 18-29 year old age range, only 27% agreed while in the over 65 group, 60% agreed.
How to account for the big difference?  The authors write, “[That the younger group would feel this way] is understandable because many of them have been sheltered in a subsidized world that keeps them from pondering where the things they enjoy ultimately come from.”  Wesbury and Stein go on to suggest that maybe this age group will eventually understand “that there is no endless money tree somewhere that provides food, clothing and shelter, let alone iPhones, televisions and transportation.”  Maybe too, they muse, one day this group will realize that with all it’s faults and inequities, the U.S. Is doing pretty well in terms of standard of living.
They take one final swipe by suggesting that they “suspect that maybe older and middle-aged Americans have simply failed to properly convey their appreciation for America [to the younger generation].  It seems many forget why we’re giving thanks.”
I think they have a point.  Perhaps my generation hasn’t done a good job in instilling appreciation for who we are and what we feel blessed to have for the younger generation.  I know this: at the opening of the new season for the Memphis Symphony it is traditional to begin with our National Anthem and the 30-something couple in front of us didn’t stand for the music.  Do we have our faults as a nation? Without question we do.  But, at the same time, we’ve done much right and we’ve done it through hard work and determination.  As an ancient Jewish prayer at meal time says, “Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation.  Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made.” 
So, how about we feel thankful for what God has provided and the gifts given us to be co-creators in translating those gifts into the bread on our table and the iPhone at our ear?  And equally important, let’s work harder to help the coming generations develop the same spirit of thankfulness.
Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A New Standard for Measuring Time

By now you know a celebrity famous for being famous was married for 72 days before filing for divorce. Kim's 72 days has become a new way to measure the length of marriages according to Joel Stein, satirist of Time magazine. A Kardashian is 5.07th of a year. So someone married 10 years can be said to have been married 50.7 Kardashians. Could turn into a new standard for measuring the length of marriages, don't you think?

This celebrity engagement and marriage was watched breathlessly both in the print and electronic tabloids as well as on mainstream TV, like the Today show. Her engagement ring has been valued at $2M; the wedding band at $200K. The wedding was the subject of reality shows and was widely reported to have cost mega millions. For example, the flowers alone were $2M! clearly at lot of time, money, and effort went into the wedding. Apparently nothing went into the marriage.

While the scale of this wedding is off the charts and well beyond what ordinary folks can expect to spend, there is a tragic commonality. Almost all couples in the US do exactly what Kim and her beau did: focus all their energy planning the wedding and little or no energy planning the marriage.

When I was in private practice, now and then a couple would come for pre marriage counseling. Usually they were referred by the officiating pastor who had detected problems while do the required preparation for them.  While at Church of the Holy Communion, I spent at least two hours with every couple who married there, somewhere between 12 and 20 couples a year. As a general rule, these couples had given little or no thought to what the marriage was going to be like.  Kids? How many? When?  Hadn’t talked about it.  Budgets? Division of labor? Hadn’t talked about it.  Spiritual and religious life now and after marriage?  Nope—hadn’t talked about it.  Handling the inevitable disagreements that come up in marriage?  We never argue!

The CHC couples were required to attend a one day workshop led by married couples in which the realities of married life were discussed.  They had to meet with me for at least two hours.  And the officiating clergy met with them as little or as much as he/she wished.  By comparison to most people getting married today, this was a lot of work on the marriage.  But the reality is, it was an token amount compared to what was needed.  But practically, it was all we could get.

The Church has declared that marriage is sacred and should last a lifetime.  Yet many churches require less preparation for marriage than is required for getting a driver’s license or a handgun permit.  And the state doesn’t require any preparation!  Just get the marriage license and a judge will perform the ceremony.  Clearly the Church and our society is not dealing well with this issue.  If we are going to bemoan the fact that somewhere between 40% and 50% of people who marry will divorce and the number is even higher for couples marrying for the second or third time, we need to address this serious matter seriously.

What can you do?  Make sure your kids get prepared.  Counsel friends to spend more time talking about their future together than what china pattern they’ll have.  Encourage formation programs to include workshops for engaged couples.  These are just a few things that are possible so a Kardashian doesn’t become the new standard for measuring the length of marriages.

Peace, Jerry

BTW, it should be easier to leave comments.  Just go to the comment box and start typing.  No more logging in.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

One of Our Vows

 Most of us are convinced that our kids need to attend Sunday School, or more recently Christian formation.  After all we went when we we kids.  Some of us attended with our parents, while others were dropped off by parents who cared about us learning Bible stories. And most of us really enjoyed the experience.

Now here's the interesting part: most of us adults are apparently convinced we learned every thing we needed to know about our faith as kids. I say that based on the very small percentage of parishioners who actually attend adult formation programs. It's not just a St. Mary's matter, it's commonplace in Christianity. Even those Christian groups who are highest in percentage of attendance, such as Baptists, also have a relatively small percentage of members who are involved, though higher than the more "liberal" groups.

Let me suggest that perhaps we need to rethink this practice of education avoidance for several reasons. First, surveys indicate Christians are woefully unknowledgeable about the book that informs us about our faith, the Bible. Evidence? When was the Old Testament written? Thirty-nine percent thought it was after Jesus was born. Who was Joan of Arc? Why Noah's wife, of course.  Only 45% could name the Gospels in order. 

More evidence? The widespread reaction to Dan Brown’s book The DaVinci Code was for Christians to be unsettled about his “facts.”  These “facts,” such as Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene and fathering a child, the Emperor Constantine deciding what books would be in the Bible, and the divinity of Jesus being decided by a majority vote a the Council of Nicea, are all historically unfounded.  But people couldn’t’ refute what they were reading because they had no historical or Biblical background to do so.  That, plus they forgot Dan was writing a NOVEL, and not history.

My second reason has to do with vows we take. Our Baptismal Covenant contains this question: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”  We, of course, say we will One may easily understand that “continue in the apostles’ teaching,” basically means “continue to learn all I can of God in Christ.”  Following the actual baptism itself, the people all respond by saying, “We receive you into the household of God.  Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.”  Now, I’m going to admit, the interpretation that follows is a little bit of a stretch.  But to effectively do these things, to be “priests,” we need to be knowledgeable about the faith.  And you don’t get that from sermons or prayer, as useful as they are.  It comes through study.

So, we’ve made a vow or two that seem to point toward diligence in learning more about our faith.  Christian formation is the place that happens.  Think it over and consider trying to be there just an hour earlier each Sunday to learn and grow.  You may be very surprised by what you learn and how much you come to enjoy that hour.

Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Main Thing

I recently heard a workshop leader say something with which I resonate. She said "Let's not confuse God and the Church." I've been saying something like that for years. What we both mean is that God and the Church or God and religion are not the same things. The Church and religion are human enterprises while God is--well, God. The Church and religion are our inventions and God transcends them both. At their very best, the are designed to help us understand God's nature and to worship God. At their worse, they impede both of those things.

Billy Graham once wrote, "The Church is not a museum for saints; it's a hospital for sinners." What he's pointing to is that the Church is not made up of perfect people; it's made up of people who are flawed to one degree or another. While we all like to believe that we are good people, that doesn’t stop us from either sinning or making bad decisions.  It is people who decide the content of religion, that is, the structure of the liturgy, the statements of the catechism, the policies of the national and local governing bodies, and the like.  And while we always pray God’s Spirit is leading those decisions, the reality may be entirely different.

The bottom line is that the Church and each local parish or congregation is populated by people who continue to stand in the need of spiritual growth. This shouldn't surprise us. Remember St. Paul? Arguably one of the stars of the faith, eventually martyred for his witness, but very flawed. Late in his life after years of traveling and proclaiming the Gospel, he mused: "I do the very things I should not do and leave undone the very thing I should do."

Paul was pointing out his continued need for opening himself to the power and direction of the Spirit. He recognized that left to his own devices, he tended to be selfish, more concerned about his own interests than those of others. I can identify. I can easily get caught up in things of no real consequence and miss what really matters.  This is something I struggle against.  As a secretary of mine once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”  Couldn’t be truer.  And in this case, the main thing is to keep our focus on God’s love for us and our response to that love, trying to assure in all we do that we are responding in love.

Peace, Jerry