faith

Blind Piety

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equals human first runPresident Trump’s America is looking less and less American, and totally un-Christian. With the flurry of controversial executive orders our new President has shown the effects of something with which many Christians in the West seem to suffer: blind piety. All in the name of morals and American values, with a strong dash of dishonesty and fear-mongering, our new President shreds the image of America around the world and moves us farther from the Christian values of justice, mercy and love for our neighbors. President Trump road a wave of this blind self-centered piety and unreasoning fear all the way to the White House. Now some of the most vulnerable people on the planet are beginning to pay the price.

What is blind piety? Piety is defined as a quality of being religious or reverent. Blind piety is a religiosity that ignores its negative and hurtful impact on the people around it. Jesus actually condemned it in his own day, and an apt name would also be shallow piety or even mean piety. Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day who acted piously in vowing their income to the support of the Temple, but in doing so actually neglected their own aging parents who were in need. (Matthew 15) Now, I always wondered at that passage thinking, “How will something like that ever find a dynamic equivalent, today?” Well, ask and receive. It’s been played out on our national stage just this week. With an executive order that piously calls on abortion as a reason to cut our nation’s international help to some of the most needful and most defenseless women and families around the world our President has endangered lives, and many religious people are applauding and smiling. Blind piety. Mean religion. Just as in the day of Jesus, religion used to deny people our assistance is an affront to God.

sighing jesusAt another time (Luke 14) Jesus chastises the hypocrisy of the religious thinkers who would refuse to help a fellow human being because of the religious obligations of not working on the Sabbath, but of course they would rescue a child or an animal in sudden distress. The hypocrisy is staggering, and it’s playing out before our eyes in this day and age. Our leaders are turning away from the most needful and endangered children on the planet, and mantling themselves in faith and patriotism while doing it! The President continues to narrate his actions with the familiar and completely dishonest alternative facts about a lack of vetting and the danger represented by refugees. He targets Muslim nations and vilifies and criminalizes the most vulnerable people on the planet. He speaks of walling us off from others, as though we are not all connected human beings with a shared and mutual life on this planet. These actions are not Christian, American or moral.

Why did Jesus condemn those religious leaders of his day? It was for what they had neglected: people. People are at the core of religious law, as he named that core: justice and mercy and faith. (Matthew 23) Jesus will later sum up the Law in two expressions of love: love for God and love for neighbor. (Matthew 25) The problem is not that religion is against people, but these people were misunderstanding their religion. We are guilty in the same way today when we turn from justice, mercy and faith to hide behind fear, exclusion and dishonesty. Some have chosen a blind piety that neglects people.

imageThe sad truth is that these Christians in the West are turning from one of our oldest and deepest religious values: the heart of a stranger. Far back in our oldest Jewish religious roots as Christians is this amazing idea of identifying with the endangered. God gave Israel strict rules for protecting the alien and stranger among them, for blessing them and for serving them. The people of Israel were reminded of their own time as strangers in a strange land, and therefore they should hold to the heart of a stranger. (Exodus 22 & 23, Deuteronomy 24) That is an amazing statement and command of empathy and service. Until the incarnation of Christ into human flesh I cannot think of a more identificational statement in scripture.

These current events call for our silence to be broken and our voices raised. This political landscape suddenly shifts to assault our deepest religious values and we cannot withhold our condemnation of these executive actions. Let us be courageous and true. Let us be vocal and honest. Let us speak against these executive actions and their false religiouslity, blind piety and alternative facts. Let us be as courageous as Jesus to speak for justice, mercy and faith. That courage got him ridiculed, cast out and killed, but most of us face far less danger in our privileged status here in our own country. Privilege is never a license to ignore injustice, forget mercy or live faithlessly in our own time.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, Todd
(to the greater glory of God)

My Brother Kurt

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Rainbow ButtonI had a message pop up in Facebook the other day, my friend Kurt from St John’s had been poking around my blog and reading some of the things I have written on LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance. He correctly pointed out that I was a little out of date… he didn’t say “dude, you’re slacking off,” but he should have. He would have been right.

He also graciously offered me permission to share a short article he wrote this past year for St John’s on what it meant to be asked to help our parish organize a group to march in the annual Pride Parade in DC. He did a great job organizing, by the way… it was my first Pride Parade and I’m hooked.

Here’s the text of his article, and a few Parade photos… please receive it as a gift from Kurt, a brother in Christ, a humble man and a deeply good soul.

AMDG, Todd


Pride Parade Story by Kurt Ellison

It wasn’t long ago that someone stopped me and said, “So what’s the deal with the Pride Parade? Why is St. John’s marching?”

That is no small answer!

As a teenager that grew up at St. John’s, I could tell that we were definitely a church that was not of one mind about the whole gay issue. We had gay clergy, but when it came to choosing a new rector in 1997, St. John’s said overwhelmingly (in its profile survey) that it did not want a gay rector. (Yes, it’s true!)

As St. John’s wrestled with where it was and searched for a new rector, so I was wrestling with who I was – a gay kid who loved my church (and I still do). Living in Chicago as an adult, I found myself at the annual pride parade, and fascinated by the churches that were marching in the parade, and thinking, “Wow, my home church (St. John’s) would never do this!”

Years later, I moved back to the area to look after my ailing parents, I eventually came back to St. John’s and was curious to see how things had changed. Imagine my surprise when Susan Pizza and Sari Ateek eventually asked if I would write a grant for the Norwood Parish Fund to get us to participate in Pride.

I had to think for a while, and pray seriously about it. I was the type of person to watch a parade, not necessarily march in one, much less write a grant proposal, or organize a contingent. In my prayers, I could picture God having a good laugh saying, “HA HA, Kurt! You thought St. John’s would never do this! Now you have to man up!” How could I say no?

I wrote the proposal to the NPF. It got approved (kudos to the NPF folks!). We bought frisbees with the church logo, a banner, and advertised in Crossroads. 25 people showed up to march. We had a blast!

The gay community does not always receive a welcoming message from churches (understatement!). Other churches, while supportive and inclusive are not necessarily putting their message of welcome out there. Marching in the parade tells a whole community that they are welcome at St. John’s. It is a positive risk for the Gospel.

What amazes me still after three years of marching is how grateful people are to see the churches marching in the Pride Parade. All along the parade route we hear time and again, “Thank you for coming!”, and “Thank you, St. John’s!” In 2015 it is no small thing to say, “ALL ARE WELCOME HERE!”

Our pastor, Rev. Sari!

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…and the man of the hour, Kurt!

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Below is one I took at the Parade in 2016!

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I Am An Episcopalian

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confirmation selfieLife is a journey and our spiritual life mirrors this with twists and turns and fun developments… a recent fun event in my journey was being confirmed in the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion on Saturday, November 14th, 2015 at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. In the picture with me is Reverend Sari and my new friend Anne, both from St. John’s Norwood Parish.

It was also an intentional move, not an accident. I’ve been looking for a Christian faith tradition for the second half of my life, even making a short-list of fellowships to explore and question, and we ended up choosing the Episcopal Church for many reasons. I’ll describe three of those reasons here, things that the Episcopal Church stands for and some deep blessings of being around this tradition.

The Middle Way. In my life as a Christian and a Pastor I have often found myself holding the center among a variety of people and viewpoints. I have pastored a community for many years that included conservatives and progressives, Republicans and Democrats, many ethnicities, differing sexualities, beautiful colors, varied traditions and diverse backgrounds. I was intentional about trying to make all welcome and keeping them respected and I called it a sacred tension of doing life together in our diversity. I’ve found the Anglican Communion to have already named this: the middle way. With a foot in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions, and a diverse family of people, the middle way is that path of unity and shared dignity without a forced conformity or loss of vital historicity.

confirmation ceremonyTribal Without Tribalism. Our family has been blessed to find a balance of openness and identity in the Episcopal Church that I describe as being tribal without the tribalism. We have an identity as a group, a faith family, without needing to judge or exclude others. We have a belonging system, which is important, without needing to also draw bold lines of division and keep others from our Table or our full welcome in worship. As a guest dropping in often over the last decade I was able to find solace in the Rites and share the Eucharist with this communion of faith long before my confirmation. I am so thankful for that gift through the years.

Living As A Communion. I’ve been a prayer book collector for many years, and the Book of Common Prayer has been one of my favorites. I didn’t know that it’s existence represents one of the central ideas of the Anglican Communion, that instead of being in joined in fellowship because we all think and believe exactly alike, we are one because we pray together. This resonates with me as both a foundation of unity and peace in our life as a communion and in my daily devotional practice. We are one in our mutual reaching out to God.

I’m not here asserting that the Episcopal Church is the best faith family for everyone, and I have no interest in any my church is better than your church competition. I just want to share what a blessing it has been to find my tribe and be welcomed therein. It’s been an interesting journey for our whole family and we are excited about the coming years with the church. And yes, the cool Episcopal shield is probably going to be my next tattoo, but we’ll see. =)

AMDG, Todd

Praying With Christopher

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IMG_1342This morning I am tired, and in my fatigue I turn to prayer with one of my favorite saints: Christopher. His name means Christ-Bearer. As the stories of saints go, his is an ancient and beautiful story of finding the will, the strength and the opportunity to serve.

Christopher sought the greatest King to whom he might pledge his strength and battle valor… he found instead a gentle King who called him to serve the weak and the needful. I begin my prayers today with the hope that I could be deeply reminded that my strength, when spent, belongs to the needful around me. I pray that my will is brought together with opportunity to be a servant like Christopher.

Christopher was a convert to Christianity in the 3rd century; he was a violent warrior who wanted to serve the mightiest leader he could find. When he discovered that others pointed to Christ as such a leader he went in search of more knowledge about Jesus. A gentle hermit taught him of Christ and set him on a path of dangerous service to local villagers, not a service of killing or violence, but a service of strength and protection. He would carry them across a river that was to strong for them to cross on their own. He did this service faithfully, and one day is said to have carried Christ himself across the river.

It would be a terrible loss to get too caught up in only trying to find the historical Christopher. You will have to sort thru various names, traditions and stories. He has interesting iconography, almost always holding a staff, most often carrying a child, and even sometimes having the head of a dog. (Say what? That would be just my luck if I have have an icon, lol.) Who martyred him? Where did it happen? Why did it happen? These are probably not going to be discovered to an historian’s satisfaction. You’ll also discover that he’s been dropped from many calendars of saints, mostly because of the lack of concrete evidence for his story. But an ancient story of faith leading to service instead of fighting? An ancient story of faith leading to the strength to serve instead of seeking to dominate and to make demands? It’s a needed story for our times.

St. Christopher is often considered the patron of travelers, and the prayers around him reflect that affinity to travel. I’ll end with a prayer that invokes Christopher’s strength and dedicated service, a prayer for the day…

Grant me, O my God, a watchful eye and willing heart.
I would be a willing servant to all and an enemy to none.
You give all people the gift of life, and I pray my actions and words honor that gift.
May all who share this day with me receive only blessings for our time together.
Teach me to use my strength, my will, and every opportunity, to serve others;
help me to slow down and to turn from myself to see their beauty and value. 

Give me the strength, the will and a calling to serve, such as you gave to St. Christopher,
and therein help me to follow this epic example of a living and a serving faith
which uses each day to protect and enrich this world for others by sharing your peace.
I beg these things through the graces of Christ, our Gentle King. Amen.

Peace y’all.
AMDG, Todd

Links about St. Christopher:

Wikipedia
Catholic Online
Catholic Encyclopedia

Reframing Our Expectations for One Another

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all that matters

Did you see the prank video floating through our Facebook streams recently about who helps a nicely dressed business man who falls and who helps an apparently homeless man who falls? The video opens many questions for us and itself seems to focus mainly on the appearances of the two men… I immediately wanted to go deeper with the video. If you haven’t seen it, here it is…

Perhaps like me, you live in and among a homeless population. We have many homeless folks in downtown Bethesda and more and more you can’t catch a red light on many main streets without a homeless or needful person asking for help while you wait. Homeless neighbors sit by us at Starbucks, greet us at the Metro and some will come and sit in our church building during the day as a quiet respite from the street. For the most part I believe we have created a different set of rules for interacting with our homeless neighbors, and that is a large part of what is happening in the video.

I dug around to see if my thoughts were online anywhere, and I at least found this bit on social interactions that better defined the thing I think we’re talking about in this case of this video… (the bolded emphasis in mine)

In sociology, social interaction is a dynamic sequence of social actions between individuals (or groups) who modify their actions and reactions due to actions by their interaction partner(s). Social interactions can be differentiated into accidental, repeated, regular and regulated.

A social interaction is a social exchange between two or more individuals. These interactions form the basis for social structure and therefore are a key object of basic social inquiry and analysis. Social interaction can be studied between groups of two (dyads), three (triads) or larger social groups.

Social structures and cultures are founded upon social interactions. By interacting with one another, people design rules, institutions and systems within which they seek to live. Symbols are used to communicate the expectations of a given society to those new to it, either children or outsiders. Through this broad schema of social development, one sees how social interaction lies at its core.

Source: Boundless. “Understanding Social Interaction.” Boundless Sociology. Boundless, 03 Jul. 2014. Retrieved 06 Feb. 2015 from https://www.boundless.com/sociology/textbooks/boundless-sociology-textbook/social-interaction-5/understanding-social-interaction-50/understanding-social-interaction-314-5912/

I believe the business man in the video represents someone living by our social rules, within acceptable systems and institutions. So when he falls, there is an immediate need among others to restore him. He better represents what we have invested ourselves in, an acceptable life by normative social standards. The homeless man? He is presumed to be living outside those systems and institutions, and therefore his fall has less impact on the passersby. They are not invested in him already, and so his immediate predicament is less impactful for them. In fact, he represents a threat for many people, either an immediate threat to their safety or a more cosmic threat to our presumed rules for living.

Am I trying to explain away the video and lessen it’s moral message and impact? No way! I want to take it’s message and come up with a deeper message than just, “Yo, help a brother off the curb!” As a human, I need to intentionally invest in my neighbors, even when they are living and doing life outside of my normative bounds, rules and institutions. Otherwise, I risk developing the kinds of blinders that allow me to walk past a fallen person without helping.

As a human who tries to operate out of a specific faith orientation, I am further challenged by following a religious leader who personally rejected and moved outside of many normative societal rules and regulations of his time. Yes, Jesus.

I’ve grown up hearing sermon after sermon about Jesus touching the untouchable, but has sermon after sermon changed any of us? Have we been equipped with eyes and understanding that allow us to risk stepping into the lives of those outside the social norm? The answer is a qualified and limited yes… I know and have known many amazing human beings, inside and outside of faith communities, who routinely step over those social lines and engage neighbors living outside the bounds of social norms. The answer is also a qualified and limited no… because many of us still operate almost exclusively inside the norms, some even religion’izing the social norms to become matters of faith. Don’t know what that means? Try to find the verse in the Bible that says, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” (Hint: It ain’t there.)

If I’m being a bit too esoteric for you here, think of it this way… when a clean-cut businessman falls, there is very little cost to helping him… his clothes are less likely to stink or to get me dirty, he probably won’t ask me for money, and after a nice verbal gesture of appreciation we’ll both go on about our day with very little time lost. However, operating on our usual assumptions about people who live outside our normative rules and systems, I wonder if helping a homeless man will get me dirty, if he’ll smell bad, if he’ll ask me for money, if he’ll have a mental illness and hurt me, if he’ll want to talk and take up a bunch of my time… the assumptions go on, and those assumptions increase my projected cost to any social engagement with that person. Seriously, it takes a while to say it, but I think we routinely make these mental and spiritual calculations in a nanosecond.

Let’s pay up. Let’s intentionally reframe some of our social rules so that we are prepared to pay the cost of stepping outside the easy social norms and engage people less like us. It makes us more human. It makes us more faithful.

Just the other day I tried to give a friendly greeting to a certain local homeless man I often see at my favorite Starbucks. It’s one of the things I do, with homeless or well-off-seeming locals… I say hi and introduce myself. We’re neighbors after all. This particular homeless man wanted nothing to do with me. He rudely rebuffed me, loudly proclaiming that he didn’t want to talk to me, see me or shake my extended hand. And, it was a little embarrassing for me.

Now, at that moment of rebuff, I have a choice: 1) I can narrow my social rules and interactions, letting that experience confirm assumptions and stereotypes about “certain people,” and I can be very less inclined to try again to greet someone who is doing life outside my norms, or 2) I can pay the cost of that interaction, a blush and a rebuff, and offering a prayer for the pain and hurt this man is obviously carrying, I can prepare myself for loving the next neighbor to come along in my little sphere of life.

You see, Jesus did not touch the untouchable. Please, hear that… Jesus did not touch the untouchable. For Jesus all people were touchable, worthy of touch, deserving of touch and imminently desirable to touch. He wanted to engage them and was willing to pay the price, which could sometimes be high. He was whispered about, condemned and made fun of for engaging some folks, and in one memorable event he helps ten people, with only a single person taking the time to thank him.

Now, if you don’t live in a place with a present homeless population, I bet there still people not like you… I bet there are people who seem to live outside your rules and norms. Can you pay the cost of loving them? Can you move outside the norms of what you are most comfortable with and find them touchable? Can I? Or as our more grammatical gifted friends would correct me, “Will I?”

AMDG, Todd

Advent Week Three: BEHOLD!

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Advent Week ThreeIn looking at Matthew’s introduction to Jesus we focused on the story of Joseph, and it only makes sense to cover Mary’s story with Luke’s Gospel. Luke gives us the grand narrative of the birth of Jesus, beginning with the drama surrounding his aunt, uncle and cousin, and then his own parents traveling to Bethlehem in that iconic journey which comes to rest under the star. He has angels galore, shepherds and an all-booked-booked-up inn. We have women breaking out into song and a guy with temporary muteness. Luke really delivers.

But in Mary’s story a single word has captivated me this season: Behold. You almost have to go back and grab an old translation for this, and I chose to study and read from the King James Version this past Sunday, Luke 1:26-38

26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” 29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be . 30 And the angel said unto her, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
34 Then said Mary unto the angel, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.

Mary said “BEHOLD!”

It was interesting to look into newer translations and see verse 38 expressed in different ways. Many simply had Mary say something like “I am the Lord’s servant” or a variant thereof, and some at least allow her to say, “Here I am…” In the Greek she says idou, which is “see me, perceive me.” She really does say behold!

I think that Mary was often presented to me as someone who acquiesced to God’s will… but this is not acquiescence, this is proclamation! She turns the table on the angel and says, “Ok Gabriel, now you pay attention and see that I am God’s gal!” She’s not giving in, she’s buying in.

Mary is sounding very prophetic here. This part of her story reminds me of Isaiah’s moment of identifying himself in God’s plans, “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” Isaiah 6:8, KJV.

This Is A Powerful Woman.

mary and christWhy does it matter that Mary said behold? It matters because she is on the cusp of major life joys and changes, and God arrives to announce the impossible, the unlooked for and the unimaginable… and she buys in. She has her moment of how can this be?, and then she squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath, and gives herself to God’s insane sounding plan. This young woman hands it all to God and allows herself to be caught up in something she does not control, accepting all the repercussions to come. We think of Christ being incarnated in the Advent story, but this is an moment of faith being incarnated, strength incarnated and courage incarnated.

You Are a Powerful Woman (or Guy).

The story of Mary matters because it is our story as well. I want to be like Mary. I want to hear God’s crazy sounding will for peace and good news, grace and reconciliation, and believe it! I want to see a place for me in that plan, and I want to buy in like Mary.

I want faith to be advented in me, incarnated in my own behold! If we were all Mary in our own communities, Mary in our schools, Mary in our homes… if God’s insane grace, love and forgiveness were allowed to interrupt our daily plans and advent something new… if only. How many cycles of abuse would be stopped? How many cycles of insult and hurt would end? How many hearts would be reconciled in God’s peace? What do I miss when I insist on the plans I have made?

I’m not sure I can always be as strong as Mary when confronted with God’s work in the world. Many days I feel more like Zechariah, questioning and struck mute by my doubts. (Luke 1:5-25) But that’s ok, because Zechariah’s mouth was eventually reopened, his words are returned to him, and he sings a beautiful song

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them…

…because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Let’s go advent some faith. And if we don’t have the words at a given moment, keep believing and the words will come. Yes, Mary was blessed among women, and she is also a prophet and a inspiration for us all.

AMDG, Todd

Where The Cross Has Been

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where the cross has beenWe’ve been painting little hearts, hands and crosses in worship at Church in Bethesda as we talk about service, sharing and the impact of our faith and lives on the world around us. To make cleanup a little easier I’ve been taping the little wooden pieces to half sheets of construction paper. I thought it would make it easier to paint to the edge of the pieces while keeping fingers clean.

Later, I come along and pull the pieces off to lay them around on the altar. What I didn’t plan on was the awesome way many of our people painted onto the paper, using it as an extension of the canvas. I was also struck by this image of a piece of paper with the outline of a cross after I removed the wooden piece.

When we work so hard to create a life that has beauty and intention, we don’t know how far that life will reach or how much it changes the world around it. Painting that little red cross created two images, the cross itself and the place where it was made. How like that is my own life? How like that is your life? Let’s keep painting and working on our little lives, our efforts of colors and shapes of grace, and let’s stop every now and then and look to marvel at the patterns and imprints we leave behind.

One of the sweetest elements of community is sharing the surprises, the unexpected and the leftovers. One of the deepest blessings of our faith is what we don’t easily see it creating in us and our world. Thanks be to the God who paints alongside us. Thanks be to the God who overpaints our edges and covers the world anew in grace each day. Thanks be to God.

AMDG, Todd

P.S. There are more photos of our crosses, hearts and hands on my Facebook page and on the Church in Bethesda Facebook page!