Thursday, April 30, 2009

Church History

I am preparing to teach a course on Church History from Jesus to the latter Middle Ages to those who are desiring to be deacons in our congregations. In order for anyone to preach, one must have some idea what the Church has taught. I have picked up a couple of new books on the history of the Church, one by a Lutheran author and the other by and Episcopalian. They both come down about in the same place. After all history is history, we think. But the flavor is different.

Martin Marty’s book, The Christian World, is the product of a mind that has been dealing with the vagaries of the Christian Church for a long time. He is a retired professor whose systematic approach toward history underlies this rather informal overview of the life of Christian nations. For one who has been schooled in the formal history of Christianity with its dates of various Ecumenical Councils and their doctrinal statements, I find Marty’s work fairly easy to follow but shallow. But that is not the intention of this book. His overview showing how the Gospel message was spread throughout the various parts of the world is quite helpful and straight-forward.

Butler Bass’s A People’s History of Christianity is an unusually breezy way of telling the story of the growth of faith. Based in her understanding of the Christian message as loving God and loving one’s neighbor, she endeavors to show that this message has been taught throughout the ages. She quotes the earliest writers to support her points, but it seems quite anachronistic. Annoyingly she will jump around in the first 500 years of the formation of Christianity with little regard as to how the various doctrines and dogmas were developed. And yet, she has a significant point: Doctrine and Dogma are always the statements of those in power. They are always the product of those who have prevailed in a conflict for the faith of the people. It is not the stuff which taught the love of Christ and the awe of God to the people over the centuries.

Today is an era in which people have lost their memory. We in the US, as a populace have forgotten the principles upon which we stand in the face of over-population, consumerism and imperialistic power. We have ignored our history as a nation and a democracy and we have become amnesiacs in matters of faith. The non-denominational churches often do not connect with an apostolic faith—a faith that is grounded in the message of Jesus as it has developed through the ages. Yet those of us who call ourselves apostolic often get stuck in the doctrine and dogma and not the communal love that the Church has supplied throughout the centuries since the time of Jesus.

Both Marty’s book and that of Bass have tried to create an environment in which we can find ourselves in the history of the Church. Either one of these books will tell the story of how Christ’s body is made manifest throughout the world. I am still laboring under the need to understand what the difference between the Valentinians and the Montanists is, but that is ok. I kind of enjoy all those nit-picky things that have nothing to do with the faithfulness the love of God provides for us in the apostolic Church.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Doubting Thomas

I didn’t preach this morning. I am still in TX following my mother’s funeral so I was ready to hear a sermon and be ministered to by the sacraments. It is always good to hear a sermon from someone else. And the story of Doubting Thomas had good points for me to hear.

All too often I preach on how important doubt is to the faith process. I preach this because it was important in my journey of faith. But I have been assailed with all kinds of questions this week by friends and family.

The southern culture has a religious component to it that demands a rather mindless sense of faith. It also contains an idea of the afterlife that is tiresome for me—“well, your mother is in a far better place.” Your mother is just up there looking down on you… or “Your mama is up there with your daddy…” etc. So I was surprised when an old friend—a 90 year old friend at that, said “Do you really think your mother and father are together up there? I don’t.” Now, I have known this friend for 60 years and my first response was to think “Oh, God, I hope they aren’t together for the sake of Heaven!”

But Ruth’s doubt needed to be answered. “No, I don’t think they are up there. I have no idea what heaven is like and neither does any body else. I am not sure that there is a heaven either. But one thing I am certain of is that the God I know and who loves me will make whatever is next good. I trust in that. My mother didn’t believe in the southern religious culture either. She said “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” What she meant by that is that she did not believe in popular religion’s portrayal of heaven. I do believe that my mother is REALLY surprised these days, though. I do not know by what or how. But I trust that she is where there is no sighing or crying and she knows that she is loved.

Doubt needs to be addressed. Thomas addressed his doubt. He checked out what he could and couldn’t believe with his experience of Jesus. Do I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? I don’t know that either. But I do know that I am content with the metaphor of Christ’s resurrection to sustain me in my grief and my joy in my mother’s death. I can test my faith against the God of history and the God of always to know that I am loved and will be loved for as long as is necessary.

So I thank Thomas for his doubts, for the temerity to allow his doubts to be known without fear and the ability to come to that confession of faith that led him to embrace the Risen Christ. I am grateful to my friend Ruth and the boldness of her question. And I am overwhelmed with the love that God has had for me and my mother all these years. That’s all that is important. Alleluia, He is Risen. The Lord has risen, indeed. Alleluia!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

RIP Nov. 12, 1912 -- April 14, 2009

My mother, Naomi Lorene McKinney Gough, died yesterday at about 5:15 pm. She was 96 years old, and for some years now has been unable to see, hear or speak. It has been difficult to communicate with her the past few years and I know was so difficult for her not being able to be in the middle of things. The kind of dementia she experienced did not take away her ability to know us, or her mind; it just took away her ability to share with us.

Mom and I did not always get along. Perhaps we were too much alike but over the past 10 years we have gotten closer. We mostly didn’t see eye to eye about politics. She was of the mind that Nixon got a raw deal We did agree a lot about religion though she never understood why I wanted to become a priest. She was never comfortable going to my services or listening to me preach. Partially because she really didn’t like the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and partially, she was afraid that I would say something that people wouldn’t like. But for all our disagreement, I never thought she didn’t love me. She just couldn’t SAY it. It just wasn’t her way.

Mom was funny. She wasn’t especially out spoken, but you nearly always knew where she stood. She was a small woman, only 5’2” but she was much like a banty hen. She would stand her ground if she needed to.

My brother is 12 years older than I. He was always the apple of her eye (at least that is what I thought). There is something about your first born, but I resented that when I was young. And boy-children were always held in great esteem in her family. But as she grew older, I realized that she was attracted to young men—what they were doing, what interested them. She made over the husbands of her granddaughters the same way she made over my brother. And she always responded to her male nurses better than the women. It was just her way.

She didn’t have a chance to go to college. She graduated from high school in 1930; no one had money for college in those days. She married young to a young railroader that stayed at her parents’ boarding house. They ran off and got married; no one could afford a wedding then. Dad lost his job soon afterward and they had a hard time until the WWII came along and Dad could get his job back. Both of them worked at various jobs during the Great Depression and taught me that one could make a living even when it wasn’t one to your liking, or in your field.

When I was in 3rd Grade she started back to work. She was an elementary school secretary. She loved the educational world. She would have made a good teacher if she had been given a chance. She made the best of it by helping teachers and principals do their jobs and directing children. She continued in that job for over 30 years.

Some years ago I started doing some genealogy on her family. I found that the McKinneys and the Crowders had both served in the Revolutionary War. The McKinneys had come to Connecticut in the late 17th century from Scotland by way of Ireland. When I told her of what I had found, she said: “Yep, my father said if anyone asked who I was I was supposed to say ‘I am Scots-Irish, Republican and a Cambellite’” (Disciples of Christ) Her family had come across the Appalachian Mountains with the Lincoln family and originally settled in Sangamon Co. IL. Being a Republican was a genetic predisposition, not merely a conservative way of thinking.

Last time I visited her in February I told her that I had to fly back to NY. She took my hand and held it up to her face. She didn’t want to let go. I didn’t want to let go either. We sat there, side by side and just held hands. I knew it would be the last time I would be able to talk with her. She was going and she knew it and I knew it. I had hoped for just one more time to sit and hold hands. My brother called me Easter morning just after my last service and told me that she was fading quickly. When I was finally able to get here on Tuesday morning she had already fallen into an unconscious state. I talked to her, rubbed her arms and face. I am convinced she knew I was there. When I had to leave for dinner, I told her that we were all here and that my eldest niece was coming in the next day. She died about an hour later. She went easily with just a sigh, the nurse told me. She is home, I believe—where ever that home is.

She was a good woman. She cared about others and did what she could for others. She delighted in life and taught me to do the same. I am thankful for that. Go in peace, Mom.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Friday Five: Good Friday Five

Sophia has given us a wonderful Good Friday Five:

Adoramus te, Christe,
et benedicimus tibi,
quia per sanctam crucem tuam
redemisti mundum.
Qui passus es pro nobis,
Domine, miserere nobis.

We adore you, O Christ,
and we bless you,
because by your holy cross
you have redeemed the world.
O Lord, who suffered for us,
have mercy on us.

1. How will you pray and worship today?

Today we will celebrate an ecumenical Seven Meditations at the Methodist Church in town. It is a time for the clergy to worship together. We are a pretty good group and we never get to do this except on Good Friday and Thanksgiving.

2. Share a powerful memory or memories of Good Friday past.

I was baptized at the Easter Vigil 40 years ago tomorrow. I spent this night in retreat and in prayer that what I was doing was God’s will for me. I spent it in a convent chapel overwhelmed with the service of Good Friday. It was the first time that the Crucifixion made any sense to me.

3. How have you grown and experienced God's love during this past Lent?

This Lent has been quite haphazard for me. It is the first Holy Week in this congregation and in this denomination. Learning how each denomination stresses and nuances this mystery of the Cross is fascinating. I feel that it has broadened my understanding of the God who was willing to die for me so that I might have life abundant.

4. In whom do you see the face of the suffering Christ most clearly?

I see the suffering of Christ in the families of those who were shot in my city, in those who came to the realization that there is no security even in their own hometown. I see the suffering of Christ in the faces of those who are bewildered by the violence that is in the world, because the world has told them that there is security in might and power. In other words, I see the suffering of Christ in almost everyone I meet.

5. Where do you find hope for resurrection?

I find the hope for resurrection in the absolute giving of my Christ. His emptying fills me with hope. I also see it in my congregation--people who in their day to day rather mundane lives trying to live the love that God has given them.

Bonus: Share a song, poem, or prayer that makes the paschal mystery come alive for you.

My Song is Love Unknown

Good Friday "Into Your hands I commend my spirit."

“Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.” Lk.23:46

Many years ago when I was in the convent, each night we met to say Compline together. Compline is the night prayer said each night by those who are in religious orders in liturgical denominations. It is a series of prayers based upon the psalms and said just before everyone turns in for the night and silence descends upon the house until morning. It was often said with minimal light and with rather hushed voices. Every night we repeated “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” Not only are these words the last words of our Savior on the Cross, they were also the words of Psalm 31, written some 500 years before Jesus during the time of Jeremiah.

These words are words of surrender, and protection. From the Cross they could be construed as giving up—the act of one flinging himself wildly into the unknown. But for anyone who has prayed these words constantly in their lives, it is quite the opposite.

To pray “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit” regularly is one way to find that there is nothing which can keep us from the loving God who stands ready to accept our surrender. Now, surrender can be seen as a giving up. But in this case the kind of faithful surrender to God is last step in faith. It is the recognition that God is our home and as Jesus utters the words of this psalm he is embracing the fullness of his Godliness—his reunion with the Father.
To pray “Into your hands, I commend my spirit” is the comfort that the faithful know when we have done all we can, that God is there to guide us, to accept us, to redeem us and our all our efforts.

Jesus also knew the rest of that psalm. The parts that said:
“How abundant is the good
that You have in store for those who fear You,
That You do in the full view of humanity
for those who take refuge in You.”….
vss 22-25
Blessed is the Lord,
For He has been wondrously faithful to me,
A veritable bastion.
Alarmed, I had thought,
I am thrust out of Your sight;
Yet You listened to my pleas for mercy
when I cried out to you.
So love the Lord, all you faithful;
The Lord guards the loyal, and more than requites him who acts arrogantly.
Be strong and of good courage,
all you who wait for the Lord.

Jesus knew that the Father had all things ready for him. He surrendered to know that togetherness that welcoming that fulfilled him.

Any good Jew understood what Jesus was saying. They knew Jesus was fulfilling his call from God. He had drunk deeply of the cup that was given him so that he would provide for us a witness that death has no power, pain has no power, evil has no power over the goodness and holiness of God.

To be reunited with all that is good and sacred is what God wants for us all. No matter what evil we face, no matter what seems to overcome us, for those of us who love Christ and serve him, we know from this scene that we are saved by the love he gave us upon the cross.

This kind of love—the kind of love that unites us one to the other at the deepest level does not protect us from bad things. We have but to look at the scene of Golgotha. This love does not mean that we can avoid the difficult things about us. It does not mean that we can avoid looking at the evil in the world. It does not mean that we can ignore the evil. Because of the love Christ surrendered to us on the Cross we are called to alleviate evil when we see it. Because Christ emptied himself and surrendered himself to the Father, we too can depend upon God to accept us when we have no answer to the things that seem to overwhelm us. This reunion is ours too. This embrace by God is what Jesus came to earth to teach us. We can depend upon it. We can have faith in it. We know the ending of the story just as those who stood at the Cross knew the end of the psalm. We can live in truth and light facing things that would beat us down. We too can surrender; can commend our spirits to God. And for life to have meaning for us as Christians, we must surrender ourselves to God. Reunion with God is not just our hope—it is the promise that Christ made with his life. AMEN

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday

Back in the mid -70’s just after I left the convent, a group of friends from the parish I attended would meet on Maundy Thursday at a wonderful French restaurant a block away from church. All of us were very active in our parish. Mary Margaret was in charge of lay readers. I taught in the parish and directed the guitar service, Kathy taught church school and another was active in the women’s group. It was a huge congregation—7,000 families, and only 3 priests to serve us.

We knew if we were going to get anything out of Holy Week, we would have to infuse the liturgy with meaning. So we would break our Lenten fast with a sumptuous meal. We would order a bottle of wine to share. We always had an extra chair at our table reminding us that this meal was special. It was not just a night on the town. This was a meal to which Christ was invited.

This was long before I began to understand my vocation to the priesthood. No one “celebrated” this meal. It was an agape—a love feast to which we invited our Lord, broke bread, blessed our food and one another, ate superbly and shared wine. Then we would walk to the church to celebrate the Maundy Thursday service.

Maundy comes from the word maundatum in Latin. It means law or commandment. In the Gospel appointed for today we hear Jesus giving his disciples a New Commandment. After he had washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus instructs them with a New Commandment—“Love one another.”

Often we get fixated on the washing of feet or the institution of the Eucharist at the Maundy Thursday service. But it is this New Commandment that is important. At our pre-mass agape my friend and I celebrated our friendship—our love for one another. We tried to imitate Christ’ Last Supper by asking for his presence. And we were reminded in those actions that how we lived together respecting each other’s gifts, sharing each other’s lives, laughing with one another was a response that to that love that Christ had offered us from the Cross.

Here at church in this celebration of this Holy Meal, the Communion with our God, we not only remember what Jesus did, we are invited by Christ to share in HIS meal. We feast not merely on bread and wine, or on veal piccata or coquille saint-jacques. We feast on the body and blood of Christ, our Lord. We take the One who would show us the Father into us, not just for sustenance but for strength to live out this law of love.

The Eucharistic meal—and Eucharist means thanksgiving is our offering to God and God’s offering to us. It is an invitation by God to step beyond our own limitations. It calls us to find within ourselves the grace that God gives to love more than would be humanly possible by emptying ourselves in order to love others. This act of taking bread, blessing, breaking and giving it signs that we can let old slights and bitterness go, we can begin anew with relationships. The grace of this sacrament empowers us to not cut each other off or dismiss one another. The grace of this sacrament opens us to respect those with whom we share the bounty of the earth. The grace of this sacrament raises our eyes to those around us who are suffering. The grace of this sacrament fills us with hope that what we do in the name of Christ will manifest Christ’s saving message that we are loved and that we can love others. The grace of this sacrament opens our hearts to those whose hungers cannot be satisfied by the stuff of this world and calls us to share the joy of God.

Throughout this Lenten season we have looked at our baptismal promises. As a response to the gift of eternal life given to us in baptism, we promise to live among God’s people, share in the liturgy of the Church, proclaim the good news, serve one another and strive for justice and peace. Baptism is a sacrament—that outward and visible sign of God’s grace-- that we do only once and then remember it. Holy Communion is the sign by which we can remember, we can respond, we can be about the loving one another. The regular reception of the Eucharist helps us to realize that all meals shared are Last Suppers, not mere feeding troughs. They are times for expressing our care for one another. In the celebration of Holy Communion can we realize that even a quarter-pounder and a Coke can be a divine touch when we share them in love.

I love the way this parish has dinners for the greater population of our area. We invite people into our parish home and feed them because Christ taught us how to love each other through the meal. I often worry that our falling into habits of eating on the run tears at the fabric of our society in which we are intended to enjoy one another at meal time, to eat and drink and be merry with one another. Meals together need to be that reminder of the New Commandment. Our hustle-bustle lives often take away the real sense of community or communion with one another. And most of all it wears at our basic communion with not only one another, but with God too.

Holy Communion not only reminds us, but the grace of the sacrament—of Christ present in the act—allows us to refocus ourselves on the New Commandment that we live out because Christ gave his Body and Blood for us. We celebrate this night not merely to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, but to recognize that our footsteps are guided by Him. We celebrate this night to remember that it is through our reception of the Body and Blood of our Savior that we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Christ and though it we live in him and through him.

The early Christians referred to Holy Communion as the mysterium trimendum. The Greek Orthodox refer to the transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ as mystery. Lutherans refer to it as the sacramental union of God and humanity. Episcopalians call it the Real Presence. However we name it, the sharing of bread and wine in the name of Jesus Christ is a participation in God’s work in this world. It is life-changing. It is nourishing; it is mundane and sacred at the same time. It bridges what it means to be created and what it means to be cherished. And it is the simple act of a man 2,000 years ago who wanted to share his love for his friends that has been passed on to us by ages of those who have shared in that love.

Holy Eucharist is the oldest uniquely Christian ritual we have. By 50 CE it is already a regular rite in the Christian community. In a mere 20 years after our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection, the breaking of the bread is part of the life of those who followed the way of Jesus. When we share in this meal we stand upon the shoulders of generations who have taken, blessed, broken and given of bread and wine in the name of Christ. This act binds us to those generations just as it binds us to those generations who will follow after us.

And so we celebrate tonight this simple act of sharing bread and wine. It is layered with all the ways that we live out our faith. It is layered with history and tradition. It is layered with mystery and awe. It is layered with desire to serve and desire to receive. But it is supported in one simple commandment—Love One Another. AMEN

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Yesterday the dreadful shooting of 14 people happened in my city. I was at my parish 40 miles away when it happened. The incident was near my home and on a route I take almost daily. I avoided that route on my way home last night knowing that there would still be emergency vehicles in that vicinity. But in my mind, I can see that building—a place where immigrants attend classes to become citizens—a place of welcome and information.

I still don’t have access to much of the information. I watched the news last night. Access to the internet newspaper is causing my browser to crash so I can’t get the most up-to-date information at the moment. I don’t know why this man did this. We may never know why this happened; he is one of the 14 deaths. But the violence of the act overwhelms us and makes us shutter.

This story will ring in Binghamton’s psyche for years. Our sleepy Southern Tier city has been visited with what we think is ‘urban violence’. The sense of security that most of us usually live in has been violated and shaken in a way that floods or other natural disasters cannot do. It smacks of Pogo’s declaration that “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

This post could easily be a rant on gun control, or a strident call for vigilance. But it is not. It is merely a comment on the sadness that I feel and the grief that I share with all involved. It is a ‘standing-with’ all of our city family who have lost family and friends.

Recently I heard Walter Bruggeman speak about grief in western culture. He said that we, all too often, do not allow ourselves to truly grieve losses so that we can honestly move on. He showed how the Hebrew prophets would not let the people forget the things that grieved the people and God. Grief is the sadness, the utterly painful experience that we are not in control of the Universe. And if anything has shown us that we are not in control, it has been the mindless killing of people who were studying to become citizens of our country.

It is in grief that some of our better traits can come to the fore. I am remembering the goodness that came about when we flooded a couple of years ago, when neighbor helped neighbor. I know that we here in our city have the ability to reach out to one another at this time and to grieve our loss of innocence together.

That this incident comes the week before Holy Week is not lost on me either. It is so easy to enter Holy Week with a sense of ‘retreat’ or introspection through the events of the Passion of Jesus. But this year, I do not believe I have that luxury. Holy Week may not be my personal journey to the Cross and Empty Tomb. It must be a journey I must take with my neighbors and friends in order to experience and live through the grief of what has happened. It is the only way that the Cross makes any sense whatsoever.

We are vulnerable here in Binghamton. We are not as safe as we have thought. No matter what kind of vigilance we can negotiate for ourselves, we will never be in control of our Universe. Bad things will happen. And the only thing that we can depend upon is the grace of God and the comfort of human kindness. Grief reminds us that we have obligations to one another to support and to be compassionate in the name of the God who loves us more than life.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Friday Five: Holy Week Prep

Often it is the week before Holy Week that is the hardest on clergy. All of the bulletins have to be done, the music chosen, the coordination with the Choir Director, the support of the Altar Guild, and in my case, the parish play begins tonight as well as pastoral calls. Sally at Revgals has given us a chance to speak to what we long for:

Holy Week is almost upon us, I suspect that ordained or not, other revgal/pals calendars look a bit like mine, FULL, FULL, FULL........

Jesus was great at teaching us to take time out, even in that last week, right up to Maundy Thursday he withdrew, John's gospel tells us he hid! He hid not because he was afraid, but because he knew that he needed physical, mental and spiritual strength to get through...

So faced with a busy week:

1. What restores you physically?

SLEEP! Listening to calming music and sitting in the warmth of an 80 degree day with a cool drink at hand. But I am feeling really off of late. For the past few weeks I have been dealing with an inner ear problem that makes me woozy. The Dr. gave me valium—I thought that went out in the ‘80s! Besides valium has the reverse effect on me anyway. So I guess I am just having to live through it. Lying down makes it worse so I am not getting the rest I need.

2. What strengthens you emotionally/ mentally?

PRAYER. Meditative prayer that allows me to listen to all the clamor within and let it go.

3. What encourages you spiritually?

MUSIC! I wish I had some time to go and just sing to my hearts content. But maybe after Easter.

4. Share a favourite poem or piece of music from the coming week.

My Song is Love Unknown

5.There may be many services for you to attend/ lead over the next week, which one are you most looking forward to and why? If there aren't do you have a favourite day in Holy week if so which one is it?

I love the Maundy Thursday service. I don’t do the Washing of the Feet. Upstate NYers don’t part with their sox in April! So I put an emphasis on the Eucharist and the sign of community. I would like to find a good Easter Vigil to go to. Often the Anglo-Catholic ones are too fru-fru and the more evangelical ones don’t understand the symbolism and often leave important things out. I haven’t tried a Lutheran one yet. It is hard to get my parish out for Maudy Thursday or Good Friday. I sure as heck won’t be able to get them out for an Easter Vigil.