Friday, February 27, 2009

Today is the day we Episcopalians remember George Herbert. In a way that may well be overly Romantic (and hence out of character for me) he is my role model of a parish priest. Below is what the Episcopal Church has to say about him via Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

If you are unfamiliar with Lesser Feasts and Fasts, let me commend it you. I read the bios on the appropriate day at Morning Prayer at St. Mark's and use the collect attached to each bio as the "Collect of the Day" for our Morning Prayer service.

George Herbert is famous for his poems and his prose work, A
Priest in the Temple: or The Country Parson. He is portrayed by
his biographer Izaak Walton as a model of the saintly parish priest.
Herbert described his poems as “a picture of the many spiritual
conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could
submit mine to the will of Jesus my Master; in whose service I have
found perfect freedom.”
Herbert was born in 1593, a member of an ancient family, a cousin
of the Earl of Pembroke, and acquainted with King James the First
and Prince (later King) Charles. Through his official position as Public
Orator of Cambridge, he was brought into contact with the Court.
Whatever hopes he may have had as a courtier were dimmed, however,
because of his associations with persons who were out of favor with
King Charles the First—principally John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln.
Herbert had begun studying divinity in his early twenties, and in 1626
he took Holy Orders. King Charles provided him with a living as
rector of the parishes of Fugglestone and Bemerton in 1630.
His collection of poems, The Temple, was given to his friend, Nicholas
Ferrar, and published posthumously. Two of his poems are well known
hymns: “Teach me, my God and King,” and “Let all the world in every
corner sing.” Their grace, strength, and metaphysical imagery influenced
later poets, including Henry Vaughan and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Lines from his poem on prayer have moved many readers:
Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, the heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth.
Herbert was unselfish in his devotion and service to others. Izaak
Walton writes that many of the parishioners “let their plow rest when
Mr. Herbert’s saints-bell rung to prayers, that they might also offer
their devotion to God with him.” His words, “Nothing is little in God’s
service,” have reminded Christians again and again that everything in
daily life, small or great, may be a means of serving and worshiping God.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Inviting you to an observance of a holy Lent

Ash Wednesday was yesterday. The theme: penitence and mortality. Mortality is the tougher of the two for me. Those who are terminally ill, diagnosed by a medical professional as having some ailment that will mean their end, stand before me. Maybe some of their fellow church goers know of their situation--most probably do not. But I know. They stand before me and nod ever so slightly. I plunge my thumb down into the ashes and place it upon their bowed foreheads. I say, as I make the sign of the cross, the sign of death, "Remember you are ashes, and to ashes you will return." A tear forms in the corner of my eye. They do not notice, they are lost in the meaning of those words as well.

Next a young mother, holding her infant, is before me. She presents the child to recieve the ashes. I make the mark and tell the newborn, "Remember you are ashes, and to ashes you will return."

A teenager comes forward, unable to fathom mortality--I look into their eyes and know that they believe themselves invincible and life unending and the future open-wide--eternal. They smile a shy smile and nod. I place the ashes upon them and say, "Remember you are ashes, and to ashes you will return." They smile again as they turn to leave, thinking about the homework they must finish before they go to bed and wondering why I had a tear in my eye when they first approached the altar. On the way back down the isle, they pause for a moment to quietly play with the infant with the ashes on its forehead. The terminally ill smile at the scene, with tears in their eyes.

The theme of Ash Wednesday is penitence and mortality. I know. I went to seminary. But I must tell you, for me it always ends up being about grief--greiving my wretchedness, greiving our wretchedness (just watch the news tonight)--and grieving, making silent laments, for the fragility and shortness of life.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Darwin's Birthday and the Christian Faith

When you live in the same state as the “Creation Museum” it is good to make note of reports that highlight to the larger culture that every Christian is not a luddite or a no-nothing. NPR had a nice piece on the “Clergy Letter Project.” I signed the “Letter” a few years ago. You can access the NPR report here ( or by going to the clergy letter project web page listing media reports (  
Fox News is scheduled to run a piece as well, but I have not seen it. And there have been a growing number of other very favorable stories, including one in The Baptist Standard, on in and one in Religion Dispatches.  All are available on the “Clergy Letter Project” web site.

New Scientist ( posted a story about the Vatican’s rebuttal of intelligent design that prominently featured the efforts of The Clergy Letter Project.
As a general rule I don’t “do” focus themes for Sundays (praying for Mothers in the Prayers of the People on Mother’s Day or taking up an offering for Episcopal Relief and Development on a particular Sunday is about as far as I will go), but many Protestants without a Church Calendar and/or Lectionary are always looking for some theme around which to focus worship. For those, a worthy theme would be “Evolution Weekend.”

Evolution Weekend is sponsored by the “Clergy Letter Project.” On Evolution Weekend a couple of years ago I invited a biologist (retired) from the University of Louisville to speak on evolution and his faith in God. He was an excellent Coffee Hour speaker.

I note that this year the number of congregations participating in Evolution Weekend has grown considerably.  Last I looked, 986 congregations from 14 countries were on board. You can check it all out at their website ( 

I am hopeful that due to the collective efforts of many clergy and laity, we are slowly changing the nature of the discussion about religion and science in our society.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Doing Church in Extreme Weather

About five years ago, a larger than average snow fell across the bluegrass. We don't get much snow in Louisville, and when we get more than a flurry, things tend to shut down. This snow fell on a Saturday--a priest's nightmare.

There are two schools of thought about doing church in extreme weather: (1) cancel services--someone will get hurt trying to get to church or (2) never cancel a service--people need church, no less so in extreme weather.

I do not naturally subscribe to either school. I worry about someone getting hurt, but usually have services anyway.

Such was the case five years ago. My daughter and I arrived early for the early service. The telephone was ringing as we came through the door. "Yes we are having services for those who are able to get here." "No, I am not going to cancel services. If you don't feel safe getting here, please stay home." "Well, I'm here. So, I figure I will have services with whoever else gets here." And so on and so forth.

As I got ready for the early service, my then nine year old daughter took over telephone duty. My daughter, having heard me answer the same question a dozen times, did a fine job with the--"Yes, we are having services, but stay home where it is safe" message I was preaching. But there is no pleasing everyone. One telephone caller (a seventy year old female that ought to have known better), told her to "Tell you father he is stupid! No one should be having church in this weather!"

My daughter hung up the phone and wrote me the following message in typical nine year old handwriting. "Dad, crazy woman called, said you where stupid, didn't leave a number."

I wish i had saved the message.

Several winters later, a similar storm hit town on a Saturday. This time, however, the snow was so heavy, I couldn't get the walkways cleared in time for the regularly scheduled services. No path from the parking lot to any door was available. I telephoned the TV stations and let them know I was canceling services. I called everyone I could think of that might need to know, naturally I forgot several. But then again, the local TV stations and radio stations were helping get the word out.

This time it was a male, buying a snow shovel at a hardware store, ranting and raving about my having canceled services. The "check out girl" was also a parishioner. She told me "He said you were stupid for canceling Church services. "I thought I should let you know, since most of the people in the store heard all about it."

All this brings me to my decision to have services in the after math of our last winter storm a couple of weeks ago. Ice had left much of the city cold and dark. The parish buildings were no exception. The rectory, however, was an exception. Several parishioners who were powerless found their way over to the rectory. We had a slumber party of sorts. The kids had a blast. I moved the parish office over to the rectory so we could get out the parish newsletter on time. I slipped on the ice a couple of times, once sacrifcing my body to save a computer monitor I was transplanting to its temporary home in my dinning room.

Worship services, however, were a different matter. I told everyone that called to go to the Cathedral for services--they had heat and lights, but that "yes, I would be holding services for anyone who showed up at St. Mark's." A few did actually show up. There was a bit of shivering and we all looked kinda silly all bundled up like polar explorers. I was actually pretty comfortable under all the layers of vestments we priests wear for Holy Eucharist services.

I knew the woman who thought I was stupid for having services would not be there. She transfered to another parish a couple of years ago. Presumably the priest of that parish has enough sense to know when to cancel worship services.

I was, however, a little surprised when the gentleman who called me stupid for not having services didn't show. Turns out he stayed home. I'm betting he figured that only a really stupid priest would hold services in the cold and the dark.