A Day of Red

Churches around the world are honoring Reformation Sunday this Sabbath, a rare treat in that the Sunday and the actual Festival Day align.

It’s important to note that each liturgical denomination has a day that honors a formative experience in the life of their particular vein of Christianity. The Eastern Orthodox church celebrates “The Triumph of Orthodoxy” to usher in Lent. The Roman Catholic Church has the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (February 22nd), emphasizing the founding of the church on Peter’s shoulders. The Anglican Church honors the day the Book of Common Prayer was published, uniting the communion into one.

For Lutherans, it is Reformation Day, when we sing “A Mighty Fortress” and “Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” and dress in red, the color of both the martyrs and the fire of the Holy Spirit.

At its worst the Reformation is celebrated as a triumph. At its best it is a feast day that is simply a continuation of the perpetual change and shift that must happen in a church that is wedded to a God who is known and revealed inside of time.

Historically it does mark a time in history when a break, for better and for worse, happened in the church. This break deserves an autopsy every year in an effort to remember, reaffirm, and repair as much as a possible the schisms that arose from it.

The date of the Reformation, the 31st of October, comes from the lore that Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, intending for it to be widely read by everyone who attended the All Saints Sunday mass the following day. We’re not sure this is historically accurate, but because it is so much a part of the narrative around the events of autumn in 1517, we give a nod to its church-changing truth, if not its actual veracity.

A better date to honor the Reformation might actually be June 25th, the date that the Augsburg Confession was presented. Like the Anglican Church with the Book of Common Prayer, the Confession is the binding document of all the reformation churches.

Regardless, tradition compels us to keep the date, to wear red, to remember, and to continue to reform.

-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-opinions mine

Saints of Famous Obscurity

Today the church honors two unsung, and largely unknown, first Apostles: St. Simon and St. Jude, Companions of Jesus.

St. Simon the Zealot (sometimes called “Simon the Less” to distinguish him from Simon-Peter) and St. Jude (sometimes called “Jude the Obscure” because he is largely known for not being Judas Iscariot) were numbered in those first twelve apostles, saw Jesus post-resurrection, ate with him, and were sent out to preach the Gospel.

But that’s all we really know about them.

Luke is the writer who calls Simon a “Zealot,” which could mean that he was a member of the Zealot party in ancient Palestine, a radically “anti-Roman rule” faction. It’s worth highlighting that, if Simon was a Zealot, then it meant he walked with Matthew the Tax Collector in shared mission…an anti-Roman activist and pro-Roman bureaucrat working together in Jesus inner-circle.

Let that sink in…Jesus’ inner circle had people with diametrically opposing viewpoints…

St. Jude (who some think wrote the epistle of Jude) is sometimes called Thaddaeus or Lebbaeus in Matthew, perhaps to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot.

There is a little-known apocryphal book called “The Passion of Simon and Jude” that says that St. Jude preached for a decade in Mesopotamia and that he and Simon labored in Persia together where they were martyred in tandem (hence why they are commemorated together today).

St. Simon is rumored to have been sawn in half…which is why he’s often depicted with a saw. St. Jude is often depicted with an ax because…well…you get the picture.

There is also a little fun legend about St. Jude healing the King of Edessa, and other stories about them fighting against Zoroastrianism in the ancient world.

Today, St. Jude is probably best known as being the namesake of hospitals and organizations that provide care to the most critical causes. In fact, in Roman Catholicism St. Jude is the patron saint of “hopeless causes.”

Why, you might ask?

Well, because St. Jude is so obscure and had no cultic following, Roman Catholic theologians thought that perhaps he might welcome and be attentive to the most desperate prayers.

St. Simon the Zealot is a reminder for me that the church has always had radicals within its walls, and was political from its very inception.

St. Jude is a reminder for me that sometimes the people who seem forgettable and least important become the ones we lean on the most in our most desperate hours.

-Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations helped with the historical pieces of the saints

-icons by Nowitzki Tramonto

Music is Theology

Today the church honors three 17th Century musicians for the ages: Philipp Nicolai, Johan Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt.

To go into depth on each of these musicians would be to go on too long for a simple social media post. A cursory search of the Google machine will lead you to some interesting background on each.

What I’d rather do, though, is note that all three were not just hymnwriters, they were theologians. The theology we sing affects the theology we trust, Beloved. The tune is the hook, but the words are the bait, the thing we swallow, the thing we start to subconsciously believe.

In other words: be careful what you sing because it will become what you say you believe.

Out of the three of these, Paul Gerhardt is the one you’ll know the best if you grew up in a Lutheran church. While we sing the works of all three of these giants of the hymnic faith, Gerhardt is no doubt the greatest Lutheran hymnwriter.

He also, no doubt, had the most unusual facial hair.

Want to look up some of their tunes?

In your Evangelical Lutheran Worship you’ll find Nicolai on hymn 308 (“O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright!” sung at Epiphany), 436 (“Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” sung at Advent), and 786 (“O Holy Spirit, Enter In” Nicolai only wrote the tune for this one, and I’ve rarely sung it).

Heeraman’s work can be found on 349 (“Ah, Holy Jesus” sung every Lent), 675 (“O Christ, Our Light, O Radiance True” sung in Ordinary Time), and 806 (“O God, My Faithful God” sung in times of crisis).

And the seminal Gerhardt tunes can be enjoyed on 241 (“O Lord, How Shall I Meet You” sung at Advent), 273 (“All My Heart Again Rejoices” sung at Christmas), 340 (“A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth” sung during Lent), 351 and 352 (“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” sung during Holy Week…a favorite of mine!), 378 (“Awake, My Heart, with Gladness” an underappreciated Easter hymn), 568 (“Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadows” a very sweet evening hymn), 761 (“Evening and Morning” a lovely song on trust), and 788 (“If God My Lord Be for Me”…sung in times of trial).

Do some searches, sit back, and learn the faith.

James of Jerusalem

On this day the church honors a saint with a familiar name, but one who is often confused with other similarly-named apostles. Today is the feast day of St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Our Lord.

St. James is noted in the books of Matthew and Mark as one of the brothers of Jesus. In the book of Galatians, St. Paul wrote that he met St. James on his first visit to the city.

In the same way that St. Peter led the church in Rome, St. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and, with such a distinct role, you’d think we’d hear more about him in the scriptures…but we just don’t.

At question is his actual kinship with Jesus. In trying to highlight how singularly significant Jesus is in history, many Christian writers have struggled to let any siblings be a part of the story. But it’s worth noting that it would have been quite unusual for Mary and Joseph to have only had one child. In the ancient world that was not common family-planning. At the heart of this speculation, though, is not even really Jesus, but rather Mary. In an effort to keep her singularly virginal, all sorts of stories cropped up about a first marriage for Joseph in which he sired other children, making St. James the step-sibling of Jesus.

This is all fancy family footwork without any substance.

To add to the confusion, some historians of the early church suggest that this James is the same “James the Less” who was one of Jesus’ disciples with a different parentage altogether. The thought is that St. James was the son of Mary of Clopas, the younger sister of Mary, Mother of Our Lord. While it is true that the same word for “brother” can also mean “cousin” in the ancient world, this, too, seems far fetched and an attempt to solve a problem that is not really there.

Jesus had siblings. It’s OK. We can all get over it.

St. James of Jerusalem really first comes on the scene post-resurrection when he is met by the risen Jesus. The early church considered him an important piece in the first stories of the church, perhaps as a replacement for St. James, Son of Zebedee (who was martyred early on).

In the same way that St. Paul felt a special calling to the Gentile-Christians, St. James of Jerusalem spent his ministry with the Jewish-Christians. It is believed he was martyred sometime in the early 60’s, right around the composition of the first Gospels. Some early church historians even claim it was the priest Annas who ordered his stoning, though this is more lore than anything.

Today is an especially appropriate day to lift up prayers for the church in Jerusalem.

St. James of Jerusalem is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, of two important things:

First, when we attempt to make Jesus so “special” we actually rob him of the most relatable parts of his being. The idea that he had siblings is kind of neat to me because, as someone who knows what it’s like to juggle family relationships, he knows a bit of my experience…our human experience. I mean, isn’t a central thought of the church that we are all the siblings of Jesus? Why must it be correct theologically, but not biologically?

Religious folks struggle with biology…

Secondly, the church has always struggled with niche ministry, worried that it would rub too much against the norm. St. Paul felt a calling to the Gentiles, and St. James of Jerusalem to the Jewish-Christians. Today some pastors feel a call to ministry on the streets, or to marginalized communities, or even to Wall Street Brokers. Some pastors don’t feel a call to the pulpit, but rather to the pavement. Some leaders don’t even feel a call to the priesthood, but are feeling a push to live as prophets.

From the early church, specialized ministry was already happening, and yet we still struggle so much with those who want to “do something different” with their call or want to start communities that don’t look a lot like conventional “church” communities.

Why?

-most historical bits, with the exception of some of the commentary around controversies, aided by Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-Icon by Tobias Haller, BSG

Guiding Principle: Anam Cara will Name Things

In the second creation story from the book of Genesis (yes, there are two…at least two), the Divine brings creatures to the Adam (dust-ling) to see what they would name them (Genesis 2:19). In this creation story it is arguably the first instance of human agency that the Divine invites the human into without any stipulations. Whatever the human names the thing, that is its name. It’s a wonderful instance of human-Divine cooperation in the ordering of the world.

Names are important, Beloved.

They help us understand ourselves. They help others understand us. Names connect us to our past, and are offered on those we love and cherish as a blessing for the future. In these ways names are beautiful, wonderful, and helpful.

Names are important, Beloved…because they matter.

And because they matter, we must also recognize that they can be damaging.

Names that stigmatize drive wedges between humans.

Names that belittle cast people, places, and things in a light that can steal their dignity and cloud their inherent goodness.

Names wrongly applied, like the insistence of some to identify our siblings in the trans community by anything other than their preferred pronouns or chosen first names, harm others with intention.

In these ways names are weapons of cruelty.

Names matter, Beloved.

In thinking about our Guiding Principles, the curation team at Anam Cara believes we must be a community that names things. Taking our cues from that second creation story, we trust that the Divine intends us to be cooperators and even co-conspirators (in the most positive way) in naming what we see around us.

Acts of racism must be named as racist (looking at you school boards banning books that talk about race).

Acts of homophobia must be named as harmful (again, looking at you school boards who ban books talking about sexuality).

Acts of indignity, injustice, and ones that rob others of their imago Dei must be named with honesty and unflinching courage.

And, while we’re naming things, we’ll intentionally be keen to remind others (and ourselves) that they are loved in their imperfection, are beautiful with scars, have the right to be called what they want to be called, and don’t deserve many of the labels the world puts on them.

And the world is excellent at misnaming things.

Imagine if a neighborhood didn’t have to be labeled “up and coming” to be attractive to investors.

Imagine if a child didn’t have to be “free lunch” labeled at school, because everyone got free lunch (this works, by the way, to cut stigma…it’s working in Raleigh right now!).

Imagine if no one ever worried about Critical Race Theory being taught in schools because it’s understood that teaching about racism isn’t demeaning, but rather not teaching about it, is.

In fact: it is literally critical.

Imagine if kids didn’t grow up thinking sex is a bad word, but rather a powerful one. Imagine if adults didn’t have to live thinking that putting a check next to the “married” box made you whole, or that mental health was a scarlet letter, or that popular media didn’t run the table on what counts as beautiful, successful, or powerful.

Jesus was big on naming things: the religious elites were called hypocrites, the last were called first (and the first, last), the outcast was called favored, the child was called a spiritual sage…Jesus named things all the time!

It’s almost like Jesus knew that names were important.

Names are important, Beloved…and we intend to honor that truth.

Care for Those on the Margins

Today the church honors the Feast Day of St. Luke, the Evangelist.

We believe Luke was a Greek, and a Gentile, but we’re not really sure where he’s from or much about his life, other than he was a physician. He was a disciple of St. Paul and worked alongside him in missionary endeavors.

In Luke’s Gospel (which has a sequel in the Book of Acts) we learn that Luke was not an eyewitness to anything Jesus did or said. According to early lore Luke wrote his Gospel in Greece and preached in Bithynia, though we can’t verify any of that. Lore also has him reaching the ripe old age of eighty-four, a bachelor all those years.

Again, none of that is really more than speculation.

There is also an obviously dubious claim that he painted the first picture of Mary, Mother of Our Lord. For this reason many icons have him holding a painting of her.

The observance of this day as his feast day is quite old in the Eastern Church, and may be closely associated with the actual day of his death. On this day in many places people will make special donations to hospitals and nursing homes, an homage to this physician-evangelist, and there may have even been some “healing services” or anointing services happening in some churches (though, in the midst of a pandemic, I imagine this physician would rather churches not gather in person this year).

Luke’s spiritual sign is the patient ox, because he plods along in his story, slowly, recounting in detail much about Jesus and the life of the early church.

Luke’s Gospel is marked by special attention to women, the sick, and the marginalized communities in general in the ancient world. For this reason it is the favorite Gospel of many. Luke, for instance, has Jesus giving his main sermon not on a mountain, but on a plain…a sign of equality (and, also, a reminder that the Gospels don’t all match up). Luke also notes that “Blessed are the poor” in his recounting of the Beatitudes includes an economic element. Matthew changed it to “poor in spirit,” but Luke has it as “those who are in poverty.”

Luke, and in his recounting, Jesus, cares deeply for the poor, the sick, and the marginalized.

He is a reminder for me, and for the whole church, that the church, too, has a duty first and foremost not to the powerful, but to those Jesus felt a duty toward: the poor, the sick, and the marginalized.

-icon written by Theophilia

She Was a Doctor of the Church

Today is the feast day of one of my favorite mystics and saints, St. Teresa of Avila, Visionary and Renewer of the Church.

St. Teresa was born in 1515 into an old Spanish family of note, and had nine brothers and sisters all told. Her mother died when she was fifteen, and Teresa was sent off to school at a convent where she read the letters of St. Jerome (whose saint day was not too long ago!). Inspired by his writing, St. Teresa decided to take vows and become a nun.

Her father, though, had other ideas, and forbade her from pursuing a life in the church. So, Teresa did what every teen does: she ran away from home and joined the Carmelites in Avila.

Soon after joining the convent, however, young Teresa fell deathly ill and lapsed into a deep coma which, after she recovered from it, left her paralyzed from the waist down for three years.

It was then that she began to receive her visions, though she was quite lax with her spiritual practices. It didn’t seem to matter, though, because she began to physically feel the presence of the Divine quite acutely, eventually prompting her to recommit to her vows and take the name, “Teresa of Jesus.”

In 1560 she decided she needed to reform the monastery, as she felt it had become too austere. Facing great opposition she found a way to have a new monastery built, and dedicated it to St. Joseph.

In a page that could have been ripped from today’s headlines, lawsuits ensued. Her nuns were shamed and called names, and their numbers remained quite small. St. Teresa, in her wisdom, actually limited the number of nuns she would take to 21 in sum total, believing a smaller cohort had more chance to create community.

Eventually the Pope blessed the order, now called the Discalced Carmelites (because they wore sandals and not shoes), and St. Teresa set about starting other reformed monastic communities, calling them from pretention and austerity to a more humble way of being.

Throughout Spain St. Teresa established seventeen other communities. They were always small, intentionally poor, and extremely disciplined.

St. Teresa of Avila eventually fell ill and died in 1582, having struggled her whole life to call the church to greater humility.

St. Teresa is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes small pockets of apocalyptic (that is, reforming) people can change the world and be remembered in the annals of history. No one recalls the large convents of her day, booming with money, golden candlesticks (or, as we might say today, screens and technology), but we all recall this slight visionary who struggled and led a handful of folks.

I mean, that story kind of sounds like Jesus, right?

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-historical notes from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-icon written by Theophillia

-critiques of megachurches all me

Pastors in a No Win Situation

“How many people should I be visiting a month?” I asked them.

They blinked at me, confused by the question.

“What I’m asking is, what will satisfy you? Is it ten people? Twenty?”

“Well,” she asked, “how many are on the shut-in list?”

“Currently thirty-two,” I said looking at the list. It was a little outdated, but fairly accurate. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is a shut-in and who just isn’t showing up at church anymore.

“Well, that sounds like you could do a visit or two a day and get done with the list each month,” they said.

“Sure,” I said. “It appears that way. But each visit is between two-three hours, with driving and sitting with them and all, which is basically one half of a work day. And not all of them can be scheduled each day, due to doctor’s schedules and all. Oh, and how late in the day should I visit people? Is 7:00pm too late? We usually eat dinner around then. Oh, and should I be doing visits on Saturdays and Sundays? ‘Cause I’d need to according to that schedule. And what about emergency visits to the hospital?”

They sat there, blinking.

“And when am I supposed to research and write a sermon? Or attend the meetings already on the calendar? Or plan for Sundays, holy days, or read and write like you want me to? And prep for Bible Study?”

They blinked.

It was an awkward meeting. They didn’t think I was visiting people enough.

The problem, though, is “enough” is not a number. There is never “enough.”

In fact, this–and so many other situations–are a “no win” situation for a pastor.

If they talk about politics too little or too much, it’s a problem.

If they put in too many Covid restrictions, or too few, it’s a problem.

If they’re too academic, or too colloquial, it’s a problem.

If they choose to show up at this committee meeting, or this club meeting, but choose not to do another one, it’s a no-win situation.

My solution to the above, by the way, was to miss most all of them except for once a year…”favorites” are a thing in the church, and once a pastor is viewed as having one, well, the fall-out is rough.

Pastors generally cannot win in any situation.

In the Book of Revelation there’s this church that the writer calls out, the church at Laodicea, because they are what he calls “neither hot nor cold.” The writer calls them out because they are essentially “fence-sitters,” as we might say.

I always felt bad for that church, because I imagine they had a pastor who was trying to walk the fine line expected by people who, by and large, want vastly different things out of her.

The well of need in a church is a vacuum. The well of expectation has no bottom.

Endless, Beloved. It is endless.

Many nights I went to sleep feeling like a failure because this or that need was reportedly unmet by this or that person. You might say my skin wasn’t thick enough. Maybe not. But it’s hard to do your work under a microscope that has no benchmarks for success.

I’m not sure any skin is thick enough to withstand that.

So many pastors are sacrificed on the altar of need, the altar of “not visiting enough,” the altar of “too political,” the altar of…well, think of the altar you’ve erected and imagine the sacrifice.

It’s a no-win situation.

So, Pastor, let’s do something different: don’t try to win.

It’s OK to not win.

Winning is a game that suckers play who’ve forgotten that their vows ask them not to give “illusory hope,” as ours do.

Illusory hope is that a pastor will fulfill your expectations.

What they will do, I think (and hope), is serve faithfully.

Still in the Headlines

Today I would propose that the church, and the world, remember a modern tragedy that is still all to relevant today: St. Matthew Shepherd, Son, Martyr, and Hate Crime Victim.


Matthew was born in Casper, Wyoming, and was known as a friendly kid interested in politics and theater. After moving around with his family, he eventually landed at the University of Wyoming in the town of Laramie as a Poli-Sci major. He was raised Episcopalian, and his father noted that Matthew had a knack for relating to most anyone he met, but especially those who felt like they didn’t belong.


Here is where I would usually write about what happened to Matthew, but in typing out the incident that led to his death I found myself unable to continue because it was so terrible, horrifying, and graphic.


And it made me think of my own two babies. My heart breaks for his parents, his whole family, still.


On October 6th Matthew was offered a ride by two men at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. He left with them and, instead of going home, they robbed him, beat him, and left him tied to a fence in freezing temperatures. He was found the next day, comatose, and died in the hospital on October 12th.


The two men, and their girlfriends, were brought up on charges of first degree murder and accessory after the fact. Though their testimonies became convoluted, it was noted that they pretended to be gay to lure Matthew, and then killed him motivated by prejudice, homophobia, and hatred.


When I woke up this morning, I woke up to headlines indicating that the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, Jon Gruden, resigned due to leaked emails containing misogynistic, homophobic, and racist statements. Statements from years of emails.


Just this last week it came to light that North Carolina’s Lt. Governor, in a SERMON, called homosexual and transgender people “filth.”


He’ll run for governor next cycle.


We remember St. Matthew, martyr, on this day, because the evil that moved in the hearts of people to kill him that night still move today.


It’s literally in the headlines.


And we need to call it out when we see it and hear it.


-icon written by Andrew Freshour

Why Pastors Need to Leave Their Parish When They Leave

Tough subject ahead. Ready?

Here’s the thing: no pastor is perfect at this.

Even me.

Social media has made this all the harder, of course. A “like,” an easy comment on Facebook or Instagram, a quick “check-in” for curiosity.

It’s easy. It happens.

But it’s largely not a good thing, especially at first.

But even years later, even today, I still see pastors, pastors I know, showing up to do weddings or funerals for people at parishes they used to serve.

And, yes, I get it: they think it’s harmless. “They don’t go there anymore,” they say. Or, “they haven’t been there since they were a teen,” they say.

But guess what, pastor: you’re largely doing that for your own ego and desire to be needed.

Because you know what? They’re absolutely less likely to show up at their former church now because you still continue, even years later, to hold that role for them.

And that’s honestly not helpful.

You know why we wear that robe, pastor? That white robe?

That white robe is the robe of a servant, yes. But even more so, it’s a robe that makes you interchangeable with any other pastor out there.

That’s what our theology says.

So, you saying “yes” to that destination wedding is just you disregarding that theological truth.

And you know what?!

Just because you say no to the invitation to do a wedding or a funeral doesn’t mean you didn’t mean anything to them. You did! Good on you! You did so much that they want you to be a part of it!

And you can be a part of it: sitting at table 9.

Or by doing a reading.

Or by sending a nice card and a gift with your regrets.

With one exception, for a childhood friend, I have said no to every wedding, funeral, and baptism I’ve been asked to do since leaving parishes. And I don’t say that as a badge of honor, but rather as a testament to me trying to walk that walk.

I care deeply about the people I used to serve.

Deeply.

So deeply that sometimes I wonder at night about their life and how they’re doing and hope they check in sometimes. And when they do, I always respond back in love and respect.

But I do so now from afar. With boundaries I try imperfectly, but really hard, to keep.

With deep love, deep reverence for who we used to be to one another, but with an even deeper understanding that for both of us to live our best lives into the future I must commend them to other people’s care, and they must honor that boundary.

Pastors who perform pastoral acts for others who used to be in their parish do so because they can’t say no to their own ego and need to be needed.

And sure, sometimes that pastor who left asks for permission from the pastor currently at the parish, but let me ask you this: what pastor is going to say no to that request? In such a moment of tenderness, probably with a family they haven’t had the chance to bond with, or who views them with suspicion, the power lies not with the pastor currently serving the parish, but with the former pastor who is called forth from the past like a reminder of other times.

That power dynamic sucks so much.

I would love to preside over the wedding of every youngster I served.

I would be honored to say parting words at every gravesite for those I tended to.

I’d love to baptize every newborn that comes along to families I married and nurtured.

But that’s not OK.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.