On How We Don’t Have to Put Up With Bad Behavior

She came every month with a copy of the mailed newsletter in her hand, marked up with red ink. The office admin answered the door graciously every month, as she had been doing since before I arrived. She took the bloodied copy, said thank you, and put it on her desk, slumping down in her chair.

“Who was that?” I asked. I’d caught a glimpse of the woman out the window, and had never seen them before.

“Oh,” the admin said, “she comes every month to show me all the mistakes in the newsletter. She doesn’t go here anymore, but she used to I guess. She stopped coming because she said it’s too hard for her to get here…”

“But she can get here to critique the newsletter monthly? That makes no sense,” I said, shaking my head.

I looked at the copy. The editorial corrections she was suggesting (demanding?) were from an outdated form of writing, anyway. Her edits weren’t actual edits, just grammatical preferences.

“Why do we allow this?” I asked, honestly. “This is just bad behavior.”

A month went by, and one day I saw the car drive up. The woman stepped out, ink dripped copy in her hand. The admin sighed and got ready to head down to answer the door. “Let’s go together,” I said.

I opened the door before she rang, and she looked at me, surprised. “You must be the new guy,” she said, smirking at me.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” I said extending my hand. “No, you won’t see me on Sundays. But I know the newsletter has a lot of issues and people care about that sort of thing, so I still edit it for you so, you know, you can see your mistakes.”

She held out the document.

“No thank you,” I said. “We don’t need you to edit it anymore.”

“You know,” she went on, “I used to be an editor for this church’s newsletter…”

“When was that?” I asked.

“I left in 1982,” she said.

“That’s a while ago. Why did you stop?” I asked, genuinely interested.

“I got mad,” she said with a smile, “you know how these things go…”

“I do,” I said, “which is why I’m not interested in letting it go on. You’re welcome here any time. But we won’t be accepting any more of your newsletter edits. Please do not show up here with this kind of thing ever again.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I bet you have a family, don’t you?” she said with a smirk. “When you go home tonight, you tell your wife that today you met a WOW.”

“A WOW?” I repeated.

“Yes. A Wicked Old Woman,” she said, turning and walking back to her idling sedan.

She drove off. We never saw her again.

And we were better for it.

Don’t Be Dazzled

When it comes to the Transfiguration, Beloved, don’t be distracted by the dazzling clothes.

God who holds the law (Moses) in a hand that will be scarred will rule with justice tempered by mercy, not the other way around.

God who holds prophecy (Elijah) in a hand to be scarred will proclaim truth from behind the picket line, within the ranks of the needy and poor, from the place of poverty, not power.

Don’t be distracted by the dazzling clothes…that’s not where the miracle is.

The miracle is in the fact that God holds mercy over retribution and stands with the poor, not the powerful.

That’s dazzling.

Convert the Churches

Today the church honors not a saint, but rather an event: The Conversion of Saint Paul.

This conversion story is thrice told (I just wanted to use the word “thrice”) in the Scriptures, and Paul also references it three times in his letters. This repetition actually makes it one of the most oft-repeated events in the stories of the early church.

Paul, a zealous persecutor of Christians in ancient Palestine, is struck by a blinding vision and, reportedly, the voice of God, which leads him to become a follower of Christ.

This event may be the most influential event for the early church because Paul’s active conversion work (and theology) spread like wildfire throughout the ancient world, especially amongst Gentile communities.

It’s worth noting that this Feast Day also marks the end of the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” It is not an accident that the “Week of Prayer” starts with the Confession of St. Peter and ends with the Conversion of St. Paul, as the two of them did not get along at all. They had different ideas of what the faith should be and do, who should be included in the circle of believers, and yes, it appears they even had different working theologies (of which, I would argue, St. Paul’s ideas won out, for better or for worse).

The one thing they did agree on? To continue working on behalf of the poor.

The church longed for these two pillars of the faith to be reconciled so much that they put them on the same feast day, believing that if they couldn’t be friends in life, they would be companions in death.

The conversion of St. Paul is honestly a feast day I struggle with, mostly due to a long history of colonialism and forced conversions winding through the church’s past. Yet, there is something honest about the fact that Paul, on his own, had an experience with the Divine that made a shift in him, and that can be a force for good, by God.

Christian unity feels a bit like a dream most days. This feast day isn’t even celebrated in the Eastern Church. But, perhaps if we all had a conversion we all might just agree to do that one thing that Paul and Peter agreed on: work on behalf of the poor.

For that to be the case, a lot of the church will have to be converted in the process…

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

-icon written by He Qi

Everyone Has a Holy Book

Everyone has a holy book.

I’ve seen people clutch their Bibles, but worship their checkbooks, counting and covering zero after zero. Retirement plans speak louder than God most days, right?

I’ve seen people clutch their scriptures, but bow to their partisan tract, carefully edited Twitter feed, their internet-assembled philosophic convictions shared in group emails people try to opt out of but can’t because “that’s just Uncle Bob,” and sure he’s xenophobic and racist, but he’s “from a different time” as if the past is an excuse for a prejudiced present.

I’ve watched people go straight from closing their New Testaments to complaining at the diner because the waiter has too many piercings, or balking at the short-staffed reality while in their back pocket their MAGA hat pads the seat of their unvaccinated butt, confused why more people aren’t at brunch in a pandemic.

Everyone has a holy writing that they live out. Some are emblazoned on hats.

I’ve seen people pray the prayers of the church but hold Marx as their true Messiah.

I’ve seen people walk from the Mosque, but all the while they have been calculating how much they’ll pocket next year with that big tax break.

I’ve seen people humbly exit the temple and enter the sacred Holy of Holies: the Jaguar dealer, where they haggle on saving more on a sleek purchase than most cars cost outright.

They say they trust in God’s grace, but throw an extra twenty in “just in case” because checkbooks are more tangible than forgiveness.

Everyone has a Holy Book, Holy Writings, words they hold at the center of their life and being.

And it’s often not the one they claim they follow.

All Life Begins in the Shadows

It’s an odd juxtaposition that happens when the secular and the sacred collide in these early Advent days. So many of us (at least, in America) are rushing to get that tree put up, the most ancient pre-Christian solstice symbol, and haul out the red and green decorations.

Meanwhile, the church is singing a bluer song and calling everything to hush for a bit, like you would when a baby is sleeping nearby.

Both responses to this time of year in this hemisphere is appropriate, of course. The ancient Celts would spend this time cozying up their indoor spaces, knowing they’ll be in the shadow of the fireplace for many hours in the coming months. They’d tie greenery to their door as an air freshener, and they’d make warm clothes, tell stories, and play indoor games. In this way, they’re not unlike all of us in our rush to decorate for the Christmas season.

But they’d do this other thing, too: they’d slow down. Their work would stop for a while, except for those necessary things needed to survive the winter. They’d rest longer, going to bed no long after night fell and waking late with the lazy solstice sun. They’d light candles in the morning and the evening, their new sun stolen from their fireplace outfitted with a huge log that, God willing, would last a good while.

They’d cozy and they’d slow.

The secular world is begging you to cozy at this moment. The sacred world is calling you to slow.

And, honestly, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as “secular” or “sacred.” Holiness pulsates through everything if our heartbeat is in rhythm with the Divine. So perhaps it shouldn’t be so much the “secular is calling you to cozy,” and the “sacred is calling you to slow,” but rather that the tensions pulling and pushing us in this world are felt forcefully in this moment, which is not a surprise.

We’re in a moment of change, evidenced by those last leaves falling to the ground.

Here’s a deep truth that all of these pushes and pulls point to: life begins in the shadows.

I don’t use “darkness” on purpose, by the way. As prophet and poet Nayyirah Waheed wrote in her collection _Nejma_,

“there is dark
there is anti light
these are not the same things”

Language has evolved to the point where we can be careful and choosy with our words (as imperfect as it might be).

Shadows, like that in the Valley of Death that the Psalmist sings of, is a more appropriate description, I think. We’re not talking about a color, we’re talking about an absence of illumination.

All life starts with an absence of illumination.

The Big Bang began with a deep vacuum bereft of light.

The womb which was our first home pulsated with life, but no light.

The seed trying to do what it is meant to do in this moment is buried under the weight of too much earth, and yet it lives.

Life begins in the shadows.

This is why the readings in the church here at the beginning of Advent aren’t of Mary or Joseph or a baby in a manger, but ones of foreboding and nighttime (Luke 21:25-36 kicks off this Advent cycle, and it’s a doozy!).

The church knows, as does the Earth, as has humanity from ancient days, that life begins in the shadows, so if we’re going to talk about redemption and salvation and resurrection and new life, we have to start here.

There is an 8th Century hymn that often kicks off Advent in many spaces, “Creator of the stars of night.” The Latin version of this text is most beautiful, “Conditor alme siderum…” the chorister sings in simple chant tone.

Sidus, where we get siderum can mean just “stars,” and certainly it does mean that. But in this usage it also means all the cosmic bodies: planets, meteors, stars, galaxies.

The church sings to the creator who filled up the vacuum of space and, like the Luke text, invites us to gaze up at the shadows of space in awe and wonder. In the night times of life we ponder such mysteries. Who hasn’t stayed awake in bed with their mind racing?

The shadows are meant for such pondering, for from such ponderings comes imagination and new life and all sorts of things never before seen, as frightening as those moments can be sometimes.

And, as it is, we’re again plunged into such a night time of life in this Advent season.

Change happens in the shadows. Newness starts in the shadows.

Life starts in the shadows.

So Advent must start in the shadows.

So, Beloved, cozy up and slow a bit. Ponder the mysteries with the ancients.

New life is starting.

When the Church Fought Nationalism

Today the church honors one of our moveable feast days, Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday.

In 1922 the world was still reeling from World War I. Pope Pius XI, in his first official encyclical, said that while war hostilities had stopped, global tension was ever present. He decried the rise of nationalism across the globe.

Gonna say that louder for people in the back: the rise of nationalism across the world was seen as a real and present danger.

So Pope Pius XI, as a call for the church to take a stand against nationalism and extremism, instituted the last Sunday of the liturgical year to be a reminder for the world that our private ideologies and personal saviors will not, in the end, accomplish the peace necessary for humanity to thrive.

Only Divine peace can do that.

Now, I’m not a fan of this particular Sunday. To tag it on at the end of the liturgical year feels forced in many ways, and the readings are totally non-sequitur (though they fit with the theme of the day).

However, when seen through the lens of the original intent, especially in these days, it can be a corrective day for a humanity that is once again in the throes of nationalism, much of it housed in the pews of the church.

Nationalism is anti-Christ. There is no work around here; it just is. It puts hope in nativist ideology and not shared peacemaking.

Christ the King Sunday is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that there was a time when the church took on the rise of nationalism with a full throat.

And it could again.

-icon written by Vasilije Minić

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.

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.


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.

Running Fast and Making Changes

Blow the trumpet in the holy city
bless a holy fast!
Get everyone together
bless them all
the elderly
the young children
even babies who still breastfeed!
In the middle of their weddings
get brides and grooms to stop everything
-Joel 2:15-16-

This reading will be read at most every Ash Wednesday service today, virtual or in-person…however we’re getting our ashes in this pandemic (which feels like a heap of ashes already).

The prophet Joel intends to call people back into right relationship with God. In order to do that people would sometimes be invited to fast. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism…fasting is pervasive in all the major religions. A bit of self-denial heightens our indulgences, right?

Sometimes people fast for poor reasons, though. I know of someone who does regular fasts because they are certain that they can “hear God more clearly” when they fast. I’m not sure that’s a good reason, honestly, because I’m not sure that’s how it all works. Certainly there is a need to get rid of distractions in order to discern the Divine in the world, but not eating that candy bar (or anything?!) for forty days seems like an ineffective way to do it.

God doesn’t need your sacrifice…at least, not that kind. If you eat too much candy, sure, fast from it. But if you think it’s getting you brownie points with the Holy Presence I think you’re kidding yourself.

Sometimes people take on fasts to just “do it,” like not eating meat on Friday or not eating meat at all for Lent. That’s fine, I think, if you consume too much meat (and most Americans do, honestly). But if you’re doing it just to see if you can…I’m not sure that’s a good fast, Beloved.

The prophet Joel blesses a fast in order to bring the people back into right relationship, otherwise known in the scriptures as “righteousness.” Fasts are not used to deny people good things as much as to help them see how their relationships with things (or people, or food, or, well, anything) is off kilter.

I’ll say that again for folks in the back.

Fasts are not about denial for denial’s sake. They are about taking a hard look at how your relationship with certain things is off kilter.

And, yes, in the process you’ll continually be invited to analyze how the relationship with the Divine is off kilter, too.

Now, if this hasn’t been your practice in recent years, no need to feel bad about it. There are all sorts of ways the messaging on Lent and fasts has gone awry…humans are wont to do that (hence why we have the season of Lent at all! We’re kinda messed up in all the right and wrong ways). And fasting is not the only thing to do in Lent. Many people choose to add a practice, work on habit change, or do some spring cleaning both physically and spiritually.

Those are all great.

But I’ve decided to fast. To look at some relationship stuff.

I’m going to embark on a Lenten journey of my own, with some updates/devotionals to add to the mix. Most fasts will begin on a Sunday and last the full week (there are 6 of them), and you’re welcome to join in. I’ll be writing and reflecting each week about the particular fast and what I’m learning, and I’ll be noting my thoughts, ponderings, and realizations.

All of these fasts are intended to help me better analyze my own relationship with each subject, and be honest about how they’re off kilter. I’m not righteous in these areas, Beloved. I know this. I want to dig deeply into that.

Week 1: Fast from delaying bedtime.
This pandemic has been terrible on my sleep. Many of the folks I coach have noted that, too. I’m going to go to bed when I’m tired at night, or at least by 10pm.

Week 2: Fast from iPhone.
I carry it around with me. I scan the apps. I respond to texts in two seconds. It’s out of control.

Week 3: Fast from Media.
This will be a bit tricky, but I’m going to say media in general, not just “social media.” Too much binge TV at night. Too many apps open on my phone. Too much stopping in the middle of work or writing to scroll social sites. I’ll still post on a social site this week, mostly to keep the blog updated, but I’m going to “post and ghost.” No reading the comments…

Week 4: Fast from Buying.
The pandemic has made Amazon a little too convenient. But not just Amazon, I’m constantly looking for excuses to go out and grab a coffee-to-go or skip making dinner and just ordering in. Not this week. That urge needs to me analyzed and, I hope, curbed a bit. I’ll allow for grocery buying (because I’m the cook, so I do that shopping), but other than that, no purchases (and no gift-cards, either! Loopholes are for suckers).

Week 5: Fast from Processed Foods
It’s not that it’s just not good for me, it’s not good to me, either. I know it’s not. This week will be interesting because it means no processed anything, even that Friday beer, those corn chips I allow in a moment of salt-crave. Nope.

Week 6: Fast from Meat
We don’t eat meat with every meal, but I think we eat it too much. On the far side of this fast I intend to make some rules around meat consumption. And, here’s the thing we forget: when you eat an animal, you also eat what they ate! It’s a double-whammy of mindless chomping there.

So, here are the fasts. And you’re welcome to join if you’d like. In fact, I would like that very much, especially if you take a bit of time to reflect on your off-kilter relationship with the topics and send them on to me, either as a comment on a post or in an email. I want to be in a more righteous relationship with these things.

But, maybe your relationship with these things isn’t off kilter at all. Maybe you’re working with other issues that need addressing. Alcohol? Snack foods? Lack of activity? Spiritual practices?

Whatever it is, take a fast. But don’t do it to solely to deny yourself that thing; absence does make the heart grow fonder and, do you really want to go back to the old you when this is all over? The you who had an off-kilter relationship with these things?

Do it to analyze your relationship with it all and, on the far side of the fast, sanctify some changes, Beloved.

After all, repentance, metanoia, means turning around. Changing.

If you think you need that, if something is off kilter, run (a) fast toward change. See if you don’t find a new you rising come April 3rd.

Coming: Advent Devotions with Music Suggestions

For the season of Advent (beginning in earnest quite soon!) I’ll be posting daily short devotions, just a few paragraphs, that will straddle the line between sacred and secular. My intention is to write some thoughtful pieces around the themes of time, waiting, anticipation, shadows, joy/sorrow, and yes, a/theism to make this Advent a ponderful one.

If you’re looking for something relentlessly cheery, it’s probably not the Advent devotional for you. But it will always be thoughtful and hopeful, that I promise you.

My desire is that these will be read by both the faithful and those who have who have left faith behind.

Along with my own thoughts, I’ll dot in some poetry suggestions, and most every day will have a song, secular or sacred, to add to your Advent playlist.

If you want them in your inbox, just click on the page to follow along and, boom, there they’ll be. And if you know someone who you think would enjoy this kind of work, feel free to pass along, post on social media, or print out and snail-mail a reflection to your Cousin Mel.

In this really tough year, as we enter into what I feel is a really sacred time of the calendar, whether you’re religious or not it is…it’s human to feel it in your bones, I wish you a blessed holy/holiday season.