Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Black Friday Advent

Three moments have affected my outlook on this Advent season.
They all happened in the last week and a half, and they all have to do with shopping...
Darlene and I were returning from Portsmouth, NH the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  We had a fun day there, including taking JJ to the ocean shore.  While there, I collected rocks for or Stewardship Gathering service:  choosing individual stones that would later be chosen by members of the parish to represent themselves during the service.  I was feeling pretty good.   
As we drove up Route 93, it occurred to me that the New York bishop election, where my friend and mentor Tracey Lind was on the slate, was likely concluded.  I needed internet ASAP. So we stopped at a reliable spot to enable my wi-fi iPad:  the Starbucks at the Tilton NH outlet mall.  I will admit that I love Starbucks coffee, and stopping here is a RARE treat since it is the CLOSEST Starbucks to our home in Littleton NH. 
(68 miles!!!)
Upon reaching the outlet mall, we were greeted by these words:
“Black Friday begins:  Thursday at 10PM"
There were Christmas lights EVERYWHERE, and worse still, Christmas music.
I connected to the internet only to be further disappointed to learn that Tracey had not been elected.  Feeling really defeated, we left and continued home.
All the way I was in a fowl mood, and not just concerning the election disappointment (I thought Tracey would have been a PHENOMENAL Bishop of New York).  I felt angry for all of the people who would have to leave their families on Thanksgiving to work ridiculous hours with frantic people.  I felt sad to those who would get sucked into the “have-to-have” mentality of the super sale.  And I was, of course, personally annoyed to be hearing Christmas carols not just in place of Advent, but even before Thanksgiving, 
Later, when I started working on the sermon for the first Sunday in Advent, I was reminded of my feelings, and thought of the movement called “Advent Conspiracy”.  It calls for a change in the way we approach this time of year.
Americans enter this season of self-created stress, spending 450 billion dollars every year on holiday shopping.  Often people buy what they cannot afford, and give things to people that they simply don’t need.  
Advent Conspiracy suggests that, in many cases, we would be better off buying less and giving something more valuable:  our very selves.  
The time we freely give to each other...within a shared conversation, a common meal, working together, or gathering for something fun...is often so much more meaningful than any gift we can buy.  It reflects the relational gift Jesus gave of himself.
The second event was the arrival of my family.  My parents, sister and her boyfriend all arrived Tuesday night.  We had a great Thanksgiving together.  My sister and her boyfriend had to return Friday, but Mom, Dad, Darlene and I all went to Vermont Friday on what I like to call the “cholesterol tour”:  Cabot's Creamery, and Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream Factory.
We ended up Montpellier, had a fun lunch together, and walked around the town.  The town had a celebration going:  they called it “Flannel Friday”.  They celebrated living in Northern New England, they discounted their goods, and encouraged people to buy locally from the small stores that make up the town.  It was great to see the local businesses doing so well.  It was a reminder to me that, when it comes to the gifts that I will buy this season, to try and purchase from our local stores, our neighbors, whenever possible.
I was feeling pretty good about myself for shunning the Black Friday mega-sales, until the third moment happened...
I was making my final preparations for Sunday’s sermon when I ran across a blog post by Diana Butler Bass on Black Friday
(Most) in lines at the discount stores are either poor, working class, or marginally middle class. These are the very people who attend church regularly, express higher levels of belief in God, and are more likely to give a higher percentage of their income to those in need. Indeed, nearly every survey in religion shows that the poorer the American, the more likely they are to be both faithful and generous. 
By contrast, the rich—the people who aren’t in lines on Black Friday—are less likely to be religious, more likely to find meaning in materialism, and give a lower percentage of their income to help those in need. According to a recent New York Times story, the wealthy will spend most of their holiday cash at stores like Nordstrom, Saks, and Tiffany where there will be few sales and no door-buster specials.
We tend to think only of big-screen tvs and high-end electronics concerning Black Friday:  but it might not reflect the truth.
A reporter interviewed two women at a mall, who had arrived early for the sales. He asked, “What are you going to buy?” The woman, clearly not a well-off person, responded: “Shoes.” He said, “Shoes? You’re not supposed to be buying shoes!” She said, “But I need shoes.” He pressed the issue, “Are you buying anything else?” “No,” she replied. “I just need new shoes.” Her companion was buying jeans. The reporter didn’t know what to say. How many people on Black Friday are like these two women? 
Of course, there are plenty buying electronics and other things they don’t literally have to have. But  Butler Bass rightly points our that people who are suffering under the weight of economic inequality would like to have nice toys for their children and decent electronics...things most Americans have...and the only time of the year they can afford such things is during the super-sales pushed on us by mega-business on Black Friday. Diana rightly suggests that the problem isn’t those who stand in line for Black Friday super-sales. 

The problem is that America is mired in deep inequalities, that the middle class is dying, and that many millions can’t afford to buy nice things for their families without waiting in long lines on Thanksgiving night.

The three moments help me remember how Advent works...

Advent is the time of reflective preparation:
to consider everything anew, and from multiple angles
---To see more than what is first seen
---To think more deeply than the first thoughts
---To act intentionally and with purpose
Advent is the darkness before dawn...
The possibility of what is to come...
Advent is an invitation to consider what God REALLY wants for us and for the world,
and the real gifts we have to give for making that vision come true.
Blessings for you this Advent

Monday, November 21, 2011

UPDATE: Glee episode "The First Time"

Finally saw the episode.  I think it offers a great deal to talk about, and I am very pleased with it as a whole.

Like most Glee episodes, it is honest look at a topic (sex) that says a great deal about its subject without saying "this is what you must believe".

I think that getting the most out of this episode requires knowing these characters.  Yes, some things would have been apparent to those seeing the show for the first time, but the decisions made by these characters do not happen in the vacuum of this hour of television.  Their histories lead them to these moments, making the decisions made more authentic.

I'm going take some time to reflect before I write in detail.

Meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My thoughts on the Glee "sex" episode? Afraid I can't comment...

A number of people have asked for my opinion on the most recent episode of Glee.  Two of the teen couples, as the episode's title alludes, had sex for "The First Time".  There has been heated debate over what has transpired, with the Parents Television Council up in arms over the episode, counterarguments that the conservative group is signaling out Glee because one of the couples are the same sex, and a passionate defense by creator Ryan Murphy.

I am honored that people want to know my response to the show, and the whole "religion and popular culture" thing, and my earlier Glee posts (Grilled Cheesus & Glee Fest) certainly calls for a post on the subject.

And I will be happy to do so:  after I've seen it.

I had a vestry meeting last Tuesday night, and a new episode of Glee, while certainly considered a priority, does not trump the church job!  We're a non DVR household, so when I miss an episode I go to the show's official website, where they graciously have the five most recent shows online. 

Unfortunately, FOX now has a new policy for non-Dish Network members:  you have to wait eight days to see a newly broadcast episode. 

I can understand a waiting period to watch the newest shows:  after all, they want you to watch their network broadcast.  But I have to wonder "what were they thinking" with an eight day waiting period??? There's NO WAY to get back on track unless they take a week off

So guess what I WON'T be watching tonight!

SIGH!  Well, thanks for listening to my rant, and I'll check out "The First Time" (for the first time) tomorrow.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Celebrating All Saints' at All Saints'

(A sermon preached on All Saints' Sunday 2011 at All Saints' Littleton, NH)

Welcome again to our All Saints’ Day celebration! All Saints’ at All Saints'!: gotta love that!

What better way to celebrate than with a baptism this morning at 10AM: where we’ll welcome Madilyn, the newest member to our community.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading to prepare for this All Saints’ morning. Perhaps too much... I came across a blog written by an Episcopal priest named Tim Schenck. He wrote:
"Lost amid the post-Halloween sugar crash and the euphoria of All Saints’ Day, is the ancient Feast of All Souls Day. All Souls is like the forgotten and ignored middle child of the All Hallows Eve — All Saints’ — All Souls triumvirate. And that’s a shame.
We have so broadened the definition of a saint to include not just the martyrs and theologians of the early church, not just those who have demonstrated heroic faith in more contemporary times, but Uncle Harry. Uncle Harry may have been a swell guy — despite his unbearable political commentary at Thanksgiving dinner every year — but was he truly a saint?"
Schenck then says that "The modern All Saints’ Sunday celebration holds the potential to dilute the impact of the great saintly heroes of the faith while subsequently elevating our own deceased loved ones to heights that would likely make them roll in their graves."

I quickly reposted his blog post to my Twitter feed, for it made me think a great deal about All Saints'/All Souls', but the more I thought about it, the more I was troubled. It’s not just that we’ve transferred everything to an "All Saints' Sunday". It’s that I’ve always had a big picture view of “saints”. Sure, there are some the church officially recognizes, and there are some the church should recognize. And there is of course those in particular communities who we just know are saints: no one here is going to argue differently with Bishop Robinson’s opinion that Carl Schaller is a saint of God (can I get an Amen to that???) But I personally have come to recognize the saintlike qualities of particular people in my life, especially in remembering those who have died. By seeing them as saints, am I diminishing the point of All Saints’?

A distinction between All Saints and All Souls is rather complicated. People have always celebrated the remembering of those who have died with everything from the sharing of stories to saying prayers to and for them.

Some individuals recognized universally by the early church became known as Saints. However, there were also individuals who, because of their relationship to particular communities, became known as saints as well. Individual communities came up with their own customs for remembrance.

Fair to say, there were LOTS of saints with celebrations in individual communities. To cover the remembrances of these many saints, the church instituted a feast day for all of the saints in about the year 609.

In 998, the abbey of Cluny set apart a special day for the remembrance of the dead: November 2nd. There is disputed memory as to the reason why. Most likely, the abbey wanted a day to remember everyone from their community, not just “the saints”. But what came about is this legend, written by Peter Damiani, about 100 years later.
A pilgrim returning from the Holy Land was cast by a storm on a desolate island. A hermit living there told him that amid the rocks was a chasm communicating with purgatory, from which perpetually rose the groans of tortured souls. The hermit also claimed he had heard the demons complaining of the efficacy of the prayers of the faithful, and especially the monks of Cluny, in rescuing their victims. Upon returning home, the pilgrim hastened to inform the abbot of Cluny, who then set 2 November as a day of intercession on the part of his community for all the souls in Purgatory. (Peter Damiani in his Life of St Odilo)

(The history of All Saints'/All Souls' comes from Wikipedia)

The practice of using November 2nd as a remembrance day spread, and was accepted by Rome in the 14th century as “All Souls Day”. Further more, all of November came to be associated with the prayers of the departed.

Unfortunately, the Western Church came to abuse this practice. In tradition with the legend of praying souls out of Purgatory, people were encouraged to offer money to help the process of getting loved ones to heaven, sometimes way more than they could afford.

This is, of course, one of the abuses that led to the Reformation.

While there have been reforms and revivals over the years, the general summary is that Catholics tend to celebrate “the saints” as those specially recognized by the church, and Protestants have infused All Souls Day into All Saints Day, and tend to see all Christians as saints, regardless of their life’s actions.

In the great tradition of the Episcopal Church, we try and find the middle ground. Currently, our calendar calls November 2nd both All Souls Day and the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, although the vast majority of churches combine its celebration with All Saints.

Rightly, we celebrate the saints recognized by the church for leading extraordinary lives of example and service: an ever expanding list from the early days of Jesus to now.

But what about Uncle Harry? Do we need to differentiate between those who are remembered for accomplishing great things through the spirit of God, and the rest of us?

I’m not so sure we need to go about trying to measure one’s saintly qualities. After all, we’re likely to have some serious difference of opinion. One person’s saint is another person’s...well, not saint. Uncle Harry may not have left a saintly impression on us, but we are so unaware of how many intersections one’s life has had on others. We may have missed moments that profoundly touched or changed others lives for the better. After all, in our attempts to discern saintliness, we often look for the wrong things.

Retired priest Ken Kesselus tells the story of a boy who went to a scouting contest for homemade racing cars:

It was one of those events where the contestants are supposed to do their own work but most of the fathers help too much. At one such event, a youngster with no dad showed up with a racer he had obviously made with his own unskilled hands. The contest pitted boys in pairs, one against another with the winner advancing to the next round in a series of eliminations. Somehow this one kid’s funny-looking car won again and again, until, defying all odds, he was in the finals against another scout with a slick-looking, well-made racer.
Before the championship race, the boy asked the director to wait a moment so he could pray. The crowd, now enthralled by the unlikely story unfolding before them, stood in silence, loving the boy and secretly praying with him that he might win; he seemed so deserving.
After the boy won the race and was given a trophy, the director said, “Well, I guess it is a good thing you prayed, so you could win.”
“Oh, no!” the boy protested, horrified to have been misunderstood. “I didn’t pray to win. That would have been wrong. The other scout had as much right to win as I did. I couldn’t pray that God would make him lose. I just prayed that God would help me keep from crying if I lost.”

Kesselus concludes that this is the real importance: “It is understanding that we can emulate the saints, that we can become saints too, that we can become faithful disciples of Christ, following the saints who show us the way....Isn’t this why we remember the saints, some of whom are publicly known and recognized in the light of history, and others, like the Boy Scout, whom we come across in the obscurity of ordinary struggles?”

And what can be more saintly than reflecting the love of Jesus: the loving of God with all our hearts and minds and strength, and our neighbors as our self?

So what should we tell little Madilyn, who we baptize here this morning, about the saints?

We’ll tell about the saints who have inspired the world with words and actions: bright stars of God’s vision.

We’ll also lift up those around her who so clearly illuminate the love of Jesus in word and deed.

But perhaps the most important thing that we can teach her is that everyone has the potential to love in this way: and that in her loving of God, neighbors and self, she may be the saintly inspiration of another.

Thanks be to God.