Author Archives: Tim

Endings and Beginnings

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” from  Four Quartets, 1942.

The season of Advent encompasses both beginnings and endings.  As we begin the cycle of the church year, we paradoxically look backward with anticipation, reliving and retelling the prologue to Jesus’ earthly ministry, awaiting the appearance of the babe in the manger that we know has already happened two millennia ago.  At the same time, we look forward to Jesus’ return and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth, remembering how the Church has been looking forward to this consummation for the same two long millennia.

The church year begins, at least in the northern hemisphere, as the natural world appears to be greying, ending, dying.  We trust that the cycle will return again, that fresh green life will return to the withered branches, as we trust that we will be resurrected with Christ even as we die with him.  In his end is our beginning.

At the same time, as Christians we recognize that time is not truly cyclical: that this world has a beginning and an end, and that every day we move closer to the day when God will set all things right.  While God is outside time and space, God chose to participate in history: to be born into flesh, and thus to be born into time. Christ has hallowed both time and history.

So it is not surprising that, as Christ’s body in the world, the Church commemorates the cycles and recurrences of the calendar, and that we also mark the watershed events of our lives:  birth, maturity, marriage and death.  Beats in larger rhythms that function as historic passages in our own lives.

In the life of our church community, people come and go, ministries begin and end.  Any of us who have been part of a parish for any length of time have seen pastors enter and exit the stage (for better and for worse), but the life of the Body continues in its seemingly-endless cycles and its inexorable progression toward the Kingdom.

Over the last nearly eight years, we have lived together through good times and bad, through the cycles and the turning points.  Now we are approaching a new milestone, when I will leave and you will stay.  You will learn to love a new pastor, and I will learn to love a new community.  We will grieve the parting and rejoice in new relationships.  Things will not be quite the same afterwards, and the life of the life of the church will continue, in cycle and in change.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.


Why Do We Give?

Generosity is a discipline that is of interest to Christians, not just because the church relies chiefly on the generosity of members for its financial resources, but because wealth and the ways we relate to it are such a central part of the Gospel.  Jesus talks more about money than he does about any other human institution, so there must be something there that he wants us to hear and understand.

Our spiritual relationship with money and giving is complex, and includes challenging ideas about philanthropy, charity, security, poverty, pride and greed.  Today, though, I’d like to address the narrower question of whether and how we give money to the church – a question that is freighted with all sorts of history and assumptions which can make it hard to talk about.

Before going any further, I should give credit to my friend The Rev. Timothy Dombek, Canon for Stewardship and Planned Giving in the Diocese of Arizona (and fellow Hoosier).  He teaches a two-day seminar called “Stewardship University” that changed the way I think about stewardship, and this article relies a great deal on his teaching.

Some of us may give to the church out of sense of duty or guilt.  We may have the subconscious fear that we are loved in proportion to the size of the gifts we give, or that we can somehow make expiation for our sins by giving to the church.  We may know intellectually that God’s grace is unconditional and irresistible, but our insecurities doubt that this can be so.

Some of us may have internalized the world’s model of payment for services rendered, and may give because of the good things we get from the church.  We love the music, we appreciate the preaching, we enjoy the fellowship of our friends, and we are willing to pay something for that. If we find ourselves asking questions like “how much is the church worth to me?” or talking about our gifts to the church as dues or taxes, we may be giving from this model.

A much subtler version of this kind of giving is when we give philanthropically because we want to support particular activities of the church in the world.  If we give to the church because the church does things we like, then we are really just giving money to advance our own will and our own interests, even if those things we like are good in themselves.  This sort of philanthropy is a wonderful thing and has supported extremely worthwhile charities and arts organizations. There is an important distinction, though, between a charity and the church, between philanthropy and tithing.

Tithing – the practice of setting aside a percentage of one’s income for the church – is at its best a spiritual practice for the giver rather than a fundraising technique for the church.  Tithing is an exercise in trusting God rather than ourselves.  Tithing is not about the church’s need for money, but a challenge for us to let go of part of the treasure that the world tells us so urgently that we need to protect and to hoard.  Tithing is not the way we fund ministry; tithing is ministry.  Tithing flips our assumptions about who is offering a gift to whom.

Tithing is a sort of Sabbath for our money: a recognition that all of our time and all of our gifts belong to God, and that we don’t need to squeeze more work out of every minute and more stuff out of every dollar.  As Sabbath makes the whole week holy, tithing a percentage of our income hallows all of it.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Jesus knows human nature well enough to understand that our money is a proxy for our energy and our commitment and what we actually value.  What we do with our money says more about the state of our heart than the words that we speak. 

And God Laughs

An old adage says that if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans. 

At one time or another most of us fall into the trap of believing that we have control over our lives and our futures, and that a well-laid plan is the first step toward the outcome we want.  We make to-do lists, strategic plans and contingency plans.  We tell each other that failing to plan is planning to fail.  When reality doesn’t match our plan, we just need a new plan (or a new reality).

A little over seven years ago, Bob and I had made a plan for moving to MDI: that we would not think about relocating until we had been here at least five years, and that then we would see where God was calling us.  Two years ago I began discerning whether I might be called somewhere else.  A year and a half ago, as the wardens of the parishes on MDI were making their own plans for the future, I shared my plans with them.  We all made plans for how we might all work together as three parishes with two priests, or four parishes with three priests, and how that transition might work.  It all seemed very manageable, even tidy.

And God laughed.

Within the last few months, four full-time settled priests in four parishes has become one settled priest.  The guy who was supposed to be the first to go has ended up the last one here.  A plan to keep doing what we have been doing with fewer resources has suddenly become an opportunity to follow God into something new and different.  As one of our wardens said recently, “We’ve been talking for ten years about the four parishes coming together to work as one church on the island.  God has gotten tired of listening to us talking about it, and has called our bluff.”

And God is laughing.

Long conversations about church buildings and rectories and fractions of full-time priests have moved to the back burner as we look at the reality around us and see that we have a rare opportunity to look at our shared ministry with a clean slate, at least as it pertains to clergy leadership.  It is becoming clear that a lot of the work that we had done preparing for one transition has made us ready to face a different one; that a lot of the anxiety that we have been feeling over the past ten years was unnecessary and focused on the wrong things, anyway.  A plan that seemed impossible seven years ago now seems almost inevitable, and maybe even the goal toward which we have been moving.

We are making new plans.  I have been experimenting with spreadsheets to see how one might provide Sunday worship among three or four parishes with two-and-a-half clergy:  the grids have begun to look like Mondrian paintings.  We have been making arrangements to train lay people to lead Morning Prayer as Sunday worship occasionally.  Our diocese and our new Bishop have pledged their help and support.  Our wardens have been strategizing about what we need to plan for the short term, the medium term, and the long term. 

The only thing I can predict with any certainty is that none of these plans will come to pass exactly as we have made them, even with the best foresight and the bests will. 

No matter what happens God will bless us and lead us to new opportunities, if we will just follow.  If we don’t follow, or if we make a mess of those new opportunities, God will still bless us and work through us to do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

And God will laugh. 

We believe

“I invite you to stand as you are able, and join with me in the words of the Nicene Creed on page 358.”  While the rubric in the Prayer Books says simply, “On Sundays and other Major Feasts there follows, all standing…,” I’m aware that many of us struggle with the creed, and thus in worship I prefer to issue an invitation rather than a command.  Some folks stand or sit quietly; some say parts of the Creed but carefully avoid or modify specific clauses with which they have some scruple. I believe that most of us believe what we say in the Creed, but I am frequently surprised at the number of people who recite it every week, but when asked, say something like, “Oh, we don’t really believe that anymore, do we?”

The Creeds are historical documents, in the sense that we know something about where and when they were composed, and in what historical context.  The Creed we read every Sunday was drafted at the Council of Nicaea (today called Iznik, Turkey) in 325 AD, and adopted with considerable revision at the Council of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 381 AD.  These Councils were convened by the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius, who invited all the Christian bishops in the Empire to come together and hammer out a clear statement of belief.  This was important if Christianity was to be an Imperial religion:  the Empire needed to know what the main stream of Christians believe.

However one thinks about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Creeds were drafted by human beings in the midst of spiritual and political struggle. The goal of the Councils was to define orthodox belief, so by definition some ways of interpreting Christ were excluded and labeled heresy.  Much has been made of this process of “silencing minority voices,” but one need not see a cynical conspiracy.  This is the Church working out our answer to Jesus’ question to the Disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” 

In fact, the largest part of the Creed, the second paragraph that talks about who Jesus is, treads a careful line to avoid foreclosing hard questions with easy answers:  Jesus is eternally and cosmically God and also a human being who was born to a specific woman and who was killed under the administration of a specific Roman governor. The historic heresies are not excluded because they said something challenging about Jesus that the Church couldn’t handle.  They are excluded because they say something that is too little, too easy: That Jesus was simply a good man and a good teacher, but not God (the Arians), or that the man that we know as Jesus was only some sort of spiritual projection of God, and thus not a human who suffered (the Gnostics and Docetists).

Some will say that “Jesus did not come to establish a Church.” That may be true, but the fact is that the Church is the historical human body, full of human limitations and weaknesses, that has been given the gift and the responsibility of maintaining and furthering the Good News that Jesus left us. The Creed is a statement of our corporate identity: we are people who try to follow Jesus, and this is what we as a community say about who Jesus is, who God is, who the Holy Spirit is.

The community part is key.  Some of you may have heard an interview a few years ago with the late Yale professor Jaroslav Pelikan on the National Public Radio talk show, “On Being.”  Pelikan highlights the fact that the Nicene Creed is composed in the first-person plural:  “We believe…”  This is not only a statement of group identity (something of which individualistic Westerners are suspicious), but also a statement of continuity – through history and through our own lifetimes.  Pelikan says,

To know that in the Philippines this morning this was the creed that was recited at mass and to know that the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th, and my late father and grandfather all affirmed this.  It’s ‘we’ all of us together….  My faith and my faith life, like that of everyone else, fluctuates.  There are ups and downs and hot spots and cold spots and boredom and ennui and all the rest can be there.  And so I’m not asked of a Sunday morning as of 9:20, what do you believe?  And then you sit down with a 3×5 index card and say, “Now, let’s see.  What do I believe today?”  No, that’s not what they’re asking me.  They’re asking me, “Are you a member of a community which now for millennium and a half has said, ‘We believe in one God.’”  And so that’s what I affirm when I sing it.

(The full broadcast and transcript of this program is available at

The Creeds are ultimately not checklists of propositions to which we give intellectual assent, or to which we pledge allegiance, as are some of the Lutheran and Calvinist Confessions. The point of the Creed is not to differentiate ourselves from other Christian traditions (we have plenty of ways of doing that), but to affirm that in spite of differences we are all part of one tradition (the one holy catholic and apostolic Church), however diversely lived and expressed in different times, places and cultures, that covenants to wrestle with these holy mysteries.

That shared tradition is the reason the Eastern Church found it so shocking when the Western Church added a single word to the Creed in the seventh century, proclaiming that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father.  Ironically, respect for shared tradition is also why many visitors to St. Saviour are so shocked by our previous rector’s decision to strike out the words “and the Son” from the creed in our prayer books.  Our affirmation of shared faith is brought up short by a stark example of a break in our tradition, and we find ourselves stumbling over the words and the rhythm.  An effort at inclusivity has become a shibboleth.

That shared tradition is also why I have resisted paraphrased, modern language versions of the Creed for liturgical use (as opposed to new translations from the original languages).  Fresh metaphors and images for the persons of the Trinity can be helpful and soul-expanding, and are necessary if mystery is not to harden into rote formula.  Poetic elaboration of theology is also an ancient tradition, and has a place in worship as hymnody and other liturgical texts – the Gloria in excelsis is essentially a poetic paraphrase of the Creed.  But the moment in the service when we are invited to stand as we are able and read together from page 358 is meant to be a straightforward, unadorned affirmation of the minimum our community has agreed we can say together about God.  In the words of St. Augustine, as quoted by Professor Pelikan: “We have said this not in order to say something, but in order not to remain altogether silent.”

On the other hand, I would never say that the Creed is a litmus test for salvation.  I do not believe that God judges us on whether we believe the right things about God or about anything else (but of course, I could be wrong in that belief!).  When scripture and tradition talk about faith in Christ, I hear that as a call to be faithful to Christ, to keep faith in our relationship with God, and to trust that God will remain faithful to us.  Whether we accept the words of the Creed as history or mystery is less important than that we are willing to engage with the truth that they represent.

So why bother with the Creed?  Do we really believe this stuff anymore?  Is it more intellectually defensible to stand silent while others recite it?  In a world where it is far too easy to divide ourselves from one another, to demonize those with whom we disagree, and to parse every utterance for the possibility of offense, what could be more challenging and rewarding than to stand weekly with a diverse community of Christians around the globe and to say together, “We believe in one God…”

Ceci tuera cela*

Thousands around the world grieved as they watched flames consume the roof and the spire of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  Even in a nation as secular as France, where nearly half the population professes no religion and only 5% of self-identified Catholics attend mass regularly, people wept for the destruction of something that was seen as a symbol of the French nation and its heritage.  Historians and art scholars feared the loss of irreplaceable artifacts.  Almost immediately, very wealthy people all over the world pledged funding for a restoration.

Part of the shock perhaps had to do with the sense that Notre Dame has been there forever, timeless, as the world changed around her.  Unlike most of the medieval churches and cathedrals of Europe, Notre Dame had never been completely destroyed and rebuilt, although it has been continuously modified and renovated over the last eight centuries.  Notre Dame was also unusual in that it had been originally built in “only” a hundred years to a single design, unlike many Gothic cathedrals that continued unfinished for centuries with many changes of style and plan.

After the French Revolution in the 1790’s, though, the cathedral was intentionally desecrated and rededicated to “The Cult of Reason,” and many of the statues and relics were destroyed.  When Napoleon returned the building to the Church in the early 19th century, it was in such bad shape that officials seriously considered demolishing it.  The groundswell of support that came from the popularity of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris saved the cathedral, but also meant that once again the building was thoroughly restored, enlarged and modified.  The slender spire or “flèche” that collapsed in the fire last month was only added as part of that renovation in the 1860’s.

All of which is to say that this timeless building has never been static.  In his 1994 book How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand points out that no building that lasts any length of time can be static.  Buildings that are well-used are modified and recycled for their evolving purposes. Perhaps the only structures that continue more or less unchanged are those that we self-consciously set aside as historical artifacts: removed from practical use and preserved as specimens behind velvet ropes.

But even these historical specimens change in another important way, as each generation interprets and gives meaning to them as symbols.  A gorgeously restored antebellum plantation or the meticulous reconstruction of Colonial Williamsburg carry different significance as we become more aware of the stories of enslaved people and others for whom these places are relics of oppression rather than quaint historical objects.  This change of meaning is evident in the current discussion of how best to deal with monuments to Confederate heroes or memorials to thinkers whose ideas have become problematic.

Notre Dame began its life with the functional purpose of housing the worship of God.  It also began with several overlapping symbolic purposes:  to draw the eyes and souls of the faithful upward into a state of communion with the divine, to instruct an illiterate congregation in the mysteries of faith, but also to reinforce the power and authority of the Church and her representatives, and to establish the primacy of Paris among the bishops of France.  More recently, worship had become less important, as the building has functioned primarily as a museum and tourist attraction, and the symbolic meaning of the cathedral has come to have much less to do with God that with a particular idea of French national glory.  In the last two weeks, the world has been re-evaluating the meaning of a grandiose religious building as the symbol of a secular, multicultural, bourgeois nation.

Communities change, buildings learn, meanings change, proud towers fall.  One simple message of the fire in Paris is that even the grandest productions of human culture will eventually fall into ruin and decay, and that it is dangerous idolatry to worship the work of our own hands.  This, I think, is what is behind the many folks who have responded that, “It’s just a building, after all.”

This is true and important, but I think there is a deeper message.  When a church ceases to learn, to change, to find new meaning in the Gospel and to preach that meaning to the world around us, the church is in danger of becoming a museum and a tourist attraction.  When it is easier to raise billions of dollars to restore the barely-used Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris than to raise a few million to restore the vital Cathedral of Notre Dame in Port au Prince, Haiti, which languishes as a ruin nine years after the earthquake, one may be concerned that the devotion to grand buildings has become an idolatry.

This conversation has the potential to be slightly uncomfortable for us at St. Saviour’s.  We are known for our beautiful historic building, which during some weeks of the year is known to more people as a museum and tourist attraction than as a place of worship.  In town, we are often known as “the stained glass church” rather than for our faith and love.  Many Sundays there are more people represented by memorial plaques than are present in the pews.  The temptation to idolatry is sharp:  our grand building, our beautiful glass, our rich history all seduce us to make them the static center of our life as a parish.  Our center is and must be the lively, active love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord, which is timeless yet new every morning.

*Ceci tuera cela = “This will kill that” – Monsignor Frollo’s epigrammatic comment as he looks from the printed page to the towers of the cathedral in Hugo’s Notre Dame.

A Holy Lent

Every spring, our church invites us “to the observation of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP p. 265).

What an invitation!  As tempting as fasting and self-denial sound, I think I may be busy for the next forty days!  Gosh darn it, too, I was really looking forward to Lent!

Okay, maybe Lent is not that kind of invitation.  But invite is the right word:  Lent is something that we decide to do (or not to do), or something that we just let slide.  As much as our will is shaped by God and distorted by sin, and as much as God supports us in our discipline and discipleship, participating in Lent is a decision.

The caricature of Lent is puritanical and sort of masochistic:  “What are you giving up this year?”  A sort of spiritual endurance race, not unlike a strict diet: “Are you doing Atkins or Paleo or Weight Watchers?  What is your goal weight?” (Not that we would ever be so gauche as to ask these questions directly).  Something we do that makes us miserable in the short run, but that is good for us in the long run – or until we give up on it in a few weeks.

But what does real spiritual discipline look like?  Not all of us are called to be nuns and monks, ascetics and mystics, right?

  • Self-examination: As much as our culture is devoted to the selfie and the self-absorbed blog, true self-examination is much rarer and more challenging.  How often do we truly study our own actions and thoughts with reference to the ethical and moral standards of scripture?  How often do we review our own prayer life and our relationship with God?  This discipline is truly the one that supports all the others, and is one too often skipped.
  • Repentance: This word is related to but different from two other words: penitence and penance.  Penitence is the feeling of sorrow or regret for past sins.  Penance is a symbolic action we take to acknowledge our sins and our intention to repair the damage done by them (sometimes as a part of the sacrament of Confession).  Repentance is the larger-scale turning of our whole life in a new direction, away from sin and toward God.  Repentance is a process that never ends – our whole life is (or should be) repentance.
  • Prayer: As Episcopalians, it is easy for us to think of prayer as words.  Usually words read from a book or memorized, often said in unison or by the priest.  But prayer is placing ourselves in an attitude of openness and conversation with God, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Words may help get us started, but they can also get in the way.
  • Fasting: Fasting for health reasons has recently become fashionable, but fasting as a spiritual discipline may seem ancient and exotic – the province of those ascetics and mystics, but not for people like us.  But as our worldly culture has become more and more focused on consumption, fasting is even more powerful and more necessary.  Fasting is not just about food (although many of us have relationships with food that could stand some self-examination and repentance), but about being mindful and intentional about what we consume and use:  food, energy, entertainment, time, attention.  And fasting is not just about giving up junk food or bad habits:  S. Lewis points out that it is easier to make an idol of something that is mostly good than from something that is entirely evil.  One can imagine needing to take a fast from the Metropolitan Opera, or from participation in national politics, or perhaps even from certain relationships, if they are taking the central place in one’s life that rightly belongs to God.
  • Self-denial: Isn’t this the same as fasting?  Not really.  Our culture teaches us that the self is the highest priority:  self-improvement, self-esteem, self-confidence.  Self-denial is the rejection of that orientation.  We are not self-made; we are not self-sufficient or self-directed.  Our very existence and the existence of the universe depends entirely on the gracious will of God.  Even the idea that we have a self is a gift.  We are created and have our purpose as children of God, in relationship with God.  Because we have free will does not mean that we are free-agents.

I have a feeling that this exposition may have made an Invitation to a Holy Lent more daunting rather than less:  it would be a lot easier to think about giving up Twinkies for six weeks than to dive into the wholesale examination of our souls, our selves, our relationships to God and to the rest of creation.

But no one said that Lent was going to be easy.

Do you hear the bells?

Vivos voco,                        I call the living,
Mortuos plango,               
I mourn the dead,
Festa decora,                   
I adorn festivals,
Fulgura frango.                
I shatter the lightning.

+   +   +   Traditional Latin inscription on church bells

That folk may come to church in time, I chime;
When pleasure’s on the wing, I ring;
To speed the parting soul, I toll.

+   +   +   Inscription on the bell of an old village church in Devonshire

Bells in church buildings may seem perfectly obvious – but why?  What is there about striking heavy bronze cups to make a loud sound that had anything to do with Christian faith or Christian community?

Christianity did not invent bells, of course.  China developed bells, gongs, cymbals and singing bowls thousands of years ago; they were an important part of traditional Chinese religious practice, and were adopted by Buddhism and Hinduism.  The penetrating, far reaching sound of the bells was often understood as carrying prayers to the ears of the gods and ancestors, as well as creating a meditative state of mind.  When the ancient Egyptians learned how to smelt bronze, bells became a part of their religious practice, too; Moses may have carried this tradition out of Egypt and taught the Hebrew priests to sew bells to the hems of their robes, but the shofar, or ram’s-horn, was the traditional call to worship.

Christianity did not invent monasticism, either, but the disciplined daily schedule of prayer and silence in monastic communities made some sort of signaling system necessary.  In the earliest Christian monasteries, monks were alerted by striking a resonant piece of wood called a semander, which is still traditional in many Orthodox traditions.

According to tradition, it was a bishop in Nola, near Naples, Italy, who first introduced bells into Christian worship around the year 400, both as a call to worship and as a way of calling attention to important parts of the service for congregations that could not see or hear much of what was going on.  Bells caught on quickly, and by the early 600’s bells were so closely associated with the call to Christian prayer that Mohammed vetoed them for Muslim worship, establishing instead the tradition of the muezzin’s chanted call from a high minaret.

In the early Middle Ages, between the fall of the Roman empire and the slow development of Medieval European civilization, Christian monasteries functioned as outposts of culture and religious centers, especially outside cities.  The sound of the bells calling the monks and nuns to prayer seven times a day was a connection between the cloister and the world outside; a Christian working in the fields or the kitchen could hear the bells and pause for a moment’s prayer in communion with the brothers and sisters.

Fast-forward to the English Reformation in the sixteenth century.  Given the opportunity to develop a new prayer book for the independent English Church, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer turned to the monastic cycle of daily prayer, simplifying it for the use of Christians in all walks of life.  The new Book of Common Prayer was anchored by the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, to be prayed either in the parish church or at home.  The parish church bell, like the monastery bell, became even more important as a way of calling the people together for prayer with their neighbors, whether in the same space or separated by distance.  The voice of the bell became closely associated with the parish, such that people could readily pick out the sound of their own parish bells from others.

St. Saviour’s bells have been speaking to the people of Bar Harbor for over eighty years.  Many have heard the quirky story of the bells’ donation and the reason for the “temporary” steel tower, but far more important than that story, I think, is the way that our bells have worked themselves into the sensory landscape of our community.  Neighbors and tourists may grumble about being awakened, and nearby dogs may go on high alert, but the slow, sonorous voice of our bells is as much a part of downtown Bar Harbor as the smell of the sea at low tide.  I particularly love the interplay of our bells and the firehouse horn at noon and nine:  church and state, protectors of spirit and of body, letting us know that all is well in our little village.

Not all may recognize it, but our bells are a sort of witness to the people of Bar Harbor, residents and tourists.  We no longer live in a society where everybody goes to church, and the bells are just a reminder to do what we are all doing anyway.  The bells have become more like a voice of one crying in the wilderness:  refusing to let the world forget that we owe our existence to God and our redemption to his son Jesus Christ.  The bells are a song on the breeze, celebrating the fact that the Holy Spirit still speaks and that there are people who still listen.  If even one or two people stop what they are doing and offer a few moments of prayer when our bells ring, how wonderful!  The voice of the bells calls each of us to prayer, to relationship with God and God’s people.  Do you hear the bells?

For the time being.

Darkness and snow descend;
The clock on the mantelpiece
Has nothing to recommend,
Nor does the face in the glass
Appear nobler than our own
As darkness and snow descend
On all personality.

W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (excerpt), 1942.

Many of us experience tension and anxiety this time of year.  Days grow shorter, nights get colder, and it seems as though our homes get smaller, closer, feeling either cozy and peaceful or claustrophobic.  This can be a time to reconnect with our spouse and family without the distractions of summer, but in close quarters we can’t hide from the tensions between us, either.  And if friends and family are far away, loneliness can be compounded.

And of course there is pressure around the holidays themselves.  Do we have the “right” gifts?  Can we afford what we’re expected to spend?  Will our family feast be as spectacular as it’s supposed to be?  Will our family and friends, also under pressure, behave themselves?  Will we feel as happy and fulfilled as the commercials and greeting cards tell us we should?

Voices in the church remind us that Advent brings its own special gifts, and encourages us to opt out of consumerist frenzy and keep Advent as a season of quiet contemplation and anticipation.  But even this advice can cause stress; it is not particularly helpful for the church to scold us for “ruining Advent” just because we enjoy feasting and gift-giving, or because we like to put up lights and decorations more than two days before Christmas.  In fact, we may find ourselves in the paradoxical state of worrying that we are not relaxed enough.

The fact is, Advent has tension built into it.  It is a season that carries within it beginnings and endings:  the beginning of the church year, the anticipation of the birth of the Christ child, as well as dire promises of the Day of the Lord, when this world will be both judged and redeemed.  Advent is four weeks that stretch from before creation to the end of time, that pull our focus from the local-interest story of an unmarried pregnant small-town girl, to the nationalist dreams of an occupied people, to the cosmic consummation of creation’s relationship with God.

Advent is a time to consider the mystery of the Incarnation:  that the same God who created humanity chose to become human, fully human, truly human, while remaining fully and truly God. This is a fundamental contradiction that is at the heart of our faith.  It is no wonder that our response to it is a little bit bipolar.

…To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

And perhaps, therefore, it is perfectly appropriate for us to feel pulled between joy and anxiety, between loneliness and claustrophobia, between expectant waiting and instant gratification, between self-emptying and self-indulgence – indeed, to feel pulled between the poles of heaven and earth.  We are pulled, not just because of the tension at the center of Advent, but because of the tension at the center of what it means to be human:  dust and clay, but just a little lower than the angels.


Twenty years ago when the first Harry Potter books were published, they re-ignited a controversy about the proper attitude of Christians toward magic, or more accurately, stories about magic.  As much as I dislike pronouncements about “the proper attitude of Christians toward” pretty much anything, a recent review of an entirely different fantasy book series got me thinking again about magic.  So once again, dear reader, I find myself twenty years out of fashion.

Let me begin by saying that I really like the Harry Potter books.  I resisted them when they came out, but when I was drafted as a summer camp chaplain I decided I had better read the books as a matter of cultural literacy.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the books are well-written and engaging, that they challenge readers with age-appropriate ambiguities and authentic characters.  I found myself in conversation with middle-schoolers referring to muggles and quidditch.  I was not particularly worried that these books were drawing children into the Dark Arts.

At the time, the argument seemed to be framed between those who believed that exposing children to a fantasy world of magic was opening the door to demons, and those who saw these books as an epic of good versus evil, with echoes of Christian themes of self-sacrifice and love conquering death. Author J. K. Rowling was either the next C. S. Lewis, creating Christian allegory accessible to modern readers, or was a cunning wolf in sheep’s clothing, whose ripping yarns slip under our radar to normalize witchcraft.

I think both these arguments miss the point.  Stories of magical forces and people who can harness them are as old as humanity, told by Christians and adherents of every faith and no faith. These stories seem to fill a human need for fantasy, for narratives that don’t follow everyday rules of reality.  I don’t believe that fantasy stories in and of themselves need to be demonic or idolatrous:  witness the fantastic medieval legends of the Lives of the Saints.

By the same token, stories of cosmic good and evil, self-sacrificing heroes and fearful villains, are hardly unique to Christianity.  Just because a story makes a sharp distinction between the white hats and the black hats does not mean that it is Christian at its core.  In fact, one of the heresies that the church had to fight in its early years was the Manichean idea that the universe was governed by opposing good and evil forces in equilibrium. This model has more to do with comic books than with the God of scripture who declares all of creation to be very good.

Oddly, the thing that first began to make me uncomfortable with the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” was the way that the stories deal with Christmas.  Of course, Christmas has long ago become a secular holiday for many in England and in the US, but something seemed missing in a story of cosmic good and evil when Christmas day is about nothing more than knitted jumpers and paper hats, when even the wise Dumbledore has nothing meaningful to say about the day when the earthly and heavenly worlds are gathered into one.  This absence was most stark for me in the last book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry and Hermione spend Christmas Eve in a churchyard, looking at gravestones and hearing Christmas carols being sung in the church.

Like many stories set in the modern world, Harry Potter has no room for God.  If this were a mundane story about kids at boarding school and their eccentric teachers, that might not be a problem.  But these are stories all about the fundamental forces of the physical and the spiritual world, about the relationship between humanity and…  what?  Magic is presented as a power running through the universe, a power that some beings can control, but ultimately a power that belongs to us.  Magic seems to have no source other than itself, and exists to be bent to human will, good or evil.  A human being who has access to magic has no need of God.  If God exists at all, he is something for the muggles in the chapel at Christmas, and has nothing to do with the heroes’ struggle to wrestle control of the world away from the dark wizards who use power for selfish ends, and preserve the same power for the good wizards who use it to do what they think is best for everyone, muggles included.

Ultimately, this is a Gnostic worldview, a philosophy that orthodox Christianity has been battling for two thousand years.  Gnosticism teaches that the world we see is an illusion, that the real battle between the powers of good and evil is fought beyond our sight, but that with secret knowledge and training an elect few of us can understand what is going on, and even turn those powers to our own ends.

Christianity believes that all power belongs to God, that God may sometimes use us to exercise his will in the world, but that we do not use God’s power to exercise our will.  That was the error of Simon the Magician in Acts Chapter 8:  he thought he could franchise the Holy Spirit.  That is the error of some preachers who teach that we can goad God into granting us prosperity. Mutatis mutandis, this is also the worldview of a particular kind of materialistic science that believes we can perfect the world if the people in power are clever enough.

I don’t believe that reading Harry Potter will turn children into Satanists, or even atheists.  But neither would I be comfortable with a Harry Potter themed Vacation Bible School.  I don’t believe Harry Potter is hostile to God, nor do I think that it is crypto-Christian.  Sadly, like much of the modern world, I think that Harry Potter finds God too irrelevant to worry about.

May the power of God be so manifest in our lives that we may teach the world God’s love.

Politics as Usual

As political ads begin to shout at us, as we draw closer to the midterm elections in November, there seems to be a new round of questioning about how Christians should vote, or how they should think about political issues, or even whether Christians should take part in the political process at all.  Last month the Christian Millennial magazine Relevant published an editorial titled “Voting Your Faith: How Should Christians Vote?”[1]  The New York Times published an Op-Ed this week by the Rev. Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, titled “How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System?  They Don’t.”[2]  At the same time that “Christian” is declining as any sort of default identity in our culture, the post-Christian world struggles to place Christians into some sort of political, ideological box that they can understand.  Christians are conservative, right?  Well, then, Christians are pro-life, right?  Even more narrowly defined traditions like Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mainline Protestants are far from monolithic, and one is often more likely to find common ground across denominational and party divisions than within the group with which one is supposedly identified.

Following God has never overlaid neatly with ideologies or political movements.  In the Old Testament, Joseph and Daniel held high posts in pagan governments that were inimical to their religion.  There were debates in the early Church about whether Christians could cooperate with the Empire at all, and later debates over whether a good Christian could ever oppose a duly anointed earthly King or Emperor. As late as the 19th Century, popes wrote encyclicals condemning the errors of rationalism, modernism, liberalism, and “Americanism” which included religious liberty and the separation of church and state.[3]

Modern political ideologies tend to understand the world and divide themselves in ways that don’t necessarily align with the concerns of the Gospel.  Valuing all human life as created in the image and likeness of God may draw a person to oppose abortion and euthanasia on one hand, while also opposing the death penalty, working for prison reform and universal health care.  A voter presented with the platforms of the primary parties or ideologies is unlikely to find one that aligns completely with her Gospel priorities, so is stuck with what New Monastic writer Shane Claiborne calls “choosing the evil of two lessers.” [4]

It may seem obvious to many of us that Jesus would definitely vote the same way we do.  After all, Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and preached Good News to the poor.  Of course Jesus would vote for N.  But there are many ways to love our neighbor.  Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry, but he did not establish a health plan or a welfare state.  Is it more loving to teach our neighbor how we think he should live so that he might be happier and healthier, or to enable him in a life that he has chosen, but which looks unsustainable to us?  Even when we agree on the fundamental message of love, people of good will may faithfully disagree on how to live out that message.  Yet almost daily, in the press and even in our own community, our own parish, I hear people disparage the faith of those with whom they disagree:  How could someone call themselves a Christian and vote for X?

Jesus taught us to render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God.  That has led some Christians and some religious leaders to decide that it is not appropriate for Christians to participate in politics.  In a democratic republic like ours, though, participating in the political process is one of the primary ways that we can effect change in the world, one of the ways that we can love our neighbor.  By the same token, some non-religious people insist that it is inappropriate for a political leader to be guided by the teachings of religion in her leadership.  For those of us who are called to seek and serve Christ in all persons, however, it is inconceivable that that call would not inform every decision and every interaction in our lives.

As followers of Jesus, we do not have the luxury of sitting out the political process, withdrawing to our monasteries to keep ourselves unspotted from the rough realities of human life.  Neither may we demonize those who disagree with us and insist that ours is the only right way.  When different ideologies and labels overlap but don’t align, we must be sure that our primary identity is not that of Republican or Democrat, of Progressive or Conservative, of Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.  If we belong to Christ, then we are one in Christ Jesus.



[3] Pius IX, Encyclical Quanta Cura and Syllabus Errorum (1864), and Leo XIII, Encyclical Longinqua oceani (1895), accessed at, October 2, 2018.

[4] Relevant.