Ode to a Copier: A Prayer for Holy Week

1581541396_7ce4936d25_oAbout six years ago, when I was rector of All Saints’ Church in Briarcliff Manor, New York, I wrote a Holy Week prayer titled Ode to a Copier. I like to share it this time of year in recognition of all the parish secretaries/administrators out there — the unsung heroes without whom  mass liturgical hysteria would ensue. Thanks, especially, to my own parish administrator, Evelyn Czaja, who is as we speak knee deep in about twelve bulletins!

I’ve learned over the years that whatever we as clergy or office staff or musicians or volunteers do or fail to get done this week, the resurrection is not dependent on us. Sometimes we all need this reminder!

Blessings to all in the midst of your preparations.

Ode to a Copier
A Prayer for Holy Week 

Holy Week, dear friends, will soon draw nigh;
From Trinity, Boston to All Saints’, Tenafly.

Parish secretaries and their rectors, too,
Thinking of the bulletins that will ensue,

Drop to their knees and begin to quake,
Praying their copiers will stay awake

Through Maundy Thursday and the rest;
Without behaving as if possessed.

Rectors wonder with uncertainty,
“Should I have purchased the extended warranty?”

Misfeeds, toner woes and a paper jam
Always seem to accompany the Paschal Lamb.

Why this happens is a great unknown,
A mystery worthy of the bishop’s throne.

So stoke the incense, say your prayers;
anything to stave off copier repairs.

As the dark shadows of Tenebrae now approach;
may your copier behave without reproach.

And as we begin the Good Friday fast,
May it wait ‘til Low Sunday to breathe its last.


Invitation to Holy Week

The invitation has arrived, as it does every year. It’s an open invitation. One that gently beckons.

Gaugin, 1

Agony in the Garden by Paul Gauguin

Over the coming week Christians throughout the world will gather to retell and relive the heart of our story: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are offered an invitation to walk with Jesus, not as passive observers but as full participants in the paschal mystery.

And when we accept this invitation we embark upon a journey that draws us closer to God; a journey that exposes our human weakness; a journey of discovery about ourselves and the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ; a journey that demonstrates, above all, the power of God’s love for each one of us. There will be highs and lows, opportunities and temptations, euphoria and despair, tears of joy and tears of sorrow. It’s not an easy journey nor is it without commitment, but we don’t travel it alone. We walk with Jesus and one another.

It begins with praise and jubilation, palms and the singing of sweet hosannas. Yet the hard wood of the cross looms behind the leafy green palms. Bittersweet hosannas ring as condemnation and accusation overpower love. We find ourselves in an Upper Room, a garden. We pray, we deny, we cry “crucify.”

Thanks be to God, death is not the final refrain; it’s not the end of our story. It is not finished. We pass through death to resurrection but Christ’s death is not the last word. We wait and watch and journey with Jesus this week before we can proclaim with authenticity and audacity that final refrain – the refrain that only comes with the triumph of the resurrection.

Whoever you are, whatever your circumstances, consider this invitation. For in the cross is our hope; in the cross is our salvation; in the cross is our life. Accept this invitation. Live fully into this invitation. Transformation awaits.


A Bishop’s (real) Victory Speech

mitresToday the Diocese of Massachusetts gathers to elect our next bishop. I trust the Holy Spirit will do its thing and we’ll call the right person to be our overlord, I mean chief pastor. Naturally, I have a small piece of advice for our newly-elected bishop, whoever that may be. One thing I’ve realized over the years is just how tired I am of hearing the exact same quotes from the “winning” bishop-elect. The two biggest buzzwords are “humbled” and “overwhelmed.” Usually these spill out one right after the other as in “I’m humbled and overwhelmed to be called to this new ministry.”

That’s not to say I think this immediate reaction is inauthentic — I’m sure anyone called to such a position of leadership and responsibility is truly both humbled and overwhelmed. But I’m also certain that the “thrill of victory” gets publicly tempered while they’re popping the champagne in the privacy of their own homes.
So I thought I’d help out all future bishops — not just our new one — by writing a more appropriate “victory” speech. You know, the words they really want to say but can’t since they have an entire diocese waiting to hear just how “humbled and overwhelmed” they are at having been elected.

A Bishop’s Victory Speech

After the election, race up to the dais like and begin with a Howard Dean-like yell. Then do a few fist pumps. If you’re feeling spry, do some push-ups to show that you’re an incredible physical specimen who will never have to relinquish power due to health concerns before the mandatory retirement age. [You may be wondering why you're in the convention hall/cathedral after the election to deliver this speech. You were so confident you'd win, that you booked a room in a fancy nearby hotel. Then right after the election you "just happened to be passing by" in order to greet the diocese in person rather than via a bland statement].

To a standing ovation, you  emerge from a giant cloud of incense to deliver your speech. There’s bound to be some praise band on hand (since it’s a diocesan convention and all liturgical and musical sensibility has therefore evaporated). Use this to your advantage and have them play what will henceforth become your theme song. Some suggestions are Purple Rain by Prince (change spelling to “Reign”); Living on a Prayer by Bon Jovi;  anything by Deep Purple (though Smoke on the Water could be considered baptismal imagery); We Are the Champions by Queen (change “We are” to “I am”); or if there’s a horn section, a short but intricate fanfare will do.

Victory is mine! [Then stand for a full 30-seconds with arms raised in the classic Richard Nixon double V pose while soaking in all the applause.]

And you, good people of the Diocese of XXX are obviously smarter than the Episcopalians in (name the five dioceses in which you lost elections).ring kissing iii

Thank you for finally getting me out of St. Thomas-by-the-Turnpike and away from all those annoying parishioners who kept showing up week after week to tell me all about their “problems” at coffee hour. It’s been a long-time coming. And my wife and I are psyched that my current salary will now be doubled. Show me the money! And by the way here are some plans we had drawn up to redo the kitchen in the bishop’s residence [hand them to the diocesan treasurer].

To my fellow candidates: in an election, there can only be one winner. Thus, God thinks you’re a loser. As does this entire diocese. But take it from me — there will be other elections and other chances to join ME in the House of Bishops. Until then please know that I won’t return your phone calls and, in fact, I’ve already forgotten all of your names. [Your cell phone rings; you answer it and tell Wippell's to go ahead and ship the purple shirts you pre-ordered.]

I’m delighted you bought all that stuff I said at the pre-election walkabouts. Please don’t hold me to any of it since I can’t remember what I said to get elected. But the important thing is that I look fantastic in a purple cassock. Also, please forward pictures of the vestments from the cathedral sacristy as soon as possible so I can Photoshop myself in.

To my future staff, I like my coffee served at 163 degrees fahrenheit with 3/4 of a teaspoon of sugar and free range soy milk. And you can simply call me “Your Grace.” If you’d like to kiss my humongous bishop’s ring — that cost more than  the down payment on your house — know that I do tend to keep it in my back pocket.

And, finally, to the good people of this diocese, I look forward to showing up at your churches, meeting you, and criticizing the liturgy. Sure, I’ll preach for 35 minutes and throw off your whole Sunday morning schedule while simultaneously giving your poor Church School teachers PTSD. And since I don’t plan to remember your name or what you look like in between visitations, kindly leave me alone when you see me dining in a fancy restaurant on the diocesan dime.

Oh, wait. I think I forgot to mention that I’m humbled and overwhelmed to be your new bishop.

In all seriousness, please do keep the Diocese of Massachusetts and all seven of our candidates in your prayers today. I’m thankful for their willingness to put themselves forward for service in the wider church.

Veni sancte spiritus.

PS. Please let the bishop-elect know that I would be more than willing to ghost write his/her first first sermon as bishop.

Bishop Election — I have some questions

Chess_bishop_0970While I’ve served in three dioceses in my vocational life (Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts), I’ve never experienced a bishop election. Every time I leave a diocese, they elect a new bishop. I try not to take this personally but I’m finally getting my chance to exercise my right to vote as we prepare to elect the next Bishop of Massachusetts tomorrow.

Since I’m a novice, I do have a few questions. Perhaps some of you who have been through this process can enlighten me.

1. Is wearing purple to an episcopal election as big a social faux pas as wearing white to a wedding?

2. Do you need to sit on the east side of the cathedral since by the time voting gets to the west end the election will have already been decided?

3. Can we pretty please call it a “conclave?”

4. Is electioneering allowed within 50 feet of the altar?

5. Is it like Cinderella except instead of a slipper all the candidates try on a miter to see which one it fits?

6. If we all collectively decide not to cast any votes because we don’t actually want a bishop, will ecclesiastical anarchy ensue?

7. White smoke or purple?

8. Can we defrock the first cleric who friends the new bishop on Facebook?

9. If there is an election controversy, do we appeal to Saint (Hanging) Chad of Lichfield?

10. Does the winner get a free nautilus tattoo on a body part to be named later?

Well, those are my questions. Please keep the Diocese of Massachusetts and all the candidates in your prayers. Live updates will be posted here and if you want to follow along on Twitter tomorrow, check the hashtag #Diomass.


The Devil’s Music

Leo "Bud" Welch

Leo “Bud” Welch

In this month’s In Good Faith column I sing, or at least write about, the blues. I’ve long been a blues fan and it’s what I’ve been studying ever since I started taking guitar lessons for the first time since high school a year and a half ago. So it was great to go hear some live blues in a local church last week, meet Bud Welch, hear his story, and most importantly listen to him get his “mojo workin’.”

The Devil’s Music

“The devil’s music.” That’s how the blues has long been characterized. So what was I doing siting in a church listening to the blues last Sunday afternoon? Well, I’ll get to that in a minute but first it’s interesting to reflect on why the blues acquired this reputation.

It may be because temptation is a recurring theme in many blues songs. It’s said that you can’t really sing the blues unless you’ve first “danced with the devil.” That doesn’t literally mean doing the fox trot with a guy in a red suit but it’s a recognition that evil is alive, well, and thriving in our midst. There are also classic blues standards with titles like “Hell Hound on my Trail,” “Devil’s Got the Blues,” and “Devil Sent the Rain.”

One of the main reasons, however, is the well-known myth surrounding blues great Robert Johnson who died in 1938 at the age of 27. One of the first blues JOHNSONartists to be recorded, he was a major influence on musicians such as Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan. It’s said that his extraordinary talent, with no formal training, was a result of a meeting with the devil at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he sold his soul in exchange for guitar-playing prowess.

As a big fan of the blues and a Christian, I naturally don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s the “devil’s music.” This is why I was delighted that the Hingham Congregational Church recently held a concert featuring 82-year-old Mississippi bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch. His is a remarkable story: Born in Sabougla, Mississippi, in 1932 he first picked picked up a guitar in 1945 — his older cousin’s instrument that he was expressly forbidden to touch. Eventually he was caught but his cousin was impressed by his ability and let him continue to play.

By the age of 15 Bud was playing publicly but for most of his life he made his living as a logger, hauling a chain saw up and down the hills of North Mississippi. He remained an undiscovered talent for years until recording his first album, Sabougla Voices, this January, two month’s shy of his 82nd birthday.

As I sat enthralled listening to Bud Welch’s playing and singing, I started thinking about the season of Lent. We’re in the midst of the Church’s 40-day season of penitence and self-examination that serves as preparation for Easter. Lent is based on Jesus’ experience in the wilderness that followed his baptism in the Jordan River and preceded the start of his public ministry. During this time, we read in Scripture, he was tempted by the devil yet did not sin. So perhaps listening to the blues in a church is particularly poignant during Lent. Jesus can relate to us and understand our own struggles because he knew them first-hand. And even when we give in to temptation, as we inevitably do, Jesus still loves us despite our weakness.

Bud Welch doesn’t think of the blues as the devil’s music but rather as “a way of expressing the highs and lows of one’s life through song.” I couldn’t agree more and this is precisely why I’m so drawn to the music. I don’t think of the blues as depressing — indeed there are moments of joy and triumph in the genre along with heartache and pain. In a word, the blues is life. Our lives are full of hills and valleys leading to a rich topography of experience. If you aren’t familiar with the blues, I encourage you to give them a listen. Reflecting on the tough times and temptations of our own lives always makes the resurrection on Easter Day that much more powerful.

Dear John Letter to My Blog

imagesDear Blog,

I am writing this letter to let you know that I can no longer continue my relationship with you during the season of Lent. I chose to write instead of talking face-to-face because there is so much that I have to say and I feel this will help you understand my decision.

I have truly enjoyed the good times we’ve had together since I first met you in November of 2007 and I regret having to make this decision. During our time together you have always been there for me, offering me a blank page to engage my creative impulses. Our 694 posts (including this one) have made for some beautiful moments. I could always count on you and thanks to the never, ever going away nature of the internet I will cherish those memories always.

Within the last few years you may have noticed that I have been very distant during the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent. These are periods when we rarely spoke to each other and it has, frankly, gotten quite awkward to even be on the same computer screen.

The truth is, during Lent, I have been increasingly unfaithful. I have forsaken you for another website, www.lentmadness.org. All my creative energy has gone into this new love and it has left me no emotional spark to share with you.

I want to be happy and I want you to be happy. Fortunately Lent, like life, is short. While it is now time for both of us to move on, I promise to return to you during Eastertide. It might be hard at first but I will do my best. If this doesn’t work, I know there is a guest blogger out there for you who can make you happy.

If you need to talk about this and make arrangements to change your password, feel free to call me or send me an e-mail.

I am truly sorry that Lent Madness has come between us. Best of luck in the future.

Sincerely yours,


PS. It’s not you, it’s me.

An Unexpected Epistle

unnamedAs part of my Lenten discipline, I’ve been cleaning things out around the house. There’s a practical side to it, of course, and it was Bryna who suggested it. Frankly, her “encouragement” preceded Lent by some weeks and had nothing to do with a holy season in the Church year. But as I thought about it, I’ve come to embrace the idea of lightening the material load and there’s a spiritual aspect to this as well. Stripping away some of the stuff you accumulate over the years is freeing. So I’m trying to do a little work every day.

Not surprisingly, I got stuck on books. Some of these things I’ve been hauling around the country since college. I mean, you never know when you might need to brush up on the tobacco culture of the antebellum South. Anyway, I was sorting through some books when I came across a slim volume without any markings on the spine titled Siloama: The Church of the Healing Spring. Published by the Hawaiian Board of Missions in 1948, it was part of a series of books meant to capture “The story of certain almost forgotten Protestant churches.”

This particular book tells the story of the Protestant church in Siloama on the island of Molokai. Many people know the story of how the island became a leper colony in the 1800′s and of the heroic and faithful ministry of Father Damien who died on the island of the disease. What people don’t know is that there was a Protestant church on the island that predated Father Damien’s ministry.

Anyway, I have this book because my great-grandfather on my father’s side, the Rev. Norman Schenck, was a Congregationalist missionary who lived norman_schenckout his life in Hawaii. He served as General Secretary of the Board of Hawaiian Missions. I don’t know too much about him other than what’s been passed down by my family — that he was a beloved figure who was dedicated, passionate, and effective in his vocation.

But what truly amazed me was an old type-written letter I found tucked inside the book. Dated December 14, 1941, it was a pastoral letter sent to the Japanese congregations under his care in the immediate aftermath of the bombing at Pearl Harbor. It astounded me.

I thought I’d retype and share this unexpected epistle.  Here it is:

Statement by Norman C. Schenck read to the congregations
of Makiki and Nuuanu Churches — Sunday, Dec. 14, 1941

To the Pastor, Members and Friends of the ———- Church:

As General Secretary of the Board of the Hawaiian Evangelical Association it is my privilege and honor to bring you this morning, – Christian greetings.

All of us in the Hawaiin Islands are now under a strange and new order of things for our beloved Islands of Paradise.

We are, through no choice of our own, in a state of war.

The implications of this state of war were dramatically revealed to us on Sunday, December 7, 1941 when an attack was made upon our Islands. This caused immediate loss of life in the personnel of our armed forces and among our fellow residents. As a result, martial law has been declared.

All of us have spent this past week in one form of activity or another, seeking to do our part along the lines required by the emergency which faces us.

Every resident of our Islands is under a dual obligation.

First, he must do his part in the great program of national defense. This is not only a duty. It is a privilege. Hawaii is our home. Every Christian citizen will rise up to defend his home with all the courage and devotion of which he is capable. Already the calm and efficient manner in which our people of many racial ancestries have done this, has been commended by those in charge of our public and private welfare. Let us continue to work together with calm and patient and determined purpose.

Second, there is need for all of us to keep up the high levels of morale among our people. This deals with the sources by which men and women live. It is vital to our physical, moral and spiritual health.

In this realm, the Christian Church has  solemn responsibility.

I speak to you this morning not as a Japanese church, – but as a Christian church. We are “one in Christ Jesus.” We are bound together in love, – not to be divided by hatred.

The Christian Church is not afraid of suffering. Its only fear is disloyalty on the part of any Christian to our Lord and Master. And, of course, loyalty to Christ inspires loyalty to each other and to the government under which we live.

May I, therefore, urge upon the pastor and the members of this congregation to minister in every way to the spiritual needs of people and to intensify the Christian work of calling in the homes, of providing for the children and youth, and of holding high the Christian standard of conduct in thought, word and deed.

The Christian Church is needed for moral defense. It is also needed for light in a darkened world.

May God be with you, and with your spirits.

The Rev. Norman C. Schenck


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