About 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.
The invitation has arrived, as it does every year. It’s an open invitation. One that gently beckons.
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.
The emotions surrounding the anniversary of a loved one’s death are…unpredictable. We may be gripped by barely controllable feelings — especially when the grief is raw. Yet in some years the day may slip past with barely a whisper of awareness. In both cases, I find solace and joy in reaching out to those whose lives are connected to my own through the person we’ve lost.
While I keep the anniversary of my father’s death on my calendar — as if I could ever forget February 19, 1992 — there’s something about keeping a date with grief that feels peculiar. I’m often moved at times I don’t expect and in ways I least suspect. Perhaps I glimpse someone at a ballgame who shares a physical feature with my dad — his smile or the tenor of his voice. Or I encounter an object in the far recesses of my closest that serves as a talisman to a particularly vivid memory. Maybe it’s a smell that evokes time spent together in a way that is forever lost.
I was surprised at the degree to which the anniversary of my father’s death affected me today. Twenty-two years isn’t a particularly memorable number. Yet I woke up very aware that I’ve now lived more of my life without his physical presence than with it. This day is always tinged with regret as the seminal events in my life — the ones he missed — dance through my head. He never met my wife Bryna or sons Ben and Zack. He never knew of my calling to the priesthood or how my life has unfolded as an adult. And yet he continues to have a major impact on me every single day — in my faith, my parenting, my approach to married life, my vocational passion, my personality, my values.
Sure, his musical talent (he was a symphony orchestra conductor) wasn’t as hereditary as I might have hoped, but none of us are exact replicas of our parents. [Here's the obituary from the Baltimore Sun if you're interested -- I just reread it for the first time in years and it still breaks my heart].
Of course “keeping a date with grief” is precisely what we do when we commemorate saints in the Church. We remember these men and women who have come before us in the faith on the anniversaries of their deaths rather than their birthdays. Why? Because we celebrate their lives in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and we see their deaths as glorious moments of reunion with the risen Christ.
The Good News of the Christian faith is that death is not the end — it is merely a temporary farewell. That’s the glory of the Easter message and it’s why, while the pain of loss endures, hope always transcends grief.
If you’re part of a faith community, I encourage you to share these special anniversaries with one another. There’s no reason we must bear them in isolation. To be human is to know grief and we are called to share one another’s burdens. Make an appointment to speak with a member of the clergy on an upcoming anniversary in your own life or call a friend for a coffee date. Shared experience and empathy are two of the great spiritual gifts we can offer our fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith.
Response to the Cathedral nautilus conversation has been, well, spiraling out of control. This is an apt metaphor for the chambered nautilus so perhaps this shouldn’t surprise anyone. In the “all publicity is good publicity” department, the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston is thriving. Granted not all the responses have been positive and some have even been malicious but, hey, people are talking about the Episcopal Church so there’s that.
After posting my thoughts on the new artwork gracing the long-vacant cathedral pediment and inviting the Cathedral Dean, the Very Rev. Jep Streit, to do likewise, the whole issue has gone a bit viral.
First, The American Conservative’s Rod Deher tried to stir up some controversy in true Fox News fashion with an article titled Episcopalians & The Way of the Seashell. His most offensive, vaguely racist comment was:
Sounds like the inside of a Twinkie has a more solid core than the cathedral community’s theology, though it’s probably not as white.
Surprisingly some of the 50 online comments that followed were actually balanced and a few were even in favor of the nautilus.
Jim Naughton of The Episcopal Cafe posted quotes from and links to both of our responses and also saw the value of open, honest disagreement in “One man’s beauty is another man’s fish house.”
Two people of good faith are having a respectful disagreement, and I find this such a refreshing development in our church that I feel obliged to call attention to it.
The usually balanced Religion News Service posted this comment under the headline “The old rugged seashell“
Favorite story of the day:St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedralin Boston has finally filled in the triangle-shaped pediment on its facade with … wait for it … a giant nautilus shell that’s lit up at night like a Vegas show girl.
Real Clear Religion (whatever that is) tips their thoughts in the headline “Episcopalians Trade Paul for a Seashell.” The good news? They didn’t refer to us as “Episcopals.”
First Things went with the neutral “The Nautilus on the Cathedral.”
The key takeaway in all this? Religious symbols are powerful and elicit strong emotional responses. I’m still convinced the Church must first stand up and embrace its own Christian identity — that’s at the heart of this conversation for me. We can and must embody an inclusivity that flows directly from the foot of the cross out into the world. Much of Jesus’ ministry involved shattering the barriers that divide us one from another. The Good News of Christ’s gospel still has the power to do just this.
There was a lot of reaction and (mostly) thoughtful commentary after I posted my response (The Heart of the Nautilus) to the new artwork on the pediment of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston. Since then I’ve been in contact with the cathedral’s gracious dean, the Very Rev. Jep Streit, who naturally doesn’t share my opinion on this.
I’ve invited his deanship to post a response here on Clergy Family Confidential as a Guest Blogger. Although he’s the first ever GB on my little slice of the internet, I’ve assured him this is a very prestigious honor. In all seriousness, I’m grateful for his willingness to engage on this issue and I appreciate the vulnerability of his position in opening himself and the cathedral community up to every art and ecclesiastical critic to ever stroll across Boston Common.
Guest Blogger: The Very Rev. Jep Streit
I’m grateful for his generous offer to respond to his posting as a “guest blogger” on his site, which only underscores my appreciation of how he engenders reflection and discussion in a thoughtful way.
In our video the artist remarked that he wanted to create art for the pediment that was not “too religious,” which of course alarmed some people, as though he were articulating our new mission statement. Remember, he’s the artist, not the Dean. I simply thought he was trying to articulate, in his imperfect way, his experience of the Cathedral as a place with an expansive vision of God, “not just for Episcopals” as he put it, and so he attempted to create something that would be broadly inviting.
At St. Paul’s Cathedral we celebrate the Eucharist eight times a week, keep our church open all day for anyone to come in and pray, hold a weekly meditation group and have welcomed and fed hungry people every single Monday for thirty years. I don’t worry that we aren’t Christian enough.
I was a little surprised at how dismissive people seemed to be to the nautilus as a symbol of our faith. It may not be an immediately self-evident symbol, but neither was the cross when it first was used. I can imagine people wondering, “Why are they glorifying imperial Roman instruments of torture and execution?”
After two millennia the cross is now an unmistakable symbol of Christianity, it’s something everyone expects to see on a church. But isn’t God the One who surpasses our expectations, not the One who just meets them? Isaiah proclaimed, “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” Is it unfaithful to imagine a new symbol for our faith? It may not be immediately clear exactly what a nautilus atop a cathedral means, but that ambiguity can invite thinking and conversation, much more than if we had done something less provocative, as evidenced by all the responses to Tim’s blog.
For the record, here is why I think a nautilus is an appropriate symbol for our faith:
- A nautilus is ancient (half a billion years old), just as our faith has ancient roots and traditions. Both the nautilus and our faith are open-ended, ever-expanding.
- A nautilus grows by forming new chambers is it outgrows old ones, it can never go back, just as the God leads us on our faith journey into new places, deepening our conversation. The Holy Spirit is dynamic, not static.
- The spiral of the nautilus shell is universal, an elemental form found throughout creation, from galaxies to weather patterns to the growth of plants to sub-atomic particles, just as we believe God is universal and unlimited.
- Jesus gathered disciples by inviting people who were curious about him and what he was doing. “Come and see,” he told Andrew, who then brought his brother Simon. My hope is that our nautilus sparks curiosity and welcomes exploration.
The nautilus works (or perhaps doesn’t work) as a symbol on these and many levels, but for me it is beautiful and inviting. I love it, and I think it does not require an explanation to be appreciated. Of course everyone doesn’t agree with me: one man’s beauty is another man’s fish house.
The week after the official dedication of the nautilus I received the following email from a total stranger. In it she confirmed my hope that our new artwork would be engaging and inviting to people who might not otherwise care or even be aware of St. Paul’s and our ministries, and she offers her own reason why the nautilus is a good fit for our cathedral.
Walking through the Common from Beacon Street tonight, I saw the Nautilus sculpture lit for the first time. It is thrilling, and one of the most redemptive architectural feats I have ever seen, bringing the building into new light and new light into the city.
I read about the inspiration of the Holmes poem, but I want to comment also (surely I am not the first) that the nautilus’s many ‘rooms’ evoked John 14:2. As I read about the multi-faith ‘homes’ provided by the Cathedral, not to mention room for the ‘homeless;’ whose room has been on your porch for many years, the verse echoed in my mind. I am not Christian, but I am a great appreciator of this new and marvelous work.
Thank you and everyone connected with the gift.
Finally, a couple of respondents have noted the limits of the cathedral building itself; poor sightlines, dim lighting, inadequate handicap access. They are right. This is why we are not only adding sculpture to finish our pediment but renovating our interior space: bringing in light, installing a full size elevator, adding a chapel, removing the pews to make our space more flexible and installing an efficient heating and ventilation system.
But when all is said and done, what is true is simple: our ministry is our message. I’m proud of our ministry, the gospel witness we make every day. I’m also glad for the conversation we are having about our new façade. Of course there are many viewpoints, just as in God’s house there are many rooms.
All are welcome.
While some of you may find this hard to believe, I hesitated before writing this post. A lot. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the ministry that takes place at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston. Under the current dean, they have a long history of reaching out to people on the margins which is, at heart, what Jesus’ gospel message is all about. Bishop Shaw says he is “especially proud of the cathedral for doing the work of Jesus Christ — feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger.”
The recently released video about the artwork that now graces the cathedral’s long vacant pediment, however, speaks to me about the disconnect between that very gospel message and the very public portrayal of it. If you’ve been down Tremont Street along Boston Common, perhaps you’ve seen it — it’s a giant nautilus that, at night, gets illumined with blue backlighting.
The original plan called for a relief sculpture of the cathedral’s patron, St. Paul, preaching to King Agrippa (Acts 29). This idea was scrapped when the money ran out and the pediment remained empty for nearly 200 years. I’m still not sure why Paul was pushed aside for a seashell.
Sure, I’ve mocked the nautilus occasionally in the months since it went up. Mostly it was good natured. Mostly. Things like telling everyone I now refer to it as St. Paul’s Fish House & Raw Bar since it looks more like the entrance to a fancy seafood restaurant than a cathedral. Granted the Greco-Roman architecture made it appear — pre-nautilus (PN) — like a bank. St. Paul’s Savings & Loan, perhaps.
The nautilus is supposed to be a metaphor for spiritual growth, based on an Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem titled The Chambered Nautilus. I actually don’t mind the sculpture itself — if it was on the facade of a contemporary arts museum it might even entice me to go inside. But labeling it a symbol of spirituality feels contrived and as empty as one of its chambers.
But what really set me off was the artist’s description of his vision — a vision the cathedral community enthusiastically embraced. He says in the video that the cathedral is “not just a church for Episcopals.” Okay, ecclesiastical grammar aside, I understand the cathedral sees itself as a House of Prayer for All People (Isaiah 56:7) — a Biblical slogan popularized by the Washington National Cathedral. They live into this motto by offering a place of prayer for the local Muslim community on Friday afternoons and opening their doors to “all sorts and conditions” of people.
Yet, unless you first place your stake in the ground as the epicenter of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, a community of disciples following Jesus Christ, this slogan can easily delve into “A House of the Least Common Denominator for All People.”
The artist goes on to say, “I was trying to think of a symbol or an image that would be spiritual but not be religious.”
What?! A Christian cathedral by its very nature is and must be “religious.” It should be a beacon of the gospel and, as the dean says in the video, “the spiritual heart” of the diocese. If our core is this theologically squishy we may as well just tear down all of our crosses and erect nautili (what is the plural of nautilus?) on all our parish churches.
This video did make me reflect on what I envision as cathedral ministry and for this I’m grateful. I would love the cathedral to be the spiritual heart of the diocese but in order to do so, I believe, it must first be clear about its Christian identity. As a parish priest and simply a Christian, this is what I seek in a cathedral:
I want a cathedral that is both spiritual and religious.
I want a cathedral that inspires — liturgically, theologically, and spiritually.
I want a cathedral that is a powerful sign of the Christian faith, boldly proclaimed.
I want a cathedral that preaches Christ crucified and risen with reckless abandon.
I want a cathedral that is a beacon of hope amidst a sinful and broken world.
I want a cathedral that, as the bishop’s seat, is engaged in a ministry of Christian teaching and formation.
I want a cathedral that is a place of prayer and spiritual refreshment.
I want a cathedral that ministers to those on the margins of society.
I want a cathedral that is relevant to its urban context.
Yes, that is a lot to place on one community and its leadership. I am not a dean and so it’s easy for me to put expectations upon a cathedral community. I understand that and I understand it is impossible to be, as St. Paul himself said, “all things to all people.” It’s hard enough in parish ministry without having the priests and laity of over 160 congregations looking to you for inspiration and who may all have slightly different interpretations of what a cathedral should be and do.
There are certainly things at my own parish, St. John’s in Hingham, Massachusetts, that could and should be improved upon — we just finished up a strategic planning process that was revealing, challenging, and hopeful. Every parish church and every cathedral has strengths and weaknesses that must be taken together when looking at the whole.
It’s also quite possible I’m wrong. Maybe the nautilus will be just what the cathedral needs to invigorate its mission and ministry. Perhaps people will indeed “come and see.” The question remains whether they will come and stay.
There’s nothing more disheartening than putting a tremendous amount of effort into an adult education program only to have a handful of people show up. This happens more than you’d think in parishes of all types, denominations, and sizes but no one wants to talk about it. Clergy don’t — because it looks like failure on their part. And lay people don’t — because they’d have to admit they weren’t interested enough to show up.
In fact, I’d call this lack of attendance at adult education programs the “dirty little secret” of Christian formation. It’s easy to rally around children’s formation events — Sunday School, Confirmation class, Vacation Bible School. We’re all passionate about “passing on the tradition,” even if we don’t have the time or the inclination to keep our own spiritual lives fresh and vibrant.
I don’t think this means the end of mature discipleship, it just calls for new methods of approaching adults who have precious little time. We can’t continue to offer the ubiquitous Wednesday evening potlucks as the only means to the adult education end. The pace and volume of life has changed and the Church must adapt to changing educational needs to continue to form disciples in Jesus’ name.
Fortunately, there are some church leaders out there trying to meet this new reality. Online Christian formation — for both adults and children — is a new and exciting frontier, one that we’re still figuring out but one that we all need to embrace.
One friend of mine is doing something about filling this void. Chris Yaw is an Episcopal parish priest and the founder of Church Next, a new online Christian learning initiative. He’s also a former Lent Madness Celebrity Blogger and Emmy Winner, but I digress. His team has an ever-expanding library of short, online courses on a variety of topics from ethics to liturgy to Scripture. Each course consists of four five-minute videos from experts across multiple denominations. An individual can subscribe or a parish can do so, in effect, creating an online “school” for the congregation. People can watch videos on their own schedule at their own pace and may or may not then engage in face-to-face conversations at church.
The key is flexibility, accessibility, and access to solid content. Check out the ever-expanding online library here.
Chris asked me to do a class on the season of Advent. I haven’t actually seen all the videos but you can watch (and share) the first one as a free sample. Here’s the course description.
I really believe this is the future of Christian formation — not replacing in-person parish formation programs but supplementing them and giving people who are too busy to attend potluck suppers access to spiritual growth. Imagine being able to grow your faith while waiting on the carpool line or with that first cup of coffee when the house is blessedly quiet or during your morning commute. It’s a concept that’s past due and one that embraces the changing landscape rather than simply ruing it.