While 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.
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 artists 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.
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.
PS. It’s not you, it’s me.
As 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 out 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
Ah, the start of Lent. The day in the liturgical year that many well-intentioned church goers mistakenly say the verboten “A-word.” You know how it goes. After the breaking of the bread at the altar the celebrant says, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” And everyone replies “Therefore let us keep the feast. Allelu….oops.”
In fairness, some members of the congregation have been lulled to sleep by the smooth, monotone of the priest as he/she blesses the bread and wine. Out of habit, that word just slips out. If this has happened to you, you may recall the disapproving glances and rampant judging by your fellow pew mates. You can either turn beet red, laugh self-consciously, run screaming out of the church until Easter, or…let me help you.
You see, out of pastoral concern for my fellow Christians (it is Ash Wednesday after all), I’ve come up with a short list of words you can say if you catch yourself in time. Once you realize you’re the only one who has vigorously proclaimed “Allelu…” you can add these ending to change direction and save face. Here goes.
Allelu…theran (works better if you actually are one)
Allelu…re me in but don’t take advantage of me
The only one I’d caution you against would be Allelu…cifer. That might get you in trouble with the priest.
Over the next few days the folks at the NFL Network will try to bridge the gap between football and baseball seasons by televising the NFL Scouting Combine. The top pro prospects coming out of college are put through their paces under the watchful eyes of scouts for teams that may potentially draft them. Naturally, I thought it would be helpful for the church to have a similar skills competition for graduating seminarians. This way, freshly minted clergy could show off their skills while hiring rectors and search committees could get a sense of what they were getting before extending a call. Everybody wins, right?
One of the more controversial pieces of evaluation at the NFL Combine takes place off the field. The Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test consists of 50 multiple choice questions to be answered in twelve minutes. A score of 20 indicates average intelligence. I’m not sure if a player’s scores are supposed to be made public but they always leak out. Here’s a slideshow with some notable scores.
All of which is to say that we already have the Wonderlic (doesn’t that sound like a place Larry Bird might vacation?) equivalent in the General Ordination Exam. Equally controversial — there’s been talk of eliminating it for years — but overall a decent baseline indicator of fitness for ordained ministry. So that takes care of the academic/cognitive portion. Now on to the fun part: the skills competition.
The marquee event at the NFL Combine is the 40 yard dash. It measures speed and explosiveness, two ingredients necessary to succeed in professional football. For seminarians, the most important event is The Triangle. At a simulated coffee hour, a “parishioner” holding a styrofoam cup of Folgers decaf corners the seminarian and says, “Great sermon today! Your sermons are so much better than the rector’s snooze-fests don’t you think? If you go tell the Senior Warden to insist Father Dim have you preach more often, I’ll support you.”
What do you do? Give a knowing nod of complicity and leave it at that? Approach the warden? Or say, “We all have different gifts but I think it’s important to hear regularly from Father Dim. I appreciate his approach to preaching but understand not everyone relates to every preacher. If this is such a concern for you, why don’t you go talk to the warden? I see her right behind that plate of stale munchkins.”
100 people you’ve never seen before file past you shaking your hand and saying “Good morning” and occasionally “Nice sermon.” While they’re all wearing name tags (this is hypothetical) the first pass, they file past you again without name tags. How many can you name? How many do you even recognize? Did we mention they all change their clothes in between?
Each seminarian is asked to preach a sermon on the Trinity (they may as well get used to it). They begin with 100 points. Points are deducted for: every minute past the 12 minute mark; annoying tics like hair flipping or swaying back and forth; use of any of the following words — paradigm, missional, multivalent, or homoousious; and doctrinal heresy. 30 is considered an above average score.
In order to properly prepare future clergy for long drawn-out diocesan meetings, having to stay up late on a Saturday night to finish the sermon because they had a funeral and a wedding earlier that day, and mornings following a late vestry meeting, it is essential to test their coffee intake skills. Unlike the individual challenges, this is administered in a group setting.
A giant vat of coffee is set up in the middle of a mock parish hall. Contestants line the walls. At the command “The Lord be with you,” the seminarians dash to the vat and attempt to consume Herculean (even though he’s a pagan) amounts of black coffee. At the end of 10 minutes, the winner will have consumed the most coffee (without dying). If you’re not sure how much coffee it will take to kill you, click here.
Let the games begin!
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.