Even the Angels Weep

ImageThere’s a single image that keeps coming into my head in light of last week’s events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. If you walk down Main Street and head up the hill toward Old Ship Church and wrap around the bell tower into Hingham Cemetery you encounter a particularly striking gravestone. There’s a full-sized weeping angel draped over a sizable stone marker. The angel’s head is down on top of her right forearm while her left arm hangs over the edge with limp fingers pointed toward the earth. Her body language speaks of utter helplessness and defeat and the statue conveys the emotion of profound grief. A grief that transcends words; a grief that is raw and unrelenting. This has been the posture of a nation shocked by the slaughter of 20 innocent children among the dead in Newtown, Connecticut, and I can’t stop reflecting on this angel of grief. And yet even in the midst of this pain, the angel’s wings remain upright and majestic enfolding the grave marker in a gesture of embrace and a symbol of hope.

I walk up to the cemetery sometimes and just stand in front of that angel. I think about people that I have known and lost over the years. I think about the many people I have buried in my own priestly ministry — their stories, their struggles, their families, their faith. I think about the senseless killings that pervade our world through mass murder and war and acts of terror. I think about the presence of evil in our world and about the demons that drive people to desperation. And I think about the God of all hope who weeps when we weep and rejoices when we rejoice and is present to all who call upon his name.

Faith in the God whose peace surpasses all human understanding doesn’t ease the immediacy of grief. Yet there’s something about a statue so delicately carved into so solid a material. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the fragility of human life built upon the rock of our salvation. As Christians, we place our faith upon the cornerstone that is Jesus Christ even in the midst of our own questions and doubts and weaknesses.

It’s true that human tragedy strips away the non-essentials of life and brings us right back to the things that matter most — love, faith, compassion, and companions along the journey with whom we share these things. It’s also a reminder, in these days leading up to Christmas, that this season isn’t just about a cute yet helpless baby cooing in a stable but about our very salvation. It reminds us that Christmas isn’t just about the trimmings and trappings but about the miracle of God entering the world in human form; a world that can feel so full of darkness.

Finally, it reminds us that for all of the white lights in all of the windows along Main Street, for all the fresh garland adorning white picket fences, for all the beautifully trimmed trees in homes visible from the street, there are people hurting out there. There are people who go without this season; there are people for whom the holidays bring more emotional pain than cheer; there are people living with deep anxiety; there are people who are in the throes of profound grief in a small Connecticut town. Our faith calls this dissonance out into the light and bids us to act on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, the emotionally fragile and the sick, and those who weep and mourn.

In these waning days before Christmas, I can’t help but think about the gifts that have already been wrapped and lovingly placed underneath the tree; wrapping paper that will never be torn apart; squeals of glee that will never ring out; hugs of love and gratitude that will never be felt. Yet amid this season, amid the darkness that sometimes pierces our world, Christians still point to the light of salvation that burns in our hearts and illuminates the world with peace, hope, and salvation even in the midst of despair.


Praying Our Goodbyes

All Saints’ Church, Briarcliff Manor, NY

As I’ve been reflecting on the gospel for Sunday — Mark’s version of Jesus calming the sea — I remembered this was the text I preached on three years ago after announcing I would be leaving All Saints’ in Briarcliff Manor, New York. I had the privilege of serving there as rector for seven years and my leaving brought up lots of emotions for both me and the congregation.

Ending a pastoral relationship is never easy; it’s different from simply moving from one job to another. For better or worse, people’s spiritual lives are often wrapped up in their relationship with their priest and a priest’s identity is often wrapped up in their relationship with their parishioners. Leaving a congregation can feel like you’re forsaking a congregation. Even when you’re trying to be open and faithful to the call of the Spirit, feelings of anger, betrayal, and grief can abound on both sides.

I learned a lot through the process of saying goodbye, seeking always to be intentional about my leave-taking as opposed to “running through the thistles.” Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. But we’re also forever changed by the people we encounter on this journey of life and faith. I still keep the people of All Saints’ and their not-so-new-anymore rector in my prayers. Many of them had a profound effect on my ministry and that never fades away.

I rarely post sermons on my blog, but here’s that sermon I preached at All Saints’.

A  Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 21, 2009 (Proper 7, Year B)

When I was about ten-years-old my dad rented a sailboat and took the family out for a leisurely afternoon jaunt around the Inner Harbor of Baltimore. Some of my father’s earliest childhood memories were sailing on the Long Island Sound and he had recently started taking sailing lessons at the Getaway Sailing School. He loved being out on the water and naturally wanted to share this with his two sons. So why did it feel like I was about to board the SS Minow?

My mom was less keen on this whole family adventure but she packed a picnic basket and we headed down to the launch site to claim our 18-foot Bluenose. After adjusting our life jackets and a quick lesson about ducking when the boom swings around, we were ready to take to the high seas. And things started out pretty smoothly. The gentle breeze took us out into the middle of the harbor, the sun was shining, my brother and I argued over who was the First Mate, but the freedom of gliding through the water was amazing.

Until the clouds started moving in and the wind picked up. Since it would add to the story, I’d like to tell you there was a massive storm with gale-force winds. But there wasn’t. It did get a bit windier but the problem was that the bow line somehow got caught or tangled and suddenly my father couldn’t control the boat as it started heeling drastically to one side. Water rushed over the sideboards, my mother screamed, our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were washed out to sea, and I remember wondering if this was indeed the end. The whole scenario probably took less than a minute before my dad was able to get things straightened out but the horror of it all is seared into my psyche.

It’s in moments of panic or sheer terror, like the one the disciples experienced out on the Sea of Galilee or the one I experienced on the gentle waters of the Inner Harbor, that our first instinct is rarely to put our trust in God. Fear paralyzes us and all we can think about is survival. The natural reaction is to cling to a life vest rather than to Jesus. Because trust is the rarest commodity during times of trial and tribulation. The disciples cry out, “Jesus, don’t you even care that we’re about to die!” And we get this almost comical moment of contrast between the fear and frenzy of the disciples versus the absolute calm and tranquility of Jesus as he sleeps in the back of the boat.

But it’s understandable because trust tends to go out the window or out to sea in moments of uncertainty. There is a lack of trust that Jesus would see the disciples through the storm. Despite his presence the disciples didn’t believe he could or would help them. But of course it’s precisely his presence that is the ultimate source of comfort no matter whether the storm continues to rage or ceases completely. He’s there for them.

But meanwhile Jesus is trying to get a little shut eye. Trying to get a bit of rest after a long day of preaching and teaching. And you can just imagine his annoyance here: “You woke me up for this? Can’t a guy get a nap in around here?”

And I admit it sometimes does feel as if Jesus is asleep at the wheel. Sometimes when we need him most, it feels as if he’s not available to us. That he’s not paying attention to our needs; that he doesn’t care. And yet those are the times when he is most clearly present. It’s us who often become blinded by the storms and trials and tribulations of this life. Life swirls and rages, fear takes hold, and we fail to see the living Christ in our midst. We fail to see him calmly resting in the stern. We’ll see his presence in retrospect, perhaps, but rarely in the midst of the storm at hand.

The subtext for this particular community of faith is, of course, the departure of its rector. As I announced this week, I have accepted a call to a church in Massachusetts. And so All Saints’ is entering a time of transition and uncertainty. Anxiety and a sense of un-rootedness is a natural response to major change. And as the initial emotions swirl it can feel precisely like the tempest we read about this morning on the Sea of Galilee. The feelings of abandonment and betrayal are real. And it feels as if waves are beating against the sides of the boat and swamping it with water.

Yet, as in this story, Jesus is present. Anchoring us, guiding us, blessing us through this particular storm. And when we call upon him he will indeed calm the waters of our souls. Know that he will not leave you orphaned, he will not forsake you, he will be with you until the ends of the earth.

With three words, Jesus calms both the sea and the disciples’ anxiety: “Peace! Be still!” He becomes the calm in the midst of the storm. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t a storm; it just means that if we look inward Jesus stands at the core or our being even in the midst of the storm. Storm and calm are not mutually exclusive. If we go through life waiting for complete stillness we’ll go through life in great disappointment. Because life is really a series of storms; some smaller and some larger. So it’s not a matter of silencing the storm as much as it is recognizing God’s abiding presence in the midst of the storms that confront us. Allowing Jesus to provide the steady hand despite what rages. In other words, Jesus didn’t promise us perfect peace and tranquility in this life; he didn’t promise that there wouldn’t be any storms in this life; but he did promise us that he would be present in the midst of them. And that hope and assurance is at the very heart of the Christian life and faith.

And thus in this passage from Mark you could say that a literal “sea change” has taken place. A radical, profound, and mystical change in the water, the weather, and the hearts of the disciples. When you substitute the word transformation for “sea change” you get the idea of the power of Jesus Christ. Similarly we are going through a sea change at All Saints’, one that I am confident will lead to such transformation. It’s interesting to note that the phrase “sea change” first appears in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Ariel sings, “Full fathom five thy father lies: Of his bones are coral made: Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade: But doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.” We are entering something “rich and strange” around here; things will soon be different. But I also trust that through this sea change new and good things will arise. In the days ahead, let Jesus be that calm in the midst of the storm both in your own life and here at this wonderful parish of All Saints’.

Sprinkles vs. Jimmies

One of the great mysteries of the world is the difference between sprinkles and jimmies. Okay, it’s not much of a mystery because there IS no difference. But why do some portions of the country refer to those small candy coated chocolates that accessorize ice cream and donuts sprinkles while others call them jimmies?

Jimmy Carter

This was a major conundrum for my boys when we moved from New York to Massachusetts two and a half years ago. On moving day, we walked down to Nona’s, the homemade ice cream shop down the street. They ordered something chocolatey and then were faced with a dilemma posed by the teenager wearing a Red Sox cap behind the counter: “Do you want jimmies on that?” She may as well have asked the question in Swahili because they literally had no idea what she was talking about. Fortunately for them, mom and dad used to live in Massachusetts and thus we turned into on-the-spot translators.

Jimmy Connors

Thinking about this recently, for some reason, I did some extensive research (thanks, Google) on the subject. It turns out that in the 1930s the Just Born candy company (the same folks that bring us Peeps) were cranking out boatloads of sprinkles. The guy who operated the sprinkle-making machine was named Jimmy. People started calling them “Jimmies” and the name stuck. I’m still not sure how it became a regional thing but whatever. It’s a good story.

Jimmy Cliff

Ben and Zack still refer to them as sprinkles — either old habits die hard or it’s their way of sticking it to the Massachusetts “man.” But ultimately they don’t care as long as they get them on their ice cream. And at least we didn’t move to the Midwest to get embroiled in the old soda versus pop debate.

Jimmy Hoffa

“And one was a soldier and one was a priest”

At Fort Knox, circa 1992

When people wish me a “Happy Veterans Day” I always do a double-take. I served so long ago the whole experience is a bit blurry. I also never spent more than four consecutive months on active duty and never once stepped onto foreign soil as a member of the military.

I’m not sure exactly why I decided to enter Army ROTC as a freshman at Tufts University. It’s not as if I come from a long line of distinguished military leaders. My late father, who made his living as a symphony orchestra conductor, was compelled to enlist as part of the peacetime draft in the early 1960s after graduating from Harvard. He served as a clarinet player in the Army Band known as Pershing’s Own in Washington, DC . It wasn’t a bad gig — he lived in an off-post apartment and basically studied scores for three years when he wasn’t marching in things like Eisenhower’s funeral. From a musical standpoint, it wasn’t as if he had to do much practicing since the band wasn’t playing the most challenging music (at least from the perspective of a gifted future conductor).

The one military rite of passage my father did have to endure was Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey. He made it through just fine (and was a much better shot with a rifle than I ever was!). He told me once he was never so thrilled with KP duty than the time it got him out of learning how to throw a grenade. Let’s just say we’re all glad they didn’t stick him with his clarinet out on the front line.

So, I’m not sure what came over me the summer before my freshman year at Tufts that made me inquire about ROTC. My high school friends all thought I’d lost my mind, my parents were cautiously supportive (which I still marvel at), and my brother thought I was doing it to meet girls. Looking back, I see it as an early exploration of call. I felt a deep desire to “give something back” even as I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

I will say that my experience in ROTC was one of the most formative of my life. I made deep friendships with many of my fellow cadets that continue to this day. Not one of us remains in the military, which is perhaps  to be expected of members of the Paul Revere Battalion (comprised of cadets from Tufts, Harvard, Wellesley, and MIT). I learned a tremendous amount about myself, about leadership, and about human nature; all lessons that still resonate.

My military career will never be used as a case study at West Point. While still a cadet, I volunteered  to go to Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. I figured, what better way to conquer my fear of heights than being trained as a paratrooper? So after training for three weeks in the August heat (doing lots of push-ups and being yelled at by the infamous Black Hat instructors), I made the five required jumps to earn my Airborne wings. To further torture myself, I earned my Air Assault wings the next summer at Fort Rucker in Dothan, Alabama. This involved, among other things, rappelling out of helicopters hovering at 150 feet.

Upon graduation, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant as an armor officer in the Army Reserves. This meant four months at Fort Knox for training as a tank platoon leader. I then had a break as I pursued my career as a political campaign manager. I couldn’t stick with a single unit because I was working all over the country. Eventually I settled down in Baltimore and joined a Garrison Support Unit. Of course there was nary a tank in the state of Maryland so I had to do something else to serve. In a stroke of brilliance rarely seen in the military, they stuck me in a position I was actually qualified for: I became the unit’s Public Affairs Officer.

As the PAO, I did a lot of media relations for local units deploying to or returning from the Bosnia mission — Operation Joint Adventure. I had a lot of fun doing this — it’s great to have unit commanders, colonels and generals, hanging on your every word and taking your every order because they’re terrified to deal with the media. I was even awarded a couple of medals for this!

I was nearly deployed to Germany in support of this mission when I received that letter of acceptance to seminary. My service was basically up at that point and once the Army saw this they were more than happy to say “adios.” So I was honorably discharged and have the paper (somewhere!) to prove it.

Some people see parish ministry and military service as being incompatible. Most people don’t actually say this but I know it’s on people’s minds (“How could you have served in the military? Jesus said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ not ‘Blessed are the warmongers'”). As I was going through the pre-seminary ordination process, a discernment committee member  asked about this in a rather pointed way. Fortunately, I had just finished reading a biography of former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie. During World War II Runcie had served as an officer in the Scots Guard and was awarded the distinguished Military Cross for valor as a tank commander. Pushed into a corner on the issue I mentioned this fact and the guy backed down. It wasn’t my proudest moment but it was effective.

That’s my “How I came to be a veteran” story. I’m proud of having served and have a tremendous amount of respect for those who do. I also have a few good stories if anyone’s interested at some point.

These days, I’m much more of a dove than a hawk; the dove being the symbol of the Holy Spirit. And I even cringe inside when I see my boys playing Black Ops on the X-Box. I said to Zack the other day, “Since you like playing gun games do you think you’d ever consider joining the military?” He looked at me like I was nuts and responded, “Of course not. I don’t want to commit suicide.” I guess it’s good that he knows the distinction between fiction and reality.

The boys aren’t impressed by my military service. “If you weren’t in any war it doesn’t count.” I don’t agree but am thankful to God nonetheless.


Ferrets (and Family) Gone Wild!

Zack and Ben hangin' with Casper and MimiSometimes domestic chaos just happens — the kids eat their entire Halloween stash in one sitting, your wife breaks a wrist (or two), or your mother in law moves in for nine months. And sometimes you bring it on yourself. That’s what happened yesterday as we adopted two ferrets.

Why ferrets as opposed to, say, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, or rats? Or another dog for that matter? Good question. Obviously the boys were involved in this since owning a ferret was never a childhood fantasy of mine. Fortunately, I have someone to blame for introducing the boys to these carnivorous mammals (they’re not rodents — who knew?). Bryna’s friend and co-worker Jen has two ferrets named Mahi and Fenway. Bryna and the boys spent a day with her in Southie and their take-a-way was “ferrets are wicked cool!” followed by “when are we getting ferrets?” Thanks, Jen. They even came up with names on the ride home: Casper for a boy and Mimi for a girl (while soundly rejecting my suggestion of “Ferret Beuler”).

Jen with Mahi and Fenway at the Pet Blessing

The incessant lobbying had begun in earnest. Mahi and Fenway were given an invitation to our early October Blessing of the Animals (Bryna’s ulterior motive was to get them to meet Delilah and see how a dog would react to ferrets — just fine it turned out).

The next thing I knew the boys were spending inordinate amounts of time on ferret adoption websites. It didn’t help when Jen gave them the most recent issue of Ferrets Illustrated (or whatever it’s called). Now they were getting educated, Bryna was being sucked in, and the next thing I knew she and the boys had ordered a gargantuan ferret cage online. Do you have any idea how ridiculous it feels to have a ferret skyscraper being delivered to your home in 3-5 days with no ferrets in sight?

Fortunately (I guess, since I was now resigned to my ferretorious fate), Bryna made contact with a woman in Rhode Island who had two ferrets for whom she was seeking a good home. Between work and a new baby they just couldn’t give their ferrets (a one-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy) the attention they both crave and deserve. So the whole family, including Delilah, piled into the minivan for the hour-long drive to meet them. The boys and the ferrets took to one another instantly, Delilah sniffed them if not approvingly then at least non-threateningly, and we left with two ferrets and a bunch of supplies and toys.

I have to admit they are incredibly adorable — lively, curious, engaging, mischievous — and they bring out the best in the boys — sensitivity, responsibility, affection. They also sleep for about 19 hours a day which is a plus.

Chaos is a multi-splendored thing. Two new ferrets simply add to the blessed mixture.

That’s NOT in the Bible? Nope.

Recent surveys have shown Biblical illiteracy at an all-time high. And, no, Gallup wasn’t just polling Episcopalians. What’s most disturbing to me isn’t that people have no idea who or what Moses did. It’s the number of quotes they think are Biblical but actually are not.

To clear up any confusion, the staff here at Clergy Family Confidential has compiled a list of the most common non-Biblical clichés. If you can think of any others, by all means add them to the list. Together, in the name of God and country, we can root out these insidious Scriptural mis-quotes. And then everyone can live happily ever after and return to their previously scheduled programming.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Perhaps not. Although in extreme cases you may end up as a vegetable.

“God never gives us more than we can handle.” Talk to Job. Or anyone else who has ever been overwhelmed by the circumstances of life. That’s not to say that God isn’t in the midst of it all but God isn’t intentionally heaping weights upon our shoulders to help us identify our own breaking points.

“To thine own self be true.” Just because it’s written in Elizabethan English doesn’t mean it’s Scriptural. It is, however, a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

“The lion shall lay down with the lamb.” In Isaiah, the wolf lives with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the kid but the lion and the lamb? Never the twain shall meet. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together” (11:6) and “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (65:25).

“Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Slobs of the world rejoice! While the saying may have its roots in an ancient, non-Biblical Hebrew proverb, the earliest example in English comes from Francis Bacon in 1605.

“God works in mysterious ways.” Duh. And U2 sings “God moves in mysterious ways.” But as true as this may be, it’s not in the Bible.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Psych! The Golden Rule actually does come from the Bible if not in this precise wording. See Matthew 7:12. In fact, this call to ethical reciprocity pre-dates the Bible and can be found in nearly every world religion.

“God helps those who help themselves.” Perhaps, but God also helps those who cannot help themselves. This phrase seems to have originated in one of Aesop’s Fables — the Waggoner. It shouldn’t be surprising that since Aesop lived in the 6th century BC the original phrase was “The gods help those who help themselves.”

“Money is the root of all evil.” There’s a similar saying in 1 Timothy: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” But that’s completely different — money itself is not evil! Remember that distinction come stewardship season.

“It’s a long way to the top, if you want to rock ‘n roll.” What? This isn’t in the Book of Revelation? Nope, it’s AC/DC.

So there you have it. A little Biblical literacy to get your blood flowing. And if you didn’t like anything about this blog post? “This too shall pass” (again, not Biblical).

Sour Grapes

Shockingly, Delilah was rejected for the new Episcopups Calendar by Forward Movement Publications. You may recall my blogging about her recent photo shoot.  Delilah took the news pretty well, processing her rejection by gnawing on a chew toy. I, however, did not. So Forward Movement is now dead to me.

You want quirky? Here's Delilah drinking "coffee!"

While it would be easy to blame my archnemesis, Scott Gunn, who just happens to be the new Executive Director of Forward Movement, I won’t. That’s because my righteous indignation at this affront transcends one person. I blame the entire city of Cincinnati and vow to never, ever run the Flying Pig Marathon (yes, that’s what it’s called).


My caption: "Let us read, mark, and inwardly digest." Winning caption: "Read to me, pleezze" (sic)

Adding insult to injury, they also rejected the few captions I sent in as part of their online caption contest for each featured “dog.” I think Fr. Gunn and his staff may need a humor transfusion. And when I come out with my EpiscoRoadkill calendar next year you can be sure I won’t be including any dead possums from Southern Ohio.

I realize this is sour grapes since, had Delilah made it in, I would have been extolling the virtues, great insight, and “forward” thrust of the revamped Forward Movement. But now I will have to clear my tract rack of their publications and replace them with pictures of my dog.

The two photos you see here are the ones we sent in. Here are the 2012 Episcopups who made the calendar (which I don’t encourage you to purchase). Take a look and you’ll see just how much better it would have been had Delilah been Miss January.