What songs do you listen to when you drive down to meet a bunch of nuns? This was my dilemma last month as I went to visit the Sisters of St. Margaret in Duxbury, an issue I write about in my latest In Good Faith column. Read on to discover my soundtrack and prepare to meet some pretty special ladies.
I’ve been hanging out with a bunch of single women recently. It’s okay, you can tell my wife — they’re nuns. A number of the Sisters of St. Margaret have been attending services at St. John’s the past few months and they recently invited me down to visit their convent on the South Shore.
This may come as a surprise on several fronts. First, there are indeed Episcopal nuns — Roman Catholics don’t have a monopoly on religious orders. In fact there are many Episcopal monasteries and convents throughout this country and the world. They don’t fit the Nun-zilla image portrayed in movies such as Sister Act or the Blues Brothers and I’ve yet to see one of them sneak a ruler into church.
The second thing that may surprise you is that their convent is located on a large parcel of waterfront property in Duxbury. Any developer would surely drool over their location, imagining several mansions and lots of money exchanging hands. Don’t get your hopes up — they’ve owned the property since 1903.
As I began my drive down to meet with the order’s Superior and her right hand nun, I had an important decision to make, namely what soundtrack would accompany me on my 35 minute drive? I decided on a mix of Twisted Sister, anything by Sister Sledge, and “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger. I decided against Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” and Elvis’ “Little Sister.”
So what are a group of habited nuns doing in an upscale suburb on Boston’s South Shore? I’ll tell you what they’re not doing: lounging around on the beach having mai tais delivered by the novices. Though headquartered in Duxbury, they have Sisters serving in Dorchester, New York City, and Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
They’ve long been engaged in mission work in Haiti, arguably the poorest country in the world. Indeed, they’re currently set up in temporary housing as their convent in Port-au-Prince was destroyed by the devastating 2010 earthquake. Much of their ministry is focused on the needs of children and the elderly. In particular they administer a scholarship program for children unable to afford the basic supplies needed to attend school or whose families cannot pay the minimum fees required.
As with many monastic orders, the sisters also offer a ministry of hospitality, hosting groups and individuals at their newly-built residence in Duxbury. They are available for spiritual counseling, run retreats and quiet days, and offer a respite for those seeking some time to attend to their spiritual lives.
I guess the last thing that might surprise you about the sisters is their demeanor. They’re neither dour nor sanctimonious and, believe it or not, they don’t bite! In fact they are delightful, warm, compassionate, dedicated, and, yes, funny.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the sisters, check out their website at ssmbos.com (yes, modern nuns have websites). I encourage you to contact them for a visit to the convent or even to donate money to support their ministries — all of which you can do via their web page. I guarantee your life will be transformed by the encounter.
Rock n’ Roll Fantasy
I went to see the 1980’s superband REO Speedwagon a couple of weeks ago at an outdoor music venue on Boston’s South Shore. Yes, this feels like a public confession — I still can’t believe I allowed my wife to drag me out to see them on what turned out to be the evening of game five of the Stanley Cup finals. If I had no desire to see the band that brought us “Can’t fight this feeling anymore” when I was in high school, the idea hadn’t grown on me in the intervening years.
A few things surprised me about the evening other than my own presence. First of all, I was shocked/horrified to learn they were still alive and touring. Long live the cheesy love ballad! Unlike a lot of these retread bands that tour small, outdoor venues every summer, REO Speedwagon was still together after 40 years. They weren’t touring in name only like many bands that have, say, one original member (I’m looking at you Foreigner, Bad Company, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Foghat, et al).
Sure, each member of the band was, in his own unique way, a caricature of the aging rock star. The bass player still had long flowing locks (extensions?), the lead guitarist was balding and slightly hunched over, the lead singer had that crazed energetic look of a man who had seen it and done it all before, and the keyboard player wore a skull cap and literally didn’t look up for the entire show.
What really stunned me, though, was that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. It wasn’t just the good company (as opposed to Bad Company) I was with. These guys were crack musicians who weren’t just phoning it in — they could rock. They also brought a sly sense of humor that basically said “We know some of our big hits were cheesy and we know we have to play them so we might as well have fun along the way and anyway as long as we’re here we’re still going to play some actual rock ‘n roll so hang onto your hats.” Or something to that effect.
Perhaps the popularity of these nostalgia acts shouldn’t come as a surprise. Each summer middle-aged folks flock to such concerts. Maybe we’re trying to recapture a spark from our past — a time before children and mortgages and the burden of life’s responsibilities. A time when our emotions rollicked to the beat of our favorite bands and our identities were wrapped up in the intensity of our friendships.
These bands will always serve as the soundtrack to an earlier stage of our lives. That’s the power of music, after all, and it’s what draws us back year after year. The good news of faith is that while tastes in music change and evolve, God’s love for us remains the one constant in our lives. In other words, the acts may change but the stage remains the same.
Of course life does, and should, move on. There’s a fine line between nostalgia and living in the past and I was grateful for the pre-concert dinner out with good friends and a bottle of Pinot Noir rather than a post-concert meal of pizza and Schlitz of a previous era.
For me, the highlight of the show had nothing to with any of the hits that made the band famous — I still change the radio station whenever they come on — it was their very last number. They left us with the old Van Morrison song (popularized by The Doors) Gloria – G.L.O.R.I.A. I may have been the only one thinking about the words Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the Highest) but much to my surprise, REO Speedwagon brought down the house. And that was worth the price of admission.
Last week I wrote about The Often Overlooked Humor of Jesus. I’ve adapted this idea into my latest monthly “In Good Faith” column. This version is shorter and more suitable for my column — the point of which is to bring faith into everyday life and reach out to people who don’t necessarily attend church.
Jesus is hilarious.
Okay, that’s not a sentiment you hear very often. You won’t see a Comedy Central special called “Joking with Jesus!” And too many of us have encountered humorless Christians over the years. You know the type — tight lipped, judgmental, unsmiling, puritanical. People who view frivolity as sacrilege and humor as heresy.
But this understanding of the Christian life is incomplete. A more nuanced reading of Scripture leads us away from an attitude of holier-than-thou solemnity and Jesus himself points the way. Jesus uses humor to teach, heal, convert and, ultimately, redeem. Seriously. And he does this while modeling the fact that laughter and profundity are not mutually exclusive.
The humor of Jesus is subtle, nearly imperceptible at first glance. The Sermon on the Mount, for instance, doesn’t begin with a joke to warm up the crowd. But throughout his ministry Jesus displays great wit, command of the language, a gift for irony and word plays, and impeccable timing — all hallmarks of great comedians.
The gospels aren’t funny in the traditional sense. It’s not slapstick comedy; there are no pratfalls. They’re passion narratives, not anthologies of “The Wit and Wisdom of Jesus Christ.”
Yet when you dig a little, you start to see that Jesus had a wicked sense of humor. Which makes sense — a master storyteller would never forsake humor as a means to reach an audience. Jesus, who spent much of his ministry breaking down barriers between people, knew that humor does exactly this. Humor disarms and unites; it sets people at ease and leaves them receptive to the speaker’s message. He understood that laughter is simply good for the soul and that humor allows us to confront the darker sides of life with grace and composure.
The examples of Jesus’ irony and wit are plentiful. Perhaps we can view the humorless Pharisees as the ultimate straight men for Jesus. Throughout the four gospels the joke, it seems, is on them. Their somber rigidity is paralyzing; their hypocrisy and self-righteousness keep them from true relationship with the divine. They are the perfect foils to Jesus’ message of love as he continually meets their scorn and contempt with quick wit and perfect timing.
The encounters with the Pharisees are full of brilliant one-liners. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21) is a perfect response dripping with irony. The blind leading the blind is, of course, a comical visual image and a pointed commentary on the religious leaders of the day (Mt 15:14). And think about the hilarious image of straining out a gnat while eating a camel (Mt 23:24). His hearers certainly chuckled at this purposefully ludicrous image. And it invariably stuck with them.
There are hosts of other wonderfully amusing moments in the gospel accounts. There is irony and humorous exaggeration, phrases that would have brought smiles to the lips of his hearers, if not full belly laughs. Explaining the efficacy of prayer he asks the Apostles, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If your son asks for an egg, will you give him a scorpion?” (Lk 11:11-12) “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:25). That’s a memorable image.
Unfortunately we lose the facial expressions and tone of voice so crucial to successful comedy. David Letterman can make us laugh with a smirk or the inflection of his voice. A manuscript of his show wouldn’t be nearly as amusing as seeing it live. So it’s a shame the gospels have been handed down to us as manuscripts and not YouTube videos.
The point here is not to place Jesus in the Comedy Hall of Fame. Rather it is to encourage us to see and hear the message of our Lord with fresh eyes and ears, to discover a new aspect of his divine brilliance and to meet him with renewed joy and laughter in our hearts. Above all, Jesus encourages us to take our faith but not ourselves too seriously.
So, I forgot to post this article a couple of weeks ago. On the other hand the day after Mother’s Day is perfect for a column that talks about the plight of the suburban male. Okay “plight” might not be the right word but I have a theory that men are lousy at maintaing friendships and are the poorer and lonelier for it.
Theology on Tap
Men are lonely creatures. At least suburban men who work, commute, and have families. No self-respecting man would articulate this publicly since it sounds either whiny or weak but it’s true. We used to pride ourselves on our close friendships be it the “glory days” of high school or the keg-stand fraternity days of yore.
But that was before the big “R” of responsibility took over our lives. Work, marriage, children, pets, the yard. They’re all wonderful things — mostly. Over time, almost imperceptibly, however, they crowd out our male friendships and suddenly many of us find ourselves left with a bunch of acquaintances but little depth in our relationships.
From the male perspective, women just seem to be better at nurturing adult friendships. They meet friends for coffee, they volunteer together, they have work friends, they join book groups (or as I like to call them, wine drinking parties). My own wife certainly checks all these boxes and she’s happier for it.
Yes, this is a gross generalization but there does seem to be some truth here. A lot of men simply don’t have close friendships. Sure, we have buddies from our college days with whom we share fond memories, some printable, some not. But they generally live all over the country and, while there might be an annual golf outing or fishing trip, that’s hardly sustainable for the other 362 days of the year.
We nod to people on the commuter train and we’re on a first name basis with Jeff from Accounting. But the guard’s always up, the protective emotional armor is always donned. We work hard not to show weakness or vulnerability which is why we wear power suits and deflect intimacy with a quip or by sticking to safe topics like sports or carburetors.
But what about our humanity? Where do men go to talk about the things at the depths of our souls? Events like the bombing at the Boston Marathon bring our vulnerability to the fore and yet we have few outlets to process our emotions. So they get buried and fester until our hearts become fossilized or unhealthy behaviors emerge.
At my parish on the South Shore of Boston, we’re trying to remedy this by introducing a men’s group. Now, this won’t be your typical church men’s group where a bunch of guys get together in the nether regions of the church to gorge themselves on pancakes, give each other hugs, and tell themselves that Jesus was really a man’s man — someone to shoot pool with or hang out in the bleachers at Fenway.
We’re calling this venture Theology on Tap. We won’t meet at church but in the upstairs room at the Liberty Grille. We’ll grab a pint, listen to one another’s stories, and talk about a topic of interest. God’s just as present when a bunch of people gather in his name at a bar as at church on a Sunday morning (just don’t tell anyone).
This won’t solve all the problems of the world but hopefully it will chip away at the hardness of our hearts that has built up through the years. Hopefully, over time, it will provide an outlet for friendship and some conversations that get below the surface of everyday life. I encourage all of my fellow men to be intentional about seeking friendships that move beyond safe topics. You may feel vulnerable at first but it sure beats the usual hunting and gathering.
I was down in Copley Square last week for the first time since the marathon bombings. The place was still crawling with news trucks and reporters and police on a beautiful Tuesday morning. I saw the impromptu memorials made up of running shoes and t-shirts and flowers and teddy bears and hand-made signs.
There was a hushed tone quality in the memorial area even as the bustle of downtown Boston swirled all around it. People were writing notes of prayer and support and simply milling around trying to take in the whole scene. Some looked stunned, some resigned, some were quietly wiping away tears; there were gawkers, of course, angling to get in the background of one of CNN’s live shots, but I think everyone was in some way seeking to come to grips with what happened on marathon Monday.
After I said a few quiet prayers, I started thinking about the Boston Strong slogan that’s been on t-shirts and stickers and hats and, more importantly, in the hearts of so many in this area. I agree with the sentiment that in times of trial and distress, it’s important for a community to band together and seek strength in its own unity. Those of us who live in the Boston area take pride in this community and our ties to it and there is great strength of spirit and character here. Anyone who witnessed or participated in the singing of the National Anthem at the Garden before the Bruins played in the first public event after the bombing couldn’t help but get chills.
But I think focusing exclusively on the image of strength has potential pitfalls. When we wrap ourselves in the mantra of Boston Strong, we face the possibility of denying our vulnerability both as individuals and as a community. Clinging to the notion of strength in the midst of uncertainty and fear, does make us feel better and safer in the short-term. But it also has a shadow side of desperation — if we only say we’re strong over and over again, it will magically become true.
Now I realize no one would buy a hat that said “Boston Vulnerable.” That’s not a slogan anyone would rally around or start chanting at a Red Sox game. But from a faith perspective we’re challenged to think beyond popular slogans to get to the heart of things. People being blown up in a public place on a sacred day at an iconic event makes us feel anything but strong. If we’re honest with ourselves, it taps into our deepest anxieties and fears; and feelings of vulnerability and helplessness can’t help but be stirred up.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, we hear Jesus tell St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words strength and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive. It is because of our vulnerability as human beings that we’re able to trust in the strength of God. It’s not our own strength that will see us through — no matter how many t-shirts get sold. It is the strength of God alone that allows us to endure and persevere in the midst of profound tragedy and grief and to find comfort and strength and solace in the context of community.
In light of this Paul goes on to say, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Not because God will fix it and make it all better like a mother who kisses a skinned knee. But because through Jesus we know that God is present even in our darkest hours, even in those moments we feel most vulnerable or alone of forsaken.
When I was a priest in New York, a parishioner asked me if I’d go say last rites for his grandmother — the woman who had raised him. The catch was I had to go to some huge hospital in the middle of the Bronx, which I was happy to do even if it meant getting lost a few times on the way. It turned out her roommate had just died and one of the hospital chaplains was with the family as I arrived. He kept saying over and over again, “Be strong. You gotta be strong.” And I wanted to scream, “No! That’s not what they need right now!” This is precisely the time they need to cast their burdens upon the Lord. They don’t have to be strong, just faithful. And if they can’t do that right now they can just be, and let God hold them in the palm of his hand.
There’s a time to be strong but there’s also a time to admit our weakness, to admit our powerlessness in a situation and let God take the lead. And in that we find true strength.
“Run with perseverance the race that is set before you.” This quote from the Letter to the Hebrews sustained me the one year I ran the Boston Marathon — in 2008. Along with the supportive crowds along the entire 26.2 mile course, this mantra carried me from Hopkinton to Wellesley to Heartbreak Hill and into Copley Square. It is a quote we need now more than ever.
With Monday’s events we have collectively hit the dreaded wall. Unspeakable violence has been visited upon the purest of human pursuits with three dead, 150 injured, and the innocence of an iconic event forever altered. The images of destruction amid what would normally be a scene of unmitigated joy and triumph are seared into our minds as shouts of encouragement morphed into screams of terror.
It would be easy to quit or walk away — that’s the standard reaction when you hit the wall. I hit it pretty hard in my first marathon, a result of the classic rookie mistake of starting too fast. Around mile 18 of the 2005 Baltimore Marathon I started cursing my decision to enter the race. I began walking although what I really wanted was to curl up in the fetal position underneath the table at one of the water stops. Eventually, I snapped out of it and continued on to the finish line. I ended with my inflated time goal blown but was both proud and relieved as I swore off ever running another marathon.
I have no doubt that the city of Boston, all of New England, and our entire nation will push through the wall. Like the runners themselves, we are a resilient people. Unlike the elite runners, we may not win any races but we never give up in the face of adversity. We muddle through, placing one foot in front of the other. We keep moving forward partly because we have no choice but also because we believe in running with perseverance the race that is set before us.
Having this happen on Patriot’s Day only strengthens our resolve as we hearken back to the spirit of our nation’s forebears. Paul Revere’s lantern reminds us that the darkness of tyranny and hate cannot overcome the light of liberty and love. Just as John’s gospel says of Jesus Christ’s entrance into the world, “The light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”
As we continue to wade through the carnage and seek answers, I find it helpful to focus on the stories of heroism and selflessness that abound. So many have reached out their hands in love and compassion both in the immediate aftermath and in the intervening hours and days. In this Easter season, I see these acts as glimpses of resurrection glory amid the despair. As Jesus conquered death and the grave on that first Easter Day, he continues to do just that in our own lives even in the face of tragedy.
As people of faith our first response is always prayer. On Monday evening, as we held an impromptu prayer service at St. John’s, we closed with the following prayer. As you continue to pray for the victims, their families, first responders, medical personnel, and those affected by these horrific events, I encourage you to reflect upon it.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
I like Easter egg hunts and I play to win. Actually, I haven’t been allowed to participate in one for quite a number of years, which is clearly a form of age discrimination. Just imagine the number of plastic eggs I could amass competing against a bunch of four and five-year-olds. I would dominate like LeBron James playing hoops against the local High School Junior Varsity team.
Most kids can’t imagine Easter Day without an Easter egg hunt. I used to love the adrenaline-pumping thrill of the hunt — and that was just last year. Actually we do hold an annual Easter egg hunt at St. John’s following our 9:00 am Family Service on Easter Day. A few parents organize it with help from some eager teens – which means I occasionally stumble on unfound eggs in mid-August. There’s no better reminder of the resurrection than encountering a gooey four-month old melted mixture of chocolate bunny and purple jelly beans inside a plastic egg.
I know that in some religious circles Easter egg hunts are anathema – something about being pagan in origin. And, yes, the egg as a symbol of rebirth and new life pre-dates Christianity. But I like Easter egg hunts and not just because free jelly beans are the best kind. I love watching a young child’s face light up with the thrill of discovery. Nothing beats it.
And that thrill of discovery was precisely what took place on that first Easter morning. No, I’m not comparing Christ’s resurrection to an Easter egg hunt but there is something wonderfully exhilarating about the moment of discovery. The disciples experienced it when they came upon the empty tomb and children experience it when they find an egg. The hope is that kids will find that same feeling of discovery as they mature and move ever deeper into relationship with God.
This week Christians throughout the world will be marking the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The liturgies of Holy Week allow us to fully participate in this, not as passive observers but as active participants. For the stories of this week are our stories; the drama is our drama; the victory is our victory. But we must be fully engaged in order to be fully transformed. You can’t experience the breadth of Easter joy without first experiencing the agony of the cross, or at least reflecting upon it. Otherwise you end up crashing from the sugar high – as if Easter morning was spent downing Peep after Peep with no genuine sustenance in sight. Which sounds dandy until the inevitable crash.
Wherever you worship this year, I encourage you to embrace the Christian “High Holy Days:” Maundy (Holy) Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil as we move from the Upper Room for the Last Supper to the Crucifixion to Resurrection. At St. John’s we offer evening services at 7:30 pm on all those days as well as liturgies specifically geared toward children (in particular our 4:00 pm Children’s Good Friday service). Of course we also have services on Easter Sunday at St. John’s — three of them to be precise.
So consider this an invitation — to my own church or any church this week. You won’t be disappointed and your faith will surely be deepened along the way. I know how difficult it can be to enter the doors of a church for the first time. “Will they be annoyingly hard sell? Will I be smothered with pleasantries? Will I know what to do? Will they make me stand up and introduce myself?” But I bid you to overcome the feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty. You’ll be glad you did and there is no better time of year to “try out” a new church. Know that you’ll be warmly welcomed and never judged for kneeling at the wrong time. Wherever or however you worship this year, I wish you a very blessed Easter.
The Rev. Tim Schenck is Rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist. For a full list of Holy Week and Easter services visit www.stjohns-hingham.org.