Graduation Survival Guide

So a federal judge ruled yesterday that two Connecticut public schools can’t hold their graduation ceremonies in a church because it would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. I get that. Although the judge’s claim that the district was “coercing” students to support religion is a bit loony: “I hereby grant you this diploma AND baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

I’m not going to go all postal and rant about the moral decline of America. That’s not really my style. But I would like to remind the judge that churches aren’t the only places with religious symbols. Heck, you could argue that even the most benign high school auditorium is teeming with them. Here are a few examples:

The Clock. You know, the large industrial-sized time keeping mechanism announcing the time left in the all-school assembly that just..will…not…end. The one that seems to tick backwards every time you stare at it in hopeful anticipation of freedom. Yes, the clock is an overt reminder that God is the master of all time and space. “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past” (Psalm 90:4)

The Chairs. Sure they’re uncomfortable and have wads and wads of gum underneath them but they are clearly symbols of heaven. Scripture tells us that Jesus sits at the right hand of God. Yes, in a chair. Thus it’s impossible to look upon even a metal folding chair without reflecting upon the glory of God.

The Curtain on the Stage. Every auditorium, like many church parish halls (for some reason), have stages. This is not just reminiscent of the recent mediocre production of High School Musical. It is obviously symbolic of the Temple curtain that was rent in two as Jesus breathed his last upon the cross.

Pencils. Presumably you’ll find a broken No. 2 pencil on the floor left over from a frustrated student. This is a not-so-veiled reference to the Book of Daniel and the omen of the handwriting on the wall. In this case the omen may well pertain to the coming parental debt of trying to pay for college.

Diplomas. There’s a reason school administrators roll these things up to hand out: they’re scrolls. Any diploma is basically the Torah in miniature.

Funny Hats and Dresses. Graduations are known for the ubiquitous cap and gown. Clergy are known for variations on the same theme.

Processions. Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” is the academic equivalent of a processional hymn. Please, no flash photography.

People. Can’t have a graduation without ’em and you can’t hide the children of God. The world is crawling with them.

So there you go — your guide to surviving a secular graduation ceremony. Just make sure there’s no minister floating around to give a benediction.


Just Imagine

What does a $12 million statue of John Lennon have in common with the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts? My parishioner Bruce Replogle. You see Bruce, a veteran rock band promoter and manager, once served as John and Yoko Ono’s publicist. Some current connections led to his handling of the sale of a well-known life-size bronze statue of Lennon.

John, Paul, George, and Ringo meet Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? I’m not sure but I have proposed that Bruce have it installed in front of the church. Talk about an opportunity for evangelism, St. John’s (no relation to Lennon) could become as big as Graceland! The only thing standing in the way is $12 million. And perhaps the bishop. Sure he once boasted that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” But it’s Lent and he’s dead so we can forgive him.

According to the artist Brett-Livingston Stone’s website, “This is the only statue of the uniquely talented and legendary John Lennon created during his lifetime. Sculpted between 1979 and 1980, this work of art honors John Lennon’s life and his vision for world peace. The statue has been unveiled in Los Angeles in 1981 by LA Mayor Tom Bradley, and in New York by Andy Warhol. It has also been exhibited worldwide in the 80s. In the 1983 US festival it joined Bono and U2 on stage for a concert with an audience of over 300,000 people. The Lennon statue was also showcased by the Grammy Awards Music Academy in Los Angeles for close to a decade. In the early 80’s Rolling Stone Magazine received over 250,000 signatures petitioning to overcome a park moratorium to have the statue placed in New York’s Central Park. With such a unique and wonderful history, the valuable original statue has been appraised in excess of $12 million by museum appraisers. The statue is mounted on a polished marble base in which the word ‘Imagine’ is carved. ”

Interested? Well, in any case, Bruce is a fascinating guy — not your average Massachusetts Episcopalian. Check out his bio and listen to music on the web page for his company Rock Management USA. And if you’d like to contribute to my “Free John Lennon” Statue Relief Fund just mail your checks to my house.

RIP Captain Jack

St. Ann's School, Brooklyn Heights

I still have them. Herodotus, Plato, Thucydides lined up on a bookcase in my living room. The black spines of the Penguin Classics versions creased from use. Well, except for Herodotus’ The Histories — I guess I never finished that one. The books have traveled all over the country since being assigned for my 11th grade Ancient Politics class at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn. They’ve been to San Antonio, Baltimore, Chicago, back to Baltimore, back to New York, and now Massachusetts.

I took a look at them for the first time in a long while this evening after learning that my teacher, Jack McShane, died yesterday. Mr. McShane — I’d still never dare call him “Jack” — was the single most inspiring teacher I’ve ever had. On any level. I took his classes every chance I got which translated into three full years if memory serves. He taught American History and politics which were my two passions growing up.

But to merely say he “taught” them would be to limit what happened in those classrooms. He broke open the world of the past and the present and brought them to life with a quick, dry wit and a passionate enthusiasm for his subject matter. You never knew what you’d get when you walked into that classroom — he might lecture a bit or, more likely, draw you into the midst of a lively debate. He made you think, not regurgitate which is a rare quality indeed at any level of learning.

Walking into his classroom was like walking into a sacred space. Unlike other rooms were we’d go bounding in like trapped monkeys, you entered Mr. McShane’s room with respect and building anticipation. It didn’t hurt that his whole existence was shrouded in mystery. We didn’t know much about him except that he came in from Hoboken, New Jersey. Being arrogant, young New Yorkers we deemed it our God-given right to mock those from the Garden State. To paraphrase Nathanael’s question to Philip (John 1:46), “Can anything good come out of Hoboken?” Evidently.

The other thing about his class was that everybody wanted to be there — or at least most of us. Mr. McShane was either someone you “got” or you didn’t. Those who couldn’t keep up with the repartee and humor often left the room bewildered. He was either your favorite teacher or a complete mystery. But I adored stepping into his class, as did my close friends, because we knew we’d laugh and learn and be challenged in creative and life-giving ways.

The most memorable classes began with Mr. McShane sitting with his feet up on a desk reading the New York Times. Once everyone had arrived he’d throw out the relevant topic of the day — whatever was happening in the news in the mid-1980’s — and away we’d go. 

It was in part because of Mr. McShane that I majored in Political Science at Tufts and went on to a career working on and running political campaigns for 3 1/2 years. I even met my wife Bryna while serving as the Field Director on a 1993 Westchester County Executive race. I like to say that although our candidate lost, we won.

But this is only a portion of the influence Mr. McShane had upon me. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth famously said that you must read “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” While I rarely bring politics into the pulpit I always seek to bring theology and spirituality into the everyday and visa versa. Mr. McShane had the unique ability to integrate the classics with the modern world which is not dissimilar to my approach to ministry. 

I stayed in touch with Mr. McShane for a number of years after I graduated in 1987. He even kept talking to me after I joined Army ROTC at Tufts — not exactly the usual St. Ann’s career path. But in time life moved on and I lost touch with him. I’d get reports every so often from my friend Chris Mellon, a St. Ann’s classmate who returned to teach at the school soon after graduating, like me, from Tufts. I hadn’t talked to Chris for many years until he called to share this news with me this afternoon and I look forward to renewing this relationship. Deaths like this often pull people together.

I can only trust that Mr. McShane knew the impact he had on me and countless others over the years. I wish I had told him in so many words before he died. But this is also a good reminder to do just that for the people who have touched you and shaped you and help make you into the person you have become. Family members, teachers, mentors, clergy, friends. We’re all who we are because certain people along the way cared passionately. Jack McShane was one of those people.

May the soul of John Shelley McShane, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

Bean Counters

Bean sweaterL.L. Bean is going hip. This sounds oxymoronic or perhaps simply moronic but “The Bean” is trying to change its image. And according to a recent article, they’ve even hired a new designer to create their cutting edge Signature Collection.  So I guess Freeport, Maine, is the new Paris. I’m picturing Gisele strutting down the catwalk in the classic Bean boots sporting the iconic navy and white Norwegian sweater. Off the shoulder of course.

The company is evidently trying to reach a younger crowd in order to take some market share away from J. Crew and Ralph Lauren. So now they’re offering “body-conscious and fitted” men’s shirts. Because we all know how much metrosexuals like to go duck hunting. One of the charms of L.L. Bean is that it’s open 24 hours. If you went to college in New England chances are you made an overnight road trip at some point during your university years. I just can’t see the allure if you can get the same stuff at the local Gap.

I still have one of those famous Bean sweaters. I’ve probably had it for 25 years and it still fits perfectly. I’ll pull it out on exceptionally cold days and nothing beats it. It’s like comfort food for the body. Granted I don’t hunt moose in it so maybe I shouldn’t complain about Bean’s new look. But at least I live in New England now. Shouldn’t that count for something?

bean signature

A place for hipsters?

Men Behaving Badly

lewinskydressEverybody loves a scandal. Especially a sex scandal. And there’ve been a couple of high-profile cases recently, one involving late night host David Letterman and the other ESPN baseball guru Steve Phillips.

Both cases were reminiscent of a certain ex-President and an infamous blue dress. Older, famous, entitled, married male in a position of power. It’s an ancient, if distasteful, story.

Not to delve too deeply into pop psychology, but Letterman and Phillips must have profoundly deep-rooted insecurities. I mean how much affirmation and validation could one man possibly demand? Both are beamed into the homes of millions of viewers each day. Letterman has a studio audience that goes wild every time he walks onstage or even just smirks. ESPN has created a culture of celebrity around the ex-jock whose need for 50,000 cheering fans never fades even as his physical skills decline.

The sad part is I love Letterman’s humor (not that I can stay up that late anymore). And I always appreciated ex-Mets General Manager Phillips’ keen baseball sense and insights. But I’ll no longer be able to see them in the same light. Which in Phillips’ case won’t matter much since he was just sacked by ESPN. After several days of vacillating the network determined the scandal undermined Philips’ credibility. Ya think?

It’s easy to vilify these two. And they surely deserve whatever gets doled out. But I’ll also keep them both in my prayers because they clearly have very empty interior lives. From a perspective of faith, God’s love is all the validation anyone ever really needs. Sure the adulation of fans and camera lights feels good. But when it takes over completely, when the outside affirmation replaces God, the soul quickly dries up. And that’s a pathetic thing to watch play out in public.

When in the Course

fireworksIf we had lost the Revolutionary War would we be suffering through “Tea Hour” rather than “Coffee Hour” after church? It makes me wonder. Actually the very thought makes me cringe. Chatting with parishioners over a cup of Sunday afternoon chamomile is sleep-inducing. But, fortunately, “God shed his grace on thee” and we won. Okay, that’s not quite how it went theologically. But it’s hard to imagine eating Shepherd’s Pie for Sunday brunch.

To mark this day I re-read the Declaration of Independence. It’s an amazing document, one that takes a prophetic stance on the issues of justice and human rights. We have yet to fully achieve the lofty ideals set forth, of course. But working toward helping everyone attain those “inalienable rights” endowed by our Creator is a worthy goal for all of us.

If we are all created equal by God, the deep disparity in how many of our brothers and sisters cannot adequately pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is a disgrace. So while it’s reasonable to celebrate our own independence on this day, it’s also important to remember in prayer those throughout the world who remain shackled by political, economic, and racial oppression. I encourage you to say a prayer before you eat one of the 150 million hot dogs that Americans will consume today.

And consider taking a gander at the Declaration — it never disappoints. Especially since it includes some great digs at the King of England. This document may well be the first recorded instance of “sticking it to the man.”

“Father Oprah”

Father Oprah“Father Oprah” has been getting a lot of press recently. And with a moniker like that how could it be any other way? It’s not everyday that a fellow clergyman ends up in the tabloids. Well, besides Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, and their ilk. Though I’d lump them more into the category of entertaining charismatic charlatans than clergy.

You probably know the “Father Oprah” story by now. The Rev. Alberto Cutie, a popular Roman Catholic priest, was photographed canoodling (never thought I’d use that word in a blog post) with his girlfriend on a Miami beach. He since announced that he would join the Episcopal Church and was welcomed with open arms by the bishop of  Southeast Florida. He was officially received into the Church on Pentecost, though it will take a year before he is able to function as an Episcopal priest. He first needs his “Anglican dip” as we like to call it.

Part of me thinks, “Here we go again: the Episcopal Church is becoming a freak show.” Ex-New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy announces that “I am a gay American” in one breath and then claims he wants to be an Episcopal priest in the next. It wasn’t the issue of his sexuality that bothered me — it was the lack of understanding about the ordination process. You can’t just “decide” that you want to be a priest; you must enter into a discernment process of several years. It was the notion of ‘If no one else will take me surely the Episcopal Church will.” Is that the reputation we really want?

But another part of me is delighted by this. Not because we’re stealing Roman Catholic clergy but because of the Episcopal Church’s emphasis on inclusion rather than exclusion. That isa reputation to be proud of. And on a personal note, I’ve seen a similar situation with one of my closest friends from seminary. A Roman Catholic priest for nearly a decade, Bill fell in love, left the Church, and got married. It was pretty scandalous for the Midwestern town where he served since his wife was the former youth director at his parish. 

He’s now serving a large church in Minnesota, thriving in ministry, and loves being both a husband and the adoptive father of an adorable little girl from Columbia. Bryna and I just happen to be her godparents which is a true delight. But the point is that if Father Cutie is truly called to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church, he may encounter similar fulfilment and affirmation of the decision. Time will tell.

And if “Father Oprah” does end up getting married perhaps he’ll need to change his nickname. How does “Father Family Guy” sound?