Last Call

Delilah and I are spending the waning hours of my sabbatical at (where else?) Coffee Labs in Tarrytown. It’s fitting since this has been my regular hangout for the past ten weeks. Some clergy might spend their sabbatical at a Tibetan monastery with the Dalai Lama. They probably drink a lot of green tea and meditate all day. I’m drinking a few cups of El Salvadorian Santa Rita coffee before I get Zack off the bus to go baseball cleat shopping. The parallels are uncanny.

I know the barristas at CL (or is that barristi? — there’s a debate in coffee circles) will miss seeing me everyday. Or at least that’s what they tell me when I don’t have my back turned. I’ll have to get back to my once a week trip here for my Thursday morning sermon writing routine. Which may be a shock to my (well-caffeinated) system.

And I’m going to have to start shaving on a regular basis again. No one wants a priest with lousy facial hair wandering around at coffee hour. So I’ll just come clean and hope I don’t end up like a modern-day Samson — losing my superhuman strength by shaving. And what would Delilah think?

But it’s time to get back to work. I’ve just started to get in Bryna’s way as I wander aimlessly around the house. She hasn’t said anything but I can tell. And I think that’s a sure sign that she’s ready for my sabbatical to end.

So tomorrow it’s back to the salt mines. My sabbatical has been productive and renewing. But it’s time.

Fade to Black

As my ten-week sabbatical fades to black, I offer a few reminisces. I’m back in the office on April 1st. Please, refrain from any more “fools” jokes.

I’ve gotten a lot out of this time and I think I’ve found my true calling: getting paid not to work. Actually, it was renewing to have an extended time of Sabbath. You don’t realize how much you’re red-lining until you stop. Now I use the term “stop” loosely because when you have two kids at home it’s not a total shutdown. But it was a break from the demands of parish ministry and that was a great gift.

There were definitely some highlights. Walking through Holy Week and Easter with Bryna and the boys was amazing. It may not happen again until I retire (and by then the boys better not be living under my roof) but it was special. Being around on Sunday mornings gave me newfound respect for what Bryna has to do as single parent getting the boys to church. It was hard enough with both of us.

I did get the finishing touches done on my forthcoming book, “What Size Are God’s Shoes? Kids, Chaos, and the Spiritual Life.” I didn’t realize there was still so much back and forth with the publisher that needed to happen and it wasn’t until this week that I finally sent the manuscript off for the last time. It should be available in June at which point we’ll have a raucous release party.

I also spent a fair amount of time writing, blogging, and drinking coffee. I’m about halfway through the next book. The only thing that would have made me feel more like a “real” writer would have been if I’d taken up chain smoking. I can’t help but wonder if my writing would be more compelling if I typed with nicotine-stained fingers.

But then again this would have perhaps been incompatible with another one of my sabbatical goals: training for the Boston Marathon. This has gone pretty well, meaning I haven’t gotten injured. I’m doing one more long run of 20+ miles tomorrow and then the glorious taper begins. The hardest part of marathon training for me is getting to the starting line without injury. So far, so good. What I haven’t been very good at is raising the $2,500 I agreed to raise for global nutrition through Tufts. You can help me remedy this deficiency by clicking here. Please don’t make me resort to begging.

One regret is that I’ll never be able to grow decent facial hair. I only shaved a handful of times during the past ten weeks but it wouldn’t have mattered. I’d make a lousy Hasidic Jew.

Ultimately, the sabbatical was a good reminder that I really do love my vocation. As great as it was to be with the family on Sundays and hear other people preach, I feel like a priest out of water sitting in the pews. One more weekend without a congregation. I think I’ll pull through.

Cathedral Easter

cathedral.jpgIt’s very strange to wake up on Easter Monday not feeling completely spent. By this time my head’s usually still spinning from leading eight intense services in four days. And I’m ready to crawl into a cave and roll a large stone in front of the entrance. Hey, he’s not using it anyway.

Easter morning was glorious. We worshiped at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC. We actually needed to get tickets in and, while I was curious about what they’d bring on the open market, I didn’t scalp them. Though I had fun imagining the headline in the next day’s edition of The New York Post: Priest Scalps Easter Tix, Spends Night in Overcrowded Tomb.

A friend at the diocese hooked us up with four great seats in the Great Choir — reserved seating at that (my name was plastered on the back of them). Which meant we could go to the world-famous Hungarian Pastry Shop across the street and then waltz in during the prelude.

Easter morning at the Cathedral is everything you’d imagine. Bishop Sisk was the preacher and celebrant, the music was stunning (choir, harp, timpani, brass, etc), two flaming pots of incense, four sets of crucifers and acolytes, various liturgical functionaries. All in one of the most beautiful settings in the world. Not a bad place to be a priest without a parish. And it was very special to be there sitting in the pews with my family. I even wore a suit and tie rather than clericals — it’s been awhile but, yes, I remembered how to tie it.

When you attend a nearly two-hour service with kids, you’ve got to come prepared. We were armed with the usual accoutrements — grapes, cheese sticks (things that don’t crunch!), and lots of art supplies. During the bishop’s sermon (all about living a life of hope and peace in the midst of ongoing conflict) Zack was very actively coloring an elaborate Star Wars battle. There were light sabers and lasers flying everywhere resulting in large-scale death and destruction. At The Peace I handed it to the bishop’s wife (who was sitting behind us) and said, “Here’s Zack’s response to your husband’s sermon.” She loved it.

One more note about the service. During communion Judy Collins sang something — this is the kind of thing you get at the Cathedral on Easter morning. Now I’d heard of her (and she was only sitting about eight people over from us) but when I asked Father Patrick Ward what he knew about her on our six-mile run this morning, I inadvertantly shed light on my inexcusable ignorance. He was staggered by my lack of musical knowledge and metaphorically slapped me. Evidently she’s bigger than I knew — 1975 Grammy winner for “Send in the Clowns,” has recorded with Arlo Guthrie, and is the “Judy Blue Eyes” of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame. She’s also the Artist in Residence at the Cathedral. 

Oh well. Perhaps I’d better book her now for next year’s Easter service. 

A Good Friday

cross.jpgI always find it peculiar that more churches don’t offer children’s services on days like Good Friday and Ash Wednesday. Kids are so drawn to the mystery and ritual and stories of our faith and yet we often exclude them from such experiences. However, forming them in the liturgy of the church at a young age can deeply impact their spiritual lives as adults. Wouldn’t that seem to be one of our greatest responsibilities?

No, a six-year-old isn’t going to sit reverently and patiently through an hour-long Good Friday service. But they still need to be brought into the story of the Passion. And this can be done in a variety of ways. So a parish can still hold the traditional Good Friday service in addition to a children’s version of the Stations of the Cross or even a simple telling of the story with props and music. It just takes energy, foresight, and commitment.

I was reflecting on this today as I tried to find a Good Friday service appropriate for Ben and Zack. There was practically nothing anywhere near us. And being on sabbatical I couldn’t take them to my own church (where, yes, we offer a Good Friday service for kids). So I decided to take them to Maryknoll in Ossining and walk the outdoor Stations of the Cross. I printed out a version of the Stations that I like to do with kids — complete with a “15th Station” that includes a bit about the resurrection. This is kind of like the 19th Hole back at the golf club; it doesn’t really exist. But I like kids to walk the way of the cross in the context of Easter rather than leaving Jesus in the tomb. And, hey, it beats showing them Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

It was a blustery morning out there — 35 degrees and windy. But the boys were great taking turns reading the stations. On the way home Ben said, “Dad, can we do this every year on Good Friday?” Um, I think that could be arranged.

I later went to a noonday service by myself at local church. It was simple, quiet, and contemplative. But the one I’ll remember in years to come had already taken place earlier in the day.

Feet Feat

3-sacred-ministers.jpgMade it to a Maundy Thursday service last night. Barely. Lousy directions on the church website but I miraculously got there just in time for the opening acclamation. It was a church I’d never been to — took about 45 minutes to get there (though only 30 minutes to get home). 

Fine music, good sermon, no foot washing. And I’d forgotten how odd it looks when the three sacred ministers line up in shotgun formation in front of the altar for the eucharistic prayer. Especially when there’s a very tall male deacon and a petite female celebrant. All you could see was the back of the deacon’s dalmatic and head with these small arms sticking out.

I did get my foot washing fix in on the way home. Sort of. I found Fordham’s Holy Thursday service on WFDU and I tuned in just as the school’s president was washing the feet of 12 representatives from the congregation. At least that’s what the announcer told the “listening audience.” Looks like I’m stuck with dirty feet this week.

Maundy Thursday Personal Ad

Married male priest on sabbatical ISO Maundy Thursday liturgy.  Me: slightly unreformed liturgically, prefers white altar hangings, enjoys strippers (of the altar variety). You: smooth (liturgical) operator with a hint of perfume (incense), and good mood music (preferably the Tantum ergo). Foot washing a plus.

Yes, I’m about to go online and pick a church to attend tonight. I’ve got a few ideas but I want to check out some websites. Hey, that’s how people pick churches these days so why shouldn’t I? Maybe I’ll choose the church with the best website. If they’ve still got their Christmas schedule up, they’re out. If they haven’t posted their Holy Week services, I’m not calling to find out when they are. Tough, passive aggressive love. That’s what these places need.

Wish me luck. I’ll keep you posted.

Holy Week Hush

Okay, it’s odd being a priest on sabbatical during Holy Week. I have this Pavlovian response that makes me want to go write sermons. I have an odd urge to give the boys a bath so I can wash their feet. I feel like cooking something on our stove since I’d normally be slaving over a hot altar this week.

One antidote to this was yesterday’s Mass of Collegiality at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Every year on the Tuesday of Holy Week all the priests of the diocese gather for a service followed by lunch. I always go grudgingly (“I don’t have time for this; it’s Holy Week!”) and leave inspired and energized. It’s a great reminder that we do not journey toward the cross and resurrection in isolation but rather do so with the larger church. 

We all vest for the occasion — 250 or so priests walking in procession is quite a sight — and stroll two-by-two down Amsterdam Avenue along the close to the Cathedral. We get some odd looks from bystanders and I’m always tempted to tell a group of tourists “We do this every day at 11 am.”

Yesterday was Cathedral liturgy at its best: eight bishops, countless deacons, hundreds of priests, four sets of crucifers and torch bearers, several vergers, a touch of incense. What more could you ask for? Besides not having to write five sermons this week.

My prayers go out to all my clergy colleagues as they lead their communities along this wonderful journey. I feel slightly guilty that I’m not feeling overwhelmed right now. I have time to blog after all. But I’m looking forward to walking through Holy Week in a new way. One I probably won’t experience again until the Pension Fund kicks in. 

Boston or Bust

boston-marathon.jpgAs some of you know, I’m training for the Boston Marathon on April 21st. Running’s an important part of my spiritual life — the “body” part of the Benedictine concept of nurturing body, mind, and spirit. Training for a marathon takes discipline, perseverance, and flexibility when things don’t go according to plan. Much like our respective prayer lives. Training for Boston has also been an important part of my (quickly diminishing) sabbatical.This will be my third marathon (Baltimore in 2004 and Chicago in 2007) and by far the toughest course I’ll have faced. The 26.2 mile jaunt begins in Hopkinton, Massachusetts and finishes in the center of Boston at Copley Square. It’s considered one of the more difficult marathon courses because of the Newton Hills which culminate in the infamous Heartbreak Hill near Boston College.I’ll be running to raise money for global nutrition programs through my alma mater, Tufts University. I’ve committed to raise $2,500 (they have my credit card!). So…here’s a shameless appeal for money: consider sponsoring me in this endeavor. It’s quick, easy, and tax deductible. Just log onto my fundraising website and click “sponsor this runner.” I’ll be forever grateful.

I ran 20 miles on Monday – my longest training run so far – a great way to kick off Holy Week! A little medieval self-flagellation never hurt anyone. Much. I’ll try to get in another 20 miler in two weeks and then the glorious taper begins. And then, come Patriots’ Day in Boston, I’ll be doing my best to heed St. Paul’s charge to “run with patience the race that is set before you” (Hebrews 12:1).

Where’s the Passion?

palm-fronds.jpgWe spent the weekend in Westport, Connecticut visiting our friends Harry and Andrea and their 7-year-old daughter Madelaine. Harry’s an old college buddy of mine from Tufts — we were both in Army ROTC together — so there’s lots of history.

The kids were great, basically babysitting one another while the adults ate, drank, and laughed a lot. The highlight was seeing Harry’s face after dinner when Madelaine asked her parents, “Can I sleep with Ben and Zack tonight?” Oh, to have a daughter.

Harry and Andrea were anxious for us to go to church with them on Sunday morning. They really like their pastor and particularly wanted me to meet him and hear him preach. They’ve become quite involved and Andrea just became the church treasurer! (God bless her). I’ve never been anywhere but an Episcopal church on Palm Sunday so I had no idea what to expect. A procession with a live donkey? Imported California palm trees for the sanctuary? Artichokes at coffee hour?

Their church is classic New England congregational (affiliated with the United Church of Christ). Founded in 1711, the current building dates from 1852 and is white on the exterior sporting a gracious steeple and very bright inside with clear windows. The congregation was very warm and welcoming — the usher even shook my hand on the way in. And the three kids trotted off to Sunday School together so I actually got to hear a great sermon.

The piece I struggled with was missing many of the elements I associate with the day — the blessing of the palms, the reading of the Passion narrative, communion, red vestments. When Episcopalians do Palm Sunday the liturgy dramatically moves from shouts of “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” I guess I’m just too much of a liturgist.

Fortunately, someone did hand us palms on the way to the “fellowship hour” after the service. Which meant the requisite palm branch sword fight in the parking lot between Ben, Zack, and Madelaine. I’m sure kids were doing the same thing when Jesus came in on that donkey. And that’s as much a Palm Sunday tradition as anything else.

Letting Go

holdinghands.jpgMy sabbatical tour of local churches continued yesterday. I went solo since I couldn’t drag the boys out (see my previous post as to the reasons why — not pretty). But it was just as well since the service went pretty long and Ben and Zack have little tolerance for church as endurance sport. Of course neither do I unless it’s, say, Good Friday.

Last summer I took them to the cathedral in Baltimore for a service. Bryna slept in that day since she wanted me to experience sitting with the boys in church as a single parent. They did pretty well except Zack doesn’t suffer long, boring sermons very well. I presume none of us do but while we might read the bulletin, Zack comments. Loudly. So as this seminarian droned on and on from the pulpit, Zack waited for a dramatic pause and proclaimed, “Yeah, yeah, I get the point.” The truth was, he was right. And the preacher quickly wrapped it up.

The worst part of yesterday’s service for me wasn’t the sermon but the Lord’s Prayer. Evidently one of the congregation’s traditions is to hold hands while praying it. Ugh. So there I was holding hands with someone two rows ahead of me and someone else two rows back. I wasn’t sure if I felt more like a liturgical contortionist or a medieval prisoner stretched out on “the rack.” In either case it wasn’t the most prayerful posture. That little pious squeeze people sometimes give after holding hands in prayer didn’t help my frame of mind either. Just let go, please.