A visit to St. Luke’s in Bethesda, MD

I rarely get a chance to visit another

church on Sunday, so when I’m on vacation I try to worship at a local Episcopal Church. This week Katy and I are visiting our son and daughter in law in Washington, DC, so today my son Chad and I visited St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bethesda, MD.

How did I choose this church to visit? Like everyone else, I checked out the local Episcopal churches on Google. I tried to get the feel of each church by looking at the photos on the website, by trying to get a sense of the values of the church implied in what what presented and what was not presented, and by reading about the leadership.

I chose St. Luke’s because I thought it might be a Church my son would return to. On its website, it looks airy and modern with an upbeat, contemporary feel.

We weren’t disappointed. The liturgy was fresh and inclusive. There was an emphasis on openness and welcome, regardless of your belief or lack of belief. The priest was a youngish woman who was clearly tuned into her congregation. Her sermon was interactive, with the parishioners chiming in to answer her questions. They weren’t shy about it, and obviously trusted her.

The sermon asked the question, “How can we be more open to change?” This question was asked because Jesus was open-minded enough to change his mind when the Syro-Phoenician woman challenged him to heal her daughter. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table.” As part of the sermon, a young girl read the lesson, which I thought was quite charming.

The choir was quite accomplished, and did a nice job of singing the Psalm. They were arranged in a circle in front of the chancel, with a grand piano, trombone, tuba and trumpet as accompanists. The congregational singing was adequate, but less impressive.

The peace was quite long, with many people exchanging greetings. We were expressly welcomed and invited to come again. These people obviously enjoy being together. There was a nice mix of young and old, and there was some racial diversity present. About twenty children went up to the altar at the end of the service for the blessing of their school backpacks.

At Communion, a group of people was ushered up to surround the chancel and we received the rice wafer and wine as a group before we went back to the pews. I liked that.

Much of the liturgy used inclusive and expansive language. I missed the lofty language of the Prayer Book, but appreciated their effort to include everyone. We briefly attended the coffee hour, but decided to stop by Starbucks on the way home, so we departed through the rain. All in all, a good Sunday morning.

How to write a children’s sermon

This summer I’ve given a children’s sermon every Sunday at the 9:00 Eucharist. My goal is to let the children and their families know they’re an important part of our church family. I’ve had a lot of fun with my children’s sermons because I try to draw on my creative side and just have fun with the kids.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about creating children’s sermons:

1. Have something tangible to show the kids. Children need to have something physical to focus on.

2. Distill the Bible story down to its essence before you decide what to say. This is as much work as creating a message for the adult sermon. Take the time and effort to do it well.

3. Be creative! With children you have permission to try something a little outside your usual comfort zone. I’ve painted a watercolor painting in front of the kids, invited them to write poem with me, taught a simple song, created a picture book, and created a short drama to act out. Kids (and adults) love trying something new.

4. Invite participation from the kids. They learn when they get involved with the story. Crafting good questions is essential and takes a lot of thought beforehand. And be ready for responses you hadn’t anticipated.

5. Don’t be surprised if you lose control. It probably won’t go exactly as you planned, and that’s okay. If you enjoy giving the children’s sermon, the kids will enjoy it, too.

Resource: I would be lost without the amazing resources provided by Caroline Brown on her blog, Worshiping with Children.

My thoughts on the demise of Labor Day

Tree thinning camp, 1982

I used to be a laborer. Now I’m a “service provider.”

For the first twenty years of my working life, I worked with my hands. I started out on the butcher floor of a meat packing plant, built trails and fought fires for the Forest Service, wielded a chainsaw as a tree thinner, and repaired fishing boats in a shipyard. I know about sweat, fatigue and aching muscles, as well as the satisfaction of seeing a job well done.

Now I guess you’d say I’m a “religious services provider.” I love what I do, but it’s more like mental and emotional labor than physical labor.

It used to be that we held manual labor in high esteem. The farmer, the logger, and the fisherman were kings of their own worlds. Cooks, seamstresses, and factory workers held their heads high. But now everyone wants to work in the virtual economy: programmers, designers, producers, and consultants.

Labor Day was originally a day to remember that we all depend on the fruits of one another’s labor, especially physical labor. But with the demise of unions, factories and the Protestant work ethic, no one really cares about Labor Day. I can understand why those who have been put out of work by factories going overseas might be resentful. No one values their sacrifice any more.

The reality is that we no longer live in an industrial economy, and we’re not sure what labor means anymore. Our labor is now a class system: high-paid tech workers and entrepeneurs, information professionals (doctors, lawyers, consultants), team workers (the Amazon masses), skilled labor (someone has to be a plumber), and at the bottom, the spurned unskilled labor. Maybe we should rename Labor Day. Here’s a few suggestions:

“Service Providers Day”

“Interdependence Day”

“Un-Labor Day”

“Virtual Labor Day”

What do you think? Any ideas?


Senator John McCain, rest in peace

This morning I watched part of the burial service for Senator John McCain, live-streamed from the National Episcopal Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

As a nation, we are mourning the loss of a great man. He proved his steely character as a prisoner of war in Viet Nam, spending five long years in the Hanoi Hilton undergoing torture and interrogation. After his military service, he served his country for thirty one years in the Senate, where he prided himself in being a fiercely independent voice.

I admire John McCain for the loyalty, honor and duty that he displayed throughout his life. His love for our country, his respect for the values and traditions of our nation, and his unapologetic embrace of his beliefs showed he was a man of true character.

The Gospel reading at his service was from John 15:13. “ Jesus said, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’”

A few highlights from the service:

  • Faithful to the stately words of the Book of Common Prayer, pages 491-500
  • The singing of the Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father, strong to save”
  • The poem “Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Tributes from former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama
  • “Danny Boy” sung by opera star Renee Fleming
  • The singing of America the Beautiful at the end

May God bless his family as they grieve his loss.

Sunday’s sermon: a love poem?

Erotic poetry is not something we usually associate with the word, “Bible.” But that’s probably because not very many of us are familiar with the Song of Solomon, a volume of passionate love poetry right there in the middle of our Bibles.

Our Old Testament lesson for this Sunday is Song of Solomon 2:8-13, in which a young man speaks to his lover, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” The imagery in the Song of Solomon is passionate and love-drenched: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out…”

Of course, the church over the centuries has tamed this down by interpreting it as a spiritual allegory. God is a lover in search of his beloved, which is his people. For Christians, this translates to the church: the Church is the bride of Christ. This is all well and good.

Some of the great saints, however, interpreted this as not just an allegory, but a way to talk about our passionate relationship with God. For them, to love God meant to be swept up in an intense, ecstatic relationship. For Teresa of Avila, her experiences of the living Christ were like the experiences of a young woman in love.

How should the preacher approach this text? Maybe by meditating on what it means to love God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength.” All our hearts? Are there other poems about the love of God? How intense is our love for God? Have you ever had a moment of ecstatic worship?

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach…
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me ye women if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
Anne Bradstreet

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
William Shakespeare

Social Media Strategy

For some time I’ve been pondering how I can be more effective as a communicator in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Everything I read says that in order to reach people in today’s world, I need to be more nimble with social media. As a member of the baby boom generation, this does not come as naturally to me as it does to a younger person. I have to claw my way through the electronic jungle.

So I’m working to come up with a “social media strategy.” My primary goal is to reach people through social media to draw them to our church. I’m especially targeting younger families who communicate exclusively online. This is how we do evangelism today.

Through my accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, I hope to establish an online voice that leads people to our parish website where they can be introduced to St. Antony’s. Our website is like our front door, and we want to present an attractive front door that people will enter. Ultimately we hope they will come through our physical front door and join us in worship and fellowship.

The content of my posts will be photos and text. Now that I have an iPhone (yes, I know it took me a long time), I can capture moments of our church life and post those photos quickly. A good photo speaks volumes, and in today’s fast-moving world, photos are all we have time for. So I need lots of good photos that tell a story.

I also want to be a “thought leader” in my posts by articulating the feelings and thoughts of our times. There’s nothing so authentic as a local person who is able to give voice to what’s on our minds and hearts. I hope to do this in my posts on this blog, which I am re-naming, “The Vicar’s Brain.” It’s a way for people to know what I’m thinking.

As I endeavor to become an online presence, I hope you’ll help me by “liking” and sharing my posts. The power of social media is through the scale of re-posting, where a single post can be magnified by those who share it with their friends. Thanks for your help!

Annual attendance figures

One of the things I dread as a parish priest is to make the annual attendance report. I purposely don’t look at the weekly attendance report because it’s always less than I think it should be. There’s nothing worse than looking out at the congregation and wailing inwardly, “Where is everyone?”

Having once been in a parish that was on a steady decline, I know that focusing on the numbers can be depressing. Somehow I think that by staring at the numbers on a sheet of paper I can get them to increase. No such luck!

However, this year I had a wonderful surprise when I put the figures into the Excel spreadsheet and saw the results. We are up in attendance from 80.4 a Sunday to 82.1 a Sunday!

Now that may not seem like very much, but let me point out that it’s a two percent increase, and it’s far better than being flat or declining. Numbers don’t lie, and what the numbers are reflecting is that there are some good things going on at St. Antony’s.

As a feeling-type person, I can sense that good things are happening, but it takes hard data to confirm that. With our attendance figures complete for the year, I can finally say for sure, “Yes, we’re doing well.”

Christmas can be a blue season

Vicar’s Voice
December 2016

The culture around us is preparing us for the “hap-hap-happiest time of the year,” the season of Christmas, also known as the Holiday Season. For many people, Christmas is the best time of the year because it focuses on gift-giving, decorations, parties, heart-warming Christmas stories and songs, and nostalgia of days gone by.

But for many people, Christmas is not the best time of the year. For those who live alone, Christmas can be a depressing reminder of isolation and loss. For those who have broken relationships within their families or friends, Christmas only highlights the difference between the “perfect” family holiday and their personal reality of hurt and brokenness.

Celebrating Christmas when you’re dealing with divorce, cancer or Alzheimer’s disease is a struggle. For many people depression is their holiday companion. And for those who have suffered the loss of loved ones, Christmas can be empty.

When I was twenty years old, my father was killed in a car accident on November 8. Our family was stunned by the suddenness of the news. We walked through the funeral and burial ceremonies in a numb haze. By the time Christmas came, we were still in shock. We gathered as we always had, but that year Dad was not there to hand out the presents to each person in turn as he always had. We had to choose someone to take his place, but it just didn’t seem right. That memory still tinges my Christmas experience.

So if you or someone you know is experiencing a “blue Christmas” this year, it’s a good idea to remember that the meaning of Christmas goes far deeper than piped-in Holiday music and the mad rush of shopping. Christ was born to a poor peasant couple in a humble cattle shed. They weren’t a “perfect” family. The simplicity and humility of Jesus’ birth keeps us grounded in the love of God come to earth.

May Christ find a home in our hearts, however humble they may be, this Christmas.


Leaks, floods and other water problems

Sometimes it seems that everything happens at once. On Wednesday afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving, two men from Silverdale Water showed up to inform me that we had a serious water leak. I shut down the water and called David, our sexton. David found a plumber who would come, but not until Friday.

On Thanksgiving day, I was preparing the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner when I thought I would check the sump pump outside the door of the nave. It had been raining heavily all day and the hillside was saturated from earlier rains. When I checked the pump, I found it wasn’t pumping and the water had flooded into the church.

My son Guy and I bailed out the sump and hooked up a garden hose to get the pump working again. We moved the chairs in the church and pulled back the carpet to start it drying. The next day, Friday (my day off!), I rented a carpet cleaner from Fred Meyer and used it to suck up the excess water from the carpet. We got some big fans and got the air to moving to dry out the carpet and the subcarpet.

That same day Nick the plumber from Robison Plumbing came and diagnosed the plumbing problem. A pipe running from the narthex closet down to the basement had failed. Nick promised to come back on Monday to make the repair. He made it possible for us to have water in the hallway bathrooms, but we had no water in the kitchen for Sunday coffee hour. We used paper and plastic so we didn’t have to use the sink.

On Saturday night several of us rolled the carpet back temporarily and moved the chairs to their normal places for Sunday worship. Sunday night we came again and moved the chairs and also the organ to reveal all the wet carpet. We set the fans blowing again and left it overnight.

On Monday, Nick the Plumber showed up and put in a new line to the basement. He’s a young guy but he’s very resourceful and skilled. I was surprised to see that he had the line repaired before 5 pm and we had water once again in the kitchen.

In a couple of days we’ll turn off the fans in the nave and put the carpet back in place. I’ll be relieved to have this episode over.  I spent a lot of time and energy on this over Thanksgiving weekend, in addition to preparing for Sunday worship, so that what would have been a relaxing weekend turned into a lot of work and anxiety. Such is the life of a small town Vicar.