feasting together

Can you name the seven Principal Feasts of the Christian year? Before we take that quiz, I should probably say a bit about what it means to be a Principal feast.  Those are particular days on which we celebrate the most important parts of our faith: the incarnation of Jesus, the Resurrection, the communion of saints, the ministry and glorification of Jesus. They are called Feasts for a reason: that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do on those holy days.

But when we use that word “feast” do we mean liturgically, with Holy Communion, or an actual feast? I think we should look to history to answer this question: how, over time, has the church marked important days? Did they gather around the altar to celebrate Eucharist? Or did they come together as a community for a grand feast…a great party, if you will?

The answer is: both!  Many of the great Feasts of the year evolved as exactly that: a time to come together as a community to share in fellowship and celebration. But drawing on the tradition of the church through the ages, the Book of Common Prayer tells us that the proper way to mark those days is with a celebration of the Eucharist.

OK, back to the quiz: what are the seven Principal Feasts of the Christian Year? The first three are easy: Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost. The next two are also pretty intuitive since one is always on a Sunday and the other is often celebrated on the nearest Sunday:  Trinity Sunday and All Saint’s Day. We round out the list with The Epiphany (January 6th) and Ascension Day (the 40th Day of the Easter season.)

This year Ascension falls on May 25th (it’s always on a  Thursday) and we’ll celebrate this Feast with a parish feast of our own.  We’ll grill chickens (and veggie burgers) and eat at 6 p.m., then celebrate the  Holy Eucharist at 7:30 p.m. Our guest preacher will be the Rev. George Adamik, the rector of St. Paul’s, Cary and a recent candidate for the 12th Bishop of North Carolina.

In May we’ll be selling tickets for the dinner. You can purchase tickets at church or online.

Worshiping (and feasting) at all the Principal Feasts of the year binds us to a rich tradition of liturgical life. But there are other moments in the life of a church  – and a diocese – when we celebrate the saints among us and our ties to the wider life of the church. We mark the most important moments of our religious lives with worship and with fellowship.

On May 4th, our diocese will gather here at St. Andrew’s to celebrate the life of Bishop Chip Marble, who died a few weeks ago. Bishop Marble was the Bishop of Mississippi, then after his retirement came to serve as an Assisting Bishop here in North Carolina. Based in Greensboro, Bishop Marble’s community work proved vital in building up an ecumenical movement among the faithful to work for justice and reconciliation in our city.  The service at St. Andrew’s will actually be Chip’s third service: his funeral will be in Mississippi, and an interfaith memorial service will be held on May 1 at New Light Baptist Church. But the service at St. Andrew’s will be primarily for the people of the Diocese of North Carolina to celebrate Chip’s life and ministry among us.

In breaking bread together – in worship and in fellowship afterwards – we bear witness to the Resurrection as we honor the life of a saint among us.  In this, our feasts connect us to something far beyond our immediate community. We celebrate our connections to the faithful in other dioceses: we are a church with a larger fellowship  than just our city, or our state. We connect through Bishop Marble’s witness to the ongoing work of justice in Greensboro.

As followers of Jesus, we mark all these with a feast. So, feast with us on May 4 as we celebrate the remarkable life and witness of Bishop Marble. Then, feast with us on May 25 as we celebrate the glorification of Jesus that we mark on Ascension Day. I can think of few better ways to celebrate the season of Easter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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what to give when you can’t give much

The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a Kate Spade Gravy Boat.

Imagine Ashley, invited to attend the wedding of her closest friend. Ashley is in her late twenties and has a good job, but because of a perfect storm of student loan debt, preschool expenses and the breakup of her marriage her finances are about as tight as can be. Actually, they’re worse than tight: she has to borrow money from family, depend on gifts from friends and is frustrated that she can’t pay her bills without help.

But she won’t miss her friend’s wedding.   She finds someone to keep her kids and manages to scrape together enough money to make the trip but before she heads out she goes online to purchase a wedding gift.  A good southern girl, her friend has a registry that promises a well-appointed house, with 1000 thread-count sheets and pieces of fine china that will be used somewhere between twice and thrice over the course of the marriage.

Thankfully, there are also some items at the low-end of the registry, and while this pains Ashley but she knows that this is her price range right now. She has always been generous and giving with her friends. She wanted nothing more than to buy a whole set of the Kate Spade china but instead clicks on the $45 gravy boat (with $45 that she technically doesn’t have) and then goes to finish packing.

Last week a friend read give 10, save 10, and live on the rest  and had a question for me. “That’s great,” she wrote, “but what about those of us who simply cannot do that? What about those who want to give generously and save intentionally but are really struggling right now just to (literally) keep our kids fed and dressed? ”

My question wasn’t just about whether each of us could carve out a substantial amount for giving and savings. Rather, I wanted to invite us to consider how much our whole communities would change if we could all take this on as a shared value. It’s a little utopian to pretend that everyone would jump on board, but the point was to consider what might happen if a great many did.

My friend’s point is really important though. The reality is that a whole lot of people genuinely struggle. Many of those folks really want to give more but simply can’t.  My friend asked, “What would you say to us?”

Frankly, I’m a bit humbled by the question. I am not a financial planner and I am certainly not a prosperity preacher. I think it’s irresponsible to give away college savings while praying that that Uncle Leroy (who you’ve never heard of) will leave you a gazillion dollars and a very slightly used Mercedes.

I do like what the people on the personal finance shows say when (invariably) asked by listeners who are really broke what do to about savings. “Start small, and just do what you can. Can you set aside $25 a month? Start there. Can’t do that? Do $10.” The same is true for giving. The Widow’s Mite tells us, among other things, that God knows when we’re really struggling. God has a special affection for us when we’re in that place, and is less enamored with the posh folks who make a show of big gifts.

But let’s get back to the Parable of the Wedding Registry.  Does Ashley’s friend care that she can’t afford a sumptuous gift? Unless Ashley’s friend is a total asshole, the answer is no. She wouldn’t care is Ashley skipped the gift altogether. All she cares about is that Ashley comes to the wedding, to be there, to give the toast, to share the moment with her friend.

What can Ashley give? Far more than the people with money, as it turns out.  She can’t afford the KitchenAid, but plenty of other people can. Ashley’s presence is far more important. Her friend need her, not what she can give.

If we aren’t giving as much as we’d like, it’s important think about the long run and to set a goal. But it can take years and some major life changes to get there.  The path of giving is a lifelong one, and sometimes we simply need to be as patient with ourselves as God is with us.

In the meantime, there are things beyond money that folks can give. A church (and any institution, really) needs the presence of people committed to the mission of the place even more than we need cash. Oh, we need money too, but in an age when a social media “like” can almost pass as real participation, actual presence goes an incredibly long way. So give what you can, but more importantly pitch in where you can. Come to church every week, or even most weeks. That’s more valuable than money.

The fact is, church wouldn’t be complete without Ashley: her stories, her struggles, her hopes, and the unique gifts that she brings. If the church didn’t make space for folks at every stage as life to come together as equals, then it simply wouldn’t be much of a church at all.

A part of Treasure & Ash, a series of short essays about money.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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prophets don’t have mortgages

 A part of Treasure & Ash, a series of short essays about money.

Very few Old Testament prophets had an employee-sponsored retirement plan. The prophets of old didn’t have to worry so much about planning financially for an old age that they were unlikely to attain. But in the modern era, as many clergy have found themselves blessed by church institutions that offer some security beyond their working years one could make an argument that the need to preserve a stable retirement can undermine their “prophetic” witness.

I have no desire to dispute or even disrupt that. I am not much of a prophet, and I really do appreciate working for a church that wants to me to live with dignity after I retire.

Instead, I’d like to look at another financial vehicle: mortgages. It seems to me that mortgages don’t go well with the Prophetic Lifestyle.

A mortgage (or any major debt) is something that is a part of life for most of us fortunate to own their own home. As debts go it’s a pretty responsible one, allowing us to hopefully build equity  while creating a good home for ourselves and our families.

But how might our major financial commitments compromise our greater witness? The prophets were wild figures who had left their homes to deliver a tough message to the folk  wherever that message needed to be carried. If they lived today, they wouldn’t be able to proclaim their message quite the same way  if they had a 30-year fixed with Bank of America. The choices they would make – from where they lived to who they served to how they spent their money – would be constrained, and the power of their witness would be domesticated.  They might even have just stayed home and poured out their testimony into a blog.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s value to living as nomads. Quite the contrary, stability is generally a good thing for both us and our communities. We need limits and we need things that bind us to communities beyond the whims of the moment, and a mortgage can be one instrument of that. But when so much of our money is committed to one place, each month, for 20-30 years, we lose sight very quickly of the choices that might have been.

Now, I have a mortgage and I don’t regret it one bit. I love my home and my community and appreciate that with every passing year I become even more invested in the place where I live.

My point isn’t that we shouldn’t buy houses or cars or take out student loans. My point, rather, is that the more we encumber ourselves with even the most normal of financial obligations, the fewer choices we have. And the fewer choices we have, the more domesticated we become. The less likely we are to speak and live and prophetically, and the more likely we are to get into the same financial ruts that limit our generosity and heighten our anxiety around having enough.

Most of have far more choices about how we spend our money than we think. In most cases, we simply made those choices long ago.

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a better pie, not a bigger one

 A part of Treasure & Ash, a series of short essays about money.

Give 10%, Save 10%, and live on the rest.

Money teaches us that we’re always behind the ball. We never quite make enough; we haven’t saved enough, we don’t have enough to live the life we deserve.  It seems not to matter which income bracket we’re in: the universal lesson of money is that there is never enough to go around.

A wise priest once taught though that money is surprisingly simple: give 10%, save 10% and live on the rest. Simple, I thought, but unrealistic. How on earth could I retrofit my budget to carve out 20% for savings & giving, pay my bills and still have some left over for the nicer things in life?

The counter-argument is that money simply doesn’t work that way.  When we add up our needs and wants and the interest-encumbered loans that put them within reach we quickly realize that the pie we imagine doesn’t seem big enough for a couple of ten-point slices.

Curiously, this pattern tends to hold regardless of how much we actually have. Yet the wise among us can somehow focus their energy in a different direction, away from the reverse-gravitational pull of upward mobility and towards a richer appreciation of the things in life that matter most.

The church, of course, teaches that giving proportionally will deepen our faith and make our lives better. We might say cynically that this enriches the church, but as a priest and husband/father I find that giving substantially really does make my approach to money and my relationships with others healthier, and that understanding often helps to unravel other knots in my life. Money may or may not be the root of all evil, but it tends to affix itself to any pathology it can find. Putting money in its place can help to get at the root of other tricky places in our lives.

Then there’s the 10% savings. This is where the financial planners and our parents (hopefully) speak with one accord: pay yourself first, plan for tomorrow, let your money grow and work for you.  Sound advice, although I’m not sure that those who teach 10% savings will always assume the kind of generosity that is also important.

Money’s dirty trick here is to convince us that 80% of what we think we deserve is just not going to cut it. This handcuffs us to the treadmill of never-enough. Challenged to give or save more, our wallets cry out with any number of leathery laments: “We’re barely making it as it is! But we pay so much in taxes ! And we deserve top-quality stuff, don’t we?”

What if instead we could learn, as early as possible, the beauty of living with just a little bit less? Of taking on just a bit less debt (or maybe a lot less)? Of making decisions about housing and transportation and consumption that don’t assume a lifetime of being behind the ball? What decisions would we make differently…at age 18, 40, or even 60?

Here’s where my imagination lights up: what would our communities look like if this pairing of generosity & frugality was a shared value, taught alike in schools & churches? What if our civic leaders actually used these words from time to time?

The answer, I think, is that the value of our communities would increase greatly. As our generosity strengthened the universities, churches, basketball leagues and symphonies in our cities (think about how compounding interest works over time) and as savings made our households more sound and stable over time, we would simply find the allure of consume-and-acquire less compelling.

There are probably things that we wouldn’t do as much if lived within the 80. And the world wouldn’t end. We might rethink the kind or the cost of the cars we drive…or just keep them 25% longer. We might have 4 blazers instead of 5. We’d almost certainly think twice about the cost of our homes (and of outfitting and maintaining them) and that would lead to some pretty major readjustment of how our communities are shaped.

Would we be worse off materially? Our money anxiety would have us believe so. But this would be such a fundamentally different way of living our financial lives that there’s no reason to assume that. I tend to believe that we’d be much better off,  less beholden to debt and less driven to lavish money on foolish things that will eventually just ballast a landfill.

As I’ve grown older I’ve come to see the incredible wisdom of that priest. Giving 10, saving 10 and living on the rest doesn’t just mean tightening a belt, as I first heard it. It’s a way of living that increases the value of what we have exponentially. It’s a perspective that allows us to live free of much of the anxiety that seems to be a requirement of modern life, but isn’t actually necessary. It’s a way of life that in fact makes us far richer.

It would probably disrupt our lives a lot more than we’d expect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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treasure & ash

To my mind, Ash Wednesday is a close third to Easter and Christmas among the liturgies of the Christian Year. Without a regular call to repentance and an annual profession of our corporate sins, our religious life is missing something profound.

Christian devotion is incomplete without the annual recitation of the Litany of Penitence that we will pray together this Ash Wednesday. In it we confess many things, including:

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people;

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comfort;

Our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 268

There is a common thread that runs silently through these three confessions: money.

I’ve heard it said that money can be constructive, instructive or destructive. These three confessions remind us of how money’s power over us can indeed be quite destructive, doing damage to our souls and our world.

But we can turn that around. We can seek to transform our relationship with money into something instructive, constructive, and even holy. It takes courage, and a willingness to speak openly and forthrightly about it.

My Lenten discipline will be to write weekly on the St. Andrew’s parish blog about our relationship with money. This is the perfect season to look seriously at how money holds power over us and keeps us in a “Lenten” place in times of prosperity and need alike.  I invite you to follow these weekly reflections here, and I welcome any conversation that might emerge.

This is not, by the way, an ask. We are now at the  midyear point between fall stewardship ingatherings, so it’s an ideal time to check in on your relationship with money without the pressure to fund a ministry or even turn in a pledge card.

The work of Lent is restoration, and a return to loving God with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. Please join me in this journey towards wholeheartedness, a path that begins with ash on our foreheads and will bring us to the cross with Jesus. We will find that money can be a curious companion along the way. But by looking at it with courage, we can also find our way to the empty tomb.

BJ+

 

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