Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Marriage of Louise Smyth and Steven Magers

The Marriage of Louise Smyth and Steven Magers
Song of Solomon 2:10-13; 8:6-7
Colossians 3:12-17
Matthew 5:13-16
Nazareth Hall, Grand Rapids OH

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Now I know that the main reason you’ve all gathered here today is to hear a lengthy sermon from me that will leave you all champing at the bit to join your local Episcopal Church.  But I am afraid I will disappoint, because I will be brief, be clear, and be gone.

As any priest knows, the world will little notice nor long remember what I say today.  But what you will surely remember is this: Two young people have decided to bind themselves together, against all odds, to promise to live with and for one another until the day they die.

Now THAT is something to remember!  It is something worth remembering, because it is worth noticing that people are still willing to hold  hands and take a leap of faith into the unknown.  And it is truly a leap into the unknown, like it or not.

They make their promises in good faith, trusting one another.  And you have all gathered here as witnesses and cheerleaders, to help them along the way.  Cheering at times when they need it, consoling and comforting in the times they need that.  Sometimes things work out exactly as we planned, and sometimes things don’t work out quite as we expected.  And having your support will make a difference for these two.

But here are the words I want to say to Steven and Louise this morning.  They’re very good words, which is how you can tell they’re not my words.  Jesus said, You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.

Louise, Steven: You are the light of the world.  You are proclaiming love, and commitment, and hope to all the world on this day.  And along with everyone who has gathered with you today, I implore you to let your light shine, and give light to all the house.

Amen

Sunday, December 1, 2013

STUFF 2013 your own figure 1-a

Given my current touring schedule, it will be some time before I am in a pulpit again.  Thus, it seems a good opportunity to reprint a few pieces I've written for various publications over the past few years.  
I do not know the theme for the Fall 2013 Issue of Youthworker Journal, but was asked to write on the topic of "Creativity," and I have no regular column in that publication.  ;-)
Herewith my submission, with apologies for violations of contractual contracts etc . . .  


Creating Your Own Figure 1A

There are many movies I quote without ever having seen.  In fact, it’s now a point of pride for me with my eldest daughter.  She claims I can’t quote a movie I haven’t seen; I claim I don’t need to see the context to know the meaning.  And now, there are movies I refuse to see on principle . . . Because I am a bad father apparently.

When my daughters get whiney, I say “There’s no crying in baseball,” and both daughters roll their eyes, knowing I’ve never seen that movie.  No one ever asks other questions about these movies because they get my point.  I don’t need to see a movie to quote it, see?  The most ubiquitous example of this is “Chariots of Fire.”  I can say, “I feel God’s pleasure when I run,” and everybody knows what I mean, and nobody ever says “Wasn’t it also great in that movie when . . . “ because apparently there was nothing else that happened in that movie.  It’s a totally safe quote, and--my daughters notwithstanding--I have never been challenged on whether or not I have seen the entire film.  A little slow-motion running and feeling God’s pleasure when you run sums up the movie’s impact on the popular imagination.

In my life as a traveling musician, I most often find myself quoting that line (or paraphrasing it) when someone asks about the spirituality of playing concerts.  My soul is fed over the 90 minutes it takes to play a Lost And Found concert, and the reason is because I am doing what God created me to do.  I am “in my element,” and using all my senses, and connecting to God and people in a very particular and inexplicable way with no idea how it happens.  But the one thing I do know for certain is this:  I feel God’s pleasure when we are playing concerts . . . And I will never watch the movie, “Chariots of Fire.”  So nah.

But the actual act of playing the concerts is just one leg on the three-legged stool of the process.  Most bands, or singer-songwriters have the same three legs on the stool of their craft.  These are Creating, Editing, and Performing.  And each one ties most-directly to a particular audience, I have come to find.

I write because I am driven to write.  I need to do it for myself, and at least in the initial stage it’s because I want to say something.  And sometimes no one else will ever hear that thing because the whole purpose of it was to get it off my chest, as it were.  Once it’s out, I can go back to watching Supernatural, or whatever.

But then comes the editing side.  This is where I take a step back and consider how this little created thing will impact others.  Just because I needed to say it does not mean that anyone else ever needs to hear it, see?  And, usually the thing I needed to say needs to be softened or molded or shortened for the benefit of others.  Not everyone can write another “American Pie,” and it’s possible that no one should ever have written “Stairway to Heaven” . . . at least without some editing.  You edit after writing for the sake of your audience . . . unless you were writing in the 1970’s, which was a magical time, when people could endure unimaginable amounts of sonic pleasure.

And, as I’ve already said, when I perform I feel God’s pleasure.  That’s not why we play concerts, mind you.  (Obviously, playing to empty rooms would get pretty old after a while, even if God were really super pleased by it.)  But it is what keeps me going honestly.  Having that ineffable sense that I am doing what God wants me to be doing when I am playing music drives the bus, to mix metaphors.

I create for myself.  I edit for the people.  And I perform to please God.  You could imagine a chart like this:



(I should tip my hand and admit there will be no other charts.  It just looks more official to have a name like Figure 1-A.)

Now, clearly, these lines do not run straight across at all times, but it’s where the main emphasis is for me.  You could also think of it with the parts being interchangeable.  Pick one from each column and switch them around and you can start to open whole new areas to think about.  I won’t bore you by going through every possible combination (of which there are 27, if my math doesn’t fail me, which it usually does).

Running through those estimated 27 possibilities raises all sorts of new ways of thinking about these processes of writing, editing, and performing.  While the chart as I have it is the basic structure of how I see my little musical world, mixing them up is a helpful reminder that they’re all intertwined and related and somehow combined into one messy whole.

So now you’re thinking, “That’s swell Mr. Piano Man.  But what does it have to do with me and my 6 students meeting in the church basement on Wednesday night, huh?”  I’m glad you asked that, because that was really the point I wanted to get to.

Perhaps you will find drawing up a chart like this will prove helpful in your own little postage stamp of ministry.  For instance, do you feel God’s pleasure when you’re guiding your students through some Bible Study or discussion piece or what have you?  Do you find yourself planning meetings and activities for the sheer pleasure of your own satisfaction in doing so?  And, perhaps most importantly, do you edit to honor your students?  Really consider how what you say will impact them for better or worse?

How does one “edit” for youth-group meetings?  Again, glad you asked.  Because aside from having a chance to use the label “Figure 1-A,” this was what I really wanted to get to in this whole thing.  The creating and the performing are great and all, but I daresay the biggest and most important impact of what anyone does is in the editing.

How many times have you heard someone say something in public that makes you cringe?  Or how many times have you looked back and thought, “I wish I hadn’t said that quite like that” after the fact?  Many times the feeling of regret might just be the signal that you could have used a little editing before “performing.”  Just because you have an idea (the need to create) and you will be leading a time with your youth (performing), doesn’t mean you should skimp on the preparation and reflection (editing).  In fact, quite the opposite:  Though the creation and performing might be the most enjoyable parts of what you do, the editing is probably the most important and crucial part of what you do.

Having a passion for youth ministry will cover you when it comes to creating and performing.  But editing determines the lasting impact you will have on the students who pass through your care in the years ahead.  I encourage you to think through what you’re saying and doing.  Work toward “Sounds of Silence,” and away from, say, Rush’s “Xanadu.”  Your words will be the hooks that your students will hang their theology on, at least for now.  I encourage you to make them the best words you can find.  And remember, the hills are alive with the sound of music.  ;-)


George Baum is exactly one half of the band Lost And Found (www.speedwood.com)  He is the father of two, the husband of one, and is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Ohio, which is a whole ‘nother story.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

STUFF 2013 science and . . .stuff

Given my current touring schedule, it will be some time before I am in a pulpit again.  Thus, it seems a good opportunity to reprint a few pieces I've written for various publications over the past few years.  
The theme for the Fall 2013 Issue of Connect Journal was "Science," and my regular column is called "A View from Elsewhere."
Herewith my submission, with apologies for violations of contractual contracts etc . . . 

Science and . . .  Stuff.

“You don’t see something until you have the metaphor to perceive it.”
--Robert Shaw, Chaos: Making a New Science, 1987

There was a time, a long time in fact, when people honored the God of the Gaps.  In simple terms, when something could not be explained, it was Because God.  Anything one could think of that could not be explained was Because God.  Obviously, as people started to figure out that natural forces created things like rain clouds, the need for praying to a God to bring rain seemed unnecessary on some level and--to some people--downright silly.  And thus, the more we learned about our environment, the less we needed God as an explanation for the gaps.  Hence, the God of the Gaps began to die a slow and quiet death with the advent of the Filler of Gaps: Science.

There was also a time when religious folks (i.e. nearly everybody) accepted that God was in everything.  (You know, the One in whom we live and move and have our being?)  But over time we kind of confused being in everything with being in charge of everything.  We lost the notion that God was everywhere to the steady advance of knowledge.  The more we learned, the less we needed God to fill in the gaps.  And if God wasn’t everywhere, and was only where we needed an explanation, well, explanations crowded God out of the picture.

Sadly, to many people, this means God must be defended form the encroachments of science, lest God be banished entirely.  If God isn’t everywhere, then the God of the Gaps gets smaller every year.  Sure, people still have their personal gaps they can fill in with a #2 pencil in a pinch.  God saved me this parking spot.  God beat back the incurable cancer.  God let the Cubs win the World Series.  (Okay, that one really would have to be God.)  But on the whole, a God of the Gaps is headed for retirement, plain and simple.  We only need that god until we can explain things.  And science is racking up points in the game of explanation, that’s for sure.

Enter, the relief pitcher named Quantum Physics.  On the smallest most intimate level, the rules are completely different, right?  An object can be two places at once.  A cat can be both dead and alive.  An object can move from one place to another without actually traveling the distance in between the two points.  And suddenly, all that explaining stuff doesn’t explain things at their most basic level.  On the subatomic level, things are not made up of matter; they’re made up of forces holding matter together.  And with all that craziness, maybe we can get back to thinking about God being in everything rather than being in charge of everything.  And the reason I can say that is because of this:  It’s all about relationships.

Quarks, are the things that make up protons and neutrons; they live inside bubbles called hadrons.  And the really interesting thing about quarks--or, I should say, the most significant thing to me about quarks--is that there is no such thing as one quark.  They always come in groups of two or three.  Protons and neutrons consist of a little trinity of three quarks.  They live in that little bubble of life and make up everything you see.  On the absolute most intimate level, everything is made up of relationships.  There is no individual.  There is no lone gun, loose cannon, or self-made atom.  It’s all about community.  It’s all about interaction.  It’s all about what God has been telling us all along . . . A dance of life where two or three are gathered.

Turns out, it seems you don’t have a metaphor until you can’t see something to perceive it.

George Baum is exactly one half of the band, Lost And Found (www.speedwood.com), an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Ohio, the father of two, and the husband of one.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

STUFF 2013 a day over fifty

Though this was submitted to a prestigious journal or two, none bit.  Therefore I pass it along to you, given that it's timeliness shall become less timely over time.

A Day Over Fifty  --  George Baum

As one who was born the day after JFK was assassinated, turning 50 cannot just slip by unnoticed.  Everywhere we turn, there is a reminder that 50 years have passed since his death, meaning 50 years since my birth.  Do not go gentle into that dark November, good George.

My parents recently dug up some newspapers they had saved from those traumatic days.  (And here I’m referring to Kennedy, not my birth.)  As I paged through them tonight, I came across an opinion poll kind of thing.  The question was, “Do you think women belong in political life?”  Of the six respondents, 4 said absolutely not, mainly because women already have a place, and it is in the home.

On a nearby page, there was a small piece about how the President’s death had reopened the debate in society regarding stricter controls on guns.  Some suggested that the tragedy was a wake-up call to restricting easy access to firearms; others argued that such violence points to the need for more citizens to arm themselves.

Around ten years after those papers were printed, my mother ran for the local Board of Education, citing the Board’s lack of female representation as her initial inspiration.  She was (not surprisingly) the first woman ever elected to the city’s Board of Education.  She was a guiding force toward desegregating our city’s schools.  She fought for reproductive freedoms outside that role, and raised four boys who consider women’s rights an absolute given in society.

And now, it is easy to imagine a woman holding elected office, and it is therefore hard to imagine four out of six interviewees saying a woman’s place is in the home.

While it is perhaps difficult to imagine a repeat of the tragic day in Dallas, given today’s extreme security measures, it is quite easy to imagine the resulting “conversation” regarding gun restrictions.

“In 1962 an ordinance in Dallas making it unlawful to carry firearms within the city was declared unconstitutional in the Dallas Court of Appeals.  The judge ruled that the ordinance was an ‘unauthorized invasion of a natural right the citizens of this state have never relinquished to their rulers’.” 1

A 2009 Stanford study compared female lawmakers to their male counterparts, focusing on “three specific measurements of the effectiveness of each member of Congress:
1) the number of pieces of legislation each member introduced,
2) the number of Members of Congress who cosponsored each piece of legislation, and
3) the amount of discretionary spending each member was able to direct to his or her district.
The conclusion of the study was clear: women are more effective legislators than men.  Quantitatively, women introduce more legislation and procure more resources for their districts.  Qualitatively, the legislation women introduce receives greater support from their colleagues.” 2

My basic point is this:  Some things never change.  But, more importantly, some things do.  We can imagine a man on the moon, cheered by a President who was shot by a gun, the prohibition of which was considered an unauthorized invasion into the natural right that has never been relinquished to the rulers.  And some people could never have imagined a world in which a woman might introduce superior legislation, which might one day prevent the kind of violence that occurred around the time of my birth.

Sometimes, what seems lacking is simply a decent sense of imagination.

George Baum is an Episcopal priest who makes his living playing music, and lives in Ohio with his wife and daughters and one BB gun.


1 Niagara Falls Gazette, Nov. 25, 1963, pg 19
2 Linda Sanchez, Rep. Of California Dist. 38, http://www.blogher.com/why-women-should-run-office

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

STUFF 2013 cross-generational ministry . . . aka, ministry

 Given my current touring schedule, it will be some time before I am in a pulpit again.  Thus, it seems a good opportunity to reprint a few pieces I've written for various publications over the past few years.  
The theme for the Fall 2010 Issue of Connect Journal was "Cross-Generational Ministry," and my regular column is called "A View from Elsewhere."
Herewith my submission, with apologies for violations of contractual contracts etc . . .

Cross-Generational Ministry . . . a.k.a. Ministry

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, there was a strong message being sent in my congregation growing up in Niagara Falls, NY. 

Every year, there was one Sunday set aside as “Youth Sunday.”  This was the annual worship service where the youth group picked and played the hymns (hymns!), and read the lessons, and preached a sermon (by way of a skit, usually), and . . . well, of course there was no communion on Youth Sunday, so that was about it.  We’d plan for months, and we took pride in doing a good job for Youth Sunday.

So, the strong message I mentioned?  It was simply this: By picking one Sunday each year as Youth Sunday, the implication is that 51 Sundays of the year are not youth Sundays.  The very fact that one Sunday was set aside for the youth to participate tells everyone that 51 Sundays a year are off limits.

But there’s another implication in this as well.  Even though the youth only had the one Sunday each year devoted to full-on participation, it was obvious to everyone that the adults would not be participating on that particular annual Youth Sunday.  Never crossed our minds to encourage the adults to help us out with Youth Sunday.  I mean, they’re not youths, right?

And the point I’m trying to make is this . . .

Everyone knows that adults misunderstand and exclude youth from “churchy” things.  Everyone knows that young people rebel in order to show that they’re capable of independence, and need freedom and all that.  But it seems to kind of slip past us to consider the other side of that denarius.

It’s not often that young people take time to consider what life is like for people their parents’ age.  I know that’s true, because I was young once myself, believe it or not.  It never crossed my mind to consider that the adults around me might be suffering just as badly if not worse than I was.  The myopia wasn’t my fault, of course, but still the case all the same.

But here’s the point I want to make: Youth leaders often play into this system of separation and alienation by having things intentionally geared toward youth.  No adults allowed, and the assumption is, no adults would want to be allowed.  On the other hand, what if youth workers made a point of inviting adults to some youth group events and activities?  What if the adults were invited to come along on the ski trip, with the understanding that they are guests, not the chaperones?  What if on Youth Sunday we let a couple adults do something crazy like, say, light the candles?  What if the other 51 Sundays we let the youth pick the music sometimes?  Or, better yet, what if we just allowed everyone to participate in everything?  You know, as if there were no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, young or old? 

And yes yes, I know plenty of churches are doing just this kind of thing.  I just wish that when I was in youth group someone would’ve thought to treat me like a fully included baptized child of God, rather than a member of . . . what’s the word I’m looking for?  Special interest group perhaps?  Treating young people like adults might actually lead to young people treating adults like kids.  And, I have to say, there’s something to be said for that.  There’s a lot to be said for that!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

STUFF 2013 the church i want to see

Given my current touring schedule, it will be some time before I am in a pulpit again.  Thus, it seems a good opportunity to reprint a few pieces I've written for various publications over the past few years.  
The theme for the Fall 2012 Issue of Connect Journal was "The Church I Want to See," and my regular column is called "A View from Elsewhere."
Herewith my submission, with apologies for violations of contractual contracts etc . . .

The Church I Want to See

The Church I want to see . . . is a broad topic indeed.  But, as with any topic, it starts with clarifying our terms of discussion.  From the get-go, there’s that pesky first letter.  If it’s capitalized, we go in one direction; if it’s not, we go in an another.  If we’re talking Church with a capital C, then quite frankly it’s none of my business to be saying what it should be.  Because--in my own view, anyway--that’s God’s business.  The big C Church will be what God wants it to be, with or without our help, thank you very much. 

And, as for the small c church, well, that’s also none of my business unless it’s the one where I am spending my Sunday mornings.  Your church may look completely un-awesome to me (for reasons that might surprise you, honestly), but that’s none of my beeswax, as Junie B. Jones might say. 

Since I am an Episcopal priest, it is my bounden duty to talk about a “middle way,” a middle C/c Church/church that is neither one nor the other, but is a via media.  Lutherans tend to hold two opposing views in tension; Anglicans seeks a “middle way,” and my own opinions on the implications of those broad brush strokes are a matter for a different essay (which also might surprise you).

So, what is the C(c)hurch I’d like to see?  Well, for starters, it’s one where those two cases are the same thing--big C and little c sitting together, like in a Dr. Seuss book.  By that I mean, a place where my local church is reflecting the broader Church.  (Big C, little c, what begins with C?)  Obviously, that is such an exaggerated broad stroke that it seems like I’m finger painting.  So, let me just cut to the Jackson Pollack method here and throw some C’s at the wall, which was my pasta-cooking method in my earlier days . . .

Continuity:  The Kingdom is a place where all are welcome, and all participate, without regard to any of the walls and barriers and distinctions we throw up to make ourselves feel special or chosen.  When we strive for that ideal in our little postage stamp of a church, we are connected to the Church of every time and every place, continuing to be part of the Church, whatever form it may take.

Community:  Whether or not I like you, or want you to be there, you are in the boat with me, and since it’s a lifeboat, throwing you out would require a really good justification.  I mean, on the level of, you’re actively drilling holes in the boat.  In the best-case scenario, we do not choose our faith community, as though we were selecting a fitness club.  If it’s in our hands, we will likely choose a community that makes our life easier, and that just ain’t right.

Cool-Free Zone:  Let’s face it, the reason many people go church shopping is because they want a place that’s cool.  Most churches are not cool, by any stretch, and many “new” churches strive to be cool above all else.  Sacraments, and hymn singing, and liturgy are decidedly uncool.  And trying to make them cool suggests we are trying to create something other than church, to be blunt about it.  Jesus was not cool.  Jesus was not aloof or indifferent or part of the “in crowd,” no matter how much your local Christian radio station may try to tell you otherwise.

The church I want to see, in essence, is the church that has always been there.  The place that seems foreign to our daily life, not trying to imitate it.  The place that welcomes people who are not welcome anyplace else.  The place that does what Luther says defines the church:  administer the sacraments and preach the gospel . . . Which two criteria seem increasingly rare, in my experience. 

Mainly, the church I want to see is the church that is made up of every type of person in the local community.  One where everyone is welcome, everyone hears the good news, and everyone can experience the gifts of grace in water, bread, and wine.  I guess when it comes down to it, I’m just sort of an old-fashioned kind of guy.

George Baum is exactly one half of the band, Lost And Found (www.speedwood.com), an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Ohio, the father of two, and the husband of one.

Friday, September 27, 2013

STUFF 2013 excellence

Given my current touring schedule, it will be some time before I am in a pulpit again.  Thus, it seems a good opportunity to reprint a few pieces I've written for various publications over the past few years.  
The theme for the Winter 2009 Issue of Connect Journal was "Excellence," and my regular column is called "A View from Elsewhere."
Herewith my submission, with apologies for violations of contractual contracts etc . . .

Excellence

So, I recently started a part-time position as the Clergy in Charge of an Episcopal Church near Cleveland.  We’re a small parish, only 9 years old.  As with any church, we are striving for excellence in worship, and we have our particular Episcopal understanding of what that means. 

For instance, I am hoping to have a choir some day, but we currently don’t even have a musician, so that’s a ways off.  Though I would like to see us use incense regularly, and to add torch-bearers for the Gospel procession, we have just one teenager among us.  In short, we lack the personnel to add sound, fire, and smoke to the worship experience of the congregation.

Then, last week, I distractedly listened to a phone message from someone about youth ministry, who I thought was offering to “fire the choir.”  Huh?  That’s the last thing I need!  I’m hoping to hire a choir, not get rid of them.  I listened to the message a second time, and realized I had it wrong.

Turns out, the guy’s message was that he wanted to see how things were going in my youth group, and offered to help me “acquire the fire.”  I couldn’t believe my good luck!  Here, out of the blue, was somebody who would assist me in getting my youth group of one to swing the thurible and light the gospel book.  It seemed like a program tailor-made for my situation, and they were coming to Cleveland the very next month!

I excitedly called the guy back, and after we talked about the struggles of trying to get good conversation going among the youth when there’s only one of him, I asked about the costs of their Acquire the Fire program.  He explained that the costs were minimal, and that the youth would have a life-changing experience.  “I’ll bet,” I said.  He said there really wasn’t any training that needed to be done in advance, and that it would change the dynamic in my congregation.  “I’ll bet,” I said.  He told me that there would be lots of sound, smoke, and pyro.  “I’ll bet,” I said.  (Though I’d never heard anyone use the word “pyro” when referring to worship accouterments, I found that to be an interesting way to think of incense and candles.)

I explained that I had just purchased some fantastic Benedictine incense, and asked if I should bring that along to the training.

There was a long pause . . .

Finally, the guy said that maybe I misunderstood.  Confused, I asked, “Aren’t you offering a training program for acolytes and thurifers?”  He asked me what a thurifer was.  When I explained that it’s person who carries the incense, he asked what an acolyte was.  I began to see that Acquire the Fire was something outside my experience, and thurifers and acolytes were outside his.  He said he thought maybe we wouldn’t be interested in his program after all, and I realized he was probably right.  I wished him success, and we hung up.

It was clear to both of us, I think, that we just have different notions of excellence in worship.  That was okay by me, and I went about my day, reflecting on this collect from the Book of Common Prayer . . .

O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be ever present with your servants who seek through art and music to perfect the praises offered by your people on earth; and grant to them even now glimpses of your beauty, and make them worthy at length to behold it unveiled for evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

George Baum is exactly one half of the band, Lost And Found (www.speedwood.com), an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Ohio, the father of two, and the husband of one.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

STUFF 2013 welcoming

Given my current touring schedule, it will be some time before I am in a pulpit again.  Thus, it seems a good opportunity to reprint a few pieces I've written for various publications over the past few years.  
The theme for the Spring 2010 Issue of Connect Journal was "Welcoming," and my regular column is called "A View from Elsewhere."
Herewith my submission, with apologies for violations of contractual contracts etc . . .

A View from Elsewhere:  Welcoming

So, my little parish here in Ohio is what the experts call “family size.”  I’ll spare you all the details of what that means, except to say that it’s pretty much what it sounds like.  Less like a company, and more like a family.  The goal of every family-size parish is to grow into what is called pastoral size.  The goal of every pastoral-size parish is to grow into program size.  The goal of every program-size parish is to grow into corporate size.  And the goal of every corporate-size parish is to move into the Astrodome.  This concludes George’s church-growth seminar.  I hope you can apply the tools you’ve learned today to help your church grow.  But back to my parish . . .

So in the family-size parish, the “need” to grow is paramount.  It’s on everyone’s mind, all the time, for obvious reasons.  More people mean more resources (unless the people you’re attracting have limited resources).  More people mean more help with stuff (unless the people you already have in the congregation insist that they’re the only ones who know how to do anything right).  More people mean you could have a choir (if anyone could sing), and a youth group (if anyone had kids), and all sorts of new ideas and energy (if people aren’t too burned out from the economic challenges they face).  As you can see, new members can mean all sorts of great things for the parish.  So it is crucial that we get out there and get some.

And there’s the rub.  Because when you’re a small congregation, worshipping in the fellowship hall of the local dying Disciples of Christ church, nobody knows you’re there.  Nobody knows you even exist.  How could they possibly know to stop in and help you grow?

Well, the answer to that question could take up a whole issue of this journal along with several others.  And since my congregation has no money, there’s no chance of getting the vestry to approve some kind of multi-journal study of our challenges.  There’s really no practical way to reach out and let the community know we are here.  So the parishioners take it upon themselves to invite their friends.  People much like themselves, with limited resources, and struggling amid the economic downturn.  And these friends do show up.  They walk in the door with their inviters and, after crossing the threshold, they are attacked!  In a friendly way, of course, but attacked nonetheless. 

The desperation for new members is palpable in our people’s eyes.  During the sharing of the peace (which looks more like the end of a baseball game than it does sharing anything peaceful), these hapless visitors are glommed onto, chatted up, and hand shook until I can see them adopting a far-away look in their eyes.  And I can imagine what’s going through their minds . . . “Thank God I drove, because there is no way I am staying for coffee hour!”

In short, being overly welcoming is not welcoming.  Refusing to give the visitor some space is not hospitable.  In my parish, the well-meaning folks are just as apt to drive someone away as they are to gain a new member.  And that’s a hard truth to try to explain to them.  My congregants see themselves as creating a welcoming environment.  And to the already initiated, they do.  But for a person who walks in off the street, I think we would serve them better by giving them some time and some space.  Let them see how we love one another, and they might want to be loved in that way.  If we meet them at the door with so much attention that it scares me just to witness it, the chances are good that they’ll be heading for the non-denominational church next door, where they can sit in the dark, and observe the service from the safety of a padded theater seat.

George Baum is exactly one half of the band, Lost And Found (www.speedwood.com), an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Ohio, the father of two, and the husband of one.

Monday, September 16, 2013

STUFF 2013 you call that worship?

Given my current touring schedule, it will be some time before I am in a pulpit again.  Thus, it seems a good opportunity to reprint a few pieces I've written for various publications over the past few years.  
The theme for the Spring 2013 Issue of Connect Journal was "You Call That Worship? 
Herewith my submission, with apologies for violations of contractual contracts etc . . .

Q: You Call That Worship? 
A: You Call That Doctrine?

So, as you may or may not know, I grew up Lutheran, switched to the Episcopal Church, and then got ordained some years later.  As an Episcopal priest, I duly confess before you, my brothers and sisters, before the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, that I am in fact a liturgy snob.  Dennis Michno is my bedside reading, and dropping his name like that with no explanation just proves the point.  Reus liturgicis arrogantiam.

At the same time, having grown up Lutheran, I understand the corresponding theology snob.  That is, I know that some people cannot help reflexively scoffing at poorly thought-through truth claims about God and the work of Christ on our behalf.  Sermons anchored by folksy stories from the internet, or culminating in harsh judgements with no gospel leave them shaking their heads in sadness.

Perhaps you’ll find this helpful as an over-simplified explanation of the difference between an Episcopal and a Lutheran understanding of things . . .
Lutherans are bound together through common doctrine . . . A “confessional church” is one that shares a common confession.  (Duh, right?)  Episcopalians are bound together through common worship . . . The Book of Common Prayer is a book of “common prayer.”  (Also duh, right?)

At the risk of over-simplifying my oversimplification, one might put it like this:
In the Lutheran Church, you can worship any way you choose, but you must believe these basic things.  In the Episcopal Church, you can believe anything you want, but you must worship using this little red cookbook.  Lutherans are bound together by belief; Episcopalians are bound together by worship.

And, as you might’ve guessed by now, this leads many Episcopalians to wonder aloud, “You call that worship?”  And it leads many Lutherans to shake their heads and say, “You call that doctrine?”

In practice, it allows Lutherans to tolerate things like omitting the sursum corda, putting the dismissal before the closing hymn, and wearing toga-length albs.  And it leads Episcopalians to tolerate things like bad sermons, a profusion of labyrinths, and John Shelby Spong.

The question, “You call that worship?” could be followed by “You call that doctrine?” which could be followed by “You call that music?” and “You call that a Bible Study?” and “You call that systematics?” etc. etc.

Which, of course, leads to my simple little point here:
We all have things we cherish.  Things that we think are non-negotiable.  Things that we’re certain are so obviously the most important thing in God’s mind, and that’s why we’re so passionate about them.  And not just that a right relationship with God is in the balance, but the future of the Church itself.

If the Episcopal Church suddenly decided that common worship were just a local preference, the glue would be gone.  If Lutherans abandoned a common confession, there’d be nothing to gather around except pot-lucks and coffee.  For others the slippery slope is the King James Version (in it’s original inerrant form), or the Evangelicals’ Great Commission, or The Calvinists’ TULIP. 

We all have our pathways to God, and ironically we all run the risk of putting those pathways before God.  So, yeah, I’m a guy who might ask, “You call that worship?”  Just as you might ask, “You call that doctrine?”  And when it comes down to it, the appropriate answer is “yep.”

George Baum is exactly one half of the band, Lost And Found (www.speedwood.com), an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Ohio, the father of two, and the husband of one.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

STUFF 2013 ontology

Given my current touring schedule, it will be some time before I am in a pulpit again.  Thus, it seemed a good opportunity to reprint a few pieces I've written for various publications over the past couple years.  What follows is an essay on the topic of "Ontology," written for the Spring 2013 Issue of Immerse Journal.  If I understood the lengthy contract correctly, I do have permission to reprint my own words.  :-)

On Ontology -- Fr. George Baum

So, I know the word “ontology” has a long history in philosophy classrooms and so forth, but in my little neck of the woods, as an Episcopal priest, it is generally connected to Ordination.  And there, the connection has to do with “ontological change.”  My classmates and I always kind of had a knowing wink when we used the phrase, “ontological change,” because even though everyone always assured us that this is what happens when a Bishop lays hands on you, well . . . come on, right?  I mean, can my actual essence be changed because some person in a pointy hat and lovely chasuble holds his or her hands over my head?  Really?

Well, three years in, I find myself saying, “Yep.  That’s exactly what happened.”

But let me back up a minute . . . When I was in seminary in New York, it used to drive my wife and me crazy when my classmates would speak of getting “a job” when they left seminary.  Having grown up Lutheran, in my case, the word they were reaching for was “call,” and “job” was certainly no synonym, in my estimation.  All that talk of looking for jobs made me question their call, to be honest.  Lay people looked for jobs; priests looked for calls.  But, oh, silly, silly me . . .

One cold December day three years ago, I lay on the cold stone floor of a cathedral, awaiting my ontological change, and wondering if I would actually feel such a thing taking place.  Face-down, my fellow deacon friend and I lay there listening to the Litany of the Saints, growing increasingly uncomfortable as I thought of all the friends and relatives who would view this moment as insane and incomprehensible.  What was this 45 year old musician doing with his life?  Throwing it all away to chase after some call to a parish that might or might not work out?  And especially throwing it away without actually having a call to a parish at the time?

Ah, and there’s the distinction!  Because as it turned out, the call was to the priesthood.  The parish really was the job.  I was changed on that December morning, though I felt exactly the same as when I processed into the sanctuary--albeit, a little colder after the floor thing.  Because on that day, God set me aside, for some reason; on that day, God changed me into something else; on that day, God declared me to be a priest in Christ’s Church, and I was changed forever.

And then we move the clock forward three years, and my contract as Priest in Charge comes to an end.  Turns out, it really was a job, for a person who was called to the priesthood.  I am still a priest, certainly, but I am a priest without a job.  Even if I never stand behind an altar again in my life, I am still a priest.  I have forever been set aside for a specific purpose: the priesthood. 

A few months ago, I was working through all these distinctions, trying to figure out if I’d made a mistake ever going to seminary in the first place.  My job was ending, and it seemed like bad judgment, in hindsight, to have gone through all this for a simple three-year stint in some blue-collar town.  One evening, I sat in an airport bar waiting for my flight, dressed in “civilian” clothes . . . not the least bit priesty looking.  A Marine on his way home from Afghanistan sat down next to me and started pouring out his heart to me, describing how he’d been spiritually damaged during his time overseas.  Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, he sits down next to me, and begins something of a confession.  A lengthy, profanity-laced, frightening confession. 

And, for me, that was finally the moment when I realized the permanency of my call to the priesthood.  It wasn’t in all the things that come with the job, the occasional baptism, the weekly privilege of presiding at the Eucharist, and the daily struggles of parish work.  My actual calling was to be a priest, everywhere and every day.  And I am one, and always will be, no matter what may happen as far as my employment goes.  Sometimes, it turns out, a person is just set aside for service, and that calling can be worked out anywhere, no matter what one does for a living.  No matter where one is sitting, waiting for a flight.

Ontologically, I have been changed.  But when it comes to my job, well, I still play in a band.  And I may never work in a church again.  For the foreseeable future, I am a priest without an altar.  Technically, I suppose, I am kind of like the sacrament sitting in the tabernacle in a church sanctuary: Changed by God into something else, and waiting to be a blessing to someone, somewhere, sometime.  Set aside for some purpose that is unclear to me (and apparently unclear to the Church, for the present).

That sounds almost sacrilegious in some ways, until I consider this:  In the Eucharistic Prayer, when the priest extends his or her hands over the bread and wine during the epiclesis, it is intended to mirror the Bishop’s hands extended over the head of one being Confirmed or Ordained.  We are calling down the Spirit of God to make a change in the thing that sits before us, whether human, fruit, or wheat-based.  We call down the Spirit of God to make an ontological change.  And over the course of my life, I have been shown that ontological change is not only real, it is also forever.

You cannot become unbaptized, just as I cannot become un-ordained.  The changes of God are forever, and it is only our own small-thinking that prevents us from seeing those changes as being eternal.  We want to connect change to function, claiming that what we see with our eyes is what matters.  But God changes things ontologically against our better judgment, whether that’s Balaam’s donkey, or a priest who plays in a band.  God’s purposes are often beyond our knowing, and that’s why some donkeys end up pounding the piano for a living, in order to pay off all those seminary loans.  And in some small way, that makes the music even better to me.


George Baum is exactly one half of the band, Lost And Found (www.speedwood.com), an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Ohio, the father of two, and the husband of one.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

STUFF 2013 what is lent?

I once wrote the following for my parishioners who asked me whether or not they should fast during Lent.  Someone recently asked for my take on Lent, so I figured I'd do a little cutting and pasting . . .

Lent & You, Q & A,
Fr. George Baum, 2010

So what is Lent, anyway?  
That is such a good question.  And I wish it had a short answer.  But part of the problem in answering that question comes in having to ask, what is Lent, when?  Which period of history are we talking about here?  As it turns out, Lent is a slippery subject, on a long timeline, and the fasting that many Christians associate with Lent is even more difficult to get hold of.  But let’s start back at the beginning . . .

Yes, let’s.  Some of my friends say giving up things for Lent isn’t Biblical.  But, isn’t it in the Bible?
Well, no.  The word Lent comes to us by way of the Anglo-Saxon words lencten (or Spring) and lenctentid (Springtide, and the month now called March).  You can probably see a connection to lengthening, just as the days start to do in the month of March.  As with so many of our Christian customs, Lent has its origins in pagan or secular places and phrases.

So how come Lent means I have to give up chocolate?
Whoa, now.  Not so fast there!  We’ve got to work slowly.  From the earliest times (i.e. the first Century after Jesus), fasting was part of the preparation for candidates for baptism, and those baptisms always happened at the Vigil of Easter (which is still the best day for a baptism—at least in the Episcopal Church).  As part of a spiritual discipline leading up to this Sacrament, the candidates for baptism would fast for the 40 hours Jesus was in the tomb.  (For instance, from Friday at 3pm to Sunday at 7am, though time was a little more fluid then.) 

So, if I’m already baptized, why shouldn’t I eat meat on Fridays?
Again, that’s a little early in the story.  The council of Nicea in 325AD starting talking about extending that pre-Easter fasting to a 40-day period.  By this time, the fasting had spread to include the entire Church, which under Constantine meant the entire world—for our purposes, anyway.  In about 600AD, Gregory the Great declared that everyone must fast for 40 days (not including Sundays), which meant starting Lent on a Wednesday.  Pope Gregory also introduced the idea of putting ashes on people’s foreheads at the start of Lent, in order to remind them “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

But that didn’t answer my question. Why should I fast in 2010AD? 
Hold on a minute.  We’ve still got 1400 years to cover.  So, in these earlier times, fasting was severe, with only one meal each evening, and no fish or animal products throughout the entire 40 days.  By the 800’s, people were allowed to eat after 3pm each day.  By the 1400’s, they could eat after noon.  Over time, it was permissible to eat certain foods, like fish during Lent.  By the time we got to 1966, the Roman Catholic Church declared that Christians need only to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  (However, the Eastern Orthodox Church has a different history on all this, and have maintained something more like the original vigor of the Roman Church.)

But that still doesn’t answer the question.  What does Lent have to do with me? 
Okay, so we went from a brief period of fasting before baptism, to a lengthy period of fasting before baptism, to a lengthy period of fasting for everybody, to a brief period of fasting for everybody.  And now we’re ready to approach what you really want to talk about . . . YOU! 

Right!  So, like I said, what does Lent mean for me? 
Well, Lent can mean a lot of things for you.  Let’s start with where we are now.  In our current Lenten emphasis, the Church asks us to focus on three things during Lent: self-examination, self-denial, and self-improvement.  (All of which, on the surface, seem to be about YOU!)  In fact, on Ash Wednesday, you’ll hear me remind you of this history of Lenten devotion, and then invite you to observe “a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  (BCP pg 265)

Um, can you break that down for me?  
 Gladly.  Let’s take them one at a time . . .

--Self-examination:  This is just what it sounds like, but with special emphasis on the spiritual side of you.  Lent is a time to stop and take inventory of where you are in your spiritual life.  Hopefully, you’re assured enough of your insoluble bond to God through baptism to do this.  And if you’re not, come and talk to me first, before you send yourself into a Lenten Depression!

--Self-denial:  This is the part most people think of when they think of Lent.  Typically, self-denial involves giving something up, as a way of reminding us of our reliance on God.  But it’s important to tie any kind of self-denial to this reminder.  Otherwise, you’re just giving yourself pointless suffering.  For instance, if you decide to give up chocolate for Lent, when you find yourself craving chocolate, turn your focus to God’s greater gifts, like life and salvation. 

--Self-improvement:  here, we’re talking about taking something on, rather than giving something up.  For example, commit yourself to using the Forward Day By Day books that are available in the back of the church each Sunday.  Or commit yourself to reading the Bible (or some spiritual book) during the 40 days of Lent.  The point of Lenten self-improvement is to train ourselves to focus on God.

+++These three together, self-examination, self-denial, and self-improvement are all geared toward getting us to STOP focusing on ourselves, and start focusing on God, by repentance, discipline, and living full lives.  And, focusing on those three things takes us back to the essentials of our baptismal covenant, where we promise to persevere in resisting evil, repentance, and proclaiming God’s word.

Wait!  Aren’t those the vows we renew at the Vigil of Easter?
That is exactly right!  So, you see?  The forty days of Lent really are preparing you for baptism.  You and I renew our baptismal vows every year on that night, the very night when we hear “this is the night.”  Lent is a season for you to prepare for the remembrance of your baptism, which is the bond that holds your firmly in the hand of God, and allows you to approach with confidence this special season of self-examination, self-denial, and self-improvement.