Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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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.