It’s Christmas–here comes everybody!

It’s that time of year again. Churches have special services for Christmas, and people who come every Sunday get ready for the influx of every-so-often / Christmas-and-Easter / doing-it-for-the-kids-or-parents visitors.

Here are a few suggestions for both regulars and visitors, to make the encounters more peace-filled:

Regulars: Read Matthew 25:35: “…I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

  • This is God’s house, not yours. Your seat is not your property. It doesn’t matter if you have sat your tush in that pew, in that position, every Sunday for the last umpteen years. Visitors don’t know that. Let them sit there, and be graceful about it.
  • If a visitor is not dressed to your standards, do not shame them. How were they supposed to know what is “correct” in your place? Maybe that is the best clothing they have. Be gracious. This is neither the time nor the place to demonstrate how much more correct you are about everything.
  • Help the visitor before you pick up your own prayer book or hymnal. If you see that someone is flipping pages and looking confused, give them yours.
  • After the service, guide anyone who looks lost, to the reception or restroom–or offer a walk around the sanctuary.

Visitors: Find out about the church you are planning to attend.

  • Look at the church’s website and/or Facebook page, to get a sense of what the community is like. If they have values or core beliefs that make you unhappy, please find a different church to visit.
  • It is good sense and good manners to show up early. These services are crowded.
  • Please follow the instructions of ushers graciously. Their job is to prevent fire code violations and keep people comfortable and safe, as well as welcoming all.
  • Remember that a lot of people have worked hard for a long time to make this service happen. Most are volunteers and have sacrificed nights and weekends. Be kind, and save any snarky comments for your trip home.

For both regulars and visitors:

  • Remember that this is a worship service. Please try to enter and leave the sanctuary during congregational singing–since people are glued to the words, movement is less distracting. Chatter during the service is not conducive to the atmosphere either.
  • Don’t hold seats for people who are late. Five minutes before the service, be kind to those who have arrived on time and let the ushers put people in those seats. It is disruptive to everyone for latecomers to wander around and push past others to get to a “saved” seat.
  • If you are intending to receive communion, please get rid of gum and lozenges before doing so.

Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

Hunger doesn’t stop the day after Thanksgiving

Some thoughts on holiday volunteering:

Folks, if you woke up the day before Thanksgiving and decided to go volunteer at a soup kitchen or food pantry, you’re very likely too late.

Places who serve Thanksgiving meals to the needy have been planning for months. It takes time for turkeys, beverages and side dishes to be ordered, stoves to be cleaned, meals to be planned, tables and chairs repaired, replaced, and cleaned….(Yes, of course, cleanup is always a bear and hardest to staff.)

I have seen for myself, and heard stories, of would-be volunteers who get angry and rude when their oh-so-gracious offers of help are rejected. They want to do what they want to do, when they want to do it–having failed to do research and find out what is actually needed. If the target (I can’t use the word beneficiary) of your aid doesn’t need what you are offering, and you’re upset, ask yourself: “Why am I doing this? Is this primarily about my feeling good or about putting others first?”

It is perfectly fine and healthy to want to get ego gratification out of helping others. However, if you can’t put your wants aside just for a while, in order to help a group further its mission, please find another group or another way of offering help.

And remember–people who are hungry on Thanksgiving may also be hungry the week after, and the month after. Need is not seasonal, or eliminated by a one-day burst of good will.

Please consider volunteering at least twice a month wherever you decide to commit–and keep at it for at least a year. The lean times of February and March, after the holidays and New Year’s resolutions have faded, are tough.

You cannot be “Christian” and deny relocation to refugees

Those of you “Christians” refusing help to the innocents fleeing carnage should read your Bible and be ready for the place Jesus has talked about having for you:

Matthew 25:41-44

“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ “Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

And if you claim all, each and every Muslim is your enemy, Jesus has something to say about that too:

Matthew 5:39-42

But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.

Now, tell me again what good “Christians” you all are who want to close the borders?

On “All Muslims”

If you are of the “deport/kill all Muslims”, feel free to unfriend or block me.

My father did not fight in WWII with the goal of wiping out the German people–or the Italian people, or the Japanese people.

He went because his country asked him, and his country asked him to fight the spread of a totalitarian cancer.

He came home to a neighborhood that was as substantially German as when he left, and he didn’t want to blow up every man, woman, and child because he’d been shot at in France.

From a Christian perspective:

If you are trashing “all Muslims”, you are demonizing human beings made in the likeness and image of God. If you insist on labelling them as your enemies, and calling for violence, you are ignoring Jesus’ explicit command to love your enemies in Matthew 5:44-45–bracketing for the moment the fact that not every Muslim is your personal enemy.

From my personal perspective:

You are calling for harm to be done to people I have known and cared for and have seen do immense good. Walid and Wasim, who have held their family together through illness, business reversals, and long-distance separations. Fayza and Hadi, attorneys who have won hard family and immigration cases for women at the end of their rope. Aliya, a teenage girl who steadily and cheerfully observed her Ramadan fast and explained her faith to her grammar school classmates. Aasma, a young woman who reaches out across continents to spread goodwill.

You are talking about destroying innocent human lives.

If you are demanding a wholesale block of refugees from war-torn, failed states, you are supporting the death penalty for frightened, injured, deracinated people.

Do not–if you do so now–dare to call yourself “pro-life.”

Do not–if you do so now–dare to call yourself “compassionate.”

Commit to Lent

By the time Lent rolls around, no matter where it falls in the year, my (secular) New Year’s resolutions are usually only poignant memories. The weight I was planning to lose is still stubbornly sticking to me. The healthy food I was planning to cook is black mush in the fridge. Improvements in my personality are… still in progress, to say the least.

Humans screw up.

We dishonor our Creator by our behaviors toward others and ourselves. Our ugly, vengeful, sanctimonious thoughts and words add to the dark, nasty stains coloring our oh-so-imperfect beings. We wallow in regret and remorse, hoping stuttered apologies can repair the damage we have caused around and within us.

In short—we sin. There’s no getting away from that truth. No matter what our therapists tell us, how hard we work to improve our bodies, minds, and souls—we screw up, we fail, we are less than God made us to be.

Lent gives us a chance to reboot. It’s human nature to want to wipe the slate clean and to start over. A lot of us try that in the turn of the year from December to January. The Church gives us the season of Lent to work on it within the Body of Christ. Lent is not just about “giving something up.” It’s an opportunity for healing and growth.

Here are some suggestions for making the most of Lent:

Worship weekly. Sunday worship has, for many folks of any means at all, become one of several social options for a weekend’s schedule, rather than an offering to God of our time and attention. Make a commitment to worshipping with your faith community every Sunday in Lent, and on every one of the days of the Holy Week Triduum—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. If you work on Sundays and can’t change that, pick another day during the week and come to the evening Eucharist. Worshipping regularly is like going to the gym. It can be hard to get started, and sometimes motivation and energy can flag, but good things happen to us, often without our noticing.

Take advantage of sacramental reconciliation. This is not a substitute for therapy, or vice versa. Unlike the pop-in-and-pop-out, laundry-list “confession” those raised as former Roman Catholics may remember, the Prayer Book structures this as an opportunity for deep prayer and conversation about what Paul laments in Romans 7:15: “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.” Read the Rite as it is in the Book of Common Prayer on page 446, and if it moves you, do call one of the parish clergy. They are all happy to set aside some time for this sacramental rite.

Take Sabbath time. At the end of worship on Sunday or whatever day you can make work, stop. You’ve turned off your cellphone before worship—leave it off. Turn off the television, the computer, and put down the planner and folder full of notes and work. Just stop. Spend in-person time with your beloved, your friends, nature, a favorite museum. Take advantage of the parish Lenten retreat for a block of time of spiritual regeneration. Humans were not created to serve electronics, or be constantly enslaved to each other’s demands. Give yourself time to be open to stillness and to God.

Getting better about visitors: suggestions for Episcopalians

welcome maybeThis is written by an Episcopalian, based on experiences in Episcopal churches. Feel free to comment and add other thoughts below.

For churches:

  1. Paper is admittedly expensive, as is printer and copier toner. If an all-inclusive program is unsupportable, at least have enough copies of one piece of paper with page numbers and hymn numbers, along with your parish website, Facebook, and Twitter information. (If you don’t have any of those, at least start with a Facebook account. It is free and easy.)
  2. Every pew should have at least two welcome cards, and every welcome card should have a sharpened pencil on it. If a card has been drawn on, throw it out and replace it with a new one. Piling welcome cards and pencils in a corner of the pew may look neat, but it practically guarantees that they will not be used. Newcomers do not want to reach over others and scramble for something to write with.
  3. Children’s bulletins and crayons are greatly appreciated by parents. Do invest in them if you possibly can.

For everyone:

  1. Share seating. You do not own the pew you usually use. If someone is sitting in it, smile and sit someplace else. I don’t know of any Episcopal (heck, any) church that still has pew rents.
  2. Look around before you start singing. If you see someone flipping around the Hymnal, give them yours (which is already at the right page) and take theirs with a smile. Newcomers are often confused by S-numbers for service music.
  3. Do not limit exchanging the Peace to your friends. In fact, Jesus tells us to do quite the opposite in Matthew 5:23-24.
  4. Introduce newcomers to clergy first. If you are a parishioner, you know how to get the attention of clergy during the week. Newcomers, especially people who have never belonged to a church, do not have this information. Be generous to them by giving them priority in talking to clergy on Sunday morning.

For ushers:

  1. Smile!
  2. A person coming through the door has priority over any conversation you are having with an existing member. Pause the chat until the new person has a bulletin and is seated.
  3. Walk people to seats, especially if the service is crowded or if it has already begun.
  4. Do not shame or interrogate worshipers. “The service started fifteen minutes ago;” “Are you going to communion?” or “Aren’t you getting your feet washed?” are always inappropriate.
  5. If you see a family with a child, get them a child’s bulletin and some crayons if your parish has them. If not, some blank paper will and a pencil can work.
  6. If someone arrives late, open the bulletin to the current point in the service and give it to the person.
  7. If your church has both glass and solid doors, keep the solid doors open unless it is unbearably cold or hot. It is very difficult to open a door and go through it if you have never been in a place before. A glass door allows visitors to look in–and allows ushers to extend a welcome to those who might be wavering about coming in.
  8. Say goodbye to people as they leave. Invite them to coffee hour. If at all possible, introduce people to each other as they congregate by the doors.

Inspired by Opening Day at Aqueduct (not that I was there)

Dad never liked Aqueduct much; Belmont was his favorite local-ish track, and we spent two weeks every year house sitting in West Long Branch, NJ, which gave us lots of time at Monmouth.

My father was of the generation of men who would go to the track in suits. His rule was that he would start with his betting money in his right pants pocket, and put his winnings into his left pants pocket. When his right pocket was empty, he went home. He always had jackets with several pockets, and his nickname was Johnny Pockets.

If he’d “had a good day,” as he would say with a wink, he would stop off at one or another local store on his way home, and buy my mother a little something–a piece of lingerie, a small box of candy–and hide it in one of his pockets. Then when he got home, Mom would meet him at the door and he’d hold up his arms. She’d pick a pocket, and whatever in it was hers. If she didn’t get the goodie, Dad would tuck it under her pillow while she was cooking dinner.

One night after Dad had had a very good day, Mom picked the right–or wrong–pocket and pulled out a thick wad of cash–$500, Dad’s winnings for the day and a nice haul in the early 1950s. She was horrified and tried to give it back, and Dad waved her off (she told me) saying, “The rules are the rules! You won!”

In the summers of my high school years, Dad and I would take the two-hour walk to the Monmouth track to just talk about everything under the sun, and the horses. It was incredible father-daughter time. He taught me never to rip up a ticket before the race result was final; that “stoopers” bent over examining discarded tickets were declasse; never to dip into my winnings to keep playing.

By the time I graduated from high school, I’d netted my first semester of college tuition. And I had terrific memories for it too.

When Dad died, because the route between the funeral home and the church was made up of one-way streets, the funeral procession had to go past his OTB–which was closed at that hour of the morning. His older sister Johanna (84 at the time) muttered, “What is this, a fly-by?” and his younger sister Peggy said, “Joanie, they’re closed in mourning.”

Anyway. Yes. New York racetrack life.

On saying, “No”

If you search the Web for “addicted to busyness,” you will find a raft of articles, blog posts, quizzes, and the like, trumpeting the dangers of nonstop doing. There is so much to do, so much to encounter–around every corner, in every link waiting to be clicked, in every email to be opened.


Say, “I am flattered, but I can’t” to the next committee invitation. Plead a prior commitment when invited to yet another cocktail party or dinner. (You do have a prior commitment; it’s to your own self-care.)

I have four priorities in life: family, girlfriend, my job, and specific volunteer tasks. I am not taking anything else on, because what I have is sufficient.

I take buses as a method of slowing down. A yoga class or a meditation group is, for me, just another deadline I don’t want in my life. I turn off my electronics, look out the window, and watch the sun set over the Hudson River. I contemplate every person, every event for which I am particularly grateful in that space of time.  I get home, have dinner, and am ready for a restful evening.