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February 23, 2015

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The winter of my contentment

Winter storm Nemo 3

Photo by Charles Redfern

What a rush. My New England homeland tunnels through snow in sub-zero temperatures and I’m loving it. And I’m loving that I love it — which sounds like I’m whupping it up over the gloomiest Lent since the Dark Ages.

I honestly pray for the homeless and sympathize with officials pondering costs and safety, but I can’t shake it. I feel like a kid playing pond hockey with his rediscovered skates. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the fabled New England winter, the type that annually buried my family in New Hampshire before we moved back to Connecticut and found Jersey-like slush. I know the deep freeze stems from skewed climate patterns (the February 22 high for Nome, Alaska: 37 degrees; Nome’s average high on that date: 17 degrees), but I’ll enjoy it even while I labor on three environmental boards.

Why am I relishing this dangerous, Dakota-like weather? It’s a mystery. After all, I was awarded my sulk license when my car died. I even tumbled down icy steps and partially separated my shoulder. I should be the first of talk radio’s call-in squealers: “It’s Obama’s fault! I can feel it! He hates America so much he’s slung us into a freezer!”

2015 storm 27

Photo by Charles Redfern

Perhaps I’m experiencing a forgotten brand of gratification drawn from the test, or the trial, or the challenge. Human history testifies to a spark that rattles us out of mere comfort, propels us into arctic adventures, and drives athletes as they sweat through brutal training regimens. Our religious forbears felt it and wove it into their liturgical years: Muslims fast during Ramadan; Buddhists and Hindus gear their fasts around lunar cycles; Jews fast on Yom Kippur and other holidays. We Christians just began our plod along our 46-day Lenten trail, often a somber season of self-denial laced with the smell of stale fish.

I think of this Christian season: Maybe my Lent can be like my winter. Maybe I’ll feel that unsettling spark and expand my spiritual horizons if I open myself to its challenges.

Soft in my spiritual middle?

My joy in this winter allows me to laugh off a festering fear: I’ve been worried that the blood of my Viking ancestors was slowing to a sloppy ooze.  Perhaps I visited my formerly snowbird parents in Florida once too often; perhaps the little boy within mutated into a grumpy old man and burned his sled. Tell no one – not a soul – but I was secretly scolding television meteorologists for not predicting those warm breezes that fan pot-bellied middle-agers chained to their lawn chairs. Worst of all, I was seriously thinking of taking up golf. Golf! I gave that up when I was fourteen!

Of course summer is more fun, but that doesn’t render all winters “bad.” Winter blesses children with snow days and gives us snow balls, snowmen, ice fishing, dog sled teams, cross country skiing, and hot chocolate. And yet, here I was, dreaming of putting greens. What’s next? Will I wheeze about “kids these days” and chase eight-year-olds off my precious lawn?

But then Canada sneezed and, this time, I found myself savoring the crisp air and the crunching snow beneath my Sorrels. I’ve said nuts to the pain in my left shoulder and enjoyed the labor of shoveling. My recent Connecticut winters were not too cold; they weren’t cold enough and they brought too little snow.

Is our Lent too small?

Maybe we’ve warmed Lent into sludge and robbed it of its power. An intentionally rugged season – a season of discipline, confession, repentance, and fasting – becomes a pale reflection of its former self: monastic asceticism shrivels into the martyrdom of our Monday-morning oatmeal cookies. We’re like football players calling it quits after practicing finger exercises. We visualize ourselves as the politest team on the field; we repeat, over and over again: “if we’re lucky, we might win.”

Boring.

This drift toward ease seems inexorable because ease draws our energy: Our inventions bring ease (my snow-plowing neighbors snicker as I wield my ancient shovel); commercials advertise ease. Our high-speed drive toward ease can veer into absurdity (“I can’t ba-lieve my television has no remote!”) and numb us to that spark. Ease, which has its place in life’s rhythms, becomes an obligation. It shrinks our horizons until we’re summoning the FBI because someone broke a fondue fork.

Lent’s disciplines can expand our horizons once more. We intentionally abstain from certain pleasures so we’ll feel that spark and explore satisfactions beyond simple ease. It seems the Apostle James felt it: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4, NIV).

I can view Lent through the eyes of James and face my trials. Meanwhile, meteorologists are predicting more storms for New England, so I’ll throw on my coat, grab my shovel, and brave the wind.

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February 20, 2015

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So New England really is different

Prepare for the bombshell. Gallup surveyors tallied their numbers and found that frozen New England, my home since I was 15, is fit for fire and brimstone. Sample the map below. Most of America is colored in green shades, signaling slightly low to high church attendance. My fair region looks like fungus with no chlorophyll. It fits squarely under the ministerial label, “abysmal.” Neighbors sleep late on Sundays before their 18-hole “exercise” and brand me a “cult leader” because I preach before Baptist fanatics.

Thanks, you pagans.

This is not news. Religious officials respectfully refer to the six New England states as a “pastoral graveyard.” We’re a “spiritual dead zone,” an “epicenter of modern paganism,” a hotbed of “postmodernism” and “secular humanism.” I’m prey to a thunderous rate of piteous looks at clergy gatherings, with some colleagues proposing sabbaticals to Vladivostok as relief.

If anything, Gallup was optimistic. Its pollsters say 17 percent of all Vermonters report that they go to church; other studies, using different measuring tools, drop that number to about four percent. They say a quarter of all Connecticut residents claim they’re in the pews. Trim that to 14 percent.

There’s more to the survey than meets the eye, of course. Utah dwellers tumble over themselves in a headlong Sunday rush. Impressive? Not really. Many attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), which no other denomination recognizes as orthodox. The South is solid green, which is no surprise, but one wonders: Are the faithful hearing Jesus’s teaching or civil religion’s god-guts-‘n-guns Gospel?

I’ll tip my hat to the many sincere Southern Christians and acknowledge that Mormons are often upstanding, salt-of-the-Earth people who bless us with rafts of hard-working CEO’s and senators; but I still hesitate before equating “high church attendance” with “more Christian.” I’m not sure if Jesus is impressed with a packed-out house basted in the Health-and-Wealth Gospel.

Nevertheless, I’ll file away this map for the future. Clearly, New England is different. It really is a mission field and church leaders should understand that. Much is lost if they don’t: I once belonged to a denomination headquartered in America’s Church Growth capital, the Los Angeles area. The number-crunching leaders saw our low attendance figures, concluded that we pastors were all lazy, and dispatched an alpha male to shake us up. We tried telling him: “New England is not like California.” He wouldn’t hear it. He knew all about “leadership” because he was writing a doctoral thesis on “leadership” and all we needed was “leadership” — and we’d better yield to his “leadership” if we wanted our jobs. He would slap us into church growth.

He rattled cages all over the place. Nothing changed and, after a few months, he drove back to California. No doubt he shouted “leadership” as he watched New England recede in his rear-view mirror.

church attendance gallup

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February 5, 2015

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“Sonny, I get paid to make snap judgments and throw fits”

It’s coming back to me. I remember my lament while walking a newspaper reporter’s daily beat: “God,” I wailed, “Why didn’t you make me a sports writer?” I was suffocating in objectivity’s claustrophobic cave, squeezed by concepts of “fairness” and “evenhandedness” – with no opinions allowed – while they were paid to yelp, bark, and […]

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January 30, 2015

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Seeing the world through different eyes

Three legged tables crash when we slice off the third leg. Knives, forks, spoons, coffee cups, and plates splatter all over the floor along with the vase with the flowers. It’s an embarrassing mess.

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January 27, 2015

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Scientific discovery: When it snows a lot, there’s more snow than when there is no snow

The dire warnings were so dire they could only be described as “dire:” So much snow would swirl in Connecticut on January 27 that the local National Public Radio chapter cancelled its fund-raising event, which would have featured a panel of world-renown Emily Dickinson scholars discussing the topic, “Why Working Mothers No Longer Read 16th-century German Poetry To Their Five-Year-Year-Old Children, And The Devastating Consequences For American Culture.”

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December 26, 2014

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Is martyrdom marketable?

Slice another pie and mix up more stuffing. The religious festivals tramp on like salivating cholesterol monsters. The Feast of St. Stephens comes on December 26th, the same date as Boxing Day in the former British Empire and Wren’s Day in Ireland. It’s also the Second Day of Christmas (remember the thirteen-day season) and Rummage-through-the-leftovers Day. Because we can.

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December 24, 2014

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Mary & Joseph: Walking through the unknown toward destiny

We can take as our models Mary and Joseph, who had the right to be the two most confused people in history, who were confronted with something utterly baffling, but did what God was asking of them, anyway … Mary and Joseph do three simple but essential things: they listen, they trust, they love.

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December 20, 2014

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Gotta hand it to him: He’s consistent

Let’s tip our hats to the oft-infuriating Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky: He is a true, government-keep-your-mitts-off libertarian. Thus he supports re-opening US relations with Cuba, which puts him at odds with many of his GOP colleagues. He and Marco Rubio are now throwing barbs on Twitter.

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December 13, 2014

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Catholic Bishops: End Fossil Fuel Addiction

Roman Catholic bishops from around the world have called for a binding international agreement that would wean humanity from fossil fuels, citing protection of the poor as a major reason.  Here is their statement: Catholic Bishops͛ statement in Lima on the road to Paris Introduction – from COP20 to COP21 We Catholic Bishops from all […]

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December 8, 2014

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Catholic Theologians’ statement on racial justice

Almost 200 Catholic theologians signed on to a “statement of commitment to racial justice.” It is posted on the Catholic Moral Theology” web site and it speaks for itself.  Here’s a paragraph, followed by a link: The season of Advent is meant to be a time when Christians remember the birth of Jesus Christ, when God […]

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