Tuesday, October 27, 2015

All Hallows' Eve a.k.a. Halloween

A lot has been said about Halloween of late – questioning its purpose or its religious (or anti-religious) perspective. Here is some information about the holiday – how it started and how it transformed into the only holiday that is a bigger retail bonanza than Christmas!

Halloween, celebrated each year on October 31, is a mix of ancient Celtic practices, Catholic and Roman religious rituals and European folk traditions that blended together over time to create the holiday we know today.  Straddling the line between fall and winter, plenty and paucity and life and death, Halloween is a time of celebration and superstition.  It has long been thought of as a day when the separation between the spirit world and the world in which we live thins.  Consequently, it was believed that the dead could return to the earth.  The ancient Celts would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off any of these roaming ghosts.  The Celtic holiday of Samhain, the Catholic Hallowmas period of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day and the Roman festival of Feralia all influenced our modern holiday.  In the 19th century, Halloween began to lose its religious significance and became a more secular community-based children's holiday.  Although the superstitions and beliefs surrounding Halloween may have evolved over the years, as the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, people can still look forward to parades, costumes and sweet treats to usher in the winter season.

Trick-or-treating is a customary celebration for children on Halloween.  Children often go in costume from house to house, asking for treats such as candy or sometimes money, with the question, "Trick or treat?"  The word "trick" refers to a (mostly idle) "threat" to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given.  In some parts of Scotland children still go guising. In this custom the child performs some sort of trick, i.e. sings a song or tells a ghost story, to earn their treats.

The practice of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays dates back to the Middle Ages and includes Christmas wassailing.  Trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of souling, when poor folk would go door to door on Hallowmas (November 1), receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (November 2).  It originated in Ireland and Britain, although similar practices for the souls of the dead were found as far south as Italy.  Shakespeare mentions the practice in his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1593), when Speed accuses his master of "puling [whimpering or whining] like a beggar at Hallowmas."  The custom of wearing costumes and masks at Halloween goes back to Celtic traditions of attempting to copy the evil spirits or placate them, in Scotland for instance where the dead were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white.

So, as you see, Halloween has religious origins. Like many of our holidays, it pre-dates the Christian experience.  But like others, it was “baptized” and transformed into a religious observance – and, sadly, like the same other holidays, continues to diminish its religious references in favor of commercial and secular understandings.

[Information gleaned from vairous sources including The History Channel]

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Go & Be

I have a soft spot in my heart for disciples involved in congregational growth and development. I love their passion, their sense of adventure, and the way they try innovative things. I love most of all their heart for reaching people who need a touch from the Living God. I love them. A lot.
Maybe it’s because I have a lot of colleagues that have or are currently doing it. It might even be because I’ve been involved in some heavy duty development work over the years. To this day, I still drive by buildings with a “For Lease” sign in the window and wonder, “Would that place work for an outreach center?” However, with most efforts like organizational or congregational development, you make a lot of mistakes. I’d like to talk about a few things that I wish I had known, done, or done better.
Go and Be - or - Come and See
Most of the time, especially when dealing with well-established parishes that are seeking renewal,. we have the philosophy that the church ought to be a place where you could invite a friend to ‘come and see’. It’s like that Samaritan woman that Jesus met at a well in the gospel of John … the one who ran back into town and said, “You gotta come and see this guy!” Usually, we seek to grow by using what some call an “attractional” model. Sometimes this works and we attract a few people, people that actually find Jesus in our community. I’m so grateful for the way God moves when that happens.
More importantly, I wish we could have more balance on the “go and be” side of ministry. It sometimes takes a while for parishes to be known as a place that ‘loves and serves our community’. I don’t believe that it’s an either/or when it comes to ‘come and see’ and ‘go and be’. It’s actually a both/and proposition. But y experience indicates that we should probably start with “go and be” before we get into the thick of the “come and see” phase of our ministry. I observe with great interest how some churches just show up and start building relationships, serving the poor, mentoring school kids, and making a difference in a community for months before they ever bring up the idea of sharing a weekend service. Then the invite to “come and see” flows out of the respect they have earned from serving their community.
Volunteer Staff
We have all kinds of volunteer leaders doing all kinds of ministry. But most importantly, each and all of them need to feel more “ownership.” Perhaps there is a way to acknowledge their ministries by creating official staff positions although they are "non-stipendiary" (i.e. non-paid) positions. They could then participate in staff meetings where we can laugh about our foibles, study God’s Word, and pray for those in our community experiencing difficulties. I would want them to feel every bit of ownership as the few of us on staff often feel. We could use a few interns as well. What a great learning experience for college students that are thinking about ministry. Plus we could use a bit more help … for almost free :).
Raising Money
Although God supplies every spiritual gift we need, I wish, as the point leader, I could steer us toward finding greater financial resources: raising more than we think we need. This is the outcome fo having a theology of abundance! It is no less stressful, sometimes living one or two offerings away from hard and difficult times. But again, if we are honest with ourselves, we find that God provides and there isn’t nearly as much need for all that stress.  Generous people will be involved if you ask. We just need to ask more clearly and more often.
Creating a Band of Disciples
While we have a great team and great people at St. Luke’s, I have found that we need to participate in more networks, training, and mentoring for our paid staff and volunteer ministers. We need to take advantage of the conferences, retreats, and other opportunities as offered by our diocese (and our neighboring dioceses as well). We need to seek out more friends who are in the same circumstances season as we.
It's About Getting Down and Dirty
Not long ago, I participated in a CREDO conference sponsored by the Church Pension Group. While the conference centered on my health and well-being, I can remember taking a day of prayer, on the mountainside where the retreat center was located. It was a great time of writing, journaling, praying, taking a nap, singing, watching nature in all of its wonder. Upon returning, one of my small group member jokingly asked me, “Did you hear from God up on Mt. Sinai?” I said, “Yep. I did.” He told me, “It’s about people, stupid.” We are so often concerned about buildings, budgets, and strategic five year plans that we can lose sight of the hurting people that Christ sends us to reach. You can do that you know. I often need that reminder.
If we really want to grow and develop, maybe we need to remember four of the coolest words in the Bible -- found in the story of Jesus and the woman caught in the act of adultery. The Pharisees set her up, use her, and throw her down in the dirt in front of Jesus. They incite the crowd to pick up stones to hurl at her for her sins. And while everyone is towering over this broken woman … these four words jump off the page … “BUT JESUS STOOPED DOWN.” He got in the dirt with her. He didn’t condemn her or condone her sin. He just got down in the dirt with her. Let’s not get lost in the strategies of “church-world” and forget that the core of Jesus’ ministry is seen in this story: to get in the dirt with hurting, messy, broken people. God still reminds me today, “It’s about people.” Maybe we all need that reminder, too.

Father Zwifka continues to teach in the Bishop Dean T Stevenson School for Ministry in the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania. Apart from academic pursuits, he guides an internship seminar for people discerning a vocation and is a lead developer in the new Vital and Effective Ministry Institute for new clergy and clergy new to their cures. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What do you treasure most?

What do you treasure most?

There are many times in life that we may be placed at a crossroads. By this I mean that we may come to a point at which a crucial decision must be made that will have far-reaching consequences. This Sunday’s Gospel Lesson presents just such an occasion. (Mark 10:17-27, “The Rich Young Man”). In this story, a seemingly virtuous young man comes to Jesus and earnestly asks what he more he must do to inherit the Kingdom of God. He has “kept the commandments”, that is, he has lived a righteous life by the standard of his day. Jesus accepts this offering from him but puts to him yet one more challenge – Jesus tends to do that – there is always something more!
‘Go, sell everything you have and give [the proceeds] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, what did he do? “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Jesus demonstrates a fundamental truth: nothing we can do can fit us to “inherit the kingdom.”  No matter how righteously we live, it is not enough. One thing more, Jesus says, “Follow me!” Jesus placed this man at a crossroads – at a point where he would have to make a crucial decision that would indeed have far reaching consequences – consequences for his eternal life!

Jesus was, in effect, asking this man what he treasured most – was it really the kingdom of God? Was it eternal life? If so, then all he had to do was leave all his “stuff” behind and follow where Jesus was lead. We know the man’s answer and it is pitiful – we pity him because it becomes clear that he valued his “stuff” more than he valued what Jesus had to offer in a life filled with the power of the Kingdom of God.

What is scary about this story, at least to me, is that we are often placed at these same crossroads by our Savior. We are often placed in a situation to make a decision that can have lasting consequences. Perhaps those consequences may not be as profound as choosing between our “stuff” and eternal life in after a moment’s reflection – but they are consequential decisions nonetheless.

On an almost daily basis, Jesus asks us, as he did this young man, what we value most. He asks us to choose: follow me or keep your “stuff” – whatever that “stuff” may be. It may not be great wealth. It may not be a lucrative job – but it may be just as difficult a choice – and Jesus expects us to choose.

As much as we may love and trust Jesus, it is possible that we love and trust in something or someone else more. What we need to realize is that anything short of the kingdom of God cannot provide the full and lasting joy, satisfaction, and security that we earnestly seek deep within our hearts. These things can be found only in hearts that have “left all behind” to follow the way Jesus leads.

In that young man Jesus has us look in the mirror and ask an all-important question: He is not asking us to give to the church all my money and possessions, essentially taking a vow of poverty like a monk or nun. He is not telling us that the key to the kingdom is to live in destitute poverty Rather, Jesus is asking us to get rid of the things that can get in the way of Jesus being our greatest treasure. He is the “crossroads question”: is there anything in this world that you would find too painful to give up if Jesus asked you to? Is there anything in the world that would make your face fall and lead you to shake your head No saying to Jesus, “Lord, I just can’t”? Is there anything on earth that would lead you to walk away from Jesus sad, grieving his loss, rather than the loss of that earthly thing? Is there anything you are more afraid to lose and miss than Jesus? your family? your favorite sin? your finances? The question is all about putting Jesus and the work of the kingdom first in our lives.

What DO we treasure most? That is the question. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

That the sense of our weakness may add strength to our faith

Love of God is a strange thing to our culture. This is the land of the prenuptial agreement, the careful negotiation of territory (physical and moral), the angry defense of right and privileged (real and perceived).  It is interesting to me that all the while, when we as a nation and a culture proclaim that we are religious, not far below the surface, we are actually a people who value the “art of the deal.”

That’s the funny thing about the love of God (not our love for God but God’s love of and for us). The comforting thing is that this love of God was no more or less strange in the land and culture of Jesus: we read in the gospels that it took even his closest friends a long time and a lot of mental gymnastics to grasp it fully. Peter, James, John, Mary Magdalene were not always able to or ready to understand its nature as absolute and without limit. Perhaps this is the reason they were not able easily to recognize the Risen Christ – so gutted and disappointed were they about their friend’s agonizing death on the cross that they had no eyes to see his risen glory right in front of them.

Is that the way it is with us? When was the last time we found it hard to believe, to be a person of faith? How many times have we heard our doubts expressed in comments like this – if there was a God, how could he let this thing happen?

When we see or hear or feel this, it is time for us to recall that God’s limitless love for us is signified by a cross. Even God, the only one for whom pain is not a necessity does not avoid that pain, does not escape its grasp. In the midst of that which breaks our hearts in two, God remains to abide with and to comfort. Sometimes, it takes that fracture to allow God finally to enter hearts that have been hardened along the way.

We do not know why things happen the way they do, but we know from the great cloud of witnesses that has preceded us, that time and time again, God can yet bring life out of the darkness and the silence even of death itself. When we doubt God’s goodness profoundly, God makes the move – God enters our ruptured hearts and acts to transform the ashes of our sorrow into still greater love.