Disruptive children in church

by Maria L. Evans

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve.
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey...
I asked for health, that I might do great things.
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things...
I asked for riches, that I might be happy.
I was given poverty, that I might be wise...
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God...
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life.
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things...
I got nothing I asked for - but everything I had hoped for;
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed!

--Attributed to an unknown Confederate soldier

Although the author of this prayer has been lost to history, legend has it that it was found on the body of a dead Confederate soldier in the Devil's Den at Gettysburg. It remains a poignant reminder that in our relationship with God, "what we get" can be an opportunity for spiritual growth, even when it's grossly apparent it wasn't the thing for which we asked.

Now, I can't explain why, but this long ago prayer/reflection sprang to my mind when I read a recent blogpost about the value of decorum-disrupting children at church, written from the vantage point of one of our Roman Catholic neighbors--it's certainly not a denomination-specific point of coffee hour chatter.

I'm the first to admit I've seen kids in churches do things that raise my hackles, often thinking, "Oh, wow, if I'd done that at church, my granny would have turned me into a little red grease spot on the church steps." At the very least, she would have applied her version of the Vulcan Nerve Pinch on my shoulder, never looking at me, but making it painfully clear I'd better straighten up and fly right. It's amazing how those old memories can bring an almost instantaneous rush to judgment.

But then I take a deep breath and consider the bigger picture. Perhaps I know nothing about this child and he/she is a special needs child, and those poor parents have showed up in search of one shred of solace in their difficult family life. Perhaps the parent is busy serving the worship service through a role in the liturgy or music, or coffee hour, and simply can't always keep an eye on their child and their task every single moment. Perhaps that baby's been fussy for three solid days, and the mom came to church because she simply needs the Sacraments to get her through what may well be Day Four.

Child-based annoyances in church, when we begin to look at the bigger spiritual picture, are often simply God's wake-up call to look at how we are caring for each other in our shared community life. What kind of break could we have given the harried moms, dads, or grandparents on Saturday, that might have made Sunday easier? Are we a trusted person who can step up and work through things with the kids when they are acting out and the caregiver is needing to focus on an immediate task? Do we have a story to share at coffee hour that helps families and caregivers feel less isolated or alone in the rearing of their boisterous child? Is there something we can do in our normal interactions with the child that can help plant the seeds of good manners and good social behavior?

When I am open to exploring those options, and changing my behavior, I find my attitude changes, as well as the level at which they become an annoyance. I can catch myself even smiling in gratitude--because you see, if the truth be known, I've had days in church where I was so overjoyed with the liturgy, I secretly wish I could show it the way little kids do--by leaping off the top step of the chancel, zooming up and down the aisles, or spinning circles to the verge of dizziness before returning to my seat. If only I can be so lucky that God knows those feelings live inside me, even though I'm standing or kneeling reverently.

What stories can you tell of annoyances or irritations that became fuel for spiritual growth, and a reversal to a more Gospel-like view of the world?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

The angry priest or the boorish photographer?

by Andrew Gerns

Nearly everyone has experienced the insensitive photographer. Especially if you’ve ever presided at a wedding or a baptism.

My favorite moment came when I was doing a baptism and as the infant-candidate, the parents and sponsors gathered with me around the font, and after I invited all the children in the room to come forward and join us there, I looked up to see nearly every single adult friend and family member holding up a camera, video camera or phone.

My first thought was “I wish I had a picture of this…!”

Here was an image of how we have come to mediate our experience of the world: through a screen. We see only what we record.

But there have been times when things were more annoying. When a photographer
searches for the perfect shot but is completely unconscious of his or her context, they end up just getting in the way.

I once did a wedding where, just as the wedding party was gathered around the couple, a guy with a video camera was prowling around the group like a tiger getting reaction shots of not only the bride and groom but each member of the wedding party. I could see faces of each member of the wedding party as they reacted to the lens. The act of recording the moment had become the moment.

I was lucky. The mother of the bride, using nothing more than “The Look,” firmly directed the guy to “Sit! Stay!”

So when a video went viral showing an Episcopal priest telling a videographer, who had been shooting over his shoulder, to leave, I was sympathetic. First of all, it is clear from the video that the wedding was not in a church but at a park or catering facility, so he was doing a sacred rite at a secular location. This can be awkward because the priest tends to be seen as nothing more than 'hired help.'

When he said that the ceremony was not about the pictures but “about God,” I knew what he was saying: that this is a sacred moment, and the videographers were stealing from that by their intrusion. So part of me cheered a bit because the videographer earned the admonition.

On the other hand, the only image we have is of “The Angry Priest,” and the meme is the ruined wedding. That has become “The Story.”

The on-line comments appear to split 50-50. I have seen blog posts taking both sides. Interestingly, while there are lot of people mad at the priest for tossing out the cameraman and ruining the couple's wedding, no one appears to be mad at the cameraman for posting the altercation on YouTube and defining forever how the wedding is remembered.

Mark Twain once said “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” These days, when electrons are cheap and when everyone can be both a producer and publisher of content, it will not do to make a frontal assault against a culture that mediates experience through the screen. All it does is makes us look angry.

Although this never occurs to us when we are tripping over an over-zealous shutterbug, the truth is that we can’t be angry at the photographer one day and then the next bemoan that our message is not getting out. We can’t have it both ways.

Christians are in the story-telling business. And our story is Good News! We want to use these tools to communicate. As a parish priest, I love having pics and videos of worship because, well done, they tell people what we do and who we are. That means we can't snarl at photographers while expecting to use their product.

So I try to negotiate and educate. Sometimes it even works.

During the process of wedding and baptismal preparation, I direct the couple or family to tell their guests to limit their photography so that everyone can give their full attention to the moment. They should tell their friends that there will be one or two official photographers and that there will be pictures of the liturgy available later from them via e-mail, Facebook, Pinterest or some other form.

For weddings, I also have the couple give me the names of the photographers and I call them and invite them to the rehearsal as well as the wedding. This helps the photographer understand the blocking and timing, it also helps me clarify expectations and solve any unique problems. And it gives the photographer a wealth of candids.

Additionally, I have developed a list of photographers that we recommend, just as we do florists. They know our space and how we work and will make life easier for the couple.

And lastly, I ask both official and unofficial photographers to send me the pictures and grant the church the right to use them for our own communications.

All of this still doesn't prevent an intrusive photographer from happening. Just two weeks ago I did a wedding where the bride’s son, all 6'4" of him, was trying to catch the action on a pocket video camera. It was a small church and his large frame was going to block everyone's view. Of course, everyone was looking at him and not what was happening. Also, the official photographer--who was doing as I asked-- did not appreciate that she was being limited while this unpaid visitor was doing as he pleased. I did not stop the liturgy, but I did walk over to him (and, yes, still in full view of the group) at the first “break” in the action and quietly asked him to step aside and park himself in a spot where he could still take the pictures of his mother and not distract people from witnessing and blessing her marriage.

In a world where we more and more mediate experience through screens, one of the things we can do as a church is remind people that the best photographs, films and videos describe, highlight and interpret a much bigger world. The idea is to both communicate and take us back to a moment in time that is bigger than our perceptions and means more to us than we even realized in the moment. In other words, what photography does is very much like what liturgy does.

Both can connect us, aid in interpreting our experience, and help us makes memory.

Both liturgy and media help us know, tell and live our story.

But bad photography (and unconscious photographers) can like bad liturgy (and unconscious celebrants) get in the way. This is what happened in the video when it went viral: the conversation became about “The Angry Priest vs. The Boorish Photographers” when we should have been celebrating the couple’s marriage.

Photographic technology is so accessible that we forget all the work that goes into a good production. Similarly, a good liturgy should look easy because all the practice has paid off. One of the pastoral challenges of our day is to bring the two together in ways that allow us to see more deeply into the world God has placed us in and contribute to the ongoing story of God’s unfolding, creative love.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania, President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Bethlehem, and a member of the newsteam of the Episcopal Café.

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Uncivil tongues

By Lauren R. Stanley

What does it say about the state of dialogue in the Episcopal Church when it takes the president of the United States to remind us how to engage in civil discourse?

President Obama, speaking at the University of Notre Dame, asked, “As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?”

The president spoke about the failure of both sides in the debate over abortion to use “fair-minded words,” and said that he had learned through his own hard experience to “extend the same presumption of good faith to others” that had been extended to him. “Because when we do that,” he said, “that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.”

We in the Episcopal Church, and indeed throughout the Anglican Communion, need to take the president’s words to heart. For in our disagreements – about the proposed Anglican Covenant, about sexuality, about diocesan border crossings, about interpretation of the Scriptures – we have lost the ability to be civil toward each other, or, to put it in theological terms, to give grace just as much as we demand it. We far too often forget – or decide not to – extend the presumption of good faith to others.

And in doing so, we lost the possibility of common ground.

Any scientist, any social scientist, any doctor will admit readily that there are more questions than answers in the universe. We understand so little about the human body, the universe, diseases; we are baffled by economics; we cannot explain the workings of the mind fully. We admit that we do not know so very much, and we pursue greater understanding every single minute of every single day.

In theology, we boldly proclaim the same thing: God, Anselm of Bec taught us, is that which nothing greater can be conceived. The Apostle Paul proclaimed that now we see only dimly. Jesus said we cannot know the mind of God. We know that God is unknowable to us in all of God’s godliness, because God is so much bigger than we are. This is core to our beliefs about God, because to know God fully in this life is to reduce God to our size, which theologically is illogical.

Then one side or the other in a debate turns right around and proclaims to know the mind of Christ. In our eagerness to be more right than someone else, we proclaim that we know – that we KNOW – what God wants of us, what God thinks of us, what God demands of us. And no matter what we are debating, we throw around our beliefs as though they were written in stone, and in doing so demonize those who disagree with us, claiming that they are, quite simply, WRONG!

In listening to various debates on various subjects over the last 17 years, ever since I became an Episcopalian, I have been appalled at the abject level to which much discourse descends on a regular basis. The name-calling, the demonization, the decided lack of grace toward anyone who disagrees … it is shameful, really, how low we will go in order to try to “win.”

On the worst days of our debates, when we truly are demonizing each other, I wait, trembling in fear rather like Job, for God’s thundering response to our arrogance in proclaiming that we have all the answers. I hear God’s voice raging from the whirlwind:

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb; when I made clouds its garment, and thick darkness its waddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed?’ Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?”

The Lord God thundered on and on at poor Job and his companions, reminding them repeatedly that it was God, not them, who made the universe and everything in it.

“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” God asked. “He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

God alone has all the answers. We, on the other hand, are mere creatures of God, unable to understand all that God plans or all that God wants of us.

And it is clear to me that God, who does have all the answers, is not pleased when we demonize each other. We are all created in the image of God; there are no “us's” and “thems” in God’s very good creation. All of us are God’s beloved children. The only way for us to live into the love in which and for which God created us is to literally do what Jesus commanded us to do, as he stood on the edge of eternity, at the omega of his earthly life so that we could enter the alphas of our eternal lives: Love one another as he loved us. We do not love one another when we denigrate each other simply because we disagree on topics for which we truly do not know the ultimate answers.

As we go into General Convention in July, perhaps it would behoove us to be a tad more humble, a tad more willing to admit that we do not have all the answers, a tad more generous toward those who disagree with us. If we were to give more grace, and be much less boastful of our so-called knowledge of God, particularly on the points where we are most certain (and least knowledgeable), we might find more of the common ground of which President Obama spoke the other day.

Admitting that God alone has all the answers, and that we are but mere creatures stumbling about in the dark, would be a good first step toward a more gracious, a more grace-filled, discussion.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is an Appointed Missionary of the Episcopal Church from the Diocese of Virginia. She is a temporarily serving in the United States.

Rules of the Road

Hi folks,

I hope to be retolling the blog soon to include an "About Us" feature, some rules for posting and links to other blogs I like. But, as the discussions on the Muslim cartoon riots have elicted some unhelpful behavior, I am going to post the new rules and guidelines now. Please read them before your post again.


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Rage against the cartoons

Update on Moday 10 am. If you are following this converation, stay with it long enough to read Daniel Robinson, who writes with firsthand knowledge of the Muslim world.

ls Here is a story--courtesy of The Washington Post--that has been brewing for awhile.

"PARIS, Feb. 2 -- Protests against European newspapers' publication of cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad gained momentum across the Islamic world Thursday as Pakistani schoolchildren burned French and Danish flags and Muslim presidents denounced the drawings. At the same time, more European news organizations printed or broadcast the caricatures, citing a need to defend freedom of expression.

In another day of confrontation between the largely secular nations of Europe and Muslim countries where religion remains a strong force in daily life, Islamic activists threatened more widespread protests and boycotts of European businesses. While some European officials sought to defuse the crisis, many journalists insisted that despite Islamic outrage, religious sensibilities should not result in censorship.

"We would have done exactly the same thing if it had been a pope, rabbi or priest caricature," wrote Editor in Chief Serge Faubert in Thursday's editions of France Soir, one of the newspapers that printed the cartoons."

The eagle-eyed Kat called my attention to this issue about a week ago, and, frankly, I was hesitant to post an entry about it. In the earliest days of this blog, many of the most vitriolic anti-Daniel posts that we received we even more vitriolicly anti-Muslim. Most were deleted on reception. Their gist, to the extent that it can be rendered without obscenity-laced jingoism was that Christians are morally superior to Muslims because Christians only launch boycotts when their religion is insulted, while Muslims launch jihads.

I didn't want to sit at my computer all day on bigotry patrol, so I decided to keep an eye on the issue before deciding whether to post something. I put this entry up now because a) the issue isn't going away, and b) I think most people on the blog have gotten used to each other and this has allowed us to establish some level of civility.

I often conclude these entries by pitching in my own two cents. But my knees are too wobbly on this one ot take a stand. So I am in the market for a persuasive opinion.

By the way, this is a very hot blogging topic according to Slate. And the World Council of Churches has this to say.

So's your old man, 3

Gentle commentators of every opinion,

In recent hours, our conversation has been heated, and largely unenlightening. I realize that rhetorical self-indulgence is not enumerated among the seven deadly sins, but I'd rate it no lower than ninth. Can we resolve, together, to conduct our disagreements in a way that does not sin against charity?


So's Your Old Man, Part 2

I am always struck by how entirely those who claim to know Christ are betrayed by the self-indulgent quality of their rhetoric. Many of this morning's posts are far more offensive than anything you will encounter tonight on "Daniel"--not because of what they say, but because of they way they say it.

It is always bracing to be told one is going to hell, that one's Church is the tool of the devil, etc., and while I appreciate many of the poster's seeming concern for my soul, I wish they would show similar concern for other people's feelings. It is possible to tell someone you disagree with them strongly in a way that allows them to hear it. Give it a try, eh?

So's Your Old Man

An AP story published on Washingtonpost.com has brought the blog a bigger audience, and a somewhat more bumptious one. So just a reminder regarding etiquette: Comments like "Episcopalians stink." and "Burn in hell," while admirably concise, are not going to make the cut on this blog. Thanks for keeping it cordial.

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