Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Eulogy for the Rev. Francis W. Carr

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
May 27, 2008

Eulogy for the Rev. Francis W. Carr (1925-2008)

Frank Carr is one of the major reasons why I am a priest today. Throughout my journey to ordination his friendship, encouragement, love and prayers were a huge support for me. But the greatest gift he gave me is a simple definition of what it means to be a Christian. He used to say, to be a Christian means living a life of love, forgiveness and service. Love, forgiveness and service – simple, beautiful and quite a challenge for all of us.

So, where to begin? Well, I can say at least one thing for sure – Fr. Carr is loving this service! He is thrilled to have his beloved St. Paul’s filled with his family and friends and members of the congregation. I am sure he’s been singing along with us in heaven, with that big, booming voice of his. Yes, Fr. Carr is loving this service just as he loved so many services in his long life and his long priesthood.

Actually, he had been to a couple of really good services in recent months. He happily told me how beautiful Easter was at St. Paul’s this year – one of the best he could remember, he said. He loved that the children were able to play such a big part in the service. And many times he told me how much he enjoyed John Negrotto’s preaching. And back in December I was so happy that he was able to come out to Grace Church in Madison to be at my ordination to the priesthood and to serve as one of my presenters. After the ordination he pulled me close said, “It was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end.”

And, you know, that’s how I feel about his remarkable life. “It was magnificent. I didn’t want it to end.”

I wish I had known Frank Carr in his prime. The man I knew was already shrouded in blindness and burdened with a great deal of physical pain. And, of course, there was a deep loneliness and sorrow after the death of his beloved wife, Lee. Yet, as I heard the stories over many wonderful afternoons across the street in his apartment – usually with a glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream and a delicious lunch prepared by Jane – as I heard the stories I came to realize that this man had lived a magnificent life of adventure, a life of boldness, a life in service to Jesus Christ.

Despite the Great Depression, his childhood in Boston seemed to have been normal and happy. But then, like so many of his generation, he was caught up in World War II and ended up serving in the Pacific. It’s interesting to me, although he told me many stories and some were repeated often, he never went into any detail about his wartime experiences. Once or twice he said, “Someday I’ll tell you about the war.” But, he never did. So, I can only imagine the horrors that he witnessed – humanity at its worst.

And yet somehow out of that crucible of war came a deep sense of call to the priesthood. And, as might be expected, this New Englander stayed close to home, attending Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven. But then Frank’s story takes an unexpected turn. Bishop Daniels of Montana visited the seminary and asked the priests-in-training, “Will you go on an adventure for Christ? Will you come to Montana?” And only one said yes - Frank Carr. Each time I heard that story it amazed me. Montana was a long way from all of his family and friends. And to hear Fr. Carr tell it, Montana in the 1950s was still a lot like the Wild West. There were lots of guns around and there were saloons where the young priest was told he should not enter. There wasn’t another Episcopal priest for many miles. And yet this unlikely and wild place is where he chose to begin ordained ministry.

From Montana it was on to Washington State and then to St. Alban’s in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. (When I think of Frank’s ministry, I always picture him on a journey circling the country.) Movie stars went to St. Alban’s, and Fr. Carr spoke warmly of people such as Fred Astaire and Spencer Tracey. In one of my favorite stories, one time Fr. Carr was greeting people after a service and as a woman approached him, he said “Your face is so familiar, have we met before?” And the woman looked at him kindly and said, “I don’t believe so. My name is Olivia DeHavilland.” Forty plus years later he was still embarrassed not to have recognized one of the famous faces of the day.

It was in L.A. where Frank met the love of his life, Florence Lee Anderson. In his telling, at least, they seemed to have hit it off instantly and she soon signed on for the life of a priest’s wife – a life sharing and supporting his ministry - and a life living in places not of her choosing…

Such as Texas – which was the next stop. Fr. Carr was busy in Texas, building three churches, including St. Mark’s in Arlington which he started in a living room and is today one of the largest churches in the Diocese of Ft. Worth. However, living in Texas in the 1960s meant taking sides in the great issue of the day – the civil rights movement. To his eternal credit, this Yankee from Boston stood up for equality, marching and speaking out for desegregation and decency. But, that courageous choice came at the cost of late-night threatening phone calls that remained forever vivid in his memory.

Those threats against him and his young family finally led to one last, unlikely stop – right here at St. Paul’s in Jersey City, 1969.

He often said that his ministry here in the city was the most satisfying of all. And what a time to be in the city! What a time of dramatic change and conflict – a time when the old Jersey City was dying and something new and different was about to be born. And Frank and Lee – and their children Leslie and Bruce – were in the thick of it.

He was proudest of his long service to Christ Hospital and starting the summer program for neighborhood children – a program that over the years provided a safe, fun and nurturing place for hundreds of kids during those steaming and dangerous summers of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

He was also very proud of the good relations he had with clergy from other denominations. For many years whenever a new priest or minister arrived in Jersey City they received an invitation to dinner with Frank and Lee next door at the rectory. I’m told that Lee was a phenomenal cook – so I’m sure this hospitality and delicious food went along way to create warm friendship among the clergy.

It was a time of great change in Jersey City and it was also a time of great change in the Episcopal Church. Frank admitted to me that he had opposed women’s ordination, but after meeting so many superb women priests he had come to realize that he had been wrong. He and I disagreed about the current controversies in the church, but he always listened to me and grudgingly admitted when he thought I had made a good point.

There is a story that Fr. Carr told often – it was important to him and I believe it sheds so much light on Frank’s faith and character. He and a certain bishop were having a disagreement about something and, as Frank remembered it, in the heat of the argument the bishop said, “Frank, you’re worthless!” And Frank responded “No, you’re wrong. I’m not worthless. I’m made in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ. I’m not worthless.”

It’s an important story because Fr. Carr recognized his own worth and in my experience he recognized the worth of all people as children of God redeemed by Jesus Christ. And I think the richness of his ministry was a result of treating people with the understanding that they have great worth.

Now, of course, he wasn’t perfect – he could get angry and frustrated – and when he yelled with that big voice you wanted to get away as fast as possible! But, on the whole, he treated all people as beloved children of God. And throughout his long journey around the country from Boston to Montana to Washington to Los Angeles to Texas and to Jersey City, over and over his life of love, forgiveness and service touched people’s lives. And in return people continued to keep in touch with him for many, many years. Sometimes when he felt down, I would remind him of this vast network of people all across the country who cared deeply about him.

A couple of Decembers ago I had a wonderful encounter with this vast network of love. I was visiting him over in the apartment and he asked if I would go downstairs and get his mail for him. When I got his mailbox open, there was so much mail wedged in there, I had trouble getting it out. This was one day’s worth of mail. I saw that along with the usual bills and junk there were about two dozen Christmas cards. When I got back upstairs, he asked if I would read the cards to him. As I read card after card, it was an incredibly moving experience to realize how much he was loved by so many. And today it makes me aware of how many people all across the country will be mourning this great man, this faithful priest, this good friend.

Frank Carr lived his magnificent, adventurous life as a faithful Christian. He lived a life of love, forgiveness and service. He recognized his own worth and he recognized the worth of others. You and I can remember Fr. Carr and honor him best by treating one another as beloved children of God and living lives of love, forgiveness and service.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Trinity: God is Relationship

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
May 18, 2008
Year A: The First Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday)
(Genesis 1:1-2:4a)
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20
Psalm 8

The Trinity: God is Relationship

Well, today is Trinity Sunday. It’s the one Sunday each year when we try to focus on the Trinity - our understanding of one God in three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I don’t need to tell you that the Trinity is a great and profound mystery. It is notoriously difficult to wrap our minds around the idea of the Trinity – just how can God be both one and three at the same time? It’s a running joke in the church that since the Trinity is such a challenging concept, it’s very common for the rector to graciously pass on the opportunity to preach on the Trinity, generously giving their pulpit to the curate, or the seminarian, or anybody they can find. Now, I know what you’re thinking, so for Lauren’s sake I want to state for the record that I volunteered for this duty.

All kidding aside, the Trinity really is a deep and profound mystery – and it is challenging to talk about and definitely challenging to preach about. Of course the great mysteriousness of the Trinity hasn’t stopped theologians and church leaders from arguing over the meaning of the Trinity and how these three divine Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - interact among themselves and interact with us. The Nicene Creed that we say each week was an attempt to get Christians on the same page about what the early church had come to believe about this one God in three Persons. The creed is helpful, maybe, but it certainly doesn’t explain the profound mystery of the Trinity.

So, what to make of the Trinity? There’s a famous old story of the great Church Father, St. Augustine, one day walking along the beach contemplating the Trinity. Up ahead he saw a little boy digging a hole in the sand. The boy then ran out into the waves, scooped up a bucket of water, and ran back to pour it into the hole. He did this a few times until finally Augustine approached him and asked, “Boy, what are you doing?” “See that ocean out there?” the boy asked. “I’m going to pour that ocean into this hole.” “That’s impossible,” said Augustine. “You cannot fit the ocean in that tiny hole.” The boy looked up at him and replied, “And neither can you, Augustine, fit the Trinity in that tiny brain.” The story goes on to say that the boy then disappeared, as apparently he was an angel.

But, just because Augustine and we will never understand how one God can be in three Persons doesn’t mean that we should stop using our tiny brains to wrestle with and reflect on the Trinity. Just the opposite! After all, even though we know we’ll never understand it, what could be more important than reflecting on the nature of God?

And this morning as we celebrate Trinity Sunday and we celebrate a baptism we have the perfect opportunity to reflect on the nature of God. As I’ve prayed about and reflected on the Trinity I’ve come up with two points. First, if we really reflect on the Trinity we realize that God in Three Persons is a perfect, loving relationship. God is love, but God is not just love. After all, what is love without an other, or others? Not much at all. No, God is not just love – God is not just love sort of floating around out there. The Trinity reveals that God’s very essence is a perfect relationship of love. God is relationship. This is who God really is – a perfect relationship of love. The relationship is perfect so as Jesus says in today’s gospel, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” There is no division in the relationship among Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Some of the early Christian theologians described the relationship among Father, Son and Holy Spirit as perichoresis - an eternal dance of love. In seminary my Church History professor actually acted out the dance with two of my classmates – which made me laugh, and made me glad I wasn’t picked, but also helped me to remember this powerful image of Father, Son and Holy Spirit dancing away for eternity.

My second point is that the amazingly Good News for us is that in Jesus Christ and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit we are invited to participate in God’s eternal relationship of love. We are invited to participate in God’s eternal loving dance.

The whole sweep of Scripture tells the story of God reaching out to men and women – trying over and over to build a relationship with us. This morning’s lesson from Genesis tells the familiar story of creation. Because it’s so familiar we might miss the crucial point that God could have created only things – unthinking objects. Instead, because God wants to be in relationship, God created us – thinking, feeling, and free creatures. Free to accept the offer of relationship with God or free to reject the offer of relationship with God. From the tragic image of God searching the garden for Adam and Eve who are hiding in shame to God becoming human in Jesus, over and over God has invited us into relationship.

How we respond to that invitation is the big question of our lives. I probably don’t need to tell you that often we get ourselves into trouble when we try to fill our need for relationship with God by desiring lesser things. How often do we try to fill our need for God’s love by turning to material things? If I just have …. then I’ll be happy. Never seems to work, does it?

Instead, we are invited to open our hearts and allow God to build a relationship with us. And hopefully we respond to God’s invitation by building loving relationships with one another. It seems to me that relationships of love are what the Trinity is all about and loving relationships are what we as Christians should be about. We are made to be in relationship with God and with one another. One of the most moving things about being with Constance in the last weeks of her life was recognizing the many close relationships she had built with so many people. We are made to be in relationship with God and one another.

And it turns out that science is revealing what Scripture has told us all along – it is relationships that make us truly happy. A few weeks ago there was interview in the New York Times with a Harvard social psychologist named Daniel Gilbert, who wrote a book called Stumbling on Happiness. In the interview Professor Gilbert said:

“We know the best predictor of human happiness is human relationships and the amount of time that people spend with family and friends. We know that it’s significantly more important than money and somewhat more important than health. That’s what the data shows. The interesting thing is that people will sacrifice social relationships to get other things that won’t make them happy – money. That’s what I mean when I say people should do “wise shopping” for happiness.”

I like that expression – “wise shopping for happiness.” We do “wise shopping for happiness” when we deepen our relationships with one another and when we allow God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit - to be in relationship with us. We were made to have these relationships.

And, of course, we are about to witness some “wise shopping for happiness” in this morning’s baptism. In baptism God forges a bond with us – makes a relationship with us – that can never be broken – no matter what we do or don’t do. In baptism, our relationship with God can’t be broken. As Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Like St. Augustine on the beach, in this life we will never understand the Trinity. But, we know enough for now. As we reflect on one God in three Persons we realize that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a perfect relationship of love. God is relationship. And the Good News of Scripture - the Good News of Jesus Christ – the good news of baptism - is that all of us are invited to be in a relationship with God. All of us are invited to the dance.


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Thin Places

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
May 4, 2008
The Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36
(1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11)
John 17:1-11

Thin Places

Well, Holy Week is past. Easter Sunday is past. The bishop’s visit has come and gone. We’re done with the groundbreaking. And everybody who was supposed to be confirmed was confirmed. And I’ve noticed that things are starting to slow down around here at Grace Church. And as things are starting to slow down, I’ve begun to think about the J2A pilgrimage to Northern California this summer. For a little more than a week we’ll be visiting the various Spanish missions along the coast – retracing the steps of those adventurous missionaries who brought the Gospel to that beautiful land. It should be a wonderful trip and I’m starting to really look forward to it.

Actually, I’ve never really been on a pilgrimage before. Sure, I’ve visited places where pilgrims go; I’ve been fortunate enough to go to Rome and to Canterbury. A couple of years ago Sue and I were in London and I dragged her around to all these sites connected to Anglican history. It was just before I started seminary and since I didn’t have to write papers about them yet, I was enthused about Anglican theologians like Richard Hooker, who lived back in the 16th Century.

One of the places we went was the Temple Church, an ancient church where Richard Hooker had served as rector. When we first got there it wasn’t open yet so Sue and I went and had coffee. When we got back to the church even I was surprised to see a line of about twenty people waiting to get in. I smugly said to Sue, “See, I’m not the only one. Look at all these people who are interested in Richard Hooker!” She looked at me skeptically but made no comment. Inside, I noticed that these “pilgrims” were spending most of their time staring intently at and taking pictures of the graves of medieval knights. I couldn’t help eavesdropping on their conversations and I heard a few of them say “DaVinci Code.” These people were not there for Richard Hooker. No, they were there because they were fans of The DaVinci Code. It turns out that a scene in that bestselling book takes place in the Temple Church. Sue had been right to be skeptical.

Oh, well. People make pilgrimages for all sorts of reasons. Thousands of people visit Graceland every year because they love Elvis. People visit the Temple Church because they admire Richard Hooker – or because they enjoyed The DaVinci Code. But why do we make religious pilgrimages? I mean, God can be found in Madison. God can even be found in Florham Park or Chatham. So why would we feel the need to actually visit Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury or Northern California? Why would we make these trips? What do we hope to find? What do we hope to experience?

In Celtic Christianity there is the idea of “thin places.” Have you ever heard of that? It’s this very beautiful idea that there are places or events in life where the dividing line between the holy and the ordinary is very thin – so thin that the ordinary becomes holy and the holy becomes ordinary.

We go on pilgrimages because we hope to find “thin places.” We hope to find places - we hope to have experiences - where there is very little separating the holy and the ordinary.

And today’s lessons are really about thin places, aren’t they? In the lesson from the Gospel of John, we have a part of what’s known as Jesus’ high priestly prayer just before his arrest and crucifixion. Don’t worry if you had trouble following this convoluted passage. If we read this passage carefully we realize that John is struggling to describe Jesus as being both on earth and in heaven at the same time. He’s describing Jesus in a thin place.

Take a look at it again. John begins his account by writing, “Jesus looked up to heaven and said…” Seems like an ordinary start of a prayer. But we quickly realize that Jesus is in a thin place. The dividing line between the holy and the ordinary gets very thin. Jesus says:

“I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” Jesus is still physically on earth but John is describing the break down in the barrier between heaven and earth, between the holy and the ordinary.

And finally, the passage ends with Jesus saying, “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

In this passage Jesus is in a thin place – the barrier between the holy and the ordinary has become very, very thin indeed.

Our other lesson of course is the account of the Ascension in the Acts of the Apostles. The idea of Jesus ascending into heaven is a tough one for a lot of people to believe. The problem, of course, is that we have a much different understanding of how the universe works than people who lived a couple of thousand years ago. As Lauren mentioned in her homily on Ascension Day there are some people in the church who just dismiss the Ascension as absurd, as impossible, and think we should delete it from the list of things that we say we believe.

But to reject the Ascension as myth or fairy tale would be a huge loss and is really missing the point. The experience of Jesus and the apostles on the mountain that day was a very profound thin place. Talk about the barriers between the holy and the ordinary breaking down! Jesus’ body – which had been a normal human body like yours and mine, was first transformed in the Resurrection. Remember the post-resurrection stories? Remember how the evangelists try so hard to make clear that the resurrected Jesus was not a ghost or a spirit but was a physical presence? Remember how Jesus was the same but different? Remember the disciples on the road to Emmaus who at first don’t recognize him but then they do when Jesus breaks the bread? Remember poor Thomas being invited to touch the wounds?

And now in the Ascension, somehow, in some equally mysterious way, Jesus’ transformed, resurrected body passes through the barrier separating heaven and earth. At the Ascension the thin place becomes very thin indeed.

After this profound experience the disciples are left staring into the sky – yearning for Jesus, yearning for the holy.

And the truth is we are made to yearn for the holy. We yearn for the thin place. We try to satisfy that yearning with all sorts of other stuff, but really all that truly satisfies us is the experience of the holy – the experience of the thin place – the place or the experience where the barrier between the holy and the ordinary becomes so thin. And that’s why we do things like make pilgrimages. And if we find a thin place in Rome or Canterbury or Northern California, that is certainly wonderful. I suspect, though, that we find thin places in Rome, Canterbury or Northern California because on pilgrimages we are particularly mindful and open. On a pilgrimage we are really paying attention, really looking, really seeking. On a pilgrimage we sort of expect, or at least hope, to find a thin place.

But I believe that if we brought that same attitude of mindfulness and openness to our daily lives we would find thin places all the time. And if we reflect on our lives, I believe we would find that we were in thin places and we might not even have realized it. We need to lead our whole lives as a pilgrimage – seeking out, watching for the thin places all around us.

Often we experience thin places at the big moments of life – like births and deaths. And if you think about it, it’s at those big moments when we are really focused on what’s really important.

But we can experience thin places in seemingly small moments too – delivering a bed or a dresser or a microwave oven to a person in need; planting flowers with a child; preparing a casserole for a family touched by illness; visiting someone in the hospital or nursing home; singing or playing a musical instrument; or even simply sharing a meal and having a conversation. We can experience all of these as thin places - if we pay attention.

We are in the midst of a very thin place right here at church today. Now, we might not always experience church as a thin place because we’re distracted or tired or inattentive or stressed out, but when we worship the fact is heaven and earth draw very close to one another.

Just as Jesus crosses the barrier between earth and heaven in his high priestly prayer and in his ascension, so too we cross the barrier between heaven and earth when we join our voices with “angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven” who forever sing their praises to God. Here in church the barrier between heaven and earth, between the holy and the ordinary becomes a very thin space indeed!

Finally, there is the thin place of the Eucharist itself. Could there be anything more ordinary – or thinner, for that matter – than this simple, virtually tasteless wafer? Yet in the thin place of the Eucharist the holy and the ordinary truly become one.

Today’s lessons offer us glimpses of two thin places as Jesus crosses the barrier between the holy and the ordinary, between heaven and earth. As we make our pilgrimage here on earth, let’s keep an eye out for thin places – the places or events in life where the dividing line between the holy and the ordinary is very thin – so thin that the ordinary becomes holy and the holy becomes ordinary.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

A Groundbreaking Snapshot

The Messenger
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
May 2008

A Groundbreaking Snapshot

When I was praying and thinking about my sermon for Sunday, April 13, I found myself looking ahead to the following Sunday when Bishop Beckwith would make his visit and would celebrate with us the groundbreaking of the new parish hall. In my sermon I predicted that the bishop’s visit and the groundbreaking would offer us a “snapshot” of what the Church hopes to be and what the Church really is – the Body of Christ on earth. I have a decidedly shaky track record when it comes to predicting the future, but this is one time when I was right on the money.

I can only imagine what the day felt like for the many of you who have lived through the long years of discussion and planning that led to the turning of the first shovelfuls of soil. I know, of course, that some in our community have had serious reservations about the project. There have been concerns about the expense and doubts about the need. Some parishioners have criticized the discernment process that led to the decision to build a new parish hall. On the other hand, many other parishioners have been enthusiastic and generous supporters of this project from the start. This lack of agreement should be unsurprising. Frankly, it would be highly unusual if there were unanimity in a parish this size about a project this significant.

I found it very moving that most of the parish, regardless of varying personal views, came together to welcome the bishop and to celebrate this milestone in the history of Grace Church. Although the weather was not as bright and sunny as we might have hoped, the day still provided a beautiful snapshot of Grace Church at its best. I am still amazed by the amount of care and effort that goes into planning all of our services, and especially major events such as the bishop’s visit. Nina Nicholson crafted the program and the Grace Notes with her usual keen eye for style and accuracy. Anne Matlack somehow juggled choir members’ schedules and prepared the choirs to produce beautiful music that was thoughtfully-chosen for the occasion. Mary Lea Crawley did her typically sensitive and creative work with our children, giving them a tour of the future construction site and making sure they were equipped to be an important part of the groundbreaking. Despite the mystery of just how many people would show up, Midge Cassidy pulled together a very fine reception. And, of course, Lauren Ackland was, as usual, the calm (at least on the outside) center of the storm. As I told a few people that morning, this was one of the many days at Grace when I was glad to not be the one in charge! This great day was not without its errors and glitches, but overall it offered a beautiful snapshot of Grace Church at its best – a joyful place where God is worshipped and glorified.

And then in the afternoon a good number of us went to Trinity + St. Philip’s Cathedral for Confirmation which, like the bishop’s visit to Grace, was a powerful reminder that we are part of a larger Church. Gathering together Episcopalians from the city and the suburbs in our cathedral offered us another beautiful snapshot of the Church being what it really is – the Body of Christ on earth.

One of the highlights of this long, full day was the adult seminar led by Bishop Beckwith before the 10:00AM service. The bishop shared with us his compelling vision for the Diocese of Newark – a vision of all of us standing with the Living Christ at the “Gates of Hope.” Although I had first heard the bishop outline this vision at our clergy conference in October and later at the diocesan convention in January, there was something particularly powerful about hearing him describe his vision right here at Grace Church. He has challenged the diocese – has challenged us - to focus on the four core values of worship, spiritual formation, justice/nonviolence and radical hospitality.

The bishop’s visit and the groundbreaking of the new parish hall give us a great opportunity to reflect on how we as individuals and as Grace Church embody these four core values. In what ways might we enrich our worship, deepen spiritual formation, promote justice and nonviolence, and offer radical hospitality to all, especially the poor and oppressed? In short, how will we here at Grace Church more fully be what we really are – the Body of Christ on earth?