Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Silence: The Perfect Place for God

Silent Night
Holy Night



Good evening and Merry Christmas to you! My name is Paul Bresnahan and I come to you as an ordained Episcopal Priest, now celebrating 41 years of ordained service in the church. I have served congregations in the Diocese of Massachusetts, Ohio, South Carolina, West Virginia and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Cindy and I returned to our native Boston area. I have retired three times and now your vestry and I have agreed to a three month time of coverage. So now I am now working on my fourth retirement. I’ve been a rector, a priest in charge, an interim, but this is now the first time I’ve been a “bridge priest”. I suppose if you live long enough, you’ll see just about everything!

We come to Christmas Eve, my favorite service of the year. This is Christmas, literally the Mass of the Nativity of the Christ Child. We celebrate the birth of a child born to an unwed mother, and in a family of modest means. He is born in a stable where the animals surround him, shepherds come to visit, Wise Men begin their journey and heaven and nature sings “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all.” Here and now in the darkest time of the year the Light of the World dawns upon us in its most vulnerable form.

And the event evokes in us such love and such devotion as to move our hearts in ways any birth of any child moves us. But this is the Holy Child, this is the Mother mild, this is the Holy Family. And so we sing “Silent Night, Holy Night” as radiant beams from heaven afar warm us all.  Often when we sing these song, tears of joy and tears of sorrow so deep begin to fall for some because this Silent Night, this Holy Night touches the deepest part of our souls.

It sure does me, and not just because I’m a sentimental Irishman. This is because of the fact that in the bleak mid winter of my eighth year to heaven, my dad died. There is no easy way to say that. It was on December 27th 1953. That’s 60 years ago this Christmas. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was difficult to understand for an eight year old. It was the signature moment of my early life.

I do remember praying to the silence at night as I listened to the bells toll out the hours from St. John’s Church in Cambridge or as the trolleys along Mass Avenue squealed steel wheels upon steel rails...there were trolleys tin those days. And so it was that I prayed to the silence long into the night and often cried myself to sleep, recognizing increasingly day after day that I would never see my dad again. There were those who said that he couldn’t go to heaven because he didn’t go to church. And so it was that I began to wonder; “Not only will I not see my dad again in this life, neither will I see him in the next.” Some Christians could be awfully mean I thought then, some still are.

On the other hand there was my grandmother; a woman of enormous faith, compassion and love. She sent me to church with a coin to put in the collection plate. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen in my life. Much like this holy place, there were stained glass windows, beautifully hand carved wood, a choir with the sound of angels, and the magnificent literature of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. I fell in love with the church then and there. They did ask me to say “Our Father who art in heaven.” I looked high into the clerestory of that magnificent church and could not see my father or Our Father. But there was something about being there that made me mindful of God, of Jesus and what they called the Holy Ghost. That one spooked me a bit, but I was only a child.



In the meantime I prayed to the silence at night. My mom would have me kneel by my bedside and say a prayer that went; “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake....” Egad, not only my dad, now you’r talking about my own last moments and I’ve hardly just begun to live. And so it went night after night; Silent Night after Silent night. By the way Cindy and I changed the language of that prayer; “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Guard me Jesus through the night, and wake me with the morning light.”

But then one day on my way home from church one very sunny and beautiful day, I found myself sauntering along by an old and shabby city hedge. I mindlessly pulled a solitary leaf off that hedge and pressed my thumb into its girth. As I looked down at the green chlorophyll that now found itself stain my thumb nail, I “heard” something in my heart that seemed to say something. I heard no voice, but there was something like a sense that moved inside the deepest place of my heart. Whatever or Whoever it was that moved in my heart at that moment changed my life, because in the total silence the still small voice said; “Don’t you know there’s a special place in My heart for your dad?”

I stopped dead in my tracks, and gave voice to the sense that spoke deep within. I said it right out loud; “Don’t you know that there’s a special place in My heart for your dad?” My whole being shuddered, my heart raced with excitement and I ran home as fast as I could, burst into the front door, and bounded into the kitchen where my grandmother was busy at here cast iron skillet she called her spider, peppering up something good to eat. 

“Ma”, I said, “is there really a God?
“Of course there is”; a pretty straight forward question and answer that was.

“Ma, is there a heaven?”
Now somewhat irritated, after all she was in the press of providing for the family meal, hardly a time for the pursuit of theology but she did say; “Of course there is”. 

So I dared ask this question; “Ma, is my daddy there?” I knew that I was taking my chances with a question like this. After all, more than once she said that it was the Irish who ruined Boston. Especially in the aftermath of the divorce, my mom has her issues with my dad. So did my grandmother. She did hesitate, I must tell you, but what she did then became an unforgettable moment for me. 

She knelt down and held me close. She folded my head into the nape of her neck and she said; “Of course he is” Even now it is as though I can still smell the scent of her hair, the kind of “odor of God” the Christian mystics write about of their encounters with the Divine . 

Now when I went to bed at night the silence became a Presence. That Presence became Someone I could pour my heart out to. In time I learned that that the Presence had a Name. God, my creator, my dad’s creator, the creator of all that is visible and invisible. The Presence had a Name; Jesus, the savior of the whole world...of all who would turn to him and love him who first loved us. The Presence had a Name; The Holy Spirit, the Holy Wisdom from on High, the gift giver of all that is good and noble and true and pure. 

Now the Silent Night became the Holy Night. I gave myself body and soul to the Holy Trinity. For me this was no doctrine but my living Companion. And as I bound myself to the strong Name of the Holy Trinity day after day, Holy Night after Holy Night, I became a man who from my boyhood wanted to be a priest of the church.



I wanted to stand at the Altar of God and in the pulpit and tell all who wanted to hear, and many who didn’t that there’s a special place in God’s heart for you, each and every one of you, of all those you love both in this life and in the life to come in the ever nearer Presence of God.

So Merry Christmas! God be with you and may you be with God this Holy Night; this Silent Night. It is a joy to be with you tonight in this very, very sacred space. May God bless us everyone.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


Fr Paul

Saturday, December 21, 2013

God with Us; ALL of us

God With Us

Grace and Peace be unto your from God. Good morning to you all. It is like coming home again. I served at St. Andrew’s in Methuen from January 1991 to October of 1995 and am somewhat familiar with the greater Lawrence area. Now I come to St. Paul’s, my namesake saint. When I was confirmed in the Diocese of Toronto in 1958 an English bishop asked me my name. I told him and he said; “A good name. I hope you can live up to it!”
So now after 41 years of priesthood, I’m still working on that. I have served here in the Diocese of Massachusetts at St. Luke’s in Malden and Christ Church, Quincy concurrently from 1972-1975. From there I went to Christ Church, Hyde Park during the integration crisis from 1975-1983. My next call was in the Diocese of Ohio and I served at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid on the east side of Cleveland. Again I dealt with issues of race among a people of faith seeking a pathway to peace and reconciliation. It was then that I came to Methuen and because of its location on the Lawrence line the issues of race, language and class came to the fore. At Saint Mark’s Church in Saint Albans, West Virginia we dealt with poverty. We developed a soup kitchen, a food pantry and I became the lightning rod in the midst of controversy in our efforts to build a homeless shelter in the neighborhood. Race, class, poverty all converged upon us there, and we remained faithful to the Gospel. Then there was the matter of gender and orientation, now with two of my three boys gay; and a certain bishop in New Hampshire and again there was more controversy. After a cross burning and drug deals gone bad, we, the church, were there along with other churches to witness to the power of God in our midst. So after all that I retired and became the part time Priest in Charge of St Peter’s in Salem, for five years and after all that retired a second time. Not long afterward a church in the Diocese of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania asked me to serve there as interim, and after 15 months, I retired a third time. Now here we are, for the next few months walking together on the way to heaven. That heaven is within all along. God is with us all along. “Purify our conscience by thy daily visitation” as the collect of the day puts it; a daily visitation indeed!

That’s exactly it; God with Us, Emmanuel. That is the Gospel Proclamation for this time of year. For it is precisely in the whoop and warp of controversy and conflict that we discover the nature of God. The birthplace of Jesus is in that part of the world where conflict, violence, human bigotry and warfare are constant and never ending. It is an indication of where God wants to be born and born again throughout all of human history.
My wife loves those complete makeover shows on TV. Me, less so. But the point is that God is looking for a complete makeover in the human heart. And that is why Jesus was born to us. Jesus wanted to introduce us to the work of repentance, which does not mean sorrow for sin alone, but the complete makeover of the heart and soul of the human being. In Greek the word is “metanoia”. It is the same root as “metamorphosis”. You can see why the early Christians liked the image of the butterfly for the resurrection. For them as to us it is as if Jesus were inviting us to change from the grub of what is given in life, into the brilliant and beautiful butterfly God wants us to be for the glory and good of the world Jesus came to save. He invited us to learn the words repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and ultimately love. For it is in those words that we learn to live large into the Kingdom of Heaven now in the time of this mortal life so that we can prepare ourselves to live that way in the life to come.

In the meantime there was this Ahaz we read of in the first lesson today. He was not a particularly good king by any measure God would use. He reintroduced human sacrifice for instance into the religious ritual of the day. If the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac means anything to us in the long chronicle of sacred history, it means no more of that! But, Ahaz looked around at the Assyrian religious practice of his time, he sold out to them with an enormous financial gift, and then in cahoots with the Assyrians laid waste to Damascus and Israel in order to keep Judah safe, and then tore down the altar of God in order to build one of the Assyrian type. 
That’s when the prophet spoke to the king to tell him what must come after. His prophecy of the young woman and her child has its historic context for that moment in time, but for us, the image of that Woman and her Child has come to mean so much more to us in the cosmic and universal context. 
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God,
The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
~Isaiah 9:6

The music of Handel’s Messiah sets these words into our hearts with great joy and considerable excitement that they set the tone of this entire season for those of us who love such music.

The prophet spoke to Ahaz at considerable personal risk. Jesus spoke to a dark world at considerable personal risk. You and I speak of God’s call to repentance, forgiveness, reconciling power, and love at considerable personal risk.

Imagine this if you will, becoming a church like the one we are. As a young man, I went to the National Cathedral with a youth group from Toronto. I lived in Canada with my folks from 1956 to 1967 and learned a great deal about both Canada and the United States by being there in those formative years.

Over the great west doors of the National Cathedral are these words; “A house of Prayer for all people.” That made perfect sense to me then. It still makes perfect sense to me now. But it is not as easy as it sounds. We’ve been working out the particulars of that great biblical statement. Jesus uses the expression at the cleansing of the Temple, a story that occurs in all four Gospels and the Prophet Isaiah said it before him when speaking to foreigners and eunuchs. They were wondering; “Where do we fit into God’s great salvation plan?”. It was their vision. It is our vision; to be and become “A House of Prayer for All People”.



Who knew that since the time I saw those words engraved over the great west doors of our National Cathedral that we had so much to contend with in the succeeding years. 

I went to seminary two years after Jonathan Daniels was killed defending a young black girl in Alabama. There was and is the struggle for civil rights. There was the business of gender equality. My mom worked at payroll in what was then The First National Bank of Boston. Men were paid at one rate, women at another and for doing the exact same job. It struck my mom as unfair then in the mid 1950’s. It strikes me unfair still that gender bias continues to exert itself into our current social circumstance. The church ended that bias with regard to ordination. There is more to be done. More recently there has been the issue of human sexuality and orientation. Two of my boys happen to be gay and so again the question arises; can we really be “A house of Prayer for all People”.

When we say that God is with us, when the prophet says, that his name is “Emmanuel”; God with us, there is the ethical challenge to the human heart; can we really effect a complete makeover? Can there be a metamorphosis a repentance that makes over the human heart in such a way that the whole world can be embraced not only by the arms of God but by the embrace of God’s people? 


For me the great proclamation of Christmas is Emmanuel; God with us. God with us all. In other words, or more specifically in Jesus’ words “Love one another.” This is Christmas, this is the new born baby who seeks to be born in every human heart; the complete makeover that delights the heart of God as heavenly angels sing “Peace on earth, goodwill toward all”. 



Peace and the Joy to Christmas to all,

Fr Paul

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Homeless Shelter and St. Nicholas Day

A Gift for the Homeless

Happy St. Nicholas Day to one and to all.



Thirteen years ago on this date, on behalf of the Twin Cities Center, I closed on the purchase to acquire a former upholstery shop in Saint Albans, WV. It is a long story, but suffice it to say two folks died under a bridge one snowy day in St. Albans, and I vowed to see to it that the homeless had another way to live other than among make shift shelters made of cardboard boxes under a bridge. Then came the police harassment. Then came the denial by the city fathers.

That's when I kicked into gear and went public with a major media campaign on behalf of the homeless, many of whom happened to be war veterans. It was a grueling campaign. Every neighborhood, of course, fought the idea of locating a shelter in their back yard. A friend of mine who was the executive director of the local chapter Habitat for Humanity, said that NIMBY had become BANANA. "Not in my back yard" was now "Build absolutely nothing anywhere never for anybody". We laughed...sort of.

Then I found what I thought was the perfect place; the aforesaid upholstery shop. It was directly on the main drag in Saint Albans, MacCorkle Ave, for those of you who know the area. The problem was that I needed some money for the down payment. That's quite a problem when you're trying to run a church on a shoestring.

Then, as if by some kind of divine clockwork, an elderly and feeble voice called me out of the blue. She asked me if I were the minister who was working on the homeless issue. I allowed as to how that indeed was the case. She then asked me if she could send me $25,000 to help buy the building I needed to put together suitable space for the homeless. I said that would be nice.

The woman sent me the check. It was written in a feeble hand aged with time. There was no address on the check. It was #102. My heart fainted, wondering if it were just a fond wish without the cash to back it up.

I went to the bank post haste, deposited the check, and by God it was good. I then entered into a purchase/sale agreement. We closed the deal on St. Nicholas Day in 2000. That's thirteen years ago today.

There was still much heartache to go, a court battle, some staffing issues, and lots of controversy. But my congregation, and my Bishop stood by me, and eventually the shelter was built, I handed the thing over to Roark-Sullivan Lifeway Center to own and operate what then became known as the Twin Cities Center.

Many of us believe in the "sanctification of time". It is an idea that says all our days our holy; days like Christmas, Easter and other days for other religious traditions.

So allow me to take today to say what I said to a wonderful, generous, and sweet older lady; "Happy St. Nicholas Day".

Fr. Paul 

Friday, November 29, 2013

"THANKS-TAKING"

As for me and my family we will be nowhere near any retail stores today.



Thanks to the marketing gurus of Walmart, the Corporate Greed of Financial Institutions and Multi-nationals, much of America and the Western World has been sold a bill of goods. Like sharks in a feeding frenzy many will descend upon the Big Box stores and push their way through to a bargain.

It is not necessary to live this way.

There are many other ways to live.

Today I will enjoy a long walk with the dog, I will do some writing, listen to some good music, enjoy the company of my wife and be in touch with our children. The eldest is visiting his friends in Britain. The next is with his friends in Virginia. And the youngest is in Chicago with his friends.

One works for an inner city anti poverty agency.
One is devoted to great literature, particularly the mastery of Shakespeare.
The third sings for an internationally renowned acapella singing group.

Living as an ethical presence, on behalf of the poor, delving into the human condition through the literary corpus, and singing exquisite music....ah, these are the things that satisfy something profound in the human soul.

Much is missing in the human soul if it does not satisfy itself with something a bit more profound than crashing the doors at Walmart.

As for me and my family, we shall search for something more. Something to satisfy the soul.

Thanksgiving is not "for" anything. I am certainly not thankful that I am rich in things. I have enough and am giving away much of what I have accumulated through the years.

No, Thanksgiving is a way of life. Gratitude is simply the manifestation of a heart that finds in life all that is uplifting and especially on behalf of those who had been laid low.

The American worship of the Almighty Dollar has much to learn.

This Black Friday is black indeed. Especially when it blackens the soul with nothing more than the frenzy of shopping.
Black Friday is black indeed when it exploits the worker with a minimum wage that keeps working people working harder and falling further into poverty.
The Pope is quite right in calling this a modern form of idolatry.

"THANKS-TAKING" is a very long way from Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving!
Fr Paul

Friday, November 01, 2013

Gotta Love Everybody!!!

"Love One Another"

"Love one another." 
"A House of Prayer for all people."

Sounds simple enough.

But when we try to put such an idea into practice, all hell breaks loose. Just take a look at the Episcopal Church, for instance, as a microcosm of the struggles we've been having in the wider culture in the past half century.

Lets say we decide through a democratic process to consecrate an openly gay man as a bishop in the Episcopal Church. After all, we were only doing openly what had been done secretly for centuries, and not just in this branch of the Catholic Church. Take a good look at this man; according to Jesus, you must love him even if he happens to be a happily married gay man.


The furor left in the wake of this decision has left our church in schism in some places...but by and large, we in the US have bonded together more strongly as we seek to remain faithful to our understanding of the Gospel. 

After all, we are a "House of Prayer for All People".
We seek to "Love one another".

It all happened before as we broke the barriers of gender and through democratic process again, we elected a woman to serve as a Bishop in the Diocese of Massachusetts. Take a good look at her. Jesus said you must love her too.


That was years ago. To go you one better we even elected a woman to serve as our Presiding Bishop. Take a good look at her. You must love her too, if you claim to follow Jesus.


She was treated uncharitably by the Archbishop of Canterbury and many other bishops of the Anglican Communion shortly after her election. But we remained unmoved in our resolve to be a "House of Prayer for all People" where we would be obedience to the moral mandate to "Love one Another".

I am old enough to remember a time when race was a matter of great controversy. God help us, it still is. And we elected this man to be the Bishop of Massachusetts. He ordained me in 1972. John Melville Burgess is held in very high esteem these days, but I can remember a time when some of my "white" brothers made disparaging and uncharitable remarks about him.


The church and the culture around it is struggling to make our sacred spaces and our nations places where race, class, ethnicity, gender and orientation are no longer pigeon holes that divide us, but merely facets of a jewel through which we may see the Glory of God refracted through every human face.

In a moment of sublime insight, Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles ("Outsiders") said this of our discipleship; "There is no longer Jew or Greek (or any other race or ethnicity), there is no longer slave or free (or any other class or economic status), there is no longer male or female (or any other classification by orientation that separates one kind from another), for you are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord". Galatians 3:28.

November 1 is All Saints Day in the Church's Calendar. The Church Calendar is an attempt to sanctify time. The sanctification of Time is a hollow notion without the sanctification of all humanity.

As a teen I was brought on pilgrimage to the National Cathedral. As I looked up at the great west doors of that magnificent church, I saw these words; "A House of Prayer for all people." ~ Isaiah 56:7. That made such good sense to me.



Little did I know how contentious and controversial that simple proclamation would be to follow as a disciple of Jesus. The Gospel's mandate to "Love one another" trumps the simplistic Pharisaical human tendency to organize people into convent boxes of orientation, gender, class, ethnicity, and race. How can Christian folk say such things when we are all "one in Christ Jesus our Lord".

Look what happened to Jesus. So often he found himself in conflict with the rich and powerful, but that never stopped Jesus for speaking up for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized. The Gospel for All Saints Day has a bite to it. The Lucan version of the Beatitudes places these words in the Savior's mouth. 

They are well worth reading again.

"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
"Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
"Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
"Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
"Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
"Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets
"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."
     ~Luke 6:20-31

In the meantime we live in this world but not of this world. 

Happy All Saints Day,
Peace to all,
Fr Paul

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Want to Know God?

Listen to the Silence

It really is that simple. If you want to know God, listen to the Silence.
Not preachers.
Not televangelists.
Not even the local parish priest.

But listen to your own heart
In silence
Before you fall asleep
Perfectly still
Listen

I learned this as a boy. 




When my father died at Christmas. I was merely 8 years old. And when I cried myself to sleep at night; night after night; all I heard was silence. This went on for 18 months when one bright sunny summer day on the way home from church, I picked a solitary leaf off from behind a chain link fence, a single solitary leaf from off a city hedge.

As I pressed my thumbnail into the leaf and the life blood of that leaf left its green chlorophyl there for me to see, that's when I heard something in my heart that said; "Don't you know there's a special place in my heart for your dad?"

There were no voices. No sounds. Still there was but a profound silence.
But now I was able to give voice to the Silence.
Notice there that I have capitalized the word "Silence".
I spoke out loud what the Silence spoke to my heart; "Don't you know there's a special place in my heart for your dad?"

When he died there were some uncharitable words for my dad. There had been a divorce. Distant cousins who were "Christian" said my dad couldn't go to heaven because my dad did not go to church.

Thankfully, my family wasn't particularly religious, so they told me not to pay attention to them. Still, it was tough to discover that my dad was never coming home again. Tougher still to wonder if I'd even get to see him in the life to come. I began to think that "Christians" could be mean. 

They still can be.

So then I ran home to my grandmother to ask her;
"Ma, is there a God?"
"Yes," she said, "of course there is".

"Ma, is there a heaven?"
Somewhat irritated, after all there were mouths to be fed and mealtime was hardly a good time for theology. But still, she answered; "Yes, of course there is".

So now I pressed my luck. With a note of authority, I asked her;
"Ma, is my daddy there?"
I knew what she thought of my dad. More than once she said it was the Irish that ruined Boston. Furthermore, the thought of an Englishwoman spending an eternity with an Irishman must have given her pause, but then she did the unforgettable one act that changed my life; she knelt down and she folded my head into the nape of her neck and it is as though I can still smell her hair as I write this story and she said; 
"Of course he is".



My heart leapt for joy now at night as I poured out my soul to the Silence.
Now the Silence became a Presence I could talk to.
I learned that the Presence had a name;
God.



I learned that the Presence had a Holy Name;
Jesus



I learned that the Presence filled me with the Holy Wisdom from on High and was called;
The Holy Spirit



God came to life for me in the Silence, where I still meet God night after night and day after day.
And so it was that I gave my life to the Holy Trinity.

Not a doctrine but a living dynamic within the Silence I have come to know and love as the Living God.

It was then that I decided to become a Parish Priest so that I could share this message with all who yearned to hear it and many who didn't. 

Gay or straight, black or white, male or female, rich or poor....we are ALL ONE IN CHRIST!

So if you want to know God, listen to the Silence. 
Listen closely to the profound Silence.
In the Silence God will speak to you and say;
"Don't you know there's a special place in my heart for You!"

Fr. Paul

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Poor Man's Heaven. The Rich Man's Hell

Lazarus and the Rich Man




There is a lot of talk about religion out there.  What passes for Christianity in some quarters not only bears no resemblance to the Founder's vision of faith, it is down right immoral.

The current crop of right wing religionists in the House of Representatives deny food stamps to the poor in direct contradiction to the Founder's admonition; "Feed My Sheep". (John 21).

Now they want to deny health care to the poor and the 48 million Americans who have no health care, in direct contradiction to the Founder's admonition; "visit the sick in their distress". (Matthew 25:36)

It is fitting that the Gospel for this last Sunday would be the famous story of the rich man and Lazarus. They both died. But the rich man went into Hades (an interesting Greek concept for the afterlife) and Lazarus, the poor man went into the bosom of Abraham where he was comforted and filled with good things.

When the rich man begs Lazarus to send someone from the dead to tell us about the consequences of our behavior in this life, Lazarus explains that a great chasm separates the rich from the poor; and Heaven from Hell. And so it does. The great chasm between the rich and the poor is exceeded only by the chasm between the poor who are comforted in the bosom of Abraham and the rich who rest in torment.

Read the original if you don't believe me.

Let us pray for the rich and the poor in this country that we may find a way to close the chasm to make the salvation of all possible. Read these words carefully. If ever there were a headline for America to read today, this is it!

Religionists, please take note.

Luke 16:19-31

The Rich Man and Lazarus

 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” 


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reversing the Decline

Reversing the Decline
A Three Pronged Approach to Revitalization in the Church



Here is an outline of my current project. I have been invited to give the keynote address at the Diocesan Convention in Montana and then tour the Diocese go give power point presentations on the following material. The Bishop of Montana, Frank Brookhart has encouraged me to write this up. Given my experience in smaller congregations in the Episcopal Church during these past 41 years, I thought it made sense to share a conceptual framework for revitalization in the local congregation. Here is an outline of the work I am doing. I am more than half way through the project, which will be a cross between a book and a manual for church leadership. 

There are lots of book out on church growth out there. What I hope to do in all this is to participate in the conversation I believe the church needs to have as we consider the challenges facing us. 

But, what I believe is this; we must begin to think about reversing the decline we are in. Frankly, I believe we have been all too passive in accepting decline as if it were inevitable. I do not think this is necessarily so. There is also a great burst of energy "out there" within the Episcopal Church in particular and within the Progressive and Emerging Church in general for a new optimism. 

To reverse the decline we are currently experiencing, I believe we need to take stock of and strategize on how we might mobilize the local congregation around three general areas of community life.

I Community Ministry: 
Organizing the church's life around the needs of real human beings for justice and healing.
One on One conversations with communities leaders. How to organize and conduct those conversations.
Research and Demographics. The critical importance of doing your homework.
Identifying Issues: The act of identifying the issue(s) the congregation will organize its life around.
Networking: Identifying allies and those who will challenge the congregation's values.
Action Plan: Identifying what the congregation will do about any particular action.
Evaluation and making Community Ministry a continuing loop of a congregation's lead mission.

II. A Membership Drive. 
This is often called a Stewardship Drive in the Episcopal Church but I am using a word here "membership" as the "marketing" side of Stewardship. In the same way that NPR and PBS run membership drives, so too the church needs to "market" itself to the world and community it finds itself in.
Thus it builds a five step Membership Development Program as follows
1. Visibility. Every congregation needs to increase its visibility.
2. Greeting. Greeting skills need to be sharpened.
3. Orientation. Congregations need to help orient newcomers to the life of the church
4. Incorporation. The membership team needs to figure out when and how to "pop" the question of formal membership.
5. Apostolic Call. The job is not done when you have a pledge card. Only when each and every member of the congregation has the opportunity to participate in the church's ministry does our work have any sense of completeness.
Ongoing then the Membership Team will continue to "manage" the membership roster on a regular basis; no less than once a month.

III. Storytelling.
The third part of each presentation will be about the importance of sharing our faith through story. We will consider the importance of small groups; from Adult forums, group spiritual direction, reading groups all the way to altar guilds and choirs and how each group provides and opportunity to tell the story of Jesus and his love for us. The spirituality of a congregation becomes part of the ultimate appeal of a church.

The essence of mission and revitalization involves this and much more. But this conceptual framework provides a beginning.

Here then is the general outline of what I hope to present to the Diocese of Montana and within my new book. Please do let me know what you think.
Fr Paul



Saturday, September 14, 2013

Holy Cross Day

The Hard Wood of the Cross



There is an old prayer that puts it well

"Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen." ~Book of Common Prayer, page 101


Not everyone can love gay folks. This is especially true in churches. Most churches want to "fix" them. Some go so far as to say they are an "abomination". Others speak of them as if they were "disordered". But in the culture wars we have been fighting for many years now, we have been struggling to love all without regard to sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity, class, or language. For the truth of the matter is, neither can everyone can love black folks, foreigners, poor folks, or Spanish speaking people.

For Episcopalians and for the Emerging Inclusive Church, we like, Jesus have been struggling to stretch out our arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone may come within the reach of God's saving embrace. We have now come to the point where we have opened our ministry and membership to LGBT folks as well as straight folks, women as well as men, foreigners as well as White Anglo Saxon Protestants, Spanish speaking as well as English speaking folks. It has not been easy. In fact, it has caused enormous controversy and schism. 

But it is as plain as the nose on your face. Jesus stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone may come within the saving reach of his saving embrace. EVERYONE!!! As we seek to be obedient to Jesus we can do nothing less.

Today and everyday is a day to embrace the Holy Cross as Jesus did.

Happy Holy Cross day.
Fr Paul

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

All Aboard the Emerging Church!

All Aboard: Everyone is Welcome!



For my birthday, I wanted to take the Salem Ferry to Boston and have lunch at Durgin Park. My wife and I did that. It was a fun day. As we gathered at the Dock we anxiously awaited the invitation of the boat staff; "All Aboard"

When I was a child, I loved vacations with the family. I particularly loved seeing those "Episcopal Church Welcomes You" signs wherever we went. Every time I saw one, it was as though God spoke a kind word in my heart. I felt as though God actually welcomed me. I took this whole religion thing very personally. It was for me the ecclesiastical equivalent of the welcome words dockside at a ferry boat; "All Aboard!"

But then I discovered along that way that it was going to be a real battle for the church to mean what it said, and to say what it meant. I've been a priest for over 40 years now and what a struggle it has been.

There was the business of race for instance.

When I went to seminary, we had to do battle for civil rights in this country. I lived and worked in Harlem to try and understand what was wrong with the soul of this country. I discovered that the problem was not in Harlem. It was in White America. I have spent the rest of my life trying to deal with that reality within me and within my church. We are still struggling with that. One of my classmates, previous to me by two years, paid the price of the struggle with his life. Jonathan Daniels took a bullet for a young black girl in Hayneville, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. Now it appears that we have to fight the whole battle all over again as America's signature stain on her shoul rears back it ugliness in so many ways.



There was the business of our common worship life.

We went on to make the Liturgy more accessible to the contemporary world, and this was especially difficult in a church hide bound by tradition. Many, many folks treasured the language of our Elizabethan liturgy and rightly so. It is a treasure. But most of our contemporary world speaks a very different English. And the proof of the pudding is that most of our churches celebrate the Eucharist in the contemporary idiom, while still reserving the traditional mass for the early service in most places. It is an accommodation that makes good sense. Still we lost many to schism during this difficult period.



Then there was the business of gender.

It became clear, in fact it became obvious to most of us that there really should be no distinction between us based on gender. In fact Paul made it clear that when we are in Christ we are a new creation and that "there is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free" ~Galatians 3:28. This notion, as obvious and clear as it now seems, was a matter of great controversy to the church and again many left for more traditional congregations and denominations. When we elected our first woman bishop, Barbara Harris, it was just the icing on the cake for many, many more, and even to this day, many in the Anglican Communion still refuse a place at the altar for women.



And now more recently there is the matter of sexual orientation.

Then on the Feast Day of Pentecost in 2003, the Diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson as bishop, the first openly gay man to serve in that position anywhere in the Lutheran, Episcopal and Roman Catholic circle of faith. Mind you, there have been many gay folks serving as bishops and priests in all three but not so openly. All hell broke loose as many of you will know. The Anglican Communion was ripped apart in controversy. People threatened to kill Bishop Robinson. In fact he had to wear a bullet proof vest at his consecration. Christians can be hot headed about these things as others can be. It is no wonder to me why so many turn away from "organized religion". But we held to our position that the church is called to be inclusive.



We believe that when Jesus was among us, he went out of his way to include folks who had been specifically excluded from the Temple Precincts.
Excluded were Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, The Blind, The Maimed, Poor Beggars, and just plain fisherfolk. Eunuchs were also specifically excluded but Jesus specifically included them. You will no doubt remember that it was exactly to this crowd that Jesus reached out his loving arms. This got Jesus into lots of trouble. 

What sealed his fate then was his "Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem". He entered the Temple Precincts, saw the moneychangers and dealers in pigeons. In a rare demonstration of rage, he overturned their tables and said "My house shall be called a House of Prayer for ALL people, but you have made it a den of robbers."

In a few short days he hung upon a cross reaching out his arms of Love upon the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. 

So why is this concept so difficult for so many Christians to understand? Why do Christians erect barriers along definitions of race, ethnicity, gender, class and orientation? Obviously there is much fear still of those who differ from "us" whoever we happen to be.

But it is my birthday. I have worked a lifetime on all of the above issues. I was born into this church; the Episcopal Church, and I feel blessed on my birthday to have been born into it.

We are becoming a "House of Prayer for ALL People". I am grateful too that there is an emerging church that no longer adheres to strict denominational lines but along the lines of Christ's all encompassing love of everyone.



It makes for a very Happy Birthday indeed.

Blessings to you all,
Fr. Paul

Monday, September 02, 2013

Labor Day Manifesto

Full Employment Now!
Minimum Wage $15
Health Care
Pension
Paid Vacations



Labor Day 2013.

It is fitting that on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and on Labor Day we take a moment to remember and reflect. 

We are gaining momentum. 
The "Occupy Movement is still brewing beneath our feet. 
Moral Mondays are part of our cultural fabric.
Food Service Workers demand a minimum wage of $15 per hour.

When I dreamed up this page "The New Internet Union of American Citizens", several years ago, it was on the strength of a working people's manifesto. I called it the "King's Beach Statement", because that is where I wrote that statement. You can read the statement for yourself at the referenced link above, but the long and short of it is summarized in the following statements;
1. Full Employment Now. Jobs and Job Security should be the basic plank of the social contract on which our nation is built. No one need fear loose income, loss of health care, loss of home, loss of ability to pay bills. EVERYONE WORKS. If we can bail the big financial institutions over a weekend because they are too big to fail, so then we can bail the American family when times get tough. In other words, the Unemployment Bureau should be called the Employment Bureau. Unemployment Insurance should be called Employment Insurance. Our task is to set one another at tasks that satisfy and please us and meet the needs of our fellow citizens. Our work must be honored and we must be paid according to the honor in which we hold one another.
2. Minimum Wage at least $15 per hour. Corporate greed has gotten way out of hand. The working people and middle class of this country has taken a very hard hit. Our good paying jobs have been sent overseas, leaving us with jobs primarily in the retail and service sector. Walmart and McDonalds feel as though they can exploit the worker with part-time jobs and circumvent the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). 
3. Universal Single Payer Health Care. We will settle for Obamacare for now, but we should simply extend Medicare to all American Citizens just like Senator Bernie Sanders has suggested.
4. A Moratorium on Foreclosures until all Americans who wish to work are working.
5. Three weeks paid vacation for all after two years at work. Two weeks up until then.
6. Quit picking on gay folks and other minorities. Knock off the racism, sexism and classism. We are all one country. The great American Eagle cannot fly let alone soar unless we're all pulling together.



In the meantime, let's keep up the pressure. 
The Occupy Movement is still percolating underneath our feet.
Moral Mondays are now a regular feature of our retail and food service workers.
Let's consider the occasional one day "General Strike" perhaps on Moral Mondays just to remind everyone that their cup of morning joe may cost a bit more until all of us get a share of the wealth that this country has amassed.
Lets consider a Big General Strike on Black Friday and other big shopping days.
Lets flex the muscle of the American Worker until Corporations begin to get the point. Fair wages and benefit must be built into the fabric of our common life and become the fundamental plank on which we build the social compact. 

By the way this is all happening before our very eyes. Whether spontaneously or with careful planning and organizing, it is all happening before our very eyes.

Keep up the pressure.

Happy Labor Day America.

The American Worker is regaining his/her strength.

Peace to you all,
Paul Bresnahan


Monday, August 05, 2013

An Atheist's Gift to the Church

For the Soup Kitchen



We called it Christ's Kitchen. The way it worked was that ANYONE could walk in the doors of the parish hall every morning Monday to Thursday and Saturday (that way you'll never be without a meal two days in a row. It was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. You and your whole family were welcome to come in out of the elements. Breakfast was served at 8:30am, and lunch was served at around 11:30. We closed the doors at noon.

We made special efforts for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other holidays. We brought out the silver chafing dishes, and did it up right. We honored the Christ's Kitchen clientele as we would any honored dinner guest.

There was an atheist in town who came to see me in my office and told me that he wanted to give us $250,000 for our efforts in the kitchen. The money was not to be used for the church. It was to be used for "Christ's Kitchen". 



He wanted the money used not for what we said we believed.

He wanted it used for what we did.

He said what we did had more of the sound to Jesus to him than what we said in church.

I am a priest I hasten to add that what we do in church is very meaningful to me. But this gift has always struck me as especially meaningful.

There is a lesson in there for Christians, non Christians, atheists and others too.

Interestingly, Jesus said exactly the same thing.

"Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of the Father who is in heaven." 



It is as the recovery folks say; "Walk the Walk; Don't talk the talk".

Cheers,
Fr Paul

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Greed and Idolatry


The following is a a sermon preached at Trinity Church, Topsfield on August 3,2013
Greed and Idolatry

Good morning all. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Paul Bresnahan. I am a native of Somerville, Massachusetts. I am married and have three grown male children two of whom live locally and one of whom lives in San Francisco. He sings for a well known musical group “Chanticleer”. I received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Glendon College, York University in Toronto, Ontario in 1967. I majored in Psychology and minored in Sociology. The behavior of human beings as individuals and in groups has turned out to be a life long fascination for me in parish ministry. That I’ve done for over 41 years now in congregations in my home Diocese of Massachusetts, the Diocese of Ohio, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Most recently I served in an interim assignment in Douglassville, PA not far from Reading. Now, I’ve been invited to consider another position in the Diocese of Bethlehem. I felt like I was getting to old for all this until a 72 year old Irish carpenter came to the house the other day to do a few small improvement projects for us. We compared notes. He likes to work for 6 months and take six months off to go to Florida. I like to do part-time interim ministry and spend a week every month being in my home by the sea off Lynn Shore Drive. There the dog and I can watch the tides come and go. This is what keeps me going; the love of the sea and the love of the work I do for God and the people of God. People like yourselves.

I attended the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, MA; now known at the Episcopal Divinity School. I majored in Scripture and graduated way back in 1972. So then I studied the words of Jesus, the Law and the Prophets with some care.

In today’s Gospel, for instance, Jesus told us to be on our guard against all kinds of greed for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. My namesake, Paul the Apostle to the Outsiders and the Outcasts, identifies greed as being idolatry itself in today's Epistle. The Prophet Hosea recounts the story of God’s love for his people, and how he feeds them and quenches their thirst, but not just of the sort that is necessary for physical survival. He nourishes them with freedom from slavery and finds for them a Promised Land and gives them a Law to live by. But the people turned away from God to worship idols and God’s fury is kindled against them. So the story goes in today's First Lesson.

So today let’s turn out attention to greed and idolatry. My step father was a wonderful man. He was the only man able to love my mother, a feisty woman if ever there was one. But H.K. as my brother and I called him; his name was Homer Kershner, had backbone and knew how to stand up to my mother.  Oh the fights they had were impressive; but as I say he loved her. Neither my mom nor H.K. were the least bit religious. Mom was married and divorced at least three times we know of. When she married the only man who could really love her, the church refused to marry them. But this was back in 1958 long before the church revised its canons to allow for remarriage. And my uncle, well, my uncle was what my grandmother called a “confirmed bachelor”. I didn’t know at the time that meant he was gay. I had to become an adult to figure that out. He was reluctant to come very far out of the closet. And the church had little interest in standing up for the likes of him. As I say, all this was way back in the 50’s and 60’s, long before we talked about any of these things. I sometimes feel like there are eyes and smiles looking down from heaven as what now emerges as a much more merciful and inclusive church. I am pleased to say that I have played a small part in all this. Even now Pope Francis is making room in the heart of the church for divorced Catholics and gay clergy. Who would have thought!



But my step father was a very practical man. He was an engineer. It was his view that there might be a God. One can hardly account for the wonder of Creation without the notion of a God. So, as it was in H.K.’s theology; we can probably allow for God’s existence. Nice of him to all God to be, I thought. But as to the matter of life and death; it was pure simplicity; when you’re dead you’re dead. He was also a practical man when it came to business. He understood the rat race. He worked in the midst of it. To him business is driven by the profit motive and ultimately all that mattered was the bottom line. Ultimately, the only worship there was in the world was the worship of the Almighty Dollar. He said as much more than once and my mother would give her “Amen” to that frequently preached homespun sermon. 




As I grew more and more into the church, you can well imagine how our values clashed. Particularly as I studied the Scriptures such as the ones we have before us to study today, I sensed a collision between Corporate America and the Biblical mandates. 
Watch out for the Greed.
Feed my sheep
I have come to bring good news to the poor
Insofar as you have done it to one of the least of these you have done it to me.
These are the words I heard from Jesus. And so I built a homeless shelter and expanded soup kitchens, food pantries, and transitional housing for battered women and their families in congregations I served. The church as I have experienced it as least when it is vital and mission driven, organizes its live around the needs of the vulnerable in our midst. And we are fearless advocates for those in need. These values clashed with my family’s values.

Yet, I loved my step father. He was a good and honorable man and as I said before he loved my mother. As they ripened in age and faced weakness that age brings and began to face into the inevitable, my mother wondered sometimes about God and heaven, my step father continued to insist on his rather self evident truth, as he proclaimed it; “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” I often smiled at H. K. and said; “For living with my mother, you’re going to go to heaven whether you want to or not!” We all got a good chuckle over that one.

Greed and idolatry are two concepts that come back to us again and again in the scripture. And so does our love for one another. These themes continue to swirl around one another in a potentially creative or destructive dynamic. In the reading from Hosea today we see God’s wrath kindled as the worship of Israel strays away from the Justice and the Law of God; a Justice and a Law that requires the faithful to be caring of the vulnerable in our midst. But we know too how the prophets like Amos warned the people; “Woe to you who grind up the poor!” Notice that what deepens the ire of God in idolatry is not just the theological and liturgical dimensions of it; it is the way the poor end up being treated.

It is interesting that the warning involves the future of the nation. For if the idolatry continues the nation puts its own survival at risk. This is obviously true in the prophetic tradition. This same theme Jesus repeated at the end of his ministry. It is so important that the great Cathedrals of France like Chartres and Notre Dame repeat the theme in impressive sculptures placed prominently over the west portals. Every king, queen and commoner must pass under the same judgment seat of Jesus. There he is separating the sheep from the goats. I went to France earlier this summer with a group of young people from my church in Douglassville, PA. We were on Pilgrimage. None of the tour guides knew the of the biblical backdrop of that sculpture. To them it was just a quaint warning from a superstitious bygone society to keep the peasants in line. But none of the commentators I read seemed to understand that the sculpture was a reference to those ultimate questions of Jesus.
When I was hungry you did or did not give me something to eat.
When I was thirsty or not thirsty you did or did not give me something to drink. 
Likewise when naked, or sick or in prison...you did or did not minister to me.



Thus the nation shall be judged. Thus shall all the nations be judged; by how well or how shabbily the poor are treated. For insomuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me; Jesus said more than once. The French Revolution derived a great deal of its impetus from the callous disregard of the monarchy and the church for the plight of the poor. Whether she said it or not Marie Antoinette’s word’s “Let them eat cake” cut like a knife into the soul of the nation. The violent outcome may not have been necessary if the Monarchy and the Church had more of a heart for those in need. After all it was no less a light than Winston Churchill who quipped: “I’d rather fight an enemy who has been well fed than one who is hungry”. 

Alas, nations and empires come and go and when the heart and soul of a people is fully invested in the nation its chances improve significantly. But when the rich turn their backs on those in need history teaches us again and again that such a posture endangers the entire national enterprise. You can judge for yourself how we are doing on such measures especially when we think of something as directly related to this dynamic when our food stamp program is so drastically cut. As I say, you can judge that for yourself.

Suffice it to say idolatry and greed are directly related according to the biblical material we have before us. As we consider the factors that contribute to our social policies in the nation, I hope we also keep our biblical social ethic also in mind. 

Thankfully, God is reluctant to remove his love from his people as we can see from the passage in Hosea. Just because my step father and I disagreed about our theological position with regard to the resurrection did not interfere with our love for one another. We his children must also learn to love especially those most diametrically opposed to us.



After all, the Eagle cannot fly let alone soar without both wings. If those on the right wing learned how much we need those on the left and vice versa, imagine what we can do? In the meantime we sputter and stall in gridlock and mutually nullification. Imagine what we can become the day we discover we are all on the same side.
Fr. Paul