A Personal Message of Joy, to Several Constituencies

December 21, 2013: Last day on the job

Maplewood peeps: Look for me no more behind the deli counter at Kings. After 12 months of a second stint of slicing meat and washing dishes, I’ve replaced my income there with a part-time job that involves a desk.

Princeton peeps: When they told us “there’s no limit to what you can do with a Princeton degree,” did you realize they meant no limit in either direction? 🙂 Kidding aside, in this economy I’ve been thankful for the income, and for the expansion of my paradigm of service.

Episcopeeps: I’m delighted to announce that I am again becoming a professional Episcopalian.  In January I start work as part-time Director of Communications at Christ Church Ridgewood, serving a community of faith through newsletters, bulletins, social media and more.

December 2009: An earlier stint at Kings (with a cooler hat) led to a longer post

Communications peeps: As I mentioned, my new job is a part-time gig, so I remain very interested in freelance writing and editing opportunities.  Let me know if I can help your organization meet your communications needs.

As we prepare to ring in the New Year, I’m grateful for the precious gift of Today and excited by the prospect of Tomorrow. I’m grateful to Fr. Greg Lisby, and look forward to serving God and the people of Christ Church. Always and forever, I’m grateful for my beautiful wife Nina Nicholson, the Web Goddess, who never ceases to love and inspire me.

To all my peeps, and all who read these words: May the spirit of Christmas continue in your life as Epiphany approaches, and may you find joy and prosperity in the New Year.

(Photos by the Web Goddess, of course)


Giving Thanks for Our Country and Those Who Defend It

On Thanksgiving, as on every day, I give thanks for the men and women of the United States armed forces — especially one sailor very dear to my heart, who has been away from his family since April.  From The Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad.  Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Stay safe, Son, as you return from your final deployment and rejoin your bride and stepson.

A Bishop, a Rabbi and an Imam Appear on “Morning Joe,” Advocating Peace

The Web Goddess works for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, and for over a year has been supporting her boss, Bishop Mark Beckwith, in his work with the Newark Interfaith Coalition for Hope and Peace.  I first discussed this effort after an interfaith service on the 10th anniversary of September 11.

Yesterday Bishop Beckwith and his interfaith colleagues, Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz and Imam Deen Shareef, were guests on “Morning Joe” with Joe Scarborough on MSNBC.  Their measured and thoughtful discussion of the spiritual implications of the Newtown massacre was a sharp contrast to the preceding shoutfest about the fiscal cliff.

The complete segment can be found on the Morning Joe site, which also has a transcript and a nifty ability to create and embed a sub-clip.  For my Episcopal friends, if you can’t spare 8:44 to watch the whole thing, the 1:13 sub-clip below has Bishop Beckwith discussing fear and a culture of violence.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Celebrating Ten Years of Father Bernie Poppe’s Ministry in Maplewood

The Rev. Bernard W. Poppe, center, was congratulated at coffee hour by two special guests -- the Rev. Canon Gregory A. Jacobs, Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Newark, and the Hon. Victor DeLuca, mayor of Maplewood, NJ. Bernie is holding a proclamation from the Mayor and Township Committee.

On September 29, 2002, the Rev. Bernard W. Poppe led his first service as Rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Maplewood, NJ.  I had the privilege of serving on the search committee that called him, and I still remember how he started his first sermon.  The parish had been through a rough period — another priest had accepted our call, then resigned before ever taking the pulpit, setting up a second, 18-month search process.

Fortunately our church has a history of strong lay leadership, which sustained us during three years with two excellent interim rectors.  So on that Sunday morning we all watched with great anticipation as Bernie stepped into the pulpit to preach for the first time as the seventh Rector in what then was the 97th year of St. George’s.

“Finally!” he said.

His opening gambit was greeted with laughter and applause, and the laughter and applause continued today, a decade later.  Congratulations to Bernie and to the people of St. George’s, for building a vibrant ministry together.

Happy Birthday America!

I’m pausing briefly between grilling the veggies and grilling the chicken to give thanks for the blessing of American citizenship, a lottery I won on the day I was born.

On this sun-drenched afternoon, inspired by the Episcopal Collect for Independence Day, I’m grateful for the patriots who lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn.  I’m grateful for the modern-day men and women of the U.S. armed forces, who sacrifice to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.

A special shout out to Petty Officer Second Class Harry Petersen, aviation boatswain mate on the U.S.S. Nimitz, currently pulling hardship duty… um… in port in Hawaii.  But hey, he’s done two tours in the Arabian Sea, and helped provide disaster relief after the Japanese tsunami.

Be safe, son.  I love you.

No Going Back: Reflections on Gay Pride 2012

St. Georgians, from left: Ron Garner, Aleeda Crawley, your humble scribe, the Web Goddess, the Rev. Chris Carroll, David Gorman, Bill Jaglowski, Bruce Lyons, Kevin Clark, Tony Bousanti. Chris West took the picture.

The Web Goddess and I were part of a contingent from St. George’s Episcopal Church in the Gay Pride March in Manhattan Sunday.  It was our second march — some of the same people participated in 2007.

I was struck, in a very positive way, by the pervasiveness of corporate sponsorship.  Coca-Cola was the “Presenting Sponsor,” and all of the T-shirts for the parade marshals and other volunteers said “Diet Coke” on the front.  (Mischievous thought: is Diet Coke more gay than “regular Coke”?) Other sponsors included Macy’s, Delta Airlines, AT&T, Citigroup, Target and New York Life.  There were less staid sponsors and participants as well, of course, but the buy-in from the titans of commerce testifies to the inevitability of equal rights.

Lots of NYC police marching in uniform — not just the Gay Officers Action League, but a dozens-strong police marching band as well.  The cop on duty at our intersection was bantering with the crowd.

The March has gotten huge, creating a prosperity problem for participants in the staging areas. We had been told to expect to step off around 12:15, but it was about 3:30 when we finally left 38th Street and set foot on Fifth Avenue.  We could have had brunch.

Several of the St. Georgians wore the T-shirt the Web Goddess designed five years ago — a Rainbow Jesus Fish with the legend “I’m a Christian, and I support Equality”.  As we waited to march, three passers-by asked permission to take a picture of me and the shirt.

There were just 11 of us from St. George’s, but we packed a lot of diversity into a small group: gay and straight, black and white, male and female, clergy and laity, Democrats and Republican.

The huge LGBT for Obama contingent was passing out signs and big round stickers, which I tore off as quickly as my gleeful friends could slap them on me. (The comeback that didn’t occur to me in time: “No thanks, I go the other way.”)  The Log Cabin Republicans were represented by about four guys with brave smiles.

It pains me that my party is on the wrong side of this issue, but the resistance is only going to weaken over time.  This is the civil rights struggle of our era, and the road leads in only one direction.

Gay Rights Pioneer Preaches Forgiveness at St. George’s Church

Welcome, Patch readers!

Louie Crew preaches at St. George's Episcopal Church, Maplewood. Photo by Nina Nicholson

Louie Crew, the founder nearly four decades ago of a national gay-acceptance organization within the Episcopal Church, preached at my home congregation in Maplewood Sunday as part of the church’s celebration of Gay Pride Month.

Same-sex marriage has become a prominent issue in recent years, but the idea is not entirely new.  Crew, an emeritus professor of English at Rutgers University in Newark, told the St. George’s congregation he had solemnized his relationship with Ernest Clay in 1974, in a private ceremony based on the wedding service in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

“After we married, I wrote my parents,” Crew said from the pulpit.  “They replied with the hardest letter I ever received.  They knew I was gay, that was not the problem.  Ernest being black was the problem.  They wished us all happiness, but asked me not to bring him home.  They hoped that I would continue to visit, but they did not want to ‘put their friends to the test,’ they said.”

Crew continued, “I showed Ernest the letter.  He responded with his enigmatic smile. … [Ernest said] ‘they have every right to be who they are. You could not love me had they not taught you how.'”

Over the years, Crew’s parents gradually became more comfortable with having a gay black son-in-law.  One day Crew’s father called and asked to speak to Ernest.

“Ernest, we’re Christians,” Crew’s father said. “But we’ve not behaved like Christians to you, and we desperately need your forgiveness.”

“That’s easy,” Ernest said.  “You have it.”

Crew told the congregation Sunday, “I not only believe in the Holy Spirit, I have seen the Holy Spirit happen.”

Crew noted that many gay people have much less redemptive stories about their families.  “We know full well that we did not choose our biological families, but we can, and must, choose as family those whom we respect and those who treat us with respect. That’s why St. George’s has been such a special place for at least four decades.”

Crew’s sermon continued St. George’s month-long observance of Gay Pride Month.  The prior Sunday, St. George’s presented a forum with the former leader of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, and the church sponsored a table at Saturday’s South Orange-Maplewood LGBT Pride Festival.  On June 24, a contingent from the church will march behind a St. George’s banner in the Gay Pride March in New York.

Religious Liberty Clashes With Reproductive Rights in Contraceptive Mandate

Whenever I write or talk about abortion and reproductive rights, I’m careful to describe each side with the term it has chosen for itself:  “pro-life” and “pro-choice”.  It’s a simple policy decision, really — any discussion of the appropriateness of either term quickly becomes tendentious, and people have a right to decide how to self-identify.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions about the terms people use.  “Anti-choice” and “anti-life” are argumentative metatags.  “Anti-abortion” seems descriptive and largely not provocative, although I understand the preference for being “pro” something.

Conversely, “pro-abortion” does seem provocative and inappropriate.  For years I told myself, nobody is really pro-abortion, but people like me believe a woman should have the right, at least under some circumstances, to decide whether to have an abortion.

I’ve been pro-choice my entire adult life, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable with it. Bill Clinton had it about right when he said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”  Abortion is a deeply personal, sometimes wrenching decision made on the threshold of life and death.  It’s much like the decision, at the other end of the timeline, on whether to remove the feeding tube or refrain from resuscitation. At both ends, I believe the choice should be made by the people who are most directly affected, and the rest of us should move along.

But there is, at the very least, something morally ambiguous about abortion, and it becomes more troubling the closer the fetus comes to viability.  I’m not particularly interested in debating when life begins — it’s enough to know that it does begin.  Barring miscarriage, disease or trauma, the fetus eventually becomes a baby.  If someone says “abortion is murder” I have no trouble ignoring them.  The slogan that clutches at my soul is “abortion stops a beating heart.”*

In recent years, it’s become clear I was mistaken in believing nobody is “pro-abortion.”  I was projecting my own values onto people who did not necessarily share them. I was utterly appalled when a prominent priest in my own Episcopal denomination proclaimed that “abortion is a blessing” — under every circumstance.

Think I may be exaggerating? Here’s the passage in question:

And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion — there is not a tragedy in sight — only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing.

These are the two things I want you, please, to remember — abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Let me hear you say it: abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done. Abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.

Now that same mindset — the idea that reproductive rights are absolute and trump every other consideration — is at play in the current controversy over the Obama administrations mandate that Catholic organizations must cover contraception free of charge in their employee health plans.

Personally I think the Catholic Church’s opposition to all contraception — whether or not abortifacients are involved — is silly and misguided.  Most Catholics outside the hierarchy agree.  The 98% figure floated by the White House seems to be exaggerated, but it’s safe to say the overwhelming majority of sexual active Catholics use contraception if they don’t want to make a baby.

But nobody is talking about denying anyone access to contraception.  Any person with a job that includes healthcare coverage makes enough money to be able to afford some form of reliable birth control, even if the employee has to pay every dollar of the cost.  The debate is whether a Catholic organization should be forced to pay for a product or service that the church believes is immoral.

Despite Justice Douglas’s emanations from penumbras, the Bill of Rights doesn’t actually say anything about reproductive rights.  But it does say something, explicitly and forcefully, about religion.  Liberals and Democrats would be well-advised to be more deferential to religious liberty when one of the three people most likely to win the next presidential election is Rick Santorum.

* This isn’t literally true of very early-term abortions.  But fetal heartbeat begins as early as week six — well within the first-trimester threshold established by Roe v. Wade.

Brush With Greatness: Episcopalian Edition

I teamed up with the Web Goddess on Sunday to produce a web report published today on a visit to a Jersey City parish by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

The occasion was a centennial celebration by Church of the Incarnation, launched in an era when black Jersey City residents had to travel to upper Manhattan to find an Episcopal church that welcomed them.  If the PB does something official in the Diocese of Newark, the Web Goddess is going to cover it, and I’m enough of a fan of The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori that I was willing to take an unpaid assignment.  Employing our usual division of labor, I did the words and the Web Goddess did the pictures — including the behind-the-scenes shot at the reception with your humble scribe above.  (That’s a shrimp tail on the PB’s plate.)

More behind-the-scenes tidbits: if you click through to the story itself, you’ll find a group photo of the PB with some young interns, and everybody is grinning broadly.  The smiles are because I, in my customary role as photographer’s assistant, am making bunny ears over the Web Goddess’s head while she takes the picture.  Works every time. I later told the spiritual leader of two million Episcopalians that making bunny ears is “the work I feel called to do.”

(Earlier blog posts in the Brush With Greatness series describe my encounters with Jimmy Carter and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.)

A Bishop, a Rabbi and an Imam Walked Into a Room a Few Miles from Ground Zero…

I just came from the Episcopal Cathedral in Newark, where I helped the Web Goddess record for posterity an interfaith service marking the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.  There were solemn remembrances, of course, but also proclamations of faith and hope for the future.  There was even laughter, as there should be whenever human beings of whatever faith come together in community.

I was in the balcony videotaping the entire service.  In her role as Director of Communications and Technology for the Diocese of Newark, the Web Goddess will find a variety of uses for parts of the footage (pixelage?).  Her boss, the Right Reverend Mark Beckwith, Bishop of Newark, was one of three speakers, the others being a rabbi and an imam who serve with Bishop Beckwith on an interfaith coalition.

I was too busy fiddling with the video camera to take notes on the reflections of the three clerics, all of which were grounded in the knowledge that Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship the same God.  Newark Mayor Cory Booker attended and made brief remarks, and the Star-Ledger sent a reporter, a photographer and a videographer.  [The video by Nyier Abdou was particularly well done. For A.T.I.N. groupies, there’s a quick glimpse of the Web Goddess at the left at 0:24, and of me with a video camera on a tripod in the balcony at 1:04, and at 2:47.]

To me, perhaps the most moving part of the service came near the very beginning. The muezzin from a major mosque in Irvington walked to the lectern in this Episcopal church and chanted the Muslim call to worship, a hauntingly beautiful recital I had never heard in person before.

The service bulletin thoughtfully provided an English translation of the call to prayer, which begins and ends with “Allahu Akbar.”  Tragically, that phrase is associated in my mind with the hatred and anger of too many terrorist attacks. It was a blessing on this day to hear in those words an affirmation of our common humanity.

(Mr. Sabir Salaam of Masjid Waarith ud Deen in Irvington chants the Muslim call to prayer at Trinity & St. Philips Cathedral in Newark.  Photo by the Web Goddess, of course.)