God of Power and Might…

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

A central part of the Sanctus we sing on most Sundays is that 5-word phrase of acclamation to our great “God of Power and Might.” During most services, I say or sing it with great zest, acknowledging this higher Power above all powers, so much mightier than even my silly stubbornness.

There are some days though, where this acknowledgment leaves me not just a bit uneasy, but resentful.

After all, if God is so all-fired powerful and mighty, how is it that this Good Lord will so often “choose to refuse” using that Power and Might to bring about a little more healing in this world of suffering and hurt, both of individuals, and of nations?

Was Salieri mocked by God?

Was Salieri mocked by God?

This nagging question first whacked me over the head in law school, courtesy of a movie that’s been rocking my spiritual boat for all the decades since.

In the 1984 Oscar-winning movie Amadeus, the popular and favored composer of 18th Century Austria was Antonio Salieri, not Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri was the one invited to all the best dinners and parties. His operas had the biggest crowds. He was regularly given lavish praise and high recognition, and clearly was the “top dog” in the Emperor’s royal court of musicians.

This popular and likable Italian was grateful for such favor, and regularly and earnestly thanked God for his position. He prayed fervently and often for even more good compositions to come from his hands to praise God (and yes, to earn praise for himself too).

The young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, on the other hand, was a sniveling immature brat who had undeniable and clear musical ability, but partied too much and regularly offended folks. He was best known mainly for various “little trained monkey” tricks, begun as a small child while touring Europe with his over-bearing father. His musical compositions, to most of the Vienna in-crowd, was secondary to his ability to play the harpsichord blindfolded while hanging upside down.

And yet…Salieri was not “most folks.”

The cruel irony of Amadeus, both Peter Shaffer’s movie screenplay and his 1979 play, was that Salieri was “blessed” by God with just enough talent to know that — compared to Mozart — he had no talent at all. Salieri was the one person in all of Vienna who understood that it was MOZART’s music, not his, that was the voice of God.

The most important character of Amadeus, the title character, was never seen on screen or the stage. But it was this “Loving God” working behind the scenes who had chosen THIS human — this babbling and ill-mannered flake — to be the vessel through whom the most timeless music would flow.

Not only was Salieri perplexed by God’s strange selection, he was mocked by it. For less sophisticated ears, the rich complexity of Mozart’s brilliance was lost, but for Salieri, young Mozart’s work was evidence of heaven. And Salieri was in hell for it.

I am Salieri.

And, I think, most honest Christians on most days are as well. We sing praises to our “God of Power and Might” exclaiming that “Heaven and Earth are full of Your glory.” But at times those words come from my lips less with awe and praise than with bitterness and confusion and contempt.

When the job offer goes to someone else, or the diagnosis comes back even worse than first feared, or a dear love is taken away, God’s “power” can seem either wholly impotent, or worse, cruelly apathetic. God’s choice to refrain from using “Power and Might” to change a clear injustice is something we can neither understand nor accept.

These are times when I have felt that my trusting God seems woefully misplaced; futile, if not downright stupid.

And we all know of folks on the opposite end from Mozart, creatures of the Divine who have been saddled often from birth with pitiful yokes of physical, mental and emotional handicaps. Why indeed does our great God endow some of his children with extraordinary gifts some of the time, while sadly shortchanging others so often? How can we reconcile such knowledge with a faith in a Loving Creator?

We Salieri’s of this world must decide for ourselves whether this world’s unfairnesses are indications of divine mockery or Divine Love. Is it enough to answer that we may learn to love more fully through the presence of the suffering and incompleteness of others?

Even when — maybe especially when — I do not understand God’s choices, I am nonetheless forced to conclude that while there is at times unspeakable evil and suffering in our lives, there is (Praise be to God, YES!! There IS!!!) inexplicable and undeserved Good as well. There IS mercy and forgiveness and healing and selfless sacrifice in this world, all bound by a mysterious and relentless Love, that seeks us out and refuses to let us go.

I believe our God is a god of power and might.
I believe our God is a good god full of Perfect Love.
I believe our God forgives me for my moments of rage and despair when I cannot reconcile those two things.

…that with calm expectancy, I may make room…

For Trust in God: O God, the source of all health, so fill my heart with faith in your love, that with calm expectancy I may make room for your power to possess me, and gracefully accept your healing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

One of the great treasures of the liturgy begins at page 453 of the Book of Common Prayer. In the “Ministration to the Sick,” for page after page, different collects are offered for different stages of illness. Each has its own remarkable power and beauty, not just in their poignant prose but also their graceful (and Grace-filled) ability to comfort and strengthen and assure.

Strengthen your servant N., O God, to do what she has to do and bear what she has to bear; that, accepting your healing gifts through the skill of surgeons and nurses, she may be restored to usefulness in your world with a thankful heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Maybe it is just the sheer desperation and helplessness we humans feel facing disease (aka “dis-ease”), keenly aware of our mortality and “deeply sensible of the shortness and uncertainty of life” (to borrow a phrase from another part of the BCP). But it doesn’t take an imminent threat for these prayers to leave one breathless. Regardless of the diagnosis or circumstances, certain words and phrases from this service can wrap themselves around a worried soul, sure as a prayer shawl can kindle an inner warmth as well as protect against the chill.

O God, the strength of the weak and the comfort of sufferers: Mercifully accept our prayers, and grant to your servant N. the help of your power, that his sickness may be turned into health, and our sorrow into joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Simple. Sublime. Direct. The countless questions, those anguished memories and uncertainties about why God seems to choose some for miraculous, sudden and delightfully surprising healing while sadly shortchanging (to our eyes) others…all of that can wait for another time. THIS is our fervent prayer and profoundest desire and truest need NOW.

O God of heavenly powers, by the might of your command you drive away from our bodies all sickness and all infirmity: Be present in your goodness with your servant N., that her weakness may be banished and her strength restored; and that, her health being renewed, she may bless your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

A God of “heavenly powers,” a God who by “the might of your command” can “drive away… ALL sickness and ALL infirmity” surely will hear us and our earnest pleas. Our earnest please.

Strengthen your servant N., O God, to do what she has to do and bear what he has to bear; that, accepting your healing gifts through the skill of surgeons and nurses, she may be restored to usefulness in your world with a thankful heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Never are our those pleas more fervent than during the illness of a child. And for those unspeakable times, this service makes special intercession. It reminds us that a precious child is not in our fallible, failing, faithless hands but in the embrace of the protective and caring watcher of his flock:

Lord Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd of the sheep, you gather the lambs in your arms and carry them in your bosom: We commend to your loving care this child N. Relieve her pain, guard her from all danger, restore to her your gifts of gladness and strength, and raise her up to a life of service to you. Hear us, we pray, for you dear Name’s sake. AMEN.

Fortunately and bless-fully, there seems to be no age limits mentioned in the “Pray-uh Book” restricting just who a “sick child’ might be. These prayers appear more than worthy for any of God’s children, regardless of the number of laps taken around the sun.

Almighty God our heavenly Father, graciously comfort your servant N. in his suffering, and bless the means made use of for his cure. Fill his heart with confidence that, though at times he may be afraid, he yet may put his trust in you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

There is one prayer in particular that has riveted me to my inmost core for years, reminding me (along with a stupid-ass disease I’ve carried now for three-plus decades) that I am simply not in charge. Yes, I can — and must — respond to Jesus’ call to “take up your pallet and go home” [Mk. 2:11], even though I may feel tired and despondent. But this prayer teaches me, reminds me, both comforting and mocking me, that my body is not my own. It’s not even me, really, the essential me, the whole me.

This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently. And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. AMEN.

Just last week, this prayer was uttered in a hospital room where a Eucharist was celebrated (NEVER has that term been more apt) for a dear friend, read by his adult son. He is leaving that damned hospital finally, and going home, into the care of Hospice. There is real power in that prayer. When I am led to quietly recite it, and to dwell in it, I am grounded. Even in times of deepest doubt and fear, these words do not take away all the dark imaginings, but somehow give me some strange and sanguine command over them.

Epilogue: Through my dealings with MS (and countless other life-experiences), I’ve learned that healing involves much more than a physical cure. Yes, we want and need more time with our loved ones. The deathly illness or injury of a friend is so often cruel, and — by any earthly measure — unfair as hell. The God that we want in our earthly imperfection should by all we know to be good and holy grant our loving requests for a cure. But the God that we have, that we struggle to profess and follow and believe in, may or may not grant the gift of a cure. And yet, I am coming to believe, however unsure and hesitant, that our prayers for HEALING are ALWAYS heard, and are ALWAYS granted, and are NEVER in vain.

By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all is yours, Almighty Father…

This past Sunday we celebrated “Trinity Sunday.” While I do not come close to understanding the concept, we are told and taught that Whoever or Whatever our “God” is, we Christians believe Him/Her/It to be “triune.” As far as I know, the only use for that weird adjective is to describe what we believe to be the three-in-one and one-in-three nature of the Divine.

A few years after he wrote “The Road Less Traveled,” I had the chance to spend a week with Scott Peck at a Kanuga summer conference. One of his lectures was entitled “A Taste For Mystery” in which he pondered whether our spiritual maturity depends upon our developing such a taste for the Unseen, or whether we develop a greater tolerance (indeed a greater thirst) as we progress in spiritual maturity. Whichever it is — and I think it is both — the holy, indivisible Trinity of is for me the deepest of all Mystery.

The writer the appointed Psalm for Trinity Sunday must have developed quite a taste:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,
What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?

Psalm 8:3-4

The Psalmist was aware of the Word, of course, but not the Word made flesh; Jesus had yet to make the scene. Humanity has now for two millennia been introduced to “God the Son,” and we in the 21st Century now know — in a way that neither the Psalmist nor any of Jesus’ disciples nor any of his followers for centuries to come could possibly know — that we live the span of our lives in one tiny spec of a galaxy that is a mere crumb on the floor of the celestial bread factory. And if God does span all of time – if indeed God IS time — we now know that the history of our species does not even make up the last inch of a football field.

So, the Psalmist’s question resonates now more than at any point in our spec-of-dust blink-of-an-eye existence: Why does God even care? What is humankind that God should “seek us out”?

It is a question that has haunted me, provoked me, stirred me, and yes blessed me most of my life, certainly since college. It was the question a classmate asked after venturing down our freshman hall at Davidson late one evening. Just this week, totally by surprise, Kevin reached out to me to remind me of that conversation four decades ago. (He’s now the President of a Lutheran Seminary, and planned to preach on Psalm 8 — and our long-ago discussion — for his Trinity Sunday sermon!) The “conclusion” we reached, however naively and with the cock-sure confidence that only being nineteen can bring, came by looking at the next two verses of the Psalm:

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
Psalm 8:5

Far from being puny and small and meaningless, he remembers my suggesting to him that those verses proclaimed that God had invested everything in human beings and we are of infinite worth. Although I clearly remember the conversation happening, and Kevin’s earnest searching for Truth that I admired so, I recalled nothing of these details.

Yet he did, and he caught me and reminded me of it at a time when I especially needed to remember God’s sovereignty, unbound by distance and time. And to consider that the “vastness of interstellar space” (to quote one Eucharistic Prayer) points to a Vastness beyond all our knowledge. And perhaps, if I can muster it, to simply trust that we ARE of infinite worth, created in God’s image, redeemed by the sacrifice of one human’s life for us and for all time, sustained by infinite and unfathomable Love.

God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer … the deepest of all Mystery.

But chiefly are we bound to praise you…

“But chiefly are we bound to praise you for the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; for he is the true Paschal Lamb, who was sacrificed for us, and has taken away the sin of the world…”

For most of Easter, this paragraph has been a clanging gong. It is of course the “proper preface” for the Easter season, inserted into the Eucharistic Prayer.  For some reason this year, it has acted like the proverbial dope-slap to the back of my head. “Yo! Pay attention! THIS is why you are here.”

One phrase in particular reminds worshippers that while there are many, many good reasons we should praise God, “CHIEFLY we are BOUND” by the supremely mysterious and astoundingly good news of Jesus’ resurrection. Those two words, “chiefly” and “bound” offer layer upon layer of Graceful insight into God’s nature, and our own.

This little bit of liturgical turn-of-phrase reminds me that THIS singular event — the bursting forth of new and unexpected life from a lifeless tomb — is the MAIN reason, the highest priority, the ultimate showing of Divine Purpose and Love. And even more, this prayer says to me that if I can even come close to recognizing the awesome glory of the Resurrection, then I am “bound to praise…”  Such a response naturally and inexorably flows from such realization in my mind and from my lips and in my life.

Indeed I do at times feel “bound” — wrapped up tight in things that are far, far beyond my understanding. The Nativity, Jesus’ baptism, the Transfiguration, the parables and miracles and stories of compassion all spark incomparable feelings and insatiable desire to know more and more. They all lead me, however hesitantly, to let go my lawyer’s quest for more evidence and rational, reasoned explanation, and to believe and trust the glimpses of Truth that are revealed in those stories.

But, there is nothing — NOTHING — that comes close to stirring that pot of faith like the Resurrection.  To believe in THAT mystery is to be radically different. To fully fathom that this one solitary human is the “true Paschal Lamb” for all of humanity is to be quite set apart from the normal ways of this world. To truly buy into the notion that a fellow member of our species walked, talked, laughed, loved, lived and died among us, but then overcame death, is to be changed forever.

I wish I could say that I was fully there. I wish I could say I have utter confidence to jump off the swing into the abyss, to Trust that my flight — and my landing — will be in safe, Graceful hands. But I’m not. Yet.

But Lord knows I’m trying.  Lord knows.

“…to prize highly, and guard carefully…all who have lived valiantly and died bravely…

Summer is here. Well maybe not officially in schools yet, but the dreaded slow “Summer Schedule” has taken over in most churches. While the old adage ithat “God never takes a vacation” is of course true (to which I can only quickly reply “Thank God!”), the plain fact is that God’s people do. And when they do, they tend not to attend church.

Yesterday’s attendance at my parish on Memorial Day Weekend Sunday was sparse to say the least. And that’s a pity, because those absent would have heard an exquisitely poignant collect to commemorate the actual and original intent of this holiday. I asked the Celebrant afterwards about it, and she gave me her xeroxed copy. It’s not in the Book of Common Prayer, but rather from a book of collects for various occasions.

Now, I am not one to look down my nose at NASCAR and Indy races, beach trips and lake outings, or even a good retail “SALE!” or two. (Frankly, I wish I made more time to enjoy those distractions.) But it IS important, vital really, to indeed REMEMBER on Memorial Day, and to hold especially close in our hearts those men and women upon whose sacrifices we can enjoy such things.

Herewith then, the prayer yesterday that caught my breath so:

Almighty God, by whose grace thy people gain courage through looking unto the heroes of faith: We lift our hearts in gratitude to thee for all who have lived valiantly and died bravely that there might be truth, liberty and righteousness in our land. help us to prize highly and guard carefully, the gifts which their loyalty and devotions have bestowed upon us. Grant us the joy of a living and vigorous faith, that we may be true as they were true, loyal as they were loyal, and serve thee and our country selflessly all the days of our life, and at last receive the victor’s crown, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Did not our hearts burn within us?

Maybe they should just change the name of “The Third Sunday of Easter” in the Lectionary to “Cardiac Sunday.” Perhaps more than any day, the focus of the scriptures is very much about that most bruised yet resilient of human organs, the “heart.”

Whether we are the product of Divine Love or some long random evolutionary process (or some combination therof), humans are an interesting species.

We have been given this mysterious capacity to have our inner most selfs, the most essential and individual parts of us — our “hearts” as poets say — to react and move and inspire and create and sacrifice and yearn in ways that are unique (so far as we know) in the universe.

So, on this Third Sunday of Easter, as we are reminded in the each of the lessons, that where the Divine is involved, our hearts can…
“burn within us” (Luke 24:32),
or that we can “be cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37)
or maybe most important, we can be on our very best days “Love one another deeply from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22).

It is THIS that separates us from the apes and the whales. It is THIS calls us to be at our best when things seem to be at their worst. It is THIS that gives someone like C.S. Lewis the Divine insight to remind us that to follow this carpenter from Nazareth is to wear your “heart on your sleeve” and make that deepest part of you subject to hurt.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable.
Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung,
and quite possibly be broken.
If you want to be sure of keeping it intact,
you must give it to no one.
Not even an animal.”

Yes. For no good explainable reason, our hearts do “burn within us” and we are drawn over and over and over again to surrender to a great, mysterious Love.

If I could only get over my childish resistance to the notion of “surrender” I’d be sooooooo much better off.

…so we may await with him the coming of the third day…

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the
crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and
rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the
coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of
life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The collect from the very sparse Holy Saturday liturgy says a lot about this “in between” day. The rubrics of the Prayer Book are very clear. No Eucharist today. There is one and only one service (before tonight’s Easter Vigil) with a worrisome reading from Matthew 22 that speaks of Jesus’ dead body being moved into the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and how “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” just sat across from it. In the face of death, that’s often the only human thing we can do — sit in grief-stricken paralysis, in awe and uncertainty.

One spring morning years ago, I was at the breakfast table sipping my coffee as my son munched his cereal in his high chair. I opened the paper to see that a local judge had died the day before, after a long and painful battle with cancer. Instinctively, I moaned “oh” and my son looked up to inquire, “What wrong, daddy?” As best I remember, I think I tried to explain how daddy knew this lady who had been very sick, and died, and had gone to heaven, but daddy was still sad because he would miss his friend.

Mainly, what I recall is muttering some miserable mess trying to clarify something no adult can understand.

Even so, my 4-year old took all this took all this in and seemed to be satisfied. After a few seconds, though, he looked up and asked…”Daddy, does she feel better?” In an instant, my muddled confusion was wiped away, and replaced with an absolute rock-solid answer I could give him with unquestioned certainty (albeit with a choked voice) — “Yeah big guy… She feels better.”

There is an awful lot that my lawyer’s brain can’t wrap around during these mysterious Holy Days. (None more mysterious, nor more holy, than these three we are in the middle of on this Holy Saturday.) But here is what I can grab…something (or some One?) has grabbed hold of me.

And despite my very best (worst) rebellious stubborn efforts sometimes, this Mystery does NOT let go.

Maybe it IS just as Hillsong boldly proclaims in one of their more riveting songs, “Your Love is relentless.” For reasons FAR beyond my understanding, tears well up. Tears of hope, regret, sorrow, wonder, joy, and perhaps most of all, deep and desperate need and desire for it all to be true…

So not unlike the women sitting across from the tomb I too I sit, waiting and wondering just how God is going to act. And doubting how I might respond to such “hopelessness,” not yet understanding just how near Our Lord of Resurrection is.