Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” a day when the Church recognizes and rejoices, through scripture and hymns and prayers, the special guidance, sure protection, relentless pursuit and loving care of God and Christ as a “good shepherd.” It is a metaphor that runs through both the Old and New Testaments.
It doesn’t happen often (Easter being a movable feast after all) but it does happen, when “Easter 4” falls on an early Sunday in May. For those special years, a marvelous combination of traditions occurs, when much of secular society celebrates “Mother’s Day.” It is a time of giving thanks and paying tribute to those special women in our lives who have supplied those same traits of a “good shepherd” — guiding, protecting and caring for each of us in unique, and uniquely needed, ways.
The psalm appointed for today is probably the best known of all psalms, the 23rd, proclaiming “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and praising a protective, attentive God providing all our real needs. The appointed Gospel speaks of Jesus as a shepherd who calls each of us his sheep by name, and whose voice we know. (John 10:22-30)
Even for those who — for any one of an infinite number of reasons — were not fortunate enough to have an earthly mother able to nurture them, many have been blessed with some motherly figure (sometimes more than one) who “shepherded” us through much of the “valleys” and “shadows of death” in our lives. It makes Mother’s Day a time of special significance.
It is an unusual joy, then, when church and secular calendars align just right, and we are called to focus an “attitude of gratitude” not just for our earthly moms but also our Heavenly Creator God. This awesome God (whom our patriarchal tradition often calls “Father” but Who of course transcends beyond all gender) so frequently reminds me of certain things, I think, if I could only be more open to them. Despite my cynical lawyer’s streak, I am coming to believe more and more that we are indeed creatures of Love, created for Love by a Creator Who is Love, and Who wraps perfectly loving arms around each precious creature…just like the Best. Mom. Ever!
Growing up, somehow I could pick out my mom’s voice over all other voices whenever she cried out to me, especially when calling me by name. (If ever my middle name was included, I knew I had better come running!) I suspect I am not alone in having such precious memories. So it is not surprising that today’s collect for this Good Shepherd Sunday, with its special timing this year honoring all moms, earthly and heavenly, bears special resonance.
“O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
(Originally published for Holy Saturday, April 2014.)
The collect from the very sparse Holy Saturday liturgy says a lot about this “in between” 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 rubrics of the Prayer Book are very clear. No Eucharist today. There is to be one and only one service before tonight’s Easter Vigil, with a worrisome Gospel reading from Matthew 27 that speaks of Jesus’ dead body being moved into the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and Pilate sending soldiers going to seal the stone that covered it and to “make it as secure as you can.” And Matthew also writes “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb” (Matt 27:61).
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 many years ago, I was at the breakfast table sipping my coffee as my then-young 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 to him 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 to a child something no adult can truly understand.
Even so, my 4-year old took all this in and seemed to be satisfied and took another scoop of his cereal. 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 now with a flushed face and 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 high Holy Days leading up to Easter. But here is what I can grasp — something (or Something or Some One?) has grabbed hold of me. And despite my very best (or worst) rebellious stubborn efforts sometimes, this Mystery does NOT let go.
Lord knows (literally?) that I have more than a few doubts about the nature of God (“My ways are not your ways, sayeth The Lord…“). But here is what I do know, if for no other reason that I have felt it and experienced it so deeply in my life: Whatever God is, God IS… and He/She/They/It is relentless.
For reasons far beyond my understanding tears well up while I write such things. They are tears of hope, regret, sorrow, wonder, joy. Perhaps most of all, they are tears reflecting a desperate need and deep desire for it all to be indeed true.
So, not unlike the women sitting across from the tomb, I too wait and wonder what comes next, and just how God is going to act in my life and in this broken world. And I wonder even more how I might respond, not yet understanding just how near Our Lord of Resurrection might be.
(Originally posted in April 2014. Updated, edited and reposted for the Feast of the Annunciation, 2022.)
Today, March 25, the church celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation, a fact that normally escapes my attention most every March 25th, and it most certainly did in 2014. (After all, there’s not much need for me to note “Just nine more shopping months ’til Christmas!”) But 3/25 on the 2014 calendar “just happened” to come on a Tuesday, and on that particular Tuesday I “just happened” to make it to the small Tuesday evening Eucharist celebrated each week in my home parish. The Celebrant, The Rev. Lisa Saunders, “just happened” to inform the dozen or so assembled faithful about that day’s significance.
Gabriel delivers a “perplexing” proposal to a young girl… with a lot riding on her answer.
That particular Lent, Mary was on my mind – a lot.
Maybe I was just taken by the Gospel reading about Gabriel’s surprise visit to this young Nazarene girl. Standing before an Archangel, I’m not t all sure I would react with Mary’s sanguine aplomb at some other-worldly being suddenly appearing before me with a hearty, “Greetings, favored one!”
Being “perplexed” would be the least of my reactions. Call me faithless and crazy but I’m thinking Gabe’s reassurance that “The Lord is with you” would somehow strike me as less than reassuring.
Whatever the reason, the term “…born of the Virgin Mary” has now become one of those phrases that just seems to jump out during the liturgy. It is important to note that the term which is often translated to “virgin” in English simply connotes a young unmarried woman of child-bearing age. Most scholars agree that the term in original scripture says more to being a “maiden” than any statement about sexual “purity.” Regardless, it is her obedience, her surrender, her willingness to walk the unknowable path of the Unknown that has taken more and more of a focus this particular Lent.
As she stood there pondering this sudden proposal from some strange messenger claiming to speak for the Omnipotent Creator, Mary could never have known what all was to come. Indeed, if we as God’s children truly do have God’s awful gift of free will, I wonder sometimes if God actually knew what all was to come?
I love Frederick Buechner’s take on Gabriel’s task in selling Mary on the whole idea…
“(Mary) struck the angel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child. But he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it…
As he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”
— from Peculiar Treasures
I can never know the anguish, angst and anxiety that a mother feels watching her son take a fearful path. I have witnessed it, though, in my own mother, in the lives of some women I’ve been blessed to know in my life, and in the mother of my own son. It may not be the pain of nails that pierce flesh and bone, but it is searing pain nonetheless and it deeply pierces the human heart.
Jesus’ decision to go to the cross was a sacrifice willingly made, thanks be to God. Mary’s unspeakable sorrow and suffering, watching her child endure that cross, was not.
(Originally written last year, February 2021. Updated to reflect changes in Covid status and the current war in Ukraine.)
Ash Wednesday is not a day for high self-esteem.
In the centuries-old tradition of Lent, we strange Christians begin this forty-day season of penitence, preparing for the joy of Easter by submitting – however hesitantly – to the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that we, ALL of us, are really just passing through.
“You are dust,” the priest reminds each one of the assembled, one by one. And just to make the point clear, ashen dust is smeared on each forehead in the sign of a cross. “…And to dust you shall return.”
That’s in normal times, of course, not Covid times. Last year, that little uplifting ritual was self-imposed. As the priests marked each others’ foreheads above masked-faces, virtual worshippers in countless scattered ceremonies worldwide were encouraged to mark and remind themselves and, all those loved ones who may have been worshipping with them, from whence they came and their inevitable destination. This year, 2022, the outlook pandemic-wise may have lightened a little — at least enough for in-person services with actual cold dead ashes on actual live warm foreheads — but the world outlook is FAR from improved as Russian troops bear down on Ukraine.
This dismal exercise is meant to set the stage for a reflective, more intentional and “penitent” Lent. Today’s virtual service began — like any other year — with no introductory fanfare of any kind, no processional music, no opening acclamation or liturgical response; just a silent slow procession through the (for now empty) church sanctuary.
For me, the opening collect of Ash Wednesday paints a distressing portrait of humankind’s depraved state and utter need for redemption:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who ae penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Before we are smudged with ashes and once again given our yearly instruction regarding our dusty ancestry and legacy, the Ash Wednesday liturgy calls for the Celebrant to pray with words lifted from Psalm 51, beseeching God to “create and make in us new and contrite hearts” while we go about “worthily lamenting our sins” and “acknowledging our wretchedness.”
And yet, amidst all this lamentation, there are reminders not just of our desperate need for redemption, but thankfully God’s eager yearning to offer it.
Thus, for all its solemnity and breast-beating, Ash Wednesday’s liturgy is an invitation, and a glorious one at that.
If I can somehow focus my feeble five-second attention with a faithful more-focused intention for the next forty days (thankfully we get Sundays off), then such a Lenten journey just might crack open a mysterious door a little wider. Lord knows what is on the other side of that door. On this side is the fervent hope of a “perfect remission and forgiveness” from an “Almighty and Everlasting God” who indeed “hates NOTHING”…not even a frenetic and distracted and sometimes disillusioned cynical lawyer who too-often seems more concerned with finding answers instead of just accepting gifts.
Did it know it was being noticed? Regarded? Admired? Worshipped for the Spirit that was within it and flowing from it?
I can’t imagine so. It was a tree after all. Who knows what a tree knows?
But I knew. For I was the one who had noticed, regarded, admired and worshiped the tallest of the tall oak trees, now completely bare and leafless in the midwinter cold, lining Providence Road outside Christ Church this past Sunday evening. I was sitting in the back pew at the 5pm evening Eucharist. Being late as usual, I had just sheepishly parked my walker/rollator out of the traffic pattern of the side aisle and surreptitiously slid into the vacant row. There was a smattering of worshippers spread out in the pews before me. Our deacon Emily was preaching, and I began listening.
She reflected on Paul’s metaphor in the appointed New Testament scripture for that Third Sunday after Epiphany (1 Cor. 12:21-31a), about how the different parts of our physical bodies are like the different members of the church, and how all of those members are part of one spiritual body in Christ.
As she spoke, I glanced outside, and began to take notice of how the shadow of the church sanctuary was slowly creeping up the main trunk of this magnificent oak. I thought about how long this tallest tree has been growing in that same spot, and suspect it must be significantly longer than the 80-year-old parish it now keeps company and watches over.
As I gazed, hundreds of the smallest branches extended to its outmost perimeter, all connected to dozens of not-so-small branches; all connected to a score or more of larger and thicker branches; all connected to the five or six huge and strong main branches which shot out at different heights and angles from its massive trunk. That trunk, of course, became even thicker as it extended into the ground where, unseen but so essential, silently grew equally large and deep roots. Over those roots cars now traveled, each with oblivious drivers and headlights beginning to come on.
Meanwhile, Emily the Deacon was reminding us scattered worshippers present how Paul wrote to the Corinthians, reminding them that “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:12,25)
Two millennia after Paul wrote these words, this one tree in that one moment gave me a gift of a great epiphany during this Epiphany season, one that I suspect will stay with me for a long time. It stood silent, proclaiming loudly and proudly to me that it was a pretty good metaphor for the Body of Christ, too.
It was later when I received a second gift, a bit of icing to go along with the delicious cake that this tree had served me. Just in case the Almighty wasn’t clear enough for my thick cynical lawyer-brain to get the message of the importance of paying attention, I noticed that night that the church bulletin for the evening service contained the appointed collect for the Third Sunday after Epiphany:
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
One of the greatest gifts of liturgy, much like a powerful poem or memorable speech, is the way a simple succinct phrase within it can sometimes reveal a depth of experience or emotion that is almost beyond words to truly capture. Just a few words, expressed in just the right way at just the right time in just the right circumstances, can express an intimate knowledge and awareness that says to the hearer “I think I know some of what you are feeling, what you are going through…I’ve been there.”
One such phrase comes within one of the “Additional Prayers” that appear toward to the end of the pastoral service for the The Burial of the Dead:
Father of all, we pray to you for those we love, but see no longer: Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Those eight words “for those we love, but see no longer” capture for me all the tender and bittersweet emotions for those persons especially dear who have ended their time on this planet, and yet still very much alive in my heart. Those eight words speak of special loved ones never again to be gazed upon this side of paradise, except in the mind’s eye and perhaps glimpsed in the most fortunate and happiest dreams.
Earlier this week, on November 1, many liturgical churches celebrated the “Feast of All Saints” most often referred to as “All Saints Day.” It is considered one of the high holy days of the Anglican tradition and is a time to pause and pay special attention to that “great cloud of witnesses” that have come and gone before us on this earthly journey. Often in the All Saints Day service, the names of all the parishioners who have died in the previous year are read aloud, one by one, as a way of remembrance.
The next day, November 2, is the companion feast of “All Souls Day” or the “Feast of the Faithful Departed.” It is more widely recognized in Latin America than the United States. Whereas All Saints Day is more corporate and global and historical, celebrating “that vast multitude that no one can number,” the emphasis during All Souls Day is more personal, intended to honor a particular loved one or small set of intimate loved ones. The Feast of the Faithful Departed is celebrated with such things as listening to music they especially liked, or preparing and enjoying the food they found especially satisfying, or wearing an article of their clothing or carrying a personal item they treasured. It is a common practice to place a picture of the departed by a candle for the day.
Most often in most Episcopal churches in the U.S., the two days are celebrated as one on “All Saints Sunday” — which happens to be today. It seems an especially appropriate time then to embrace such a prayer as the one above, and indeed, to let it embrace us.
As both a courtroom advocate and civil mediator, I have learned through the years that there are few “declarative” statements more powerful than a tough honest question.
An entire trial can turn on the right question being asked of the right witness at the right time. Likewise, the most intransient “dug in“ positions of the most hostile opponents can be altered by a skilled mediator asking a probing question that has yet to be fully considered.
It so happens that this past Sunday, many worshipers in many congregations worldwide heard one of the most important and insightful questions Jesus ever asked. The appointed Gospel for this week was taken from the most earthy and direct of the four Gospels, Mark. In its 10th chapter, the writer of Mark tells the story of Jesus leaving the ancient revered city of Jericho, where a few centuries earlier the city walls came a-tumbling down. Jesus and the large crowd that followed him come upon a person who – before this episode – the world held in a little account, a “blind beggar” named Bartimaeus.
As the crowd comes closer, this sightless destitute begins shouting at Jesus, calling him by name and the messianic title “Son of David” and beseeching Jesus to “Have mercy on me!” At first, the crowd tries to shut him up, but old “Blind Bart” yells all the more loudly, “SON OF DAVID! HAVE MERCY ON ME!!!” Jesus stops and tells the crowd to call him forward. Bartimaeus immediately, springs forward, casting aside his cloak and somehow makes his way to Jesus.
It is at that moment that Jesus asks him the question. On one level it seems absurd, maybe even a little mocking or cruel. In reality, it reveals layer upon layer of insight, probing the depths of not only human nature but into the nature and mystery of Jesus himself.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks the blind beggar.
This question would be a lot easier for me and my cynical trial lawyer self if I could keep it at arm’s length, a rhetorical question asked to a different person in different circumstances “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” But there is something nagging and gnawing, Some Thing beckoning within that will not let me escape the terrifying liberation of knowing that question is not just for Blind Bart. It is for ME. It is not only for me of course, but for anyone willing to listen and dare be so bold to answer. Regardless, I can’t answer it for anyone else, and no one else can answer it for me.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. For Bartimaeus, the answer was “I want to see again,” which I do not think for a minute he meant to be limited to the repairing of his optic nerves. What we do know is that Bart was in fact healed, probably had 20-20 vision (spiritual as well as physical) without benefit of Lasik surgery, and “followed Jesus along the way.” This blind beggar of little account became so important to the early believers that his story is included not only in Mark (10:46-52) but also later in Matthew (20:29-34) and Luke (18:35-43).
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. I don’t have my answer yet. Sometimes, I know my answer (at least in attitude, even if too fearful to express it otherwise) is to just leave me alone.
That’s the one request Jesus seems to have no interest in granting.
It is often said that the opposite of faith is doubt. When I look at the world today, and especially when I observe many self-proclaimed “Christians” in the news, the “evidence” points me to a different “verdict.”
The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.
Many “Christians” on podcasts and TV and talk radio, particularly those that proclaim their Christianity the loudest, don’t remind me a whole lot of Jesus. They seem absolutely sure it is “God’s Will” — just to cite a few examples — that requiring a young student to wear a mask in school is “child abuse,” or that homosexuality is “an abomination,” or that government should force every woman to carry an unintended and unwanted pregnancy to term. It is one thing to sincerely have and prayerfully be led to those beliefs. It is quite another to be so cock-sure certain that your beliefs are in lock-step with the Almighty in every situation and for all time, and to impose those beliefs upon all of society. When that happens — and I wish it were not so often — it is not their faith that I see in action; it is their certainty.
That is not to say certainty is all bad. Indeed, certainty has a place in faith no doubt (pun intended). It is just of a different variety.
In one of the most moving prayers in the entire lexicon within The Book of Common Prayer, we Episcopalians express a form of certainty at the grave, as we fully “commit” and “commend” our dearest loved ones — and ourselves — to God’s never-failing care. These final words from “The Committal” liturgy never fail to take my breath away:
In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother/sister N., and we commit his/her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him/her and keep him/her, the Lord make his face to shine upon him/her and be gracious to him/her, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him/her and give him/her peace. Amen.
It may seem paradoxical that “hope” can somehow still be “sure” and “certain.” The older I get though, the more I find great truths in paradox.
There is no way to know the exact percentage, but Woody Allen was probably pretty close when he said “Eighty percent of life is just showing up.”
It was the fall just before Covid, two years ago. Another very normal Tuesday evening, after another excruciatingly normal day. I had talked with clients, staff and insurance adjusters, and communed (a lot) with my computer. One thing that was not normal was my decision to break out of my office early and make my way to the quiet 6 o’clock Eucharist that my parish offered on Tuesday evenings pre-pandemic in its small side chapel.
On a lot of Tuesdays (truth be told, MOST Tuesdays) I’d just think about it: “I’d love to get there, but way too much to do… Next week will better.” And I’m sure my life would have been fine had I defaulted to that choice. But it also would have been immeasurably impoverished.
Instead, I “just showed up” and was blessed when it “just so happened” the opening collect that evening was one of the most moving and meaningful prayers I had ever heard in our liturgy. To say it “spoke to me” would be an understatement.
Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
For most of my adult life I’ve had to deal with having multiple sclerosis, especially in the last decade or so. Stumbling has been a way of life.
There have been dozens of times in my life where I have — quite literally — fallen flat. As often as not, when my feet do not respond to the neural messages sent from my brain, I can find myself in an instant violently thrown to the floor, with whatever that was in my hands scattered in all directions. A room will fall deathly quiet in a heartbeat, all eyes on the poor decrepit fool who can’t even manage to keep his damn feet under him. (I know that no one in the room has the critical sentiment I just expressed; just me.)
As bitter and as embarrassing as those episodes have been, I know in my heart of my hearts that my worst stumbles have had nothing to do with MS. Maybe that’s why this prayer, randomly heard on a random Tuesday evening long ago, still resonates with me.
Though he may stumble, he will not fall; for the Lord upholds him with his hand. So says the Psalmist (37:24) about those who “delight in him.”
Somewhere along the line, years ago, I came across an acronym that is one of those almost-too-quaint, homespun little morsels that is both silly and profound: “OFIFOTO! (One Foot In Front Of The Other).” Silly as it might be, it seems to be a pretty damn good guide to a pretty damn good way to live most days.
Just for some people it is more literal than for others.
Sitting in a dimly lit kitchen at 3:40 a.m. The silence is deafening. The stillness roars like a roller coaster.
Earlier, I turned over – again – in bed to see the alarm clock flash its low red signal, now 2:19, and then 2:47, and then 3:14. And now I’m now vertical, at the kitchen island, feeling very tired. But not a bit sleepy.
Insomnia can be doubly frustrating when there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it.
Oh, I have had PLENTY of reasons in my life not to sleep, and no doubt will have plenty more in the future. Most of the time, a death is somehow involved. A death of a loved one or a relationship or a job or a trial. Or, just as often, it can be just the fear of losing those things.
But on this night, there is no such anxiety, no identifiable reason to be so “Sleepless in Charlotte.” There was no caffeine before bed (not even chocolate), no screen time, no spicy dinner. I even remembered to take my usual one tablet of Tylenol PM.
But finally at 4:05 a.m., I finally do have an explanation I can understand why now I’m too anxious to sleep, too frustrated and fixated to even think of going back to my pillow. It is my growing anger over the fact that I cannot sleep.
Spiraling down further and further in a combination of self-pity, self-doubt and self-disdain, I finally do what I often do when I run out of options. I pray.
Funny how prayer for me is so often the last resort, and rarely the first option. Truth be told, I don’t feel like I’m that good at praying, especially at night. I might mumble a few quiet incoherent thoughts, “Lord, let me sleep please,” as if the Almighty is purposely just poking me in the ribs or stealing my covers. Most of the time, I need help to pray, so like any good Whiskeypalian, I look in the “Prayuh Book.” I search for the service of Compline.
Compline is an ancient liturgy for corporate worship at the very end of the day when the faith community is ready to surrender to sleep. It is perhaps the most contemplative liturgical practice, peaceful and gentle, calming and restful and restorative.
There in the final prayers of Compline, I find a prayer that (to borrow that hackneyed phrase)“soothes my soul.”
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
I can’t explain it. But it does soothe my soul. I read it again it, and then whisper it slowly aloud.
Keep watch... (God is watching. The Lord does not slumber or sleep, so the Psalmist tells us.)
…with those who work or watch or weep this night (I am not the only one up right now. I think of them, and the different reasons they have to also be sleepless.)
…and give your angels charge over those who sleep. (I am too much a cynical trial lawyer to really know if that’s true, if Angels really do exist, and really do keep charge of us as we slumber. But I do know this — I want it to be true. And in the pitch darkness on this night that is enough.
I crawl back to bed, and whisper the prayer once more.
The Book of Common Prayer includes a specific collect for the celebration of Independence Day in the United States:
Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Interestingly, today’s collect for “Proper 9” in Pentecost, even though not specifically written for the Fourth of July, works just as well,…especially for America in 2021:
O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In his song “Coming to America,” Neil Diamond has a line about immigrants and how they “are traveling light today…in the eye of the storm, in the eye of the storm.”
May it be so with us as well, both as proud patriots and struggling followers of Jesus, that we being “united to one another in pure affection” might indeed “travel light” in the midst of all our current storms.
While it does not get anywhere near the secular attention that Christmas or Easter garner, Pentecost is still a “biggie“ in the Christian tradition. That’s because it’s the big celebration of “The Holy Spirit” — that most mysterious portion of our mysterious and unfathomable triune God.
It is often called the “birthday of the Church,” and commemorates the very strange appearance of the HS coming upon the disciples of first century Palestine, very soon after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Nobody knows exactly what happened on that particular morning, but the writer of Acts says it was “like the rush of a violent wind” with something like “tongues of fire that separated and rested on each one of them.” (Acts 2:1-4). Because of the day’s significance, a reciting of the “Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant” is often part of the Pentecost worship service.
As I’ve written before in this blog, this fairly modern liturgy of Baptismal renewal goes through a series of eight questions, the first three being corporate “we” affirmations of doctrinal beliefs expressed in the Nicene Creed. The last five though are individual and specific, compelling the personal commitment of each believer and the promise of “I will, with God’s help.”
Four of those five specific questions have been covered in previous posts:
This last one, for my money at least, is the sine qua non of them all:
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
It seems to me that this one personal commitment is the one that matters most, the one without which the other four really wouldn’t matter that much. The depth of this question, if taken seriously, both expands the world view￼ of a “Jesus follower” and compels a believer to bring it down to the most intimate and microcosmic view.
I believe that it is no accident that the writers of this liturgy purposely chose the term “Christ” as opposed to “Jesus.” Of course, the central tenet of the Christian faith is to believe that “Jesus is the Christ”… inextricably intertwined.
But they are not synonymous.
Jesus is the human, the carpenter’s son turned itinerant preacher￼￼￼￼￼￼. Christ is the title, the fulfillment, the hope of humankind — as old as humankind itself — that God the Creator would be made manifest in humanity, thereby drawing all creation to its Self in unity with the Divine.
The first seven words of this question presume an astounding truth. That is, the assurance Christ is￼ woven within every human being, without exception, and￼ without regard to race or age or gender or nationality or status or for that matter one’s personal religion or faith. Paul spoke this Truth to the early church in Galatia that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) Likewise, John writes the nascent churches in Asia that￼, far from being some stern celestial grandfather or vengeful prison warden, “God is love and whoever abides in love abides in god, and God abides in them. God is love and all who live in love live in God and God abides in them.” (1 Jn. 4:16)
Maybe the simple, sweet words of that old hymn say it best and make this truth plain:
In Christ there is no east or west, in Him no south or north; but one great fellowship of Love throughout the whole wide earth.
Such a truth, seems to me, leads then inevitably to the commitment encapsulated in the last five words of this quintessential question in the Covenant, about ￼”loving your neighbor as yourself.”
I must confess to taking some misguided and ill-advised pride that a lawyer (in true lawyer-fashion) asks Jesus a smart-ass technical question about the definition of “neighbor” trying to “test Him,” and slice and dice and parse that commandment: “Yeah, but Teacher Jesus, really now…just who exactly qualifies as my ‘neighbor’?” (Lk. 10:25-37) Jesus of course, like the most evasive of witnesses, never really answers the lawyer’s question, but rather tells the timeless story of “The Good Samaritan.”
Jesus is never interested in technicalities, but rather a broad all-inclusive embrace that my “neighbor” comes to me in form of whoever darkens my doorstep or crosses my path.
One last point about this most essential part of Baptismal Covenant. I often overlook the fact that Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” pretty much requires that I have to find a way to love myself, too — not at all an easy thing for me to do sometimes. ￼There are things that I say to myself, with such vitriol and venom, that I would never say to any other human. Ever. Thus, this question in the Baptismal Covenant reminds me to ease up on myself, to cut myself as much slack as I would readily give to the guy in the apartment upstairs making a little noise, or a colleague or client missing a deadline, or a fellow parishioner for taking up that last space in the parking lot.
That’s why THIS part of the Baptismal Covenant, more than any other I think, merits the most earnest and hearty response: “I will, with God’s help.”
Every several years or so, I seem to get reminded from Lord knows where (a phrase that uncomfortably seems more literal sometimes than just a figure of speech) that March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation.
It always occurs exactly nine months before the ”Feast of the Nativity” a/k/a Christmas Day. (Go figure.)
The day celebrates the account in Luke’s Gospel of the young maiden Mary, and her surprising visit by the angel Gabriel…and his even more surprising message that she had been appointed to offer human birth to the son of God.
It usually comes in the middle of Lent, a few days or weeks before Easter. It is a time (as said so wonderfully by Canon Rose Duncan at the Washington National Cathedral this morning) of “wombs and tombs, beginnings and endings, births and deaths.”
Regardless of what faith we might profess, or if we follow no organized religion at all, it seems that in every life it is inevitable to face times of real decision, of moving one way or the other, of following a path pointed this uncertain way or that, or maybe just staying put – frozen and hesitant – and making the decision of no decision. And in that sense, the story of Mary and her annunciation is, in absolute fact, a universal human story.
A few years back, I was also totally surprised by the Feast of the Annunciation one March 25. It led me (as these things tend to do) to pour a nice single malt and start writing, and wondering how that same God who beckoned a young girl to change the world forever might also be beckoning me.
(For the five weeks of Lent 2021, special focus will be given to each of the five individual questions in “The Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant”)
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Generally speaking, we Episcopalians are not particularly known for our proclamations. Near the top of my list of favorite oxymorons (slightly ahead of “corporate culture” and “military intelligence,” but behind “Justice Thomas”) is “Episcopal evangelism.” It’s typically just not our style, which makes this third question of the Baptismal Covenant a bit problematic for many of us, at least for me.
I’m not at all sure why that is exactly, but a story by southern novelist Clyde Edgerton that he read here in Charlotte a few years back from one of his books offers a humorous clue. The scene was about an old man and a boy one Sunday morning on the front porch of a general store in Macon, Georgia. The old man is rocking while reading the Sunday paper, as the boy plays with baseball cards on the steps and a church bell rings out to signal the end of the service of the church across the street. “Look at them Episcopalians there, boy,” says the old man looking up from his paper and taking his reading specs off to watch the acolytes take the cross and candles around back to the sacristy and the priest in his vestments greet the parishioners recessing out into the humid air. “You know, there ain’t nothin‘ Episcopalians wouldn’t do for the love of God,” the man tells the boy, “…exceptin’ if it was tacky.”
That story is funny because in so many ways — at least in regards to this Episcopalian — it is so true. Why else, if not for fear of my being “tacky” would I feel the least twinge about the commitment to “proclaim…the good news”? It’s not that I am a particularly shy person, Lord knows. Indeed, family and friends would “proclaim” that I am most assuredly not. Nor am I all that shy about claiming to be Christian; I write this blog on the liturgy after all, and am a licensed lay preacher in the Diocese of North Carolina.
Why so shy?
The hesitancy, the twinge, the “shyness” (such that it is) in my proclaiming anything about Christianity is mainly because, I confess, I just don’t want to be associated with “those” kind of Christians…you know, the ones with a lot of hairspray.
I try not to look down my nose at those good church-going folks who fill big NBA-sized arenas to hear the word of ”JEE-YAH-UH-ZUSS” shouted at them with all the cock-sure certainty of used car dealers whose sole task and desire is “closing the sale.” I try, I really do. Those mega-churches do fill an obvious need for those that flock to them. Even so, I fail miserably most of the time.
And then there are the “Christians” for whom the term “tacky” seems for me far too benign. These are the folks who seem hellbent (an adjective chosen with care) on making sure that the “club“ of Christianity remains exclusive. You are either “in“ (i.e., you have at some point repeated a magic prayer and have been “saved“), or you have not and are therefore “out.” They seem not the least bit shy in proclaiming loudly their “Christian” views of what the Almighty most certainly dictated about a number of current issues — abortion, guns, welfare, the border, school prayer, child adoption by LGBTQ parents and a heavenly host of other matters not really mentioned specifically in Scripture. The absence of specific, literal guidance does not at all prevent these “Christians” from offering specific and literal guidance as to what beyond all doubt and discussion Jesus wants. The problem is, most of the time, those views do not sound a whole lot like the Jesus I read in the Gospels.
If “proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ” means being associated with those “Christians,” I just as soon take a pass on that part of the Baptismal Covenant.
The problem is…
There is a significant drawback to my timidity, though, besides the obvious flaws that it is snobbish and snooty, and well, timid, in a time when I believe our faith calls for boldness. That huge flaw is the inescapable fact that being a true follower of Jesus, by today’s earthly standards anyway, is pretty damn nutty. Let’s leave aside for a second the whole Nativity legend of virgin birth and heavenly beings appearing to Joseph (in one Gospel, but none of the others) and to Mary and Shepherds (in another Gospel, but none of the others). Let’s not even dwell on the main point of the Baby Jesus legend — the Omnipotent Yahweh of Creation, now appearing as a helpless bastard infant born to a poor oppressed girl with confused boyfriend in a Bethlehem stable.
Instead, let’s just look on the central message of the adult Jesus. His word and example was — and to believers very much IS — a loud proclamation that God’s overwhelming healing Love for each of us is lavish, undeserved, illogical and radical. And Jesus’ primary command to us — to love God and neighbor — means that followers who take him seriously must forgive attacks on them over and over and over again, and actually do good to any and all folks who abuse us. We are instructed to pray to God like a neighbor banging on your door late at night wanting some beer and snacks for some friends who dropped by. To “proclaim the Good News” we are told both requires and leads us to care about and show love for our most hateful enemies. In a world of self-esteem, self-image and self-actualization, we are told we must lose ourselves in order to save ourselves.
Such counter-cultural thinking is not always appreciated in pop culture, high society or the academic towers. So yeah, there’s a real risk of Christians in general and Lord forbid Episcopalians in particular of being seen as kind of weird, a little crazy, and even <gasp > tacky. Episcopalians need to get over it. To be more precise, I need to get over it.
Getting over it.
Ever so slowly, and with a lot of fake-it-til-you-make practice, I‘m finding my lawyer-brained, bet-hedging self more and more able to share in my crazy and tacky beliefs. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry – Biblical scholar and firebrand preacher all rolled into one — is helping me “get over it” when he writes a book he unapologetically entitles, “Crazy Christians.” He helps me further with his latest book (written just before the latest pandemic and racial upheaval and civil unrest, and released during the midst of them) that is premised on the ”crazy” but somehow absolutely true — and even empirically logical — notion that “Love Is The Only Way.”
Regardless of all the twists and turns and causes along the journey, I find myself more able — sometimes even willing and eager — to proclaim (even if more by word than example for now) that I have had these grand moments along the way, from “Lord knows” where. And those moments have been so grand and have given a small glimpse of a Divine Goodness beyond all human goodness, a Universal Beauty beyond all earthly beauty, and most of all an Infinite Unfathomable Love far beyond my ability to comprehend, or to resist. What small comprehension I can manage, though, inevitably leads me to person of Jesus of Nazareth as human embodiment of that Goodness, that Beauty, that Love. And who even now — two millennia later and with countless generous of “Christians” who have done their damnedest to muck things up — remains still Jesus the Christ, the Unifier and Healer of all living things.
Just this morning, after most of the above had been written, I happened to see an online sermon from one of my favorite priests preaching about today’s Gospel (John 3:14-21) for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, focusing on what it means to live as a Jesus-follower “in the light” versus trying to be a Christian hidden “in the dark.” He posed a question that his been gnawing at me all day, and seemed as good as any way to conclude: “Who is protected by keeping your faith a private affair?”
Regardless of my constant misgivings of doubts, uncertainties and silly concerns, I would do well to ask, whenever I hedge or hesitate to “…proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ,“ … Who indeed am I trying to protect? If I’m honest, I’ll have to admit it is probably me.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: For the five weeks of Lent 2021, special focus will be given to each of the five individual questions in “The Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant”)
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and when you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Rather than the five word response written in the Prayer Book, “I will, with God’s help,” I sometimes want to respond with another (lawyer-like) five words: “Depends on what you mean.”
After all, this second individual question in the Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant is filled with rich and powerful words, capable of all manner of subtle nuances and deep complex meaning…a veritable paradise for anyone sporting a Juris Doctorate on their wall. It is impossible to consume it all in one quick reading or hearing (or even in one blogpost) when it is placed, as it is, being just one in a repetitive litany of questions. Each phrase is power-packed with a verb or noun layered with an almost endless variety of meanings and insights:
Persevere. Resist. Evil. Fall. Sin. Repent. Return.
In a way, this question is reminiscent of one of those “Recycling” posters, with big arrows flowing in a continuing clockwise circle. Note that the question does not ask whether each of us will resist evil; the writers knew better. Rather, the liturgy calls for a individual commitment to persist in efforts of resistance. The question presumes human frailty, not asking “if you fall into sin” but “when.” And then there’s the use of the term “fall” as if my “falling” into sin is like my tripping by accident over an unseen branch on a dark walk outside, as opposed to my willfully choosing to flop headlong into the deep end of a pool. The cycle continues by the commitment to “repent and return to the Lord.” The stage is then set for the endless battle of our “persistence and resistance” to begin anew.
Of all these words, though, “evil” is the one that probably gets the most attention, at least it gets mine. It is one of two “E-words” that in my experience tend to make us Whiskeypalians really uncomfortable. (“Evangelism“ is the other one, if you are wondering, and I’m not sure which one ”wins” the top prize. Mention either during the Sunday coffee hour, and you’ll likely begin to see folks start looking at their watches.)
Most Christians in most mainline Protestant churches shy away from the topic of evil. It tends to conjure up images of street corner preachers shouting about the “evil” practices of things they don’t like and/or don’t understand, or “The Church Lady” character years ago on SNL (“Hmmmm. Could it be…SAAAAY-TIN?”). There can be other comic extremes of spooky talk surrounding nasty looking gremlin-like figures who melt when shown a crucifix, or holy water is sprinkled on them.
All these images miss the mark, I think, and distract me with comedy and comfort from a plain truth that, even if I don’t like to consider it, I ignore at my extreme peril. Evil exists. Evil is real. And evil thrives most when ignored and left alone, unnamed for what it is
In his 1983 book, “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil,” author and psychiatrist Scott Peck defined evil as “that which kills or suppresses life or the life force,” and noted that it often disguises itself in a “mask of self-righteousness,” a narcissistic self-image that denies and refuses to acknowledge any personal flaws, instead manipulating or “scapegoating” others. Unlike mere mental health disorders in which a person has a disease of the brain which makes a person less able to recognize their own personal fault, evil according to Peck is a non-biological disorder of the mind. The evil person not only is able to recognize the harm being inflicted and his/her part in it, but justifies it and at some level enjoys it. Although mental illness is certainly involved, an evil personality has different deeper qualities and other characteristics.
The central tool of human evil is “the lie,” the ability to deceive others and one’s self into believing an alternate reality. The biggest lie of evil is the willing and willful deception of self, in which the evil person chooses to believe he/she is not wrong nor really is capable of wrong, and rejects and even attacks any evidence suggesting it. Interestingly, our Lenten liturgy in Morning Prayer confronts that lie head-on, reminding us of John’s words in his first letter: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 Jn. 1:8)
Regardless of whether one accepts Peck’s theories and conclusions, the good news is that the Lenten liturgy also asks us to ponder the verse that immediately follows John’s warning. Yes, we deceive ourselves whenever we think we are not fully capable of doing horrendous evil given the right circumstances, “But if we confess (acknowledge) our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
When I was in law school, I had the opportunity to spend a week with Peck at Kanuga Center in Hendersonville, NC. (I later learned this happened while he was writing “People of the Lie.”) He lectured one evening on his psychiatric observation of evil. I remember being disturbed by his conviction, coming from someone as rational and logical and fact-driven as anyone I’ve ever met, that a true malevolent force outside of science is actively working in humanity. Ultimately though I was comforted by his even stronger conviction – also driven by rational logic and facts as he saw them – that a real force of Love (which he saw especially through the life and ministry of Jesus and “Christ crucified”) had forever conquered it.
“The War against Evil has been won,” he told us. “We are just in a mopping up operation.” We just need to be persistent about it.
Ash Wednesday was a week ago. The Ash Wednesday liturgy, unlike Pentecost or the service of Baptism or a few other major dates in the church calendar year, does not include the litany for a “Renewal of Our Baptismal Covenant.” I’m thinking maybe it should.
As I’ve written before in another blogpiece on this WithGladness.org site, the reciting of the “Baptismal Covenant” is our liturgy’s way of focusing particular attention on what it means to “practice” Christianity, to put it in motion, to DO something rather than study or contemplate or believe something. This litany of renewal asks eight things of the congregation, and although the first three questions are indeed big and broad “creedal” belief statements, the last five…oh yes, those last five…are personal, individual, me-and-God questions. They cut right to the heart of what each individual Christian should do, how to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.”
Suffice it to say, I “don’t” more than I “do.” I “talk” more than I “walk.” But maybe that’s kind of what Lent is all about, I’m thinking.
This season of Lent, of course, is a “penitential” season. To repent, in the original Greek (metanoia) meaning of the term, has more to do with a sense of rethinking things, of turning or readjusting, rather than eating dirt and worms and beating a Bible shouting how sinful everyone is. In that sense, penitence is a synonym for renewal.
Thus, it seems that Lent is the perfect time to focus more intently on those five personal questions posed while renewing our baptismal covenant. And, as it so happens, those five questions fall quite nicely, thank you, within the five full weeks of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Passion Sunday, leading to Holy Week and Easter.
Many years ago, my home parish (Christ Church Charlotte) had a series of five Wednesday dinners, with each dinner focusing on one of the five personal questions in the Baptismal Covenant. (I have to pause here…Just the mere notion of folks gathering together in one large space for a simple meal, six to eight at a table in close unmasked conversations discussing an evening lecture, seems so foreign during this time of Covid, a vague nostalgic recollection of a distant forgotten past.) I can’t say that I remember anything in particular about any of those dinner speakers, but I do remember that just the exercise of focus, that attention to intention, was a good thing.
So maybe it’s also a good thing – and a good time – to bring it back. If somehow I can mind my “intention” during this Covid-Lent with any sort of decent “attention” to this goal, we will see what musings develop.
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
This first personal question in the Baptismal Covenant liturgy is presumptive, and that’s a bit comforting. The “Will you continue…” presumes that I have been doing any of these things in the first place. The reality is I start and stop. A wonderful friend recently reminded me that when it comes to actually practicing such practices contemplated here, I’m probably in the same camp as 99.99% of Christians. That is, almost all of us do try, now and then, to follow these good spiritual habits, more or less. But very few might venture to say their efforts are near enough.
At times, I can be a pretty close follower of Paul’s letters and Peter’s preaching and even John’s poetic ramblings, especially if those times happen to be full of desperation and crisis. (It ain’t for nothing that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”) Most of the the time though, I am not in a depraved or desperate crisis — or maybe just not self-aware enough to recognize it — and so most of the time, I “follow” those practices…but at a safe distance.
After all, cautious southern privileged white-guy lawyers tend to like safe distances. That is especially true when that white-guy lawyer feels he might be getting “too close” to God, and maybe even more true if that guy is a life-long Episcopalian. We of that “frozen chosen” tribe can often make a habit of keeping a close-but-cautious distance, getting really good at practicing that faithful-but-safe stuff.
Lent just may be that time to venture — at least with a big toe if not a full headlong plunge — into the less safe. Perhaps intentionally living into this first covenant question and “testing the waters” of these faithful practices might even lead to a state of creative and fully-alive tension, what Frederick Buechner has called “holy recklessness.”
To devote one’s self to the habits suggested in that first personal question, to “continue” engaging the lessons of scripture, fellowship in the church, the breaking of bread secular and sacred, and in praying “the prayers” both corporate and public as well as personal and private… Well, that is probably a good place to start.
(An earlier version of this post was written in Advent 2014, but has been significantly revised and reposted here in Advent 2020 to ask whether we can “Rejoice, always!” even in the time of Covid.)
Two days ago was “Stir-up” Sunday — an irreverent nickname some of us “Whiskeypalians” give the Third Sunday of Advent, based on the (pun intended) “stirring” words of the opening collect:
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
The more traditional name given “3 Advent” is Gaudete Sunday, from the first word of the introit of the Latin mass: “Gaudete Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete!…” or “Rejoice in The Lord always! Again, I will say, REJOICE!” That line comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil. 4:4), a young church he seemed to have particularly loved on the east coast of Greece. (The ALL CAPS are mine…not sure whether his shaky pen writing ancient Greek on papyrus did the same.)
Writing from a Roman prison, a remarkably emancipated Paul suggested to this fledgling flock of new believers, and maybe to all of us in 2020, that we should “Rejoice, always. Again I say, rejoice! …The Lord is at hand.” And in the same breath, he speaks of a “Peace of God that passes all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). On the one hand, it can be seen as an utterly absurd notion, especially in times like these. But for generations of Christians ever since, it has proven to be more than a notion and somehow utterly true.
The Third Sunday of Advent also traditionally recognizes and celebrates Mary and her deep joy, hence the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath now illumined in her honor. And so the question is posed: on this Gaudete Sunday or “Rose Sunday” or “Stir-up” Sunday in 2020, is it possible to “rejoice in the Lord, always”? How can we follow, in such a year of turmoil and disease and death, Paul’s admonition to embrace an ineffable Peace and the “bountiful mercy and grace” of a “stirred-up” Lord?
At the beginning of Advent, I would likely have seen such a call as too much. And still it may be.
Indeed, just this week our nation passed 300,000 dead from this ravenous virus. Three hundred thousand chairs at last year’s Christmas tables will now be as empty as the hearts of those loved ones having to stare at them. And yet, also this week, nearing the end of this loooooooong and dismal year, there seems to be actual news about which we can in fact rejoice.
Thanks be to God – and thousands of researchers, scientists, healthcare workers and tens of thousands of volunteers willing to be guinea pigs in dozens of studies worldwide — vaccines are here! There’s a long way to go of course, but now the hope that seemed so far off is (as Paul reminded the Philippians about The Lord) “at hand.” That glimmer of light at the end of the proverbial Covid tunnel does not appear to be a train coming in the opposite direction.
For sure, we have this year been “sorely hindered” as the collect says, “by our sins” of neglect or ignorance or arrogance or all of the above — and more. Especially when looking at this nation, I confess that a daily dose of 9/11-sized deaths has, I greatly fear, made me numb, asleep to something too horrible to contemplate. To truly fathom the ongoing loss is crippling, and so out of a survival protection mode, I change the channel or click the next link. I suspect I’m not alone.
The power of powerful prayers like Sunday’s “Stir up” collect can bring me back, though, as can hearing once again the paradoxical Truth of a real Peace that does in fact simply pass human understanding. My lawyer-brain’s inability to make sense of it fails to make the Reality of It any less true. To delve into such Mystery behind a stirred-up, Rose-colored Gaudete Sunday is to be able to withstand the pain of knowing that much of 2021 will be too much like 2020, especially in the beginning. Throughout it all, though, the “Gaudete Sunday” of 3 Advent bids us look for, and indeed rejoice in, the “bountiful grace and mercy” to “speedily help and deliver us,” from a “stirred-up” Lord that indeed is close “at hand.”
Today marks the last Sunday of the traditional church calendar year. Mainline liturgical churches start all over again next Sunday with the First Sunday of Advent (moving from “Year A” in the Common Lectionary into “Year B” for those keeping score). Traditionally this last Sunday After Pentecost is known as “Christ the King” Sunday, and indeed it is a time for reflecting on the passage of time, and a time to imagine the end of time, and how Christ Jesus is to establish his reign for all time.
In 2020, the concept of “king-ly” power on earth has become anachronistic at best. In America especially, the notion of a God-appointed monarchy and ruler (despite what might be suggested in some circles, thankfully isolated) is a particularly prickly subject. After all, our nation was founded by getting rid of a king’s power over our “free and independent states.”
Maybe that is one reason I find it difficult to wrap my heart and soul around the moniker “Christ The King.” Not only that, but beyond my contemptuous aversion against authoritarian monarchs of any stripe, the discussion of “Christ the King” is often presented as an apocalyptic story of that one cataclysmic day when suddenly “the Rhapsody will cometh” with lots of horsemen on fiery chariots and cherubim and seraphim singing endlessly to “the Lamb upon the throne.” Such an existence, regardless of all the “green screen” special effects that might have to come with it to keep up with the book of Revelation, might well be infinitely better in so many ways than our current state of being in 2020. Even so, my sardonic and distrustful lawyer-brain cannot come close to believing in a “second coming” that is somehow filled with the literal emptying of graves, accompanied with clouds of fire and the sun turning to black and seven angels with seven trumpets pouring out seven bowls of God’s wrath.
The older I get, the more I’m thinking that maybe the “second coming” of Christ, the establishment of “Christ’s Kingdom” has very little to do with what the world might look like when God tries to out-do the latest CGI and VFX in the next Avengers release. Rather, I am more and more drawn to a cock-eyed notion that the true “second coming” of Jesus has much more to do with what the world might be like powered by the force of Love.
When I get all worked up, as I often do, over the world’s absurdities and cruelties (especially these days with the inability or unwillingness of so many people accepting or even acknowledging facts that they might find unpleasant or inconvenient to their myopic selfishness), it comes to me as sheer Grace to be reminded of the kingdom that Jesus conveyed to his disciples and followers over and over again. Even standing condemned before Pilate, knowing surely that crucifixion lay ahead with the answer he was about to give, Jesus quietly and simply but defiantly replied to Pilate (and to the millenia of generations to follow) regarding the question of whether in fact he felt he was a king…
“My kingdom,” he said, “is not of this world.”
And so it is that followers of Jesus in this world, the only one we really know and are forced to walk around each day, are left to ponder what to do with this world. Can it be that THIS world – here and now – is the one that is to be built into the “Kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus spoke about so much while walking in this world?
I have heard it said that the term often translated in English Bibles as “Kingdom of Heaven” in the New Testament can also be translated as “Realm of Love.” If indeed that is the case, then THAT is something even my lawyer brain can not only accept, but fervently yearn will bring about an everlasting reign for “Christ the King,” a veritable “second coming” of tough, powerful, radical and relentless love.
An obscure verse from the traditional iconic hymn for this Sunday says it well, I think:
Crown Him the Lord of peace, Whose power a scepter sways From pole to pole, that wars may cease, And all be prayer and praise. His reign shall know no end, And round His pierced feet Fair flowers of glory now extend Their fragrance ever sweet.
In the appointed collect for today the worldwide Anglican Communion beseeched (don’t you just love that word?) God to “make us love what You command.”
>> Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. <<
One of the things that I’ve always admired in our collects is the sense of immediacy and intimacy in most of them. In that sense, they tend to model The Lord’s Prayer, in that there’s not a “Please” or request to “help us to…” to be found. Rather the best collects — just like the prayer that Jesus recited when his followers asked him how to best pray — is filled with imperatives to a Loving Omnipotent God. These urgent urgings to our Divine Creator have a power implied in them that we are, somehow, worthy to lay such demands before The Almighty. Even more than that though, there is also a sense that we dare speak to The Source of All Caring with a faith that our God is not just able to do such good things for us, but is also eager to do them, and eager for us to ask for such bold and audacious things.
But just like the Pharisees and lawyer in today’s Gospel (Matt. 22:34-46), so too am I tempted to ask the evasive, miss-the-big-point, follow-up question: “Yeah, Lord, but what — exactly — fits in that category of ‘what You command’ that we are supposed to love”? (At this point, I can only imagine collective “shaking their heads” among the Heavenly Hosts.). Fortunately, especially for those “cut to the chase” types like myself, Jesus tells us with in essence a one-word answer, LOVE.
Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s pretty much it.
A transformative light-switch was turned on for me a few years ago. I confess to being an unapologetic Anglophile, with a deep affection for words. More particularly, I am enthralled and passionate about “the right word” that makes all the difference, as Mark Twain once quipped between “lightning, and a lighting bug.” Such a difference comes with the different meanings assigned to the same word – that poor, overburdened, little four letter English word, LOVE. So often, especially in modern American culture, “love” is a noun, describing a feeling of attachment or affection. But in the Jesus Movement, I have grown persuaded that “love” is a VERB.
Not sure about anyone else, but for me at least, when I began to fathom that for Jesus, love is about ACTION, things became much more fathomable. That is the only way that the clear command to “love your enemies” makes sense and becomes real. Warm fuzzy feelings have next to nothing to do with it. Even though I might be disgusted by, and pissed off at, someone (often myself), I am still able to love them, to ACT lovingly toward them.
Mama Gump told Forrest over and over, “Stupid is, as stupid does.” She might well have added the additional wise words that “Love is, as love does.”
Sometimes simple things are all I can handle. LOVE. That’s it. Love what God loves, and remember love is a verb.
The Common Lectionary can sometimes be uncanny in its timing. Even my most skeptical and cynical lawyer-self occasionally has difficulty not at least considering that some Graceful Hand may have played a part, especially when pre-determined readings “just happen” to appear just at the right moment. It may well just be our human tendency to see into things those things we most want to see, but at times the Sunday readings and prayers, scheduled long ago, can speak with such force and relevance to contemporary events that they seem to have been chosen just the day before.
This past Sunday (August 23) was “Proper 16 of Ordinary Time” in “Year A” of the Liturgical Calendar. It was just another Sunday in the long stretch of “ordinary time” after Easter in the spring, and continuing until the arrival of Advent in late fall. And yet, the collect for this “ordinary” day could hardly have been more timely for the profoundly extra- ordinary times in which we find ourselves:
>> Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. <<
At first blush, the timing of this appointed prayer might seem silly right now, or even cruel. After all, the only physical “gathering” most churches are doing these days are through pre-recorded videos, Zoom chats or YouTube channels.
But if there is anything that the Liturgy is constantly urging me to do, it is to get beyond the mere physical, and I have to confess that is not often easy, and usually I have to drag along my attorney-brain kicking and screaming. I am way too wedded most of the time a sort of a “human chauvinism” believing that our five human senses can eventually lead us to all knowledge and wisdom. That is, if it cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched, it simply cannot be, and therefore not worth the time or effort. But the beauty of this collect, likes so many liturgical gifts, is how this prayer itself leads me to consider beyond the physical, to give eyes perhaps to glimpse a little of the Unseen. What last Sunday’s collect urges is that our gatherings be “in unity by your Holy Spirit.” Being seated neatly in a church pew is not a prerequisite (or as we lawyers say, a “condition precedent”). In fact, one might argue it has next to nothing to do with it.
Many years ago, I was blessed to hear a lecture from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner. He spoke openly and vulnerably about the times he attended “Al-Anon” trying to deal with his alcoholic father’s suicide years after the fact. He noted how it and other 12-step groups were far from perfect, but offered immense help and healing from very few resources and very sparse operations.
They have no offerings really, he said, except maybe a basket by the coffee urn for those who care to contribute what they can. There are no vestments, no buildings, no vestries, no capital campaigns or every member canvasses. No altar guilds, no grounds committees, no retreat planning commissions. The souls that gather there have nothing but each other and their stories and their honesty with themselves, their support for one another, and their belief that whatever demons or challenges they are facing they cannot handle them all by themselves.
But it is what Buechner said next that has stuck with me the most. “And I cannot help but think,” I recall him saying, “that these groups may be closer to what Jesus had in mind for his church than many of the structures we have today. And I cannot help but wonder if maybe the best thing that could happen to a lot of churches is that they be torn down so that all that they had left was The Holy Spirit and each other to lean on.”
I am not sure I agree with all of that, but the sentiment behind it seems well worth thinking about, especially when physical structures are being in effect dismantled by a virus.
The challenges of these present days, posed by self-quarantines and closed sanctuaries, might well turn out to be great gifts. That is particularly true, I think, if somehow we can manage to follow the lead of this wonderful prayer from this past Sunday, and see that being “gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit” is not really about a assembling in a building, but the building of a kingdom.
By focusing on THAT kind of unity the Church may yet indeed, as this timely collect implores, “show forth God’s power among all peoples.”
One small voice, belonging to a 12-year old boy, begins to sing…
Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.
Other young boys join in, followed by the full choir, followed by the congregation, as the throng of Choristers and Acolytes and Priests make their way forward…
The place is Kings College Chapel, in Cambridge, England. The time is a minute or two after 3 p.m. London time on Christmas Eve. The occasion is“A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.” And for this crusty curmudgeon, it is, quite simply, the best worship service on the planet. Continue reading →