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.
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. This year, that little uplifting ritual is self-imposed. As the priests marked each others’ foreheads above masked-faces, virtual worshippers in today’s scattered ceremonies worldwide were encouraged to mark and remind themselves and all those loved ones who may have been worshipping with them.)
That 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.
(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.”
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.”
The First Sunday after Christmas Day is often called “Low Sunday” because attendance in Episcopal churches is typically sparse at best. Folks that amble into the wide availability of pews can be forgiven for wondering if “The Rapture” has come and somehow they’ve been “left behind.”
And that’s a pity, because there is an abundance of joyful reminders of Emmanuel, God With Us. Indeed, the opening collect is one of the most meaningful in the Prayer Book, bursting with layer upon layer of truth and significance:
“God of God, Light from Light Eternal”
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
That image, of a “new light” being “poured upon us,” evokes for me here in the dead of winter the warm thoughts of simply basking in the brightest of sunlight that offer comforting heat but does not blister or burn, sunlight that leaves no shadow nor room for any darkness.
Such light, as we are told in the collect, is the light of the “incarnate Word,” echoing the word so expressively presented in the opening sentences of The Gospel of John, the appointed Gospel for this first Sunday following Christmas Day:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. (Jn. 1:1)
The writer of John was not so much a biographer as a free-verse poet, presenting the Oneness of Jesus with God and Creation more than promoting any legend about the man. There are no shepherds in the Nativity story for John, no Wise Men, no “angels we have heard on high,” not even a stable. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is not so much born as Jesus simply is, from before time and for eternity, the Logos Incarnate, the “Word made flesh.” For John, to begin his version of THE Story — above all stories — in this way, was meant, I think, to drive home the point that Jesus was present from the start, because logos was present from the start. The Jesus of John manifests the Highest and Best and Ultimate of humankind, merged with the Divine Force of the vast cosmos. Logos in the flesh.
And now that this Word has taken human form, shedding its “new light” on a dark world, this lovely opening Collect reminded me that it is lavishly, extravagantly, ceaselessly “poured upon us.”
Only on rare occasion do I allow myself to comprehend such a fantastic thing. I’m not sure why that is exactly, except that if I take seriously the notion, allow it really to penetrate this hardened and scarred lawyer’s heart, I fear the sheer overwhelming Goodness of “the Good News” can cause my all too human heart to burst, not merely be “enkindled.” This Incarnate Word made flesh reminds me that God is not the God of the far off. God is the God of the here and now. God of the gritty, smelly, sweaty muck of life. God of the flesh.
And the word became flesh and lived among us…No one has seen God. It is God the only Son, who is the closest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
(Originally written on June 6, 2019, the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.) Far back in the hidden crevasses of the good ole BCP, there is an obscure and little known gem of a prayer under “Thanksgivings for National Life.” I “just happened” to discover it this morning. While I think that it should be front and center every day, it is especially fitting on days like today:
For Heroic Service. O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Normally, such a collect would totally escape my attention, but blessfully, at a small Eucharist I sometimes – but don’t always – attend on Thursday morning, the Celebrant today decided that we should offer the Thanksgiving “For the Nation” on page 838 as our “Prayers of the People.” And it was lovely. But it was the thanksgiving prayer right after that — the one above, that appears on page 839 — that caught my eye.
It was exactly 75 years ago today of course that 150,000 allied fighters from the United States, England and Canada began their “D-Day” assault on the beaches of Normandy, France for the liberation of Europe in World War II.
It’s so strange how Grace works sometimes. I came so close to sleeping in this morning. I came so close to passing by the church because traffic (and my slowness) caused me to be a few minutes late (and I hate going in late). I came so close to just closing the Prayer Book after we finished the Thanksgiving Prayer “For the Nation” and not glancing at the prayer that came next.
But I didn’t. And as a result, a profound gift was received.
Now all of these “near misses” could absolutely be mere happenstance — a mundane, random-as-rain coincidence of chance, as if I flipped coins all along the way. I am too much a seasoned and cynical trial lawyer not to note the substantial evidence of that very plausible possibility.
And yet it did happen. I did not sleep in, I did not pass by, I did not just go on immediately to the next page. I did notice. And I was graciously exalted by the richness of those words and a “grateful heart” indeed for the thousands who sacrificed their young lives on their “day of decision” on another June 6 morning, three-quarters of a century ago.
That gratitude extends as well for such small moments of “coincidence” that keep pulling me back to the Mystery.
A little more than two years ago, I wrote a blog piece that resonated with a lot of readers. Its impact surprised me a little, but maybe it shouldn’t have. The piece was entitled Dogs and Tears, and it spoke to something I’ve come to find is one of the most difficult parts of the human experience — the grief over the loss of an beloved animal.
In it, I reflected on a letter I tried to write months earlier to a friend who had to end the suffering of his family’s 16-year old dog a few days before Christmas, and how “I tried to offer — as best I could — some sense of awareness that his mourning and suffering over an animal was as real and as raw as any grief that any human suffers in this life.”
The “best dog on the planet” is no longer confined by it. She has an infinitely larger yard now in which to frolic.
the caption “Best dog on the planet.” A few hours ago, that dog left this planet — and a big-ass gaping hole in the hearts of my adult son (who has known her since he was eight), and his mother (with whom my son and the memory of Sandy will now forever live), and me.
Early this morning, I was in a devotion group of fellow faithful strugglers when the question was posed, “What’s the one question you want to have answered?” It took me an entire second (or less) to come up with the one at the very top: Is there — in fact — a heaven? I have asked that question before in this blog: “Will, one day, I wrap my arms once again around my father and my mother, and say hello to an older brother I never really knew, who at age 10 left me and my sister and a shocked small community that loved him so? And will he be an older brother, or a little boy?” Who, on earth, knows? Continue reading →
A year ago, on Good Friday, I sat alone with a dear friend keeping early morning vigil in a silent church, dark at first but growing in light as our hour passed. I wrote then of the ineffable inmost dwellings of our yearnings for the Other. I tried to write, as best I could, of those things that are quite simply beyond words.
This year, the church was the same, but the circumstances different. This year, my Good Friday was not that of a quiet lonely morning vigil, with no clergy or music but only growing light and deafening silence. Rather, this Good Friday contained a bleak service at high noon, with the clergy moving in deliberate slowness dressed only in unadorned black robes, two simple but profound songs and a couple dozen fellow travelers. A cross with a veil was quietly brought down the aisle to begin the Liturgy of Good Friday, with the small assembled congregation slowly bowing as it passed each pew.
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 →