That your Church, being gathered together…

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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.

THE CATHEDRAL IN COVID – The Very Rev. Randy Hollerith, Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, talks in an “empty” church building, addressing thousands worldwide via streaming and “in unity by the Holy Spirit.” https://mydigimag.rrd.com/publication/?i=666173&ver=html5

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.”

…poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word.

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:

Light from light

“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.

(Jn. 1:14, 18)

…who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.

(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:

Normandy Beach

Normandy Beach

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 creature of your own making and your gift into our lives.

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.”

Tonight, I’m writing that letter to myself.

At the very beginning of this blog in September 2012, I included a picture of Sandy with

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

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle…

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.

In this starkness, the Celebrant begins… Continue reading

Upon another shore and in a greater light…

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(Originally posted December 22, 2013)*

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…

One small, young voice... ushers in the best worship service on the planet. One small, young voice… ushers in the best worship service on the planet.  (Click HERE.)

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

Dogs and Tears

This we know: every living thing is Yours and returns to You….

Several months ago, a dear friend lost a companion that had been a part of his life for the better part (a phrase here that is meant literally) of two decades.  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.

Sandy SnoutIn doing so, I shared a special liturgy that I happened to come across while looking for something else.  Like the best of liturgy, it speaks to something deep within us, an ineffable and unexplainable “Something” in the words of worship that on an especially blessed occasion can carry us to a suffering that to be sure is still suffering, but somehow seems blessed, lifting us to our highest and deepest selves.

With permission, I share some excerpts of this letter to my friend who had to end the confused agony of his aging dog, just a few days before Christmas.

>>>Bill, this has to be so painful, especially at this time of year. That was a beautiful tribute you wrote to a wondrous and amazing creature. I’m so sorry for you and your family.

We Whiskeypalians have prayers and services for just about every damn thing. I came across this liturgy just recently.  On my better days, I do believe that our Loving Creator brings into our lives all manner of things that enrich us, and nourish us. When they are taken from us, it hurts like hell, but the richness and the nourishment stay behind.

Let me offer this, for whatever it’s worth…

Liturgy for a Dead or Dying Pet

Leader – Let us sing to the Lord a new song;
All – a song for all the creatures of the earth.
Leader – Let us rejoice in the goodness of God;
All – shown in the beauty of all things.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans (8:18-21)
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

A Reading from the Revelation to John (Rev. 21:1, 4-5a, 6)
I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away. And he shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death,neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold I make all things new. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Reader: The Word of the Lord
All – Thanks be to God.

Let us pray.

This we know: every living thing is yours and returns to you. As we ponder this mystery we give you thanks for the life of N. and we now commit him/her into your loving hands. Gentle God: fragile is your world, delicate are your creatures, and costly is your love which bears and redeems us all.

Holy Creator, give us eyes to see and ears to hear how every living thing speaks to us of your love. Let us be awestruck at your creation and daily sing your praises. Especially, create within us a spirit of gratitude for the life of this beloved pet who has lived among us and given us freely of his/her love. Even in our sorrow we have cause for joy for we know that all creatures who died on earth shall live again in your new creation. Amen.

Bill, my prayer for you and your family during this holy season and throughout the New Year is to have a holy and cleansing grief. And that through this loss, your broken hearts move even closer to each other, to lovely Cici (who I’d like to believe is romping and “slobbering” on another shore and in a greater light), and to a Mysterious and Infinitely Loving God who loves us and grieves with us more than we can possibly imagine.<<<

I’m not sure why during this hot July I’m led to write about such things now.  Except perhaps that in these last weeks of death and despair at the hands of sick people using guns and trucks and more guns, there has been much over which to grieve.  (And, for another dear friend, even more grief of late.)  I’m coming to find, more and more, that our God — whose Son wept over his friend Lazarus — does not take away our grief.  But, maybe, if we are so blessed, and we recognize that our Loving Creator weeps with us, we find some meaning in it.

 

…a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.

Maybe it is just the times in which these words are most often uttered…

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant (Name). Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive (her) into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.
Amen.

The ancient Greeks spoke of time in terms of kairos as well as chronos. The former is a time of essence, time of real life-changing and memorable substance, not mere seconds or minutes or hours that are registered on a stopwatch. Kairos is something beyond measurable time. It is what the Celtics call “thin” time; a time when the barriers and curtains between what is seen and the Unseen are paper-thin, and we can glimpse the Hereafter with some sense that this universe possesses mystery (Mystery?) that is FAR more than our five little and meager human senses can ever perceive.

Whatever the reason, when this collect is said, Continue reading

Stir up your power, O Lord…

It’s “Stirrup” Sunday today — 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 to the Third Sunday in Advent is Guadete Sunday. from the first word of the introit of the Latin mass: “Guadete Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete!…” or “Rejoice in The Lord always! Again, I will say, REJOICE!

That line, of course comes from Paul’s letter to his beloved church in Philippi. (Phil 4:4) Writing from a Roman prison, a remarkably emancipated Paul suggest to this fledgling flock that to “Rejoice!… Always!” may well be a trusted and proven way to harness our Lord’s “stirred up” power.

The notion of having the power of the Holy Spirit “stirred up” is both liberating and comforting, and also a little damn frightening. Metaphors abound in my head, and all of them have their limitations; some are just plain silly. But a stirred up Lord “with great might” could be like a summer rain storm, that may blow a few things around, but also cleans the atmosphere, and cools and nourishes the environment. Or like chemotherapy, destroying sometimes in a not so pleasant fashion that which would destroy us if not treated. Or maybe a “stirred up” Lord is even like the Incredible Hulk? Bruce Banner certainly got “stirred up” and was unpredictable and destructive of some things to be sure, but ultimately protective, and serving a greater good. (Ok, that last one was a stretch. But hey, such is the byproduct of a “stirred up” Holy Spirit.)

I heard somewhere once that one of the reasons we are “sorely hindered by our sins” may be our inability to do nothing. That is, doing “nothing” in stillness and quiet is NOT a passive activity, and is in fact a positive action requiring great discipline. (Often more than I have for sure.)

If there is anything that these last days of Advent are meant to teach us, I think, it is that the “nothingness” of waiting — in expectant faith for our Lord’s Love and Goodness, and oh yes “Great Might,” can “stir up” in us unspeakably deep joy. To exercise such trust, to rely on such “nothingness,” to actively engage in such ‘passive” waiting, can be as difficult as any 30-minute elliptical workout. But I’m coming to find that when I fail to do so, I am “sorely hindered” indeed.

Gaudete Domino …Always!

It is right, and a good and joyful thing…

Nearly every Sunday, Episcopalians hear the words of introduction to “The Great Thanksgiving” a long narrative liturgical prayer that is the central part of the Eucharist.

Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  

People:  It is right to give God thanks and praise.

Celebrant:  It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…

Whether it is “Form A,B,C or D” in the Book of Common Prayer, or some other version from some other liturgical tradition, The Great Thanksgiving always recounts in some form or fashion the very first communion, the “Last Supper” on the night before Jesus’ Crucifixion. This uniquely Christian tradition symbolically transforms the simple gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and offers great thanks for the gift of human redemption.

While it may be a “good and joyful thing” for us humans to truly give thanks, it’s also damn hard.  (Maybe that’s why we, as a nation, can only manage it once a year.)

Jeff Bridges in Starman: A keen observer of the human condition.

Jeff Bridges in Starman: “Do you want to know what I like best about your species?”

Being in a state of genuine gratefulness is, for me, full of mixed emotions. If I am really honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that much of what I have I did not earn.  Yes, while it is true that I can and should pat myself on the back and give myself due credit for the hard work I have done to help put food on my family’s table, it is also true that the quality of the table, as well as the quantity of the food upon it, have been determined not only by my labors but by sheer accident of birth.

Truly serious contemplation of all these blessings can bring such uncomfortable feelings of unworthiness, and maybe even guilt. I confess that I tend to resist it. No amount of rationalization can help me escape the plain and undeniable fact that although I have worked hard for what I have, others have worked far harder, and have far less.

And yet, it is also a mysterious and equally undeniable truth that we as human beings do have this capacity, not just in times of bounty but even in the most wretched conditions, to “always and everywhere” (as the Prayer Book urges us) be thankful. Stranger still, it often seems that the less folks have, the more grateful they are for what little they have.

There is this wonderful line from the movie Starman decades ago, where Jeff Bridges plays some alien who has taken the form of a human. He is slowly dying because he cannot adjust to earth’s atmosphere as the “bad guys” from the government are closing in on him. In one of the final scenes, one of the “good guys” has managed to find him in his hideout waiting for his mothership to return, and they have a brief dialogue.

“Do you want to know what I like most about your species?” asks the Bridges’ alien character, ashen and gasping for breath.

“Please…,” urges the good guy.

“When things are at their worst,” the Starman whispers, “you humans are at your best.”

And I think that’s true in a weird mysterious way. I am coming to believe more and more that such a wondrous and wonderful human trait is NOT of our own doing, alone.  Somehow, something or someone (or Something or Someone?) surrounds us,  protects us, nudges us forward, not taking away calamity, but somehow being there fully present in the midst of it.

As I go into this particular Thanksgiving, with various calamities and crises swirling around the globe (as well as inside my head), my belief in that Something or Someone — shaky and unsure but indeed present — is becoming for me both the object and source of “most humble and hearty thanks.”

All of this has led me to yet another mysterious but undeniable truth. When I can manage to adopt a true “attitude of gratitude,” it seems somehow to beget more blessings, or at the very least, my awareness of them.

That is no small thing, which of course is another blessing in itself.