Upon another shore and in a greater light…


(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.

Listening on Christmas Eve mornings to the local airing (WDAV-FM 89.9 Classical Public Radio) of BBC’s live worldwide broadcasts never fails to just leave me breathless, shedding more than a tear or two, trying to grasp my being blessed to savor something I suspect is akin to Heaven.

As the last strands of Processional fade and all are in place, the Dean offers “The Bidding Prayer,” a distinctly Anglican tradition of calling to God’s assembled people to petition the Divine for a particular purpose on a particular occasion. While certain parts change each year, most of the words to this opening “bidding” for lively worship is set in timeless stone, an annual reminder of the poignant and profound beauty that can be found in the words of the Liturgy.

“BELOVED IN CHRIST,” proclaims the Dean in perfect English accent and cadence, “…be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels…”  He urges worshipers to “make this Chapel…glad with our Carols of praise,” and then calls for a series of lovely intercessions.  We are bid to pray “…because this of all things would rejoice His heart, to remember in His name the poor and the helpless…the lonely and unloved…them that mourn…(and) all who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love…”

And then the flood gates of tears open.  Especially compelling for me each year is the penultimate paragraph, a call for us to “Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light…

Oh, my.  Thinking of that image of the precious departed — close friends and beloved family — rejoicing together on some distant shore, bathed and basking in God’s perfect light of Love…it is is just overwhelming.  But even more than that, to ponder them rejoicing with us, as we — on this side of Heaven — gather for Christmas reunion and worship, is often a vision just too wonderful for me to bear.

Such a grand thing can often be beyond my ability, or willingness, or both, to even contemplate. Such blessings are too good, too fulfilling, too delightful, too perfect…too much. As the old hymn says, “I scarce can take it in…” much less build my life around.

After all, there are times when the Christmas story, quite frankly,  seems utterly absurd. It is as if the Celestial Master of Ceremonies is saying to us — “Ladies and gentlemen! Now appearing for the consideration of Humankind, please behold the Omnipotent Creator played on this silent night by a helpless infant of an impoverished, unwed peasant girl under bitter political oppression.”  Very strange, indeed.

BUT — there are also these unsettling moments of crystalline clarity, moments that compel me to ask whether a Divine Creator, seeking to be made manifest to our world, could possibly have it any other way? How could a Perfectly Loving God better show us Infinite Love, how could a Benevolent Creator more perfectly demonstrate Intimate Presence than by and through Emmanuel — “God With Us” — in the midst of muddled human messiness? Indeed, isn’t it with our raunchy, imperfect, faithless foibles of human “stuff” that our Loving God somehow does His (or Her) very best work?

That’s why the tears tend to flow on Christmas Eve mornings, as I listen again to the broadcast from across the pond. I am reminded of that which is all too easy and convenient to forget, that “too wonderful” Truth (with a capital “T”) that God, in God’s perfect and relentless Love, beckons me home for Christmas, and every other day of the year.

Beyond The Bidding Prayer, the service continues with “Lessons” of Scripture to “mark the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child”  separated by “Carols” of exquisite choral music that offers us a glimpse of the Divine Mystery.

All serve to overflow my cup even more.

The service ends each year with boisterous singing by all assembled — choir, clergy and congregation — of the traditional “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” sending the worshppers off into the lengthening Christmas Eve shadows of Cambridge.

It is the perfect send-off for me each year as well, to deal with the lengthening shadows of my life.  I do again blessed beyond measure with yet another glimpse of God With Us, a reminder of the marvelous Mystery that our God, beyond all reason, somehow still seems to be…
“Pleased with Man, as Man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.”

God. With. Us.
I scarce can take it in.



The words above were first published on December 22, 2013.  The reason I am re-posting them now is because this worship service will undoubtedly become even more important for me this year.  I have the truly blessed opportunity to actually be in Cambridge, England sitting in the St. Mary’s Chapel of Kings College to listen and participate in this remarkable service.  To hear it broadcast is one thing; to actually be there is something altogether different.  — mcd 12/18/2017  



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, and lifts us to our deepest and highest selves.

With permission, I share 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 just recently. (I especially like the two prayers at the end.) 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 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 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.

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…

Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  People:  It is right to give him 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…

Every Sunday, Episcopalians hear these words as the introduction to the central part of every Eucharist, a long narrative liturgical prayer known as “The Great Thanksgiving.” Whether it is “Form A,B,C or D” in the Book of Common Prayer or some other version, this “thankful” prayer always recounts the very first Holy Communion, the “Last Supper” on the night before his Jesus’ Crucifixion, and symbolically transforms the simple gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

While it may be a “good and joyful thing” 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: A keen observer of the human condition.

Being in a state of genuine gratefulness is, for me, full of mixed emotions. Because If I am really honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that much of what I have, I did not earn.  Yes, 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.  But 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.

Because serious contemplation of all my 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 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 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 be thankful. “Always and everywhere” as the Prayer Book urges us. Stranger still, it often seems that the less folks have the more grateful they become.

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, but is slowly dying because he cannot adjust to earth’s atmosphere.  In one of the final scenes, as the “bad guys” from the government are closing in on him, one of the “good guys” has managed to find him first in his hideout, and they have a brief dialogue.

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

“Please…,” urges the good guy.

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

And I think that’s true in a weird mysterious way, and I am coming to believe more and more that such a wondrous and wonderful human trait is NOT of our own doing.  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.”

And that 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 the very least my awareness of them, which is no small thing). And that of course in turn begets even more gratitude, which continues the Graceful cycle.

…that with calm expectancy, I may make room…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A God of “heavenly powers,” a God who “by the might of (a) command” can “drive away from our bodies ALL sickness and ALL infirmity”…a God who is Good beyond good and Love beyond love…Surely, that God will hear us and our earnest pleas (our earnest please).

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

Never are our pleas more fervent than when a child is gravely ill. And for those unspeakable times, this service makes special intercession. The prayers “For a Sick Child” remind us that a precious child is not in our fallible, failing, faithless hands, but rather in the embrace of a protective shepherd, caring and watching of his flock:

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

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

Heavenly Father, watch with us over your child N., and grant that he may be restored to that perfect health which it is yours alone to give; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  AMEN.

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

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

Just last week, this prayer was uttered in a hospital room where a Eucharist was celebrated (NEVER has the term “celebrate” been more apt) for a dear friend.  It was read to dozen or so of us, gathered around the bed by my friend’s adult son. He has decided to leave that damned hospital, finally, and to go home, into the care of Hospice, and ultimately into the Greater Care that no earthly power can bring.
There is real power in all prayer, but I find it especially in that one. When I am led to quietly recite it, and to dwell in it, I am grounded. Even in times of deepest doubt and fear, these words do not take away all the dark imaginings, but somehow they give me some strange and sanguine command over them.


Epilogue: Through my dealings with MS (and countless other life-experiences), I’ve learned that healing involves much more than a physical cure. Yes, we want and need more time with our loved ones. The deathly illness or injury of a friend is so often cruel, and — by any earthly measure — unfair as hell. My friend died within two weeks after that Eucharist in his hospital room.

The God that we want in our earthly imperfection should, by all we know to be good and holy, grant our loving requests for a cure. But the God that we have, that we struggle to profess and follow and believe in, may or may not grant such a physical gift. And yet, I am coming to believe, however unsure and hesitant, that our prayers for HEALING are ALWAYS heard, and are ALWAYS granted, and are NEVER in vain.     -mcd

But chiefly are we bound to praise you…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Lord knows I’m trying.  Lord knows.