We are bold to say…

In just about every Eucharist, worshippers are invited to pray the timeless words of “The Lord’s Prayer” with this phrase:

And now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say:  Our Father…

And the thing is, when we consider the rather astonishing notion that we should and can communicate – – directly, intimately, instantly — with the Omnipotent Creator of the universe, we ARE being bold.

Yet, as we read in the Gospel from a few Sundays ago (Luke 11:1-13), that is precisely the posture that Jesus advises his followers to take, when one of them asks how to pray. After acknowledging the holiness of his father’s name, Jesus is all about imperatives. The words he uses to instruct those around him boldly include a list of directives: Come. Give. Forgive. Lead. Deliver. Jesus apparently doesn’t see the need to say the word “please” to “Our Father in Heaven” even once, given a relationship that is so pure and so thorough, and in which (and in Whom) he feels so purely and thoroughly known.

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Just to make the point inescapable, Jesus goes on to tell a ridiculous story that suggests that prayer may include being somewhat of a pest. When we pray, says Jesus, it is like a friend who bangs on a neighbor’s door at night, asking to borrow some food to give an unexpected guest. “Who cares if it’s late at night?” Jesus seems to say. Regardless of the chronological time of day, Jesus more than anyone knows the proverbial “dark night of the soul” can take place 24/7, and that just happens to be the Lord’s office hours.

The sleepy neighbor from behind  closed doors tries to rebuff the pestering nuisance from next door, yelling at him that he’s already in bed and his children are asleep,  and the dog and cat are in, and he’s taken his Tylenol PM, and the alarm system has been set, yadda yadda, yadda.  And yet, the pest keeps boldly banging the door, and because of his “importunity” (what a great word), the pesky fellow gets his way and the bleary-eyed and exasperated neighbor eventually lets him in, to serve him in his hour of need.

Again, Jesus seems to be saying “It doesn’t matter that you might be feeling rejected by the voice you think you are hearing on high, or you think God is asleep and you are hearing no heavenly voices at all, or you are hearing God’s voice loud and clear and all It is saying to you is ‘Go away and leave me alone!’,” Jesus assures them.  He explains that “…every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:13.)

Maybe Jesus was influenced by that sublime story of Jewish bargaining that was the Old Testament lesson (Genesis 18:20-33) for that same Sunday when the Lord’s Prayer in Luke was the Gospel.  With no shortage of truly comical buttering up, Abraham talks Yahweh back from the ledge, striking a deal to spare Sodom from fire and brimstone if he could find some “righteous” folk there.  At first, The Lord’s bottom line is 50. Then 45. Then 40. Then 30. Then 20. We can’t be sure of whether it was Abraham or the Lord who grew more tired of the bargaining, but both went their separate ways after the bargain basement price got to 10.

Jesus’ point to his disciples (and I am both comforted and poked when I get the fact that this group includes me) seems to be to keep asking. Even if I am not sure what I should be asking for…keep at it! Keep seeking, even if the right words (or the right requests) elude me. Keep searching my heart, and for God’s Heart, even if I sometimes I question the relevance — if not the existence — of either or both.

In short, Jesus is telling me — KEEP KNOCKING…BOLDLY!

God can take it.

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…of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

This season of Advent just seems to do a number on me.

Yes, there is the absurd rush, the frenzy to not miss a single party or sale or movie opening.  But there is also, from time to time, a sense of the surreal that breaks through.

Christmas Tree lights2
Christmas trees in the dark: Yearning for something, not knowing what it is, only that it is.

It’s another kind of absurd altogether — a fuller sense of the “absurd” reality that we Christians profess.  We are reminded this time of year more than any other that our God, the “one God, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” chose to appear to Creation in the form of an utterly helpless infant, born to a young unwed girl under desperate conditions.

Maybe I just manage to keep this absurdity at bay better during other seasons, more easily brushing off the sheer wonder and profound beauty of a single human breath.  Not so much during the longer, colder nights of Advent.

When I refer to the long, cold nights of this season, it has little to do with shorter hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere.  For me, these “long and cold nights” are more of a spiritual description than thermal — the darker, longer, colder nights of the soul.  Watching lights on a Christmas tree in the quiet dark lead to a deep stirring within.  My truest heart desires something intensely, to know something and to know it deeply.  And yet, that heart is not really sure what it is yearning, sure only in the deepest feeling that whatever it is, Whoever it is, it IS.

Most times when I am asked by the Celebrant to “stand and profess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed,” I begin to mindlessly recite the words, and just gloss over the opening sentence, and its enormously powerful last phrase. But it is this darkness of Advent that reminds me more clearly that God is the maker of “the seen and the unseen.” God has made not just the stars in the heavens and the hairs on my head — not just what can be seen through telescopes and microscopes — but the Unseen, too.  We are surrounded by a holy host of maybes, which (or who) somehow swirl around us at the most needful of times, like a snowfall at night, unseen until one awakes in the morning, and  realizes what has been going on while we slept.

This time of year leads me to understand more clearly that part of our human nature is to seek and yearn for the unknown.  And it leads me to believe more and more that this very human trait exists because we have been “created” to seek and yearn for a Creator. We are meant to bathe in that Mystery. And perhaps, such a Divine (?) purpose goes even further. Part of my “rent” for occupying space on this planet is to purposefully search for that Mystery not only in what is “seen” around me in this universe, but also in the “unseen,” in those closest to me, and ultimately in myself.

And I as engage in that exploration, I am bound to be in that state perpetually.  I am like Bono singing “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” and I’m beginning to understand I never really will. Advent is telling me that the finding comes most often is in the searching itself. The “answer” is not discovered by “arriving” at a destination but in the journey along the way.

And the deepest of such yearning is to know and feel Emmanuel. God with us.

God- the of the omnipotent loving Creator
With- not over us or far away, but closer than close, touching us and everything in our existence
Us – in this tiny speck of dust that is our little corner of galaxy in the universe.

I become like the author of Psalm 8 when confronting such things. Such knowledge is too good for me; I cannot attain it.

I can only yearn for it.

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!

We have not loved you with our whole heart…

In most Eucharist services, just before the exchange of “The Peace” there is “A Confession of Sin” said corporately by the assembled congregation.  As often as not, these are the words spoken together:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

I have my own “confession of sin” about the liturgical confession: I often don’t pay attention.

Most days I’m simply mouthing those words, trying to feel appropriately morose (which of course, given little things like redemption and absolution and salvation and forgiveness, is not really the appropriate emotion).  Such was NOT the case during a recent small Eucharist service I sometimes attend on Tuesday evenings, The sentence “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves” had particular resonance. It froze me in the pew.

It immediately called to mind a mysterious and Godly gift I had received earlier this fall.

No need to go into the details of why I was suffering no end of angst on that particular Sunday morning.  Suffice it to say that the nagging little negative voices that were mumbling messages of failures with career, family, church, health and a long cadre of other concerns were coming through loud and clear. To say I was feeling not the least bit motivated to go sit through another boring church service would have been the understatement of the year.  Hell, I was not particularly motivated to do much of anything other than to leave my house and get to a coffee shop so I could attend the full-fledged pity party I had planned, before moving through a made-up list of Sunday errands.

It was not a blinding light or an audible voice that caused me to pause just before walking out the back door.  But it WAS something.  And I had this sense then, and still do, it was something external. And that Something, whatever It was, quite literally led me to turn around and close the door behind me. I felt myself walking with a steady and determined pace (unusually so, given my MS) back to my bedroom beside my bed, where I fell straight to my knees.

With my face buried into the mattress, one clear thought, one clear phrase, began in my head,  repeating gently — but incessantly — in my inner ear. Over and over, I “heard” it “say” to me: “Love your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind….Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And slowly, but oh so surely, all my worries, all my wranglings, all my nervous angst and dark imaginings…began to appear…unnecessary.

“It’s not that complicated,” that ineffable voice seemed to utter.

“Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it. That’s all you really need to worry about.  God will take care of the rest.  God WILL take care of the rest.”

With my my best lawyer cynicism, I fought back:  “But what about…?”
God will take care of it.
“But when will…?”
God will take care of it.
“How am I…?”
God is God. You are not. Let God be God. You be you….God, in God’s time, WILL take care of it.

Looking back at that holy moment, before I pushed on the mattress to rise up off of my knees, I remember taking in one long breathe, and realizing that it was the deepest I’d taken in a long time.

“…born of the Virgin Mary”

Two weeks ago the church celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation, a fact that normally escapes my attention most every March 25th, and it almost did again this year. (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, was quick to inform the dozen or so assembled faithful about the day’s significance.

Gabriel's "perplexing" proposal to a young girl... A lot riding on her answer!

Gabriel’s “perplexing” proposal to a young girl… A lot riding on her answer!

Ever since, Mary has been on my mind.

Maybe I was just taken by the Gospel reading about Gabriel’s surprise visit to this young Nazarene girl. (The term which is often translated to “virgin” 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.”) Standing before an Archangel, I’m not sure I would react with Mary’s sanguine aplomb if some other-worldly being suddenly appeared 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. Her obedience, her surrender, her willingness to walk the unknowable path of the Unknown 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.”
(Luke 1:26-35)

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 son. It may not be the pain of nails that pierce flesh and bone, but it is searing pain nonetheless that deeply pierces the heart.

Jesus’ decision to go to the cross was a sacrifice willingly made, thanks be to God. Mary’s sacrifice of watching her child endure that cross was not.

This is my son…with whom I am well pleased.

I’m writing this January 12, 2014 — the First Sunday after Epiphany.

January 12th was also the first Sunday after Epiphany in 1992. That is not something I would typically remember. But I certainly remember the phone call late that morning, about an hour after I got back from church.

It was my mom. “Mike?” she said, somewhat breathless, enough for me to reply, “Mom? What’s wrong?” For a brief second, I heard her inhale.

“Dad died this morning.”

From that second on, I think I remember everything about that day, even 22 years later.

The two-hour drive to my parents’ home was taken up mostly contemplating a sun-splattered winter sky, and listening mostly to a choral CD that the Christ Church Choir had done that previous year. One hymn was “Every Time I Hear The Spirit,” with a boisterous baritone solo: “The River Jordan, is muddy and cold; it chills the body, but not the soul…”

It was in that same River Jordan where, in today’s gospel from Matthew, Jesus felt that he heard the voice of the Father saying to him, “THIS is my Son…with whom I am well pleased.” It was a sentiment I felt from my father on just about every occasion I was with him, especially in my adult years. It was a sentiment that was now a memory.

By the time of my arrival mid-afternoon, a few close friends were already there. By early evening, our house had transformed into the warm, convivial, welcoming place I remembered growing up. All traces of the paramedics and their futile efforts to revive my dad after a sudden collapse were long gone. Many friends of my parents, of my sisters and of mine had arrived, dropping off the obligatory hams and fried chicken and casseroles, with most folks staying at least a while after my mom’s insistence. Lots of hugs, lots of misty eyes, and LOTS of funny stories about the funny life-loving man my father was.

By mid-evening, I had allowed myself to imbibe a few of my brother-in-law’s homemade beers, and ventured down to our basement to get more refreshments from the “extra fridge” down there.

All my Dad’s crap was down there in that basement. Every glance into every corner flashed back an agonizingly joyous memory that filled my soul.

And I just lost it. Sobs overwhelmed me, unlike any others, before or since. And THAT’S the moment that it hit me — an “epiphany” as profound as any I’ve ever had.

In the midst of this very private moment, during which I knew I had to somehow pull myself together before returning upstairs (but was in no particular hurry to do), a singular thought came to me, from Lord knows where. At some point in his earthly presence, Jesus must have lost his dad, too.

There is, of course, nothing in scripture that even hints at when or how or even if Joseph died, other than that good man’s complete absence from any narratives of Jesus as an adult. Regardless, in that one moment in the basement of my childhood home on the day my father had died, I had (or was I given?) the thought of how the central figure of Western Civilization, that person by whose life the world measures years, the Incarnate Word, Emmanuel, Messiah, Saviour to those of us who try to love him and live the belief that he was and is who he said he was… that man, that son of a carpenter, most likely experienced the reality with his mother that “Dad died.”

So the Epiphany that came 22 years ago today, one that I suppose I knew at some level but never really knew until then, is that we worship a God that wept, that mourned, that hurt, that knew what it was like to lose his human father.

Such knowledge does not take away the pain of such a loss, of course. But it does somehow seem to sanctify it. And in that process, it may just sanctify us as well. Enough at least to pull ourselves out of bed, put one foot in front of the other, to somehow feel that we are not in this pain alone.

Thanks be to God.