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.

 

…marked as Christ’s own, for ever.

Then the Bishop or Priest places a hand on the person’s head, marking on the forehead the sign of the cross [using Chrism if desired] and saying to each one…   N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever. Amen.

Not sure what it is about Baptism, but I become a misty-eyed old fool most occasions. It’s not the babies that get me all sentimental. After all, cute though they are in their snow white “Christening gowns,” those little cherubs are basically just sleeping & crying & feeding & pooping machines. No big deal.
Christs own forever

The Christian version of branding a calf…signed, sealed and delivered.

And yet, what our tradition offers to them is a very big deal. It is an extraordinary thing we offer these pudgy-faced lumps of flesh in baptism — we name them and brand them.

“(Jackson Benjamin or Mary Catherine or John Jacob Jinglehimer…), you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as CHRIST’S OWN…FOR EVER!!!!!!!”
I look at the priest holding that baby, and sometimes think of a little calf scampering off having just had its rear flank permanently seared by the red-hot branding iron. And for whatever reason I mist up, knowing (or at least wanting desperately to believe) that whatever lies ahead for that infant, whatever future choices are made for or by that child, whatever those innocent eyes see (or refuse to see) in the lifetime waiting ahead, I am being told that this newest Christian belongs, not just to our parish, not just to the one holy catholic church universal, but to Christ!
Christ named him.
Christ claimed her.
And Christ marked and sealed that young child as his own.
And NOTHING can separate him or her or any of us from God’s infathomable Love and Grace.
For ever.
Quite overwhelming, when you think about it.

…and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.

Goldfish. How and why would I think of goldfish?

At a recent communion service, I was mindlessly thinking of everything BUT such things as “unity, constancy and peace.” Contemplation of God’s unfathomable Love was, well, unfathomable.

Then, suddenly my mind actually heard the words the Celebrant was saying, and I focused on the ending phrase of one particular sentence (from Eucharistic Prayer A): “…Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.”

Unity Constancy and Peace - names of Goldfish?!?!

Unity Constancy and Peace — Strange Names for Goldfish?!? …Stranger thoughts on a Sunday morning.

And I thought how those would be great names for goldfish…or maybe names of children at some tree-hugger commune. I smiled quietly but after that, didn’t give the phrase much thought.

Then, just a day or two later, I “just happened” to read a commentary to a morning devotional online, and was struck particularly by the writer’s lament. She worried about dwelling in her house of “resentment, anger and fear” and I instantly thought about those three words from the Eucharistic prayer that had made me grin just a few days earlier.  While I can never say for sure, I’d like to think that just maybe I was taken back to that funny little moment about fishy names by some Holy Guidance. Maybe what was “given” to me, when thinking of “unity, constancy and peace” was a counter to that unholy trinity of “resentment, anger and fear.”

The holy triune of “unity, constancy and peace” has been on my mind even more in these last weeks.

It has been almost a month now since the horrific event that occurred in a city that I dearly love. On June 17, 2015, nine parishioners extended faithful hospitality to a very sick young man in Charleston, South Carolina, and paid for it with their lives. In the days since, gallons of ink and gigabytes of data have been used by all manner of writers trying to make sense of something that can never make any sense.

The only small thing I can add is to note how the surviving members of the mass shootings at “Mother Emanuel” AME Church are exhibiting EXACTLY those God-favored qualities of “unity, constancy and peace.’ And it strikes me that seeing those three qualities in action can truly lead us all to a stronger faith.

The events in Charleston, and more particularly its blessed aftermath of forgiveness,mercy and grace, are tangible examples and evidence to this jaded trial lawyer of a Divine Good in this Universe. Beyond all reason or logic or science, this Loving Life Force has the capacity to somehow transform horror into hope, tragedy into triumph, and victims into victors.

And once again, the gift of Liturgy can serve as an expression of such mysterious Grace. One other thing struck me in freshly considering this well-worn and too-familiar phrase.

The order in which these words appear — “unity” first, then “constancy” and finally “peace” — seems by itself to be a divine design. That is, the first when combined with the second are precursors and prerequisites which can lead to the third.

  • Beginning with Unity, and the realization that those things that divide communities and souls are so much smaller than those things that unite.
  • And that sense of oneness, when applied and nurtured with Constancy
  • Can, at long last, lead us (and me) to Peace.

Thanks be to God.

…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

Hosanna! (Revisited)

Updated Friday, March 27, 2015   Once again, on this Palm Sunday, we will all proclaim this “song” that has echoed through the generations.

A year ago, I wrote of how this word — this unique and solitary word — expresses an ineffable awe of, and to, the Divine.  Tradition holds it is both a salutation and a lament.

Sometime shortly after writing that blog post (see below), I was blessed to hear a song of the same name.  Although most of modern “Christian rock” music leaves me cold, “Hosanna” by Hillsong United is a gracious and gorgeous ballad of contemporary worship.  And like the ancient Hebrew expression itself, it is both an expression of thanks and praise for what is, and a lament for what is yet to come; a “new revival” for here and now, and a deep yearning for what has not been accomplished.

Maybe it was just what I was going through at the time, but the words of the “bridge” pierced as deep as I’d heard in a while: I was simply overcome:

Heal my heart and make it clean
Open up my eyes to the things Unseen
Show me how to love
Like You have loved me.
Break my heart for what breaks Yours
Everything I am for Your Kingdom’s cause
As I walk with You into
Eternity

On this chilly Saturday before we enter into this Holy Week, I gladly share it:

Originally Published April 14, 2014 — We say or sing it every Sunday, as part of the “Holy, holy, holy” acclamation to begin each Eucharistic Prayer.  But today, on THIS Sunday — Palm Sunday — “Hosanna in the Highest” takes on “passionate” significance. 

But, like so many of my prayers, I’m not really sure what I’m saying a lot of the time. To confidently proclaim “Hosanna in the Highest!” is to speak in words rarely used other than in a liturgical context. (Seriously, do any of us ever utter it outside of worship? “Hey honey, can you pick up [fill in the blank] on your way home?  You can?!? Hosanna in the highest…!”)

Even when we speak it in church, its true meaning is less than clear. 

An old Biblical Commentary text --  part of the "hot discussion" over the meaning of a strange but wonderful word.

An old Biblical Commentary text — part of the “hot discussion” over the meaning of a strange but wonderful word.

The derivation and definition of “Hosanna” in old Aramaic and Hebrew texts are apparently matters of some hot discussion (at least among those who lead such lives that allow for the hot discussion of such things).   

Is “Hosanna” a form of great praise, as the Jerusalem crowds seemed to suggest as they welcomed Jesus in today’s “Palm Sunday” Gospel?  Or is it more of a cry for help for The Lord to “Save Us!” as suggested by the Old Testament, such as in Psalm 118?  I’m not convinced there is that much of a contradiction.  The Psalmist’s cries of “Hosanna” in Psalm 118:25 are pleas that are exclaimed in the midst of celebration and triumph.  I suspect that the multitudes crowded in Jerusalem for Passover had the same mixture of hope, praise and desperation, as they cheered this charismatic young carpenter turned preacher who came riding into town.

Ultimately though, for me at least, “Hosanna in the highest” is a phrase of ineffable joy, spoken uniquely to The Divine.   Perhaps more than any other phrase in the liturgy, it is what we bring to it.  

Maybe some additional insight into the meaning of “Hosanna in the Highest” can be gleaned by a phrase that is even more prominent in Psalm 118.  “Steadfast love” appears four times in the first four verses, when we are told that God’s steadfast love “will endure forever.”  Such a powerful word is “steadfast,” and by using it, the Psalmist conveys to us an even more powerful and enduring love.  Thus, “Hosanna” becomes a uniquely powerful and enduring response.

That love — powerful, unique, enduring — is of course on radiant and heart-wrenching display this week. And at the end of the week, even a word as joyous and mysterious and wonderful as “Hosanna” will take a backseat to one even better.  An old friend we Episcopalians haven’t said in quite a while…

“Alleluia!”

  

    

    

    

…joining our voices with Angels and Archangels, and all the company of heaven

It is a peculiar notion, utterly absurd yet irresistible and stunning.

At a recent Eucharist, my wandering mind suddenly latched onto the proposition proclaimed just about every Sunday, but rarely considered, at least by me — that I am worshipping with a veritable heavenly host:

Angels and Archangels

The Assumption of the Virgin by Francesco Botticini

“Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name…”

Could it really be that our voices join with those of Seraphim and Cherabim, of some divine dimension of the Unseen? Contemplating such celestial choirs led me to some deeper thinking (always a dangerous prospect) about the different “voices” of God.

Throughout history, humankind has believed God speaks to us not only through holy scripture, but through fire and rain, the human touch, music and the arts, literature and liturgy. Only recently in this ongoing and unfolding love story has the Almighty revealed glimpses of Mystery and Glory and Divine Love through the use of vanity license plates.

True story…

Several years ago, I was driving around Charlotte one Saturday morning, seething over some minor spat with a family member, cursing myself and all my shortcomings. A car passed by, and I glanced at its license plate. It read, “URWATUR.”

I smiled, being reminded that indeed, for better or worse, “I am what I am.”  I thought back to a story told by Frederick Buechner, who wrote he was once rescued from utter despair (in the midst of his daughter’s near-fatal anorexia) when he happened to see the word “TRUST” on a license plate. It came precisely, he says, at a moment when he desperately needed to simply trust God’s Providence.

He later discovered the car’s owner to be a trust officer at a local bank, but as he asks, does that really matter?

More and more, I’ve come to accept that Buechner is right when he observes that how we respond to these “little” moments determines a great deal of how we live our lives. Do we write them off as some silly bit of happenstance? Or do we seize them, and grasp the memory of them, time and again, like driftwood in a stormy sea?

Most of us, I suspect, do a bit of both.

Again, I smiled and chuckled to myself as the car drove on.  I thought, “OK, Lord, yes, I promise.  I’ll lighten up a little.”  The very next car passed by. Its license plate shone back at me: “GRACE2U.”

Soon after that little encounter was Transfiguration Sunday, which always is the last Sunday after Epiphany, right before Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent.  I’m not saying my little encounter was quite the same as seeing Jesus in blinding white with Moses and Elijah up on a mountaintop. Nor can I speculate as to whether my reaction to being shown such mysterious Grace even comes close to that of Peter, James and John.  All I know is that I even my most cynical “rational” lawyer-self cannot dismiss such things out of hand.

Mountaintop visions. Angels and Archangels. Vanity license plates.

“Heaven only knows” what what I experienced that morning.  Was it another manifestation of “The Voice of God,” or just two random drivers trying to get by my slow moving vehicle?  What I can say is that it has stuck with me, and that sometimes I just have to go with what I’ve got, choosing to believe on my better days that it’s not just simply what I have got, but also blessfully what I’ve been given.

Upon another shore and in a greater light…

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 my money, it’s the best worship service on the planet!

Listening on Christmas Eve mornings to the local airing of BBC’s live worldwide broadcasts never fails to just leave me breathless…shedding more than a tear or two, trying to grasp the knowledge of 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 “…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…”

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

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, is just overwhelming. And not just that, but to ponder them rejoicing with us, as we on this side of Heaven gather for Christmas reunion and worship, is often a vision 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 a life around it.

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, the Omnipotent Creator — played on this silent night by a helpless infant of an impoverished, unwed peasant girl under bitter political oppression.”  Strange, indeed.

BUT — there are also these unsettling moments of crystalline clarity 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 beyond. 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.

EPILOGUE
The Lessons & Carols service continues of course beyond The Bidding Prayer, with subsequent readings 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”) and with exquisite music that comes in between each lesson.

All just serve to overflow my cup even more.

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

It is the perfect send-off for me as well, to deal with the lengthening shadows of my life, 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.