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.

Screenshot (1)

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.

…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.

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.

…a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

Of all the sentences in the entire lexicon of the liturgy, surely one of the most profound and powerfully packed is the one which is composed of these twenty-three words In Eucharistic Prayer A:

He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

The Whole WorldAs shared in an earlier post, the first phrase of that sentence, about Jesus’ outstretched arms on a cross, just hit me to my core one Sunday morning in a fresh and paradoxical way, leaving me breathless.

A similar stunning epiphany was granted to me somehow not long ago, at a time when I was struggliing especially hard with the wicked whispers in my brain, leaving me riddled with all manner of aimless doubt. Desperately seeking some goals I really desired, and even more desperately seeking God’s guidance for them, I was finding only that God seemed nowhere to be found. To say I was feeling broken on that morning would not have explained the half of it.

In this state of brokenness, a message of wholeness somehow broke through.

For the umpteen-thousand previous times I had heard the words “…for the whole world” I had understood that Jesus’ sacrifice was for the entire planet. Christ was crucified, once for ALL. The feast at this Eucharistic table is for EVERYONE.

But on this particular morning, what came to me when I heard that phrase “for the whole world” was something wholly different; a new message in a wholly deeper context.

Jesus’ “perfect sacrifice” is not just about the numbers, the entirety of humanity before and since and ever to be. This ultimate offering “for the whole world” is about the world’s WHOLENESS, so that humankind might obtain completeness and a sense of one-ness — both with our Creator and each other. And this “whole world” is not just for a “macro” vision, that all nations and races and religions be united as one creation of God’s family, but also, and maybe more important, from a “micro” standpoint, Jesus took the cross upon himself so that EACH person, as a child of Our Creator, might obtain an intimate wholeness, a sense of unity and completeness within.

And the gift went further. The words “…a perfect sacrifice for the whole world” meant to me on that particular morning that Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s boy and the carpenter’s son, made the conscious choice to take upon himself the nails and crown of thorns in order to be a perfect offering, not just for the salvation of humanity and all beings to ever roam this celestial speck of dust, but that Jesus did this for ME. It was so that MY foibles and frustrations and other fragments of brokenness might be made whole, that Jesus gave this absolute ransom.

It was an astounding thought.

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.

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.