…that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness…

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Ash Wednesday is not a day for high self-esteem.

In the centuries-old tradition of Lent, we strange Christians begin this forty-day season of penitence, preparing for the joy of Easter by submitting – however hesitantly – to the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that we, ALL of us, are really just passing through.

Ash Wednesday 1“You are dust,” the priest reminds each one of the assembled, one by one.  And just to make the point clear, ashen dust is smeared on each forehead in the sign of a cross.  “…And to dust you shall return.”

(That’s in normal times, of course, not Covid times.  This year, that little uplifting ritual is self-imposed.  As the priests marked each others’ foreheads above masked-faces, virtual worshippers in today’s scattered ceremonies worldwide were encouraged to mark and remind themselves and all those loved ones who may have been worshipping with them.)

Whoopee!

That dismal exercise is meant to set the stage for a reflective, more intentional and “penitent” Lent.  Today’s virtual service began — like any other year — with no introductory fanfare of any kind, no processional music, no opening acclamation or liturgical response; just a silent slow procession through the (for now empty) church sanctuary.

For me, the opening collect of Ash Wednesday paints a distressing portrait of humankind’s depraved state and utter need for redemption:

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who ae penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Before we are smudged with ashes and once again given our yearly instruction regarding our dusty ancestry and legacy, the Ash Wednesday liturgy calls for the Celebrant to pray with words lifted from Psalm 51, beseeching God to “create and make in us new and contrite hearts” while we go about “worthily lamenting our sins” and “acknowledging our wretchedness.”

And yet, amidst all this lamentation, there are reminders not just of our desperate need for redemption, but thankfully God’s eager yearning to offer it.

Thus, for all its solemnity and breast-beating, Ash Wednesday’s liturgy is an invitation, and a glorious one at that.

If I can somehow focus my feeble five-second attention with a faithful more-focused intention for the next forty days (thankfully we get Sundays off), then such a Lenten journey just might crack open a mysterious door a little wider.  Lord knows what is on the other side of that door.  On this side is the fervent hope of a “perfect remission and forgiveness” from an “Almighty and Everlasting God” who indeed “hates NOTHING”…not even a frenetic and distracted and sometimes disillusioned cynical lawyer who too-often seems more concerned with finding answers instead of just accepting gifts.

Let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…

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(An earlier version of this post was written in Advent 2014, but has been significantly revised and reposted here in Advent 2020 to ask whether we can “Rejoice, always!” even in the time of Covid.)

Two days ago was “Stir-up” Sunday — 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.

A rose-colored candle in honor of Mary’s deep joy lights the way for the Third Sunday of Advent.

The more traditional name given “3 Advent” is Gaudete Sunday, from the first word of the introit of the Latin mass: “Gaudete Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete!…” or “Rejoice in The Lord always! Again, I will say, REJOICE!” That line comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil. 4:4), a young church he seemed to have particularly loved on the east coast of Greece. (The ALL CAPS are mine…not sure whether his shaky pen writing ancient Greek on papyrus did the same.)

Writing from a Roman prison, a remarkably emancipated Paul suggested to this fledgling flock of new believers, and maybe to all of us in 2020, that we should “Rejoice, always. Again I say, rejoice! …The Lord is at hand.” And in the same breath, he speaks of a “Peace of God that passes all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). On the one hand, it can be seen as an utterly absurd notion, especially in times like these. But for generations of Christians ever since, it has proven to be more than a notion and somehow utterly true.

The Third Sunday of Advent also traditionally recognizes and celebrates Mary and her deep joy, hence the rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath now illumined in her honor. And so the question is posed: on this Gaudete Sunday or “Rose Sunday” or “Stir-up” Sunday in 2020, is it possible to “rejoice in the Lord, always”? How can we follow, in such a year of turmoil and disease and death, Paul’s admonition to embrace an ineffable Peace and the “bountiful mercy and grace” of a “stirred-up” Lord?

At the beginning of Advent, I would likely have seen such a call as too much. And still it may be.

Indeed, just this week our nation passed 300,000 dead from this ravenous virus. Three hundred thousand chairs at last year’s Christmas tables will now be as empty as the hearts of those loved ones having to stare at them. And yet, also this week, nearing the end of this loooooooong and dismal year, there seems to be actual news about which we can in fact rejoice.

Thanks be to God – and thousands of researchers, scientists, healthcare workers and tens of thousands of volunteers willing to be guinea pigs in dozens of studies worldwide — vaccines are here! There’s a long way to go of course, but now the hope that seemed so far off is (as Paul reminded the Philippians about The Lord) “at hand.” That glimmer of light at the end of the proverbial Covid tunnel does not appear to be a train coming in the opposite direction.

For sure, we have this year been “sorely hindered” as the collect says, “by our sins” of neglect or ignorance or arrogance or all of the above — and more. Especially when looking at this nation, I confess that a daily dose of 9/11-sized deaths has, I greatly fear, made me numb, asleep to something too horrible to contemplate. To truly fathom the ongoing loss is crippling, and so out of a survival protection mode, I change the channel or click the next link. I suspect I’m not alone.

The power of powerful prayers like Sunday’s “Stir up” collect can bring me back, though, as can hearing once again the paradoxical Truth of a real Peace that does in fact simply pass human understanding. My lawyer-brain’s inability to make sense of it fails to make the Reality of It any less true. To delve into such Mystery behind a stirred-up, Rose-colored Gaudete Sunday is to be able to withstand the pain of knowing that much of 2021 will be too much like 2020, especially in the beginning. Throughout it all, though, the “Gaudete Sunday” of 3 Advent bids us look for, and indeed rejoice in, the “bountiful grace and mercy” to “speedily help and deliver us,” from a “stirred-up” Lord that indeed is close “at hand.”

Gaudete Domino …Always!

…and respect the dignity of every human being.

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This past Sunday was the Day of Pentecost. Although it does not get near the same attention as Christmas or Easter, the “Feast of the Pentecost” is also nonetheless a “principal feast” which is Whiskeypalian-speak for “big freakin’ deal.”

Always the eighth Sunday after Easter and the fiftieth day of the Easter season (hence, the term “pente”), Pentecost Sunday is that time when the church pays homage to the Holy Spirit, the third and most mysterious part of our very mysterious triune God.

The liturgy of Pentecost calls upon worshipers to “renew their baptismal covenant,” a series of eight questions all designed to walk believers through, in essence, what it means to be a Christian. The first three probe our doctrinal beliefs about the three entities of the Holy Trinity…Father, Son, Holy Spirit…Creator, Redeemer Sustainer. These questions are basically the restating of traditional creedal dogma — profound and deep…and (for me at least) utterly eye-glazing.

THE HOLY SPIRIT AT WORK? A sheriff in Michigan, after confronting protesters of George Floyd’s murder and police brutality, removed his helmet, put down his baton and asked, “What do you want?” They replied, “Join us!” And so he did. “I want to make this a parade, not a protest,” he said.

The next five questions, though, are anything but mind-numbing. The word “believe” is gone. These questions are all about commitment and action. They cover a wide array of habitual worship and fellowship, personal accountability, faithful witness and loving service. I have heard these five questions through the years countless times in countless ceremonies, but it was on THIS particular Pentecost Sunday of 2020 that the last question grabbed me by the proverbial collar, tossing a big ole boulder into my otherwise quiet and comfortable pond of Sunday morning solace:

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?

Is there is ANY question more relevant for a Christian today in June 2020?  I am writing this at a time when God’s world is burdened not only by the global pandemic of the COVID-19 coronavirus, but also in the last 10 days a different type of pandemic.  It is a global illness no less compelling, now brought front and center, laid bare in the aftermath of the horrific killing of yet another black man at the hands of a white police officer.

I am not sure I will ever be smart enough to know just what it was about this particular needless waste of precious life, but the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week has unquestionably struck a common nerve worldwide.  Maybe it was because of everyone on edge cooped up in quarantine.  Maybe it was because, during this pressure-cooker of isolation, we had seen images of Ahmaud Arbery and Breanna Taylor being gunned down just weeks before.  Maybe it was because, more than anything, the image of a nonchalant white officer, hands in pockets and knee on neck, draining life out of a handcuffed black man on the pavement provided the sickening but perfect metaphor for too much racism rampant in too many places.

Whatever it was, we are now seeing daily and nightly massive protests in big cities and small towns in every state of our nation.  Americans are not alone in our outrage, as people of all stripes and types have assembled all over the world.  A match has been thrown on kindling that has been building and drying for decades, even centuries.  The fire of “enough is enough” has been lit and now seems ablaze beyond extinguishing.  A Spirit is moving, and in the best of hearts with the best of callings, it seems during this Pentecost indeed Holy.

And all of it, all of the discord and strife and pent-up frustration, seems rooted in what this fifth and final directive of our faithful covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being.”  Because, it seems to me, it is precisely the lack of respect, the lack of acknowledging even the existence much less the dignity of EVERY human being that has led us to this point.  And it is that same lack of respect that is the biggest hindrance to our ability to heal.

So how shall I manifest this respect? How shall I “strive for justice and peace among all people”? Like most folks (or at least I think I am not totally alone when I think this), I’m not exactly sure. I will engage lovingly with those who are different from and differ with me, write checks and give as I can, volunteer as I can, and (as the limitations of my MS might allow) maybe even march.

The only certainty is that I will falter and stumble, literally perhaps, and figuratively for sure. I’ll backtrack, make mistakes or — worst of all — let other less important pursuits take over. But I do believe my path forward to helping to make a broken world at least a little more whole requires the commitment to “strive” for it, just as that final question of our “Baptismal Covenant” asks.

The only answer I can only utter, with resolve and all the certainty and uncertainty contained in it, is the five-word response to each one of the last five covenant questions:

I will, with God’s help.

 

 

For the means of grace, and the hope of glory…

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Palm Sunday is the last Sunday in Lent, and ushers in the most solemn and sacred week in the Christian calendar.  For most Christians around the world, this Palm Sunday and “these 40 days and 40 nights” of Lent in 2020 have been the most disturbing, perplexing and challenging of our lifetimes.

Folks that know me, know that I am an unapologetic Anglophile.  For me, there has always been something radiant and powerful about the English language, with words well written and spoken well, that can bring power and breathe life and somehow touch the soul.  And so yesterday on this most extraordinary Palm Sunday, it was not only appropriate but perfectly timed for Queen Elizabeth II to speak well a few words extraordinarily well written.  For only the fifth time in her long reign, HRM addressed

Palms and Daffodils 1

Passion Sunday 2020…the year palms were daffodil stems, and hosannas were shouted online.

her nation on a day that was not Christmas Eve.  She candidly shared her concerns about the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, and acknowledged very dark and difficult days lay ahead. Yet, with the authority of a woman who has lived through many dark days, she assured them of brighter days beyond.

While the Queen may have been speaking only to her (mostly) united kingdom within the United Kingdom, her words carried much-needed Truth far beyond British borders:

I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country. The pride in who we are is not a part of our past, it defines our present and our future…

While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us. 

We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.

Simple. Direct. Sparse.  Every word, practically every comma, packed with pregnant meaning.  Even with pauses for the compelling videos that accompanied her remarks, the entire message took barely four minutes.

The words of well written liturgy can also bring surprising and powerful impact, often at times when mysteriously they seem most needed.  Liturgy, at its very best, often uses the same type of succinct language to pack a punch that can alter not only one’s outlook on the day, but also at times the course of one’s life.

A few hours before the Queen spoke yesterday, I had one such moment while “attending” with a dear friend a Palm Sunday service being broadcast (as almost all are now) over the internet.  While it would be an exaggeration to say it was life changing, it nonetheless reminded me — in just eleven words and twelve syllables – of the assurance that we on this lonely planet are not left to face this worldwide disease alone:

… We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. 

There, quietly tucked away in the middle the General Thanksgiving toward the end of the Rite of Morning Prayer, was a phrase that I suspect I’ve read, said, heard and prayed a thousand-plus times in my 64 years.  Never have those sublime words “means of grace” and “hope of glory” resonated more than in this unusual “online” worship on this most unusual Palm Sunday morning.

Throughout human history, despite the bitterly abundant examples of cruelty and depravity and greed that we humans are fully capable of inflicting upon one another, it IS true – and I think more evident than not – we humans also exhibit compassion and caring and sacrifice.  Last week was the 52nd anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke of the “long arc of history” and how it bends toward justice.   When I contemplate such things, I often talk of “my better days” and how on those days I am blessed to believe such things might in fact be true.  And I might even be led, on particularly blessed days, to conclude that this human tendency must somehow be influenced by a Loving Creator.  And on those rare times, like on a Palm Sunday morning, I am offered a glimpse that perhaps — against all common sense and reason – this Loving Creator passionately and intensely and intimately loves ME.  It is a notion that feels like the deepest of all desires, yet often more than I can bear.

Regardless of any of that, one thing I do know is I’m not nearly a good enough lawyer to argue persuasively against the truth of the indomitable nature of the Human Spirit.  Time and time and time and time again it has prevailed.

The Queen, in her sovereign resolve, reflected that “though self-isolating may at times be hard, many people of all faiths, and of none, are discovering that it presents an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect, in prayer or meditation.”  And so it has been during this strange Lent of 2020, and so it will be during this Holy Week, and throughout the spring season ahead in weeks that we Christians call “Eastertide.”

I heard someone say the other day say that it is times such as these, where there is turmoil and distress and fear, and a dreaded sense of hopelessness, that God seems to do God‘s best work.

There are countless examples in the Scriptures, from Joshua to Jonah to Joseph and dozens of others, where the darkest of days turn bright and out of death comes new life. The biggest and best such example, of course, is the story of this Holy Week, and its triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem leading to bitter betrayal and ghastly crucifixion, but ultimately turning into everlasting life that has forever changed the world.

We humans indeed mysteriously do have and have had (and, perhaps, been given) throughout the centuries “the means of grace, and the hope of glory.”

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

The General Thanksgiving  (BCP Morning Prayer, Rite 2)

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

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

(Originally written on June 6, 2019, the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.)  Far back in the hidden crevasses of the good ole BCP, there is an obscure and little known gem of a prayer under “Thanksgivings for National Life.” I “just happened” to discover it this morning.  While I think that it should be front and center every day, it is especially fitting on days like today:

Normandy Beach

Normandy Beach

For Heroic Service.  O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Normally, such a collect would totally escape my attention, but blessfully, at a small Eucharist I sometimes – but don’t always – attend on Thursday morning, the Celebrant today decided that we should offer the Thanksgiving “For the Nation” on page 838 as our “Prayers of the People.” And it was lovely.  But it was the thanksgiving prayer right after that — the one above, that appears on page 839 — that caught my eye.

It was exactly 75 years ago today of course that 150,000 allied fighters from the United States, England and Canada began their “D-Day” assault on the beaches of Normandy, France for the liberation of Europe in World War II.

It’s so strange how Grace works sometimes.  I came so close to sleeping in this morning.  I came so close to passing by the church because traffic (and my slowness) caused me to be a few minutes late (and I hate going in late).  I came so close to just closing the Prayer Book after we finished the Thanksgiving Prayer “For the Nation” and not glancing at the prayer that came next.

But I didn’t.  And as a result, a profound gift was received.

Now all of these “near misses” could absolutely be mere happenstance — a mundane, random-as-rain coincidence of chance, as if I flipped coins all along the way.  I am too much a seasoned and cynical trial lawyer not to note the substantial evidence of that very plausible possibility.

And yet it did happen.  I did not sleep in, I did not pass by, I did not just go on immediately to the next page. I did notice.  And I was graciously exalted by the richness of those words and a “grateful heart” indeed for the thousands who sacrificed their young lives on their “day of decision” on another June 6 morning, three-quarters of a century ago.

That gratitude extends as well for such small moments of “coincidence” that keep pulling me back to the Mystery.

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

A little more than two years ago, I wrote a blog piece that resonated with a lot of readers.  Its impact surprised me a little, but maybe it shouldn’t have.  The piece was entitled Dogs and Tears, and it spoke to something I’ve come to find is one of the most difficult parts of the human experience — the grief over the loss of an beloved animal.

In it, I reflected on a letter I tried to write months earlier to a friend who had to end the suffering of his family’s 16-year old dog a few days before Christmas, and how “I tried to offer — as best I could — some sense of awareness that his mourning and suffering over an animal was as real and as raw as any grief that any human suffers in this life.”

Tonight, I’m writing that letter to myself.

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

The “best dog on the planet” is no longer confined by it.  She has an infinitely larger yard now in which to frolic.

the caption “Best dog on the planet.”  A few hours ago, that dog left this planet — and a big-ass gaping hole in the hearts of my adult son (who has known her since he was eight),  and his mother (with whom my son and the memory of Sandy will now forever live), and me.

Early this morning, I was in a devotion group of fellow faithful strugglers when the question was posed, “What’s the one question you want to have answered?”  It took me an entire second (or less) to come up with the one at the very top:  Is there — in fact — a heaven?  I have asked that question before in this blog: “Will, one day, I wrap my arms once again around my father and my mother, and say hello to an older brother I never really knew, who at age 10 left me and my sister and a shocked small community that loved him so? And will he be an older brother, or a little boy?”  Who, on earth, knows?  Continue reading

…and for assuring us in these holy mysteries…

One of the most profound phrases for me in the Prayah Book (that’s the southern translation) is in one of the Thanksgiving prayers at the end of the Eucharist that we say just before getting our benediction send-off:

9D0AF548-DC1D-488A-A7C9-FA0D28377DD3“Almighty and everliving God, we thank you for feeding us with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and for assuring us in these holy mysteries…

It seems so counter-intuitive.  That is especially true for a litigation lawyer who disdains “mystery” of any kind…it is what I don’t know that bothers me going into a trial or hearing or deposition.  How can any rational human ever be assured by something mysterious?  When it comes right down to it, how often can any of us be all that “assured” in just about anything, least of all a “mystery” no matter how “holy”?

Continue reading

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle…

A year ago, on Good Friday, I sat alone with a dear friend keeping early morning vigil in a silent church, dark at first but growing in light as our hour passed.  I wrote then of the ineffable inmost dwellings of our yearnings for the Other.  I tried to write, as best I could, of those things that are quite simply beyond words.

This year, the church was the same, but the circumstances different.  This year, my Good Friday was not that of a quiet lonely morning vigil, with no clergy or music but only growing light and deafening silence.  Rather, this Good Friday contained a bleak service at high noon, with the clergy moving in deliberate slowness dressed only in unadorned black robes, two simple but profound songs and a couple dozen fellow travelers.  A cross with a veil was quietly brought down the aisle to begin the Liturgy of Good Friday, with the small assembled congregation slowly bowing as it passed each pew.

In this starkness, the Celebrant begins… Continue reading

…and above all, in the Word made flesh, Jesus your Son.

We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.

This opening paragraph from Eucharistic Prayer B, and especially its last seven words, has had a special resonance for me lately.

It started around Christmas, and all its seasonal references to “the Word.”  The author of John began that Gospel, of course, with the acknowledgment that “the Word” got this whole ball rolling, so to speak:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… (John 1:1)

It’s not easy for me, I must confess, contemplating the sheer foolishness of Christmas, and the whole concept of “Incarnation” — the act of the Divine somehow occupying flesh (or carnis, in Latin).  Think of it — the Ubiquitous Power of all Existence, choosing to appear in that Creation as a utterly helpless and completely dependent bastard infant of a poor, oppressed peasant girl.  Truly absurd.

logos

In the beginning was the Word...

But every so often, Grace breaks through. Continue reading

Upon another shore and in a greater light…

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(Originally posted December 22, 2013)*

One small voice, belonging to a 12-year old boy, begins to sing…

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

Other young boys join in, followed by the full choir, followed by the congregation, as the throng of Choristers and Acolytes and Priests make their way forward…

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

The place is Kings College Chapel, in Cambridge, England. The time is a minute or two after 3 p.m. London time on Christmas Eve. The occasion is “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.”  And for this crusty curmudgeon, it is, quite simply, the best worship service on the planet. Continue reading