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.

… 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

To mourn thee, well beloved…

While thumbing through the hymnal, as I sit in the stark stillness of a Good Friday morning, words jump off the page…

Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.

I’m a word-guy. I love words, and love to find that “right word” especially, that difference between “lightning” and “a lightning bug” as Twain put it. I make my living (such that it is right now) mostly through words, putting them together in such a way that might prove most persuasive and beneficial for my clients.  Good FridayYet, this day is just one of those days in which my words fail me.  Words of others, though, often knock me down.

Sometimes on Good Friday, I try (because that’s just what I do) to put into words my feelings on this day, with their mixture of hopelessness and hopefulness, both desperate and concurrent, Would that I might be able, and willing, to just let the moment be, to let Good Friday just happen, to just “sit with it” and let the bitter joy of Jesus’ crucifixion silently speak whatever it wishes to speak. But I can’t.

In that way, I am like Peter I suppose, always seeming to interject words when they just aren’t necessary. “Lord, it’s good that we are here…” he eagerly “informs” Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:4), or “Lord, you’ll never wash my feet,” indignantly protest at the last supper and then a breath later, “…Then Lord, not only my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (John 13:8-9).  I too want to capture the moment, to try to put into words what I feel, sitting in a silent church with a dear friend for an hour vigil early this Good Friday morning.

But on Good Friday, all I can do — the best I can do — is indeed just sit in silence.  On occasion I feel moved to pick up the hymnal, and amble through its pages glancing at the hymns of Jesus’ passion and let the poets do what they do best.

Without any music or voices to embellish or distract from them, the written words of the hymns seep into my soul…

168   O Sacred Head Sore Wounded

In thy most bitter passion
my heart to share doth cry,
with thee for my salvation
upon the cross to die.
Ah, keep my heart thus moved
to stand thy cross beneath,
to mourn thee, well-beloved,
yet thank thee for thy death.

 

585   Morning Glory, Starlit Sky

…Therefore He who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree
And the nails and crowns of thorns
Tell us of what God’s love must be.

Here is God, no monarch He,
Clothed in easy state to reign.
Here is God, with arms outstretched,
Aching, spent, the world sustain.

 

And of course, there’s that hymn that thoroughly overwhelms me every time, not only for John Ireland’s sweet and simple and perfectly aligned tune, but most especially for sheer beauty of Samuel Crossman’s heart-warming and heart-wrenching words…

458   My Song Is Love Unknown

My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
O who am I,
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh, and die?

Here might I stay and sing,
no story so divine;
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like thine!
This is my Friend,
in whose sweet praise
I all my days
could gladly spend.

It would be disingenuous for me to say (life being what it is and all) that “all my days I could gladly spend” like I do on this Good Friday, in this “sweet praise.” But I will spend this one, at least, singing silently of “my Friend,” and with more than a few tears of grief and joy be thankful for this friend who on this day died for me.

Love Unknown

The Choir at King’s College Cambridge: My Song Is Love Unknown

 

 

…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.