That your Church, being gathered together…

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The Common Lectionary can sometimes be uncanny in its timing. Even my most skeptical and cynical lawyer-self occasionally has difficulty not at least considering that some Graceful Hand may have played a part, especially when pre-determined readings “just happen” to appear just at the right moment. It may well just be our human tendency to see into things those things we most want to see, but at times the Sunday readings and prayers, scheduled long ago, can speak with such force and relevance to contemporary events that they seem to have been chosen just the day before.

THE CATHEDRAL IN COVID – The Very Rev. Randy Hollerith, Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, talks in an “empty” church building, addressing thousands worldwide via streaming and “in unity by the Holy Spirit.” https://mydigimag.rrd.com/publication/?i=666173&ver=html5

This past Sunday (August 23) was “Proper 16 of Ordinary Time” in “Year A” of the Liturgical Calendar. It was just another Sunday in the long stretch of “ordinary time” after Easter in the spring, and continuing until the arrival of Advent in late fall. And yet, the collect for this “ordinary” day could hardly have been more timely for the profoundly extra- ordinary times in which we find ourselves:

>> Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. <<

At first blush, the timing of this appointed prayer might seem silly right now, or even cruel. After all, the only physical “gathering” most churches are doing these days are through pre-recorded videos, Zoom chats or YouTube channels.

But if there is anything that the Liturgy is constantly urging me to do, it is to get beyond the mere physical, and I have to confess that is not often easy, and usually I have to drag along my attorney-brain kicking and screaming. I am way too wedded most of the time a sort of a “human chauvinism” believing that our five human senses can eventually lead us to all knowledge and wisdom. That is, if it cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched, it simply cannot be, and therefore not worth the time or effort. But the beauty of this collect, likes so many liturgical gifts, is how this prayer itself leads me to consider beyond the physical, to give eyes perhaps to glimpse a little of the Unseen. What last Sunday’s collect urges is that our gatherings be “in unity by your Holy Spirit.” Being seated neatly in a church pew is not a prerequisite (or as we lawyers say, a “condition precedent”). In fact, one might argue it has next to nothing to do with it.

Many years ago, I was blessed to hear a lecture from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner. He spoke openly and vulnerably about the times he attended “Al-Anon” trying to deal with his alcoholic father’s suicide years after the fact. He noted how it and other 12-step groups were far from perfect, but offered immense help and healing from very few resources and very sparse operations.

They have no offerings really, he said, except maybe a basket by the coffee urn for those who care to contribute what they can. There are no vestments, no buildings, no vestries, no capital campaigns or every member canvasses. No altar guilds, no grounds committees, no retreat planning commissions. The souls that gather there have nothing but each other and their stories and their honesty with themselves, their support for one another, and their belief that whatever demons or challenges they are facing they cannot handle them all by themselves.

But it is what Buechner said next that has stuck with me the most. “And I cannot help but think,” I recall him saying, “that these groups may be closer to what Jesus had in mind for his church than many of the structures we have today. And I cannot help but wonder if maybe the best thing that could happen to a lot of churches is that they be torn down so that all that they had left was The Holy Spirit and each other to lean on.”

I am not sure I agree with all of that, but the sentiment behind it seems well worth thinking about, especially when physical structures are being in effect dismantled by a virus.

The challenges of these present days, posed by self-quarantines and closed sanctuaries, might well turn out to be great gifts. That is particularly true, I think, if somehow we can manage to follow the lead of this wonderful prayer from this past Sunday, and see that being “gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit” is not really about a assembling in a building, but the building of a kingdom.

By focusing on THAT kind of unity the Church may yet indeed, as this timely collect implores, “show forth God’s power among all peoples.”

…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 next five questions, though, are anything but mind-numbing. The words “I believe” are 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?

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.

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 different from and differ with me, write checks and give as I can, volunteer as I can, and maybe even march as the limitations of my MS might allow.  I am certain only that I will falter and stumble (figuratively for sure, and probably literally as well) along the way. 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.

To which, I can only utter, with good resolve and all the certainty and uncertainty that is contained in the five words which is the response to each 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.

…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”?

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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

 

 

We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs…

Sometimes I feel like I am just turning into that crotchety old man who complains about everything. At 58, I’d like to think I’m a little young for that, but still, I look forward to becoming a curmudgeon.  It is, after all, one of the benefits of aging.

The older I get, it seems the more I find myself missing the 1928 Prayer Book. Not all of it mind you. Parts of the older liturgy can be stilted and drone on with Thee’s and Thou’s, but many of those prayers are just stunning.  And, by damned, I MISS THEM!!!

The so-called Prayer of Humble Access (which in itself is a name so quaint it belongs in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations) is one of them…

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs..."

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs…”

This collect is still a part of Rite One in the 1979 BCP, but hardly anyone uses it these days.  In the older liturgy, as well as the more recent, it is cited just before the congregation is invited to the altar — the “Lord’s table” — to receive bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ.

In the Gospel from this past Sunday (Pentecost – Proper 15; Matt. 15:20-28), there is a lot of talk about gathering crumbs. A woman comes to Jesus who has a daughter “tormented by a demon.” (How many of us aren’t, at some point in our lives?) In response, Jesus — our loving, compassionate Savior — ignores her. And then, after she kneels before him, imploring and begging him, he compares her to a dog.

Not a pretty picture.

But again, she persists. She cries to Jesus that even the dogs get some crumbs. Only then does Jesus appear moved.

Most Thursday mornings, I try to stumble my way to a small 7 a.m. Eucharist at my parish, followed by breakfast and scripture discussion of the lessons for the next Sunday. That group really wrestled with this Gospel last week. Some folks thought that Jesus knew all along what he was doing, and was simply putting the woman to a test. That would be something typical of the Jesus that often appears in John’s Gospel, but this was in Matthew.

Maybe Jesus was just being a jerk to this poor woman to prove a point. But tears begin to fill my eyes not so much from a know-it-all Jesus, but rather, in those rare times of vulnerability when I let myself fully believe I have a Savior who was fully capable of having a bad day.

I mouth the words of historical church teachings, that Jesus was “fully human and fully divine.” But how often do I allow that he had the capacity of getting tired, of getting ticked off, of flat-out “losing it” over the fact that even his own disciples often “just didn’t get it”? That may well have been the case here, when this poor woman — yet another desperate and lost soul cast his way — was coming to him to solve a problem that was not his. In that regard, the response of this fully human Jesus is a lot like mine would have been (and often is).

But totally and completely unlike me, this Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph, was — and IS — fully divine, and capable of compassion and forgiveness and miraculous healing beyond my wildest imaginings and expectations. The desperate mom that came to him must have known that — or at the very least wanted it so much that she refused not to believe it.

Whenever we say the “Prayer of Humble Access,” we honor this woman, and her persistence and “great faith” that moved Jesus so.

This Gentile mother moves me, too, and gives me an example, especially during times of aridity and utter cold silence when I am imploring my Lord for an answer (or even just a damned clue might be nice), that I am in blessed company. 

Persistence.  Faith.  Patience.  Trust.  But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy…

The Lord moves, when The Lord moves.