Upon another shore and in a greater light…

One year ago today, I penned the words below, in anticipation of what I like to call “the best worship service on the planet.” This blog has always been about the mystery and beauty of liturgy, and never is it on more brilliant, more moving, more poignant display than each Christmas Eve with the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from Kings College in Cambridge, England. After updating and adding a few new links, I’m pleased to share it again.
–mcd

With Gladness and Singleness of Heart

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

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

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

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

The place is Kings College Chapel, in Cambridge, England. The time is a minute or two after 3 p.m. London time on Christmas Eve. The occasion is“A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.” And for my money, it’s the best worship service on the planet!

Listening on Christmas Eve mornings to thelocal airing of BBC’s live worldwide broadcastsnever fails…

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Stir up your power, O Lord…

It’s “Stirrup” Sunday today — 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.

The more traditional name given to the Third Sunday in Advent is Guadete Sunday. from the first word of the introit of the Latin mass: “Guadete Domino semper, iterum dico, Gaudete!…” or “Rejoice in The Lord always! Again, I will say, REJOICE!

That line, of course comes from Paul’s letter to his beloved church in Philippi. (Phil 4:4) Writing from a Roman prison, a remarkably emancipated Paul suggest to this fledgling flock that to “Rejoice!… Always!” may well be a trusted and proven way to harness our Lord’s “stirred up” power.

The notion of having the power of the Holy Spirit “stirred up” is both liberating and comforting, and also a little damn frightening. Metaphors abound in my head, and all of them have their limitations; some are just plain silly. But a stirred up Lord “with great might” could be like a summer rain storm, that may blow a few things around, but also cleans the atmosphere, and cools and nourishes the environment. Or like chemotherapy, destroying sometimes in a not so pleasant fashion that which would destroy us if not treated. Or maybe a “stirred up” Lord is even like the Incredible Hulk? Bruce Banner certainly got “stirred up” and was unpredictable and destructive of some things to be sure, but ultimately protective, and serving a greater good. (Ok, that last one was a stretch. But hey, such is the byproduct of a “stirred up” Holy Spirit.)

I heard somewhere once that one of the reasons we are “sorely hindered by our sins” may be our inability to do nothing. That is, doing “nothing” in stillness and quiet is NOT a passive activity, and is in fact a positive action requiring great discipline. (Often more than I have for sure.)

If there is anything that these last days of Advent are meant to teach us, I think, it is that the “nothingness” of waiting — in expectant faith for our Lord’s Love and Goodness, and oh yes “Great Might,” can “stir up” in us unspeakably deep joy. To exercise such trust, to rely on such “nothingness,” to actively engage in such ‘passive” waiting, can be as difficult as any 30-minute elliptical workout. But I’m coming to find that when I fail to do so, I am “sorely hindered” indeed.

Gaudete Domino …Always!

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.

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 that maybe, just maybe, 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) I am in blessed company.

Persistence.  Faith.  Patience.  Trust.

The Lord moves, when The Lord moves.

By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all is yours, Almighty Father…

This past Sunday we celebrated “Trinity Sunday.” While I do not come close to understanding the concept, we are told and taught that Whoever or Whatever our “God” is, we Christians believe Him/Her/It to be “triune.” As far as I know, the only use for that weird adjective is to describe what we believe to be the three-in-one and one-in-three nature of the Divine.

triquerta-wmpng-250-0f

A Symbol of the “Triune” nature of our God.

A few years after he wrote “The Road Less Traveled,” I had the chance to spend a week with Scott Peck at a Kanuga summer conference. One of his lectures was entitled “A Taste For Mystery” in which he pondered whether our spiritual maturity depends upon our developing such a taste for the Unseen, or whether we develop a greater tolerance (indeed a greater thirst) as we progress in spiritual maturity. Whichever it is — and I think it is both — the holy, indivisible Trinity of is for me the deepest of all Mystery.

The writer of the appointed Psalm for Trinity Sunday must have developed quite a taste:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,
What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?

Psalm 8:3-4

The Psalmist was aware of the Word, of course, but not the Word made flesh; Jesus had yet to make the scene. Humanity has now for two millennia been introduced to “God the Son.”  We in the 21st Century now know — in a way that neither the Psalmist nor any of Jesus’ disciples nor any of his followers for centuries to come could possibly know — that we live the span of our lives in one tiny spec of a galaxy that is a mere crumb on the floor of the celestial bread factory. And if God does span all of time – if indeed God IS time — we now know that the history of our species does not even make up the last inch of a football field.

So, the Psalmist’s question resonates now more than at any point in our spec-of-dust blink-of-an-eye existence: Why does God even care? What is humankind that God should “seek us out”?

It is a question that has haunted me, provoked me, stirred me, and yes blessed me most of my life, certainly since college. It was the question a classmate asked after venturing down our freshman hall at Davidson late one evening. Just this week, totally by surprise, Kevin reached out to me to remind me of that conversation four decades ago. (He’s now the President of a Lutheran Seminary, and planned to preach on Psalm 8 — and our long-ago discussion — for his Trinity Sunday sermon!) The “conclusion” we reached, however naively and with the cock-sure confidence that only being nineteen can bring, came by looking at the next two verses of the Psalm:

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
Psalm 8:5

Far from being puny and small and meaningless, he remembers my suggesting to him that those verses proclaimed that God had invested everything in human beings and we are of infinite worth. Although I clearly remember the conversation happening, and Kevin’s earnest searching for Truth that I admired so, I recalled nothing of these details.

Yet he did, and he caught me and reminded me of it at a time when I especially needed to remember God’s sovereignty, unbound by distance and time. And to consider that the “vastness of interstellar space” (to quote one Eucharistic Prayer) points to a Vastness beyond all our knowledge. And perhaps, if I can muster it, to simply trust that we ARE of infinite worth, created in God’s image, redeemed by the sacrifice of one human’s life for us and for all time, sustained by infinite and unfathomable Love.

God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer … the deepest of all Mystery.

Did not our hearts burn within us?

Maybe they should just change the name of “The Third Sunday of Easter” in the Lectionary to “Cardiac Sunday.” Perhaps more than any Sunday in the liturgical calendar, the focus of the scriptures is very much about that most bruised yet resilient of human organs, the “heart.”

Whether we are the product of Divine Love or some long random evolutionary process (or some combination thereof), we humans are an interesting species.

We have been given this mysterious capacity to have our inner most selfs, the most essential and individual parts of us — our “hearts” as poets say — to react and move and inspire and create and sacrifice and yearn in ways that are unique (so far as we know) in the universe.

So, on this Third Sunday of Easter, as we are reminded in the each of the lessons, that where the Divine is involved, our hearts can…
“burn within us” (Luke 24:32),
or that we can “be cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37)
or maybe most important, we can be on our very best days “Love one another deeply from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22).

It is THIS that separates us from the apes and the whales. It is THIS that calls us to be at our best when things seem to be at their worst. It is THIS that gives C.S. Lewis the insight and inspiration to remind of us of the truth that to follow this carpenter from Nazareth is to wear our “hearts on our sleeves” and make that deepest part of us subject to the deepest hurt:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable.
Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung,
and quite possibly be broken.
If you want to be sure of keeping it intact,
you must give it to no one.
Not even an animal.”

Yes. For no good “explainable” reason, my heart indeed does “burn within” whenever I allow myself to really feel the Love of a Creator who would DIE for me. And I am inexorably drawn over and over and over again to surrender to a great, mysterious, relentless, irrational, ineffable and inexplicable Love far, far beyond my lawyer brain.

If I could only get over my childish resistance to the notion of “surrender” and just give into it (into It?), I would discover again what deep down — maybe — I really already know, and even known from the beginning. That is, in such surrender comes the ultimate triumph.

…so we may await with him the coming of the third day…

O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the
crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and
rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the
coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of
life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

The collect from the very sparse Holy Saturday liturgy says a lot about this “in between” day. The rubrics of the Prayer Book are very clear. No Eucharist today. There is one and only one service (before tonight’s Easter Vigil) with a worrisome reading from Matthew 22 that speaks of Jesus’ dead body being moved into the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and how “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” just sat across from it.  In the face of death, that’s often the only human thing we can do — sit in grief-stricken paralysis, in awe and uncertainty. 

One spring morning many years ago, I was at the breakfast table sipping my coffee as my then-young son munched his cereal in his high chair. I opened the paper to see that a local judge had died the day before, after a long and painful battle with cancer. Instinctively, I moaned “oh” and my son looked up to inquire, “What wrong, daddy?” As best I remember, I think I tried to explain to him how daddy knew this lady who had been very sick, and died, and had gone to heaven, but daddy was still sad because he would miss his friend.

Mainly, what I recall is muttering some miserable mess trying to clarify to a child something no adult can truly understand.

Even so, my 4-year old took all this in and seemed to be satisfied. After a few seconds, though, he looked up and asked…”Daddy, does she feel better?”  In an instant, my muddled confusion was wiped away, and replaced with an absolute rock-solid answer I could give him with unquestioned certainty (albeit with a now flushed face and choked voice): “Yeah big guy… She feels better.” 

There is an awful lot that my lawyer’s brain can’t wrap around during these mysterious Holy Days. (And of course, there are none more mysterious, nor more holy, than these three we are in the middle of on this Holy Saturday.) But here is what I can grasp –Something (or some One?) has grabbed hold of me.

And despite my very best (or worst) rebellious stubborn efforts sometimes, this Mystery does NOT let go.  Maybe it IS just as Hillsong boldly proclaims in one of their more riveting songs, “Your Love is relentless.” 

For reasons FAR beyond my understanding, tears well up. Tears of hope, regret, sorrow, wonder, joy, and perhaps most of all, a deep and desperate need and desire for it all to be true…

So not unlike the women sitting across from the tomb, I too I sit, waiting and wondering just how God is going to act.  And wondering even more how I might respond to such “hopelessness,” not yet understanding just how near Our Lord of Resurrection is.