Then the Bishop or Priest places a hand on the person’s head, markingon the forehead the sign of the cross [using Chrism if desired] and saying toeach one… N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and markedas Christ’s own for ever.Amen.
Not sure what it is about Baptism, but I become a misty-eyed old fool most occasions. It’s not the babies that get me all sentimental. After all, cute though they are in their snow white “Christening gowns,” those little cherubs are basically just sleeping & crying & feeding & pooping machines. No big deal.
The Christian version of branding a calf…signed, sealed and delivered.
And yet, what our tradition offers to them is a very big deal. It is an extraordinary thing we offer these pudgy-faced lumps of flesh in baptism — we name them and brand them.
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 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:
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.”
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 →
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.
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. (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!
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 suggests 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. A great gift to me years ago was learning that 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.
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.
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 this liturgical confession. Most of the time I don’t really 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. My heart was anything but whole. 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. Truth be told, 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 seem…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.
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.
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?
The Psalmist was aware of God of course, “the Word,” but not yet the “Word made flesh” that was not to arrive on the scene to “dwell among us” for another 1000 years. So the question posed is even more remarkable given the timeframe it was probably written. 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 vast expanding 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 in that timeline.
So, the Psalmist’s question resonates now more than at any point in our spec-of-dust blink-of-an-eye existence: What IS humankind that God should “seek us out”? Why does God even care?
It is a question that has haunted me, provoked me, stirred me, and I’d like to think blessed me most of my life. It was the question a college classmate at Davidson asked me late one evening after venturing down our freshman hall. Just this past week, totally by surprise, that same classmate reached out to remind me of that conversation four decades ago. Kevin is now the President of a Lutheran Seminary and shared that he was planning to preach on Trinity Sunday, focusing on Psalm 8 — and our long-ago discussion! I was floored as much as I was flattered. While I remember the conversation, I certainly don’t remember it being all that profound, mainly that I was sure I was pontificating naively, with all the cock-sure confidence that only being nineteen can bring. Kevin, being a honest Lutheran, did not deny that was the case.
But his memory went much deeper, in that Mike the freshman wasn’t as much focused on the questions posed as the observations given. For in the very next verse, the Psalmist proclaims in the very next verse:
Yet you have made him little lower than the Angels,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands, and put all things under their feet. (Psalm 8:5-6)
Far from being puny and small and meaningless, Kevin remembered my suggesting to him that those verses proclaimed that God had invested everything in human beings and we are of infinite worth. Again, I remember the conversation happening, and especially Kevin’s earnest searching for Truth that I admired so, but nothing of these details. Yet he did, and he reminded me of it at a time when I especially needed to remember God’s sovereignty, unbound by distance and time.
This long ago small conversation and my new memory of it has made me consider, or re-consider, that the “vastness of interstellar space” (as one Eucharistic Prayer puts it) points me to a Vastness beyond all our knowledge. And perhaps, if I can muster and maintain it, it leads me again to simply trust that we ARE of infinite worth to the Creator of that Vastness, and somehow created in that Creator’s image, redeemed through the life of The One life above all lives ever lived, and sustained by infinite and unfathomable Love, for all of time.
God the Creator, God the Redeemer and God the Sustainer … the deepest of all Mystery.
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.
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 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.
Eternal God, Heavenly Father…grant us strength and courage
to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This Thanksgiving collect closing the Eucharist — one of two — is a “commissioning” of sorts. It serves as a penultimate reminder — before the recessional and benediction — of how we should “love and serve” the Lord.
It is at once quaint and profound, sweet to the ear but impossible to really achieve, at least in this lifetime.
Do any of us truly do anything anymore with “singleness of heart”? Multitasking has become the norm for most of us, most of the time. Yet I know that the more I multitask the more each task seems to be done poorly.
I’m coming to find more and more that my life is an entangled web of multitasking, and I don’t like it. The “freedom” of building a new solo law practice, to work on whatever tasks I most want whenever I most want, often enslaves me. Almost any and every waking moment becomes anxious over what else I could be or should be doing. The choices don’t just seem endless, they are endless.
With a wife that works much too hard, and a son who is growing up much too fast, and a thousand voices inside my head questioning the husband and father and lawyer I want to be, and the one I actually am, there is no “singleness of heart” anywhere to be found. When I hear that sweet phrase near the end of the Eucharist (that is, when I am focused on it) I am instantly reminded of what I most need and must have, whether by guts or gumption or grace. Like the king penguin returning home from the hunting season, I must also listen and yearn for the ONE voice that can provide ultimate sustenance. My scattered and scarred heart requires a singleness about it.
And in that way (perhaps ONLY in that way), with a heart focused singularly on the one solitary life lived long ago in a poor and oppressed culture, but lived in such a way that His way became The Way… then perhaps, that heart will slowly, hesitantly, painfully, but most assuredly become glad.