In the appointed collect for today the worldwide Anglican Communion beseeched (don’t you just love that word?) God to “make us love what You command.”
>> Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. <<
One of the things that I’ve always admired in our collects is the sense of immediacy and intimacy in most of them. In that sense, they tend to model The Lord’s Prayer, in that there’s not a “Please” or request to “help us to…” to be found. Rather the best collects — just like the prayer that Jesus recited when his followers asked him how to best pray — is filled with imperatives to a Loving Omnipotent God. These urgent urgings to our Divine Creator have a power implied in them that we are, somehow, worthy to lay such demands before The Almighty. Even more than that though, there is also a sense that we dare speak to The Source of All Caring with a faith that our God is not just able to do such good things for us, but is also eager to do them, and eager for us to ask for such bold and audacious things.
But just like the Pharisees and lawyer in today’s Gospel (Matt. 22:34-46), so too am I tempted to ask the evasive, miss-the-big-point, follow-up question: “Yeah, Lord, but what — exactly — fits in that category of ‘what You command’ that we are supposed to love”? (At this point, I can only imagine collective “shaking their heads” among the Heavenly Hosts.). Fortunately, especially for those “cut to the chase” types like myself, Jesus tells us with in essence a one-word answer, LOVE.
Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s pretty much it.
A transformative light-switch was turned on for me a few years ago. I confess to being an unapologetic Anglophile, with a deep affection for words. More particularly, I am enthralled and passionate about “the right word” that makes all the difference, as Mark Twain once quipped between “lightning, and a lighting bug.” Such a difference comes with the different meanings assigned to the same word – that poor, overburdened, little four letter English word, LOVE. So often, especially in modern American culture, “love” is a noun, describing a feeling of attachment or affection. But in the Jesus Movement, I have grown persuaded that “love” is a VERB.
Not sure about anyone else, but for me at least, when I began to fathom that for Jesus, love is about ACTION, things became much more fathomable. That is the only way that the clear command to “love your enemies” makes sense and becomes real. Warm fuzzy feelings have next to nothing to do with it. Even though I might be disgusted by, and pissed off at, someone (often myself), I am still able to love them, to ACT lovingly toward them.
Mama Gump told Forrest over and over, “Stupid is, as stupid does.” She might well have added the additional wise words that “Love is, as love does.”
Sometimes simple things are all I can handle. LOVE. That’s it. Love what God loves, and remember love is a verb.
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.
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.”
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:
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
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.”
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.
The First Sunday after Christmas Day is often called “Low Sunday” because attendance in Episcopal churches is typically sparse at best. Folks that amble into the wide availability of pews can be forgiven for wondering if “The Rapture” has come and somehow they’ve been “left behind.”
And that’s a pity, because there is an abundance of joyful reminders of Emmanuel, God With Us. Indeed, the opening collect is one of the most meaningful in the Prayer Book, bursting with layer upon layer of truth and significance:
“God of God, Light from Light Eternal”
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
That image, of a “new light” being “poured upon us,” evokes for me here in the dead of winter the warm thoughts of simply basking in the brightest of sunlight that offer comforting heat but does not blister or burn, sunlight that leaves no shadow nor room for any darkness.
Such light, as we are told in the collect, is the light of the “incarnate Word,” echoing the word so expressively presented in the opening sentences of The Gospel of John, the appointed Gospel for this first Sunday following Christmas Day:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. (Jn. 1:1)
The writer of John was not so much a biographer as a free-verse poet, presenting the Oneness of Jesus with God and Creation more than promoting any legend about the man. There are no shepherds in the Nativity story for John, no Wise Men, no “angels we have heard on high,” not even a stable. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is not so much born as Jesus simply is, from before time and for eternity, the Logos Incarnate, the “Word made flesh.” For John, to begin his version of THE Story — above all stories — in this way, was meant, I think, to drive home the point that Jesus was present from the start, because logos was present from the start. The Jesus of John manifests the Highest and Best and Ultimate of humankind, merged with the Divine Force of the vast cosmos. Logos in the flesh.
And now that this Word has taken human form, shedding its “new light” on a dark world, this lovely opening Collect reminded me that it is lavishly, extravagantly, ceaselessly “poured upon us.”
Only on rare occasion do I allow myself to comprehend such a fantastic thing. I’m not sure why that is exactly, except that if I take seriously the notion, allow it really to penetrate this hardened and scarred lawyer’s heart, I fear the sheer overwhelming Goodness of “the Good News” can cause my all too human heart to burst, not merely be “enkindled.” This Incarnate Word made flesh reminds me that God is not the God of the far off. God is the God of the here and now. God of the gritty, smelly, sweaty muck of life. God of the flesh.
And the word became flesh and lived among us…No one has seen God. It is God the only Son, who is the closest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
(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:
For Heroic Service. O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Normally, such a collect would totally escape my attention, but blessfully, at a small Eucharist I sometimes – but don’t always – attend on Thursday morning, the Celebrant today decided that we should offer the Thanksgiving “For the Nation” on page 838 as our “Prayers of the People.” And it was lovely. But it was the thanksgiving prayer right after that — the one above, that appears on page 839 — that caught my eye.
It was exactly 75 years ago today of course that 150,000 allied fighters from the United States, England and Canada began their “D-Day” assault on the beaches of Normandy, France for the liberation of Europe in World War II.
It’s so strange how Grace works sometimes. I came so close to sleeping in this morning. I came so close to passing by the church because traffic (and my slowness) caused me to be a few minutes late (and I hate going in late). I came so close to just closing the Prayer Book after we finished the Thanksgiving Prayer “For the Nation” and not glancing at the prayer that came next.
But I didn’t. And as a result, a profound gift was received.
Now all of these “near misses” could absolutely be mere happenstance — a mundane, random-as-rain coincidence of chance, as if I flipped coins all along the way. I am too much a seasoned and cynical trial lawyer not to note the substantial evidence of that very plausible possibility.
And yet it did happen. I did not sleep in, I did not pass by, I did not just go on immediately to the next page. I did notice. And I was graciously exalted by the richness of those words and a “grateful heart” indeed for the thousands who sacrificed their young lives on their “day of decision” on another June 6 morning, three-quarters of a century ago.
That gratitude extends as well for such small moments of “coincidence” that keep pulling me back to the Mystery.
A 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 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:
“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”?
A year ago, on Good Friday, I sat alone with a dear friend keeping early morning vigil in a silent church, dark at first but growing in light as our hour passed. I wrote then of the ineffable inmost dwellings of our yearnings for the Other. I tried to write, as best I could, of those things that are quite simply beyond words.
This year, the church was the same, but the circumstances different. This year, my Good Friday was not that of a quiet lonely morning vigil, with no clergy or music but only growing light and deafening silence. Rather, this Good Friday contained a bleak service at high noon, with the clergy moving in deliberate slowness dressed only in unadorned black robes, two simple but profound songs and a couple dozen fellow travelers. A cross with a veil was quietly brought down the aisle to begin the Liturgy of Good Friday, with the small assembled congregation slowly bowing as it passed each pew.
We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son.
This opening paragraph from Eucharistic Prayer B, and especially its last seven words, has had a special resonance for me lately.
It started around Christmas, and all its seasonal references to “the Word.” The author of John began that Gospel, of course, with the acknowledgment that “the Word” got this whole ball rolling, so to speak:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… (John 1:1)
It’s not easy for me, I must confess, contemplating the sheer foolishness of Christmas, and the whole concept of “Incarnation” — the act of the Divine somehow occupying flesh (or carnis, in Latin). Think of it — the Ubiquitous Power of all Existence, choosing to appear in that Creation as a utterly helpless and completely dependent bastard infant of a poor, oppressed peasant girl. Truly absurd.