…for those we love but see no longer.

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One of the greatest gifts of liturgy, much like a powerful poem or memorable speech, is the way a simple succinct phrase within it can sometimes reveal a depth of experience or emotion that is almost beyond words to truly capture. Just a few words, expressed in just the right way at the right time in the right circumstances, can express a comforting intimate knowledge that can say to the hearer “I know what you are feeling…I’ve been there.”

One such phrase comes within one of the “Additional Prayers” that appear toward to the end of the pastoral service for the The Burial of the Dead:

Father of all, we pray to you for those we love, but see no longer: Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Those eight words “for those we love, but see no longer” capture for me all the tender and bittersweet emotions for those persons especially dear who — although very much alive in my heart — have ended their time on this planet. Those eight words speak of those special loved ones I will never glimpse again this side of paradise, except perhaps in my most fortunate and happiest dreams.

Earlier this week, on November 1, many liturgical churches celebrated the “Feast of All Saints” most often referred to as “All Saints Day.” It is considered one of the “high holy days” of the Anglican tradition and is a time to pause and pay special attention to that “great cloud of witnesses” that have come before us on this earthly journey. Often in the All Saints Day service the names of all the parishioners who have died in the previous year are read aloud, one by one, as a way of remembrance.

The next day, November 2, is its companion feast “All Souls Day” or the “Feast of the Faithful Departed.” It is more widely recognized in Latin America than the United States. Whereas All Saints Day is more corporate and global and historical, the emphasis during the Feast of the Faithful Departed is more personal, to honor a particular loved one or set of loved ones with such things as listening to the music they especially liked, enjoying the food they found especially satisfying, wearing an article of their clothing or carrying a personal item they treasured. It is a common practice to place a picture of the departed by a candle for the day.

Most often in most Episcopal churches, the two days are celebrated as one on “All Saints Sunday” which happens to be today. Thus it seems an especially appropriate time to embrace such a prayer as the one above, and indeed to let it embrace us.

…that we may run without stumbling

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There is no way to know the exact percentage, but Woody Allen was probably pretty close when he said “Eighty percent of life is just showing up.”

It was the fall just before Covid, two years ago.  Another very normal Tuesday evening, after another excruciatingly normal day.  I had talked with clients, staff and insurance adjusters, and communed (a lot) with my computer.  One thing that was not normal was my decision to break out of my office early and make my way to the quiet 6 o’clock Eucharist that my parish offered on Tuesday evenings pre-pandemic in its small side chapel.

On a lot of Tuesdays (truth be told, MOST Tuesdays) I’d just think about it: “I’d love to get there, but way too much to do… Next week will better.” And I’m sure my life would have been fine had I defaulted to that choice. But it also would have been immeasurably impoverished.

Instead, I “just showed up” and was blessed when it “just so happened” the opening collect that evening was one of the most moving and meaningful prayers I had ever heard in our liturgy. To say it “spoke to me” would be an understatement.

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

For most of my adult life I’ve had to deal with having multiple sclerosis, especially in the last decade or so.  Stumbling has been a way of life.

There have been dozens of times in my life where I have — quite literally — fallen flat.  As often as not, when my feet do not respond to the neural messages sent from my brain, I can find myself in an instant violently thrown to the floor, with whatever that was in my hands scattered in all directions.  A room will fall deathly quiet in a heartbeat, all eyes on the poor decrepit fool who can’t even manage to keep his damn feet under him.  (I know that no one in the room has the critical sentiment I just expressed; just me.)

As bitter and as embarrassing as those episodes have been, I know in my heart of my hearts that my worst stumbles have had nothing to do with MS.  Maybe that’s why this prayer, randomly heard on a random Tuesday evening long ago, still resonates with me.

Though he may stumble, he will not fall; for the Lord upholds him with his hand.  So says the Psalmist (37:24) about those who “delight in him.”

Somewhere along the line, years ago, I came across an acronym that is one of those almost-too-quaint, homespun little morsels that is both silly and profound:  “OFIFOTO!  (One Foot In Front Of The Other).”  Silly as it might be, it seems to be a pretty damn good guide to a pretty damn good way to live most days.

Just for some people it is more literal than for others.

…with those who work, or watch or weep this night.

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Sitting in a dimly lit kitchen at 3:40 a.m. The silence is deafening. The stillness roars like a roller coaster.

Earlier, I turned over – again – in bed to see the alarm clock flash its low red signal, now 2:19, and then 2:47, and then 3:14. And now I’m now vertical, at the kitchen island, feeling very tired. But not a bit sleepy.

Insomnia can be doubly frustrating when there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it.

Oh, I have had PLENTY of reasons in my life not to sleep, and no doubt will have plenty more in the future. Most of the time, a death is somehow involved. A death of a loved one or a relationship or a job or a trial. Or, just as often, it can be just the fear of losing those things.

But on this night, there is no such anxiety, no identifiable reason to be so “Sleepless in Charlotte.” There was no caffeine before bed (not even chocolate), no screen time, no spicy dinner. I even remembered to take my usual one tablet of Tylenol PM.

But finally at 4:05 a.m., I finally do have an explanation I can understand why now I’m too anxious to sleep, too frustrated and fixated to even think of going back to my pillow. It is my growing anger over the fact that I cannot sleep.

Spiraling down further and further in a combination of self-pity, self-doubt and self-disdain, I finally do what I often do when I run out of options. I pray.

Funny how prayer for me is so often the last resort, and rarely the first option. Truth be told, I don’t feel like I’m that good at praying, especially at night. I might mumble a few quiet incoherent thoughts, “Lord, let me sleep please,” as if the Almighty is purposely just poking me in the ribs or stealing my covers. Most of the time, I need help to pray, so like any good Whiskeypalian, I look in the “Prayuh Book.” I search for the service of Compline.

Compline is an ancient liturgy for corporate worship at the very end of the day when the faith community is ready to surrender to sleep. It is perhaps the most contemplative liturgical practice, peaceful and gentle, calming and restful and restorative.

There in the final prayers of Compline, I find a prayer that (to borrow that hackneyed phrase)“soothes my soul.”

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

I can’t explain it. But it does soothe my soul. I read it again it, and then whisper it slowly aloud.

Keep watch... (God is watching. The Lord does not slumber or sleep, so the Psalmist tells us.)

…with those who work or watch or weep this night (I am not the only one up right now. I think of them, and the different reasons they have to also be sleepless.)

…and give your angels charge over those who sleep. (I am too much a cynical trial lawyer to really know if that’s true, if Angels really do exist, and really do keep charge of us as we slumber. But I do know this — I want it to be true. And in the pitch darkness on this night that is enough.

I crawl back to bed, and whisper the prayer once more.

The alarm wakes me up. It is a new day.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship…

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Ash Wednesday was a week ago. The Ash Wednesday liturgy, unlike Pentecost or the service of Baptism or a few other major dates in the church calendar year, does not include the litany for a “Renewal of Our Baptismal Covenant.” I’m thinking maybe it should.

As I’ve written before in another blogpiece on this WithGladness.org site, the reciting of the “Baptismal Covenant” is our liturgy’s way of focusing particular attention on what it means to “practice” Christianity, to put it in motion, to DO something rather than study or contemplate or believe something. This litany of renewal asks eight things of the congregation, and although the first three questions are indeed big and broad “creedal” belief statements, the last five…oh yes, those last five…are personal, individual, me-and-God questions. They cut right to the heart of what each individual Christian should do, how to “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.”

Suffice it to say, I “don’t” more than I “do.” I “talk” more than I “walk.” But maybe that’s kind of what Lent is all about, I’m thinking.

This season of Lent, of course, is a “penitential” season.  To repent, in the original Greek (metanoia) meaning of the term, has more to do with a sense of rethinking things, of turning or readjusting, rather than eating dirt and worms and beating a Bible shouting how sinful everyone is.  In that sense, penitence is a synonym for renewal.

Thus, it seems that Lent is the perfect time to focus more intently on those five personal questions posed while renewing our baptismal covenant. And, as it so happens, those five questions fall quite nicely, thank you, within the five full weeks of Lent between Ash Wednesday and Passion Sunday, leading to Holy Week and Easter.

Many years ago, my home parish (Christ Church Charlotte) had a series of five Wednesday dinners, with each dinner focusing on one of the five personal questions in the Baptismal Covenant.  (I have to pause here…Just the mere notion of folks gathering together in one large space for a simple meal, six to eight at a table in close unmasked conversations discussing an evening lecture, seems so foreign during this time of Covid, a vague nostalgic recollection of a distant forgotten past.)   I can’t say that I remember anything in particular about any of those dinner speakers, but I do remember that just the exercise of focus, that attention to intention, was a good thing.

So maybe it’s also a good thing – and a good time – to bring it back. If somehow I can mind my “intention” during this Covid-Lent with any sort of decent “attention” to this goal, we will see what musings develop. 

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? 

This first personal question in the Baptismal Covenant liturgy is presumptive, and that’s a bit comforting. The “Will you continue” presumes that I have been doing any of these things in the first place. The reality is I start and stop. A wonderful friend recently reminded me that when it comes to actually practicing such practices contemplated here, I’m probably in the same camp as 99.99% of Christians. That is, almost all of us do try, now and then, to follow these good spiritual habits, more or less. But very few might venture to say their efforts are near enough.

At times, I can be a pretty close follower of Paul’s letters and Peter’s preaching and even John’s poetic ramblings, especially if those times happen to be full of desperation and crisis. (It ain’t for nothing that Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”) Most of the the time though, I am not in a depraved or desperate crisis — or maybe just not self-aware enough to recognize it — and so most of the time, I “follow” those practices…but at a safe distance.  

After all, cautious southern privileged white-guy lawyers tend to like safe distances. That is especially true when that white-guy lawyer feels he might be getting “too close” to God, and maybe even more true if that guy is a life-long Episcopalian. We of that “frozen chosen” tribe can often make a habit of keeping a close-but-cautious distance, getting really good at practicing that faithful-but-safe stuff.

Lent just may be that time to venture — at least with a big toe if not a full headlong plunge — into the less safe. Perhaps intentionally living into this first covenant question and “testing the waters” of these faithful practices might even lead to a state of creative and fully-alive tension, what Frederick Buechner has called “holy recklessness.”

To devote one’s self to the habits suggested in that first personal question, to “continue” engaging the lessons of scripture, fellowship in the church, the breaking of bread secular and sacred, and in praying “the prayers” both corporate and public as well as personal and private… Well, that is probably a good place to start.

We’ll see how it goes.

Make us love what you command…

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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.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing…

Nearly every Sunday, Episcopalians hear the words of introduction to “The Great Thanksgiving” a long narrative liturgical prayer that is the central part of the Eucharist.

Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  

People:  It is right to give God thanks and praise.

Celebrant:  It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…

Whether it is “Form A,B,C or D” in the Book of Common Prayer, or some other version from some other liturgical tradition, The Great Thanksgiving always recounts in some form or fashion the very first communion, the “Last Supper” on the night before Jesus’ Crucifixion. This uniquely Christian tradition symbolically transforms the simple gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and offers great thanks for the gift of human redemption.

While it may be a “good and joyful thing” for us humans to truly give thanks, it’s also damn hard.  (Maybe that’s why we, as a nation, can only manage it once a year.)

Jeff Bridges in Starman: A keen observer of the human condition.

Jeff Bridges in Starman: “Do you want to know what I like best about your species?”

Being in a state of genuine gratefulness is, for me, full of mixed emotions. If I am really honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that much of what I have I did not earn.  Yes, while it is true that I can and should pat myself on the back and give myself due credit for the hard work I have done to help put food on my family’s table, it is also true that the quality of the table, as well as the quantity of the food upon it, have been determined not only by my labors but by sheer accident of birth.

Truly serious contemplation of all these blessings can bring such uncomfortable feelings of unworthiness, and maybe even guilt. I confess that I tend to resist it. No amount of rationalization can help me escape the plain and undeniable fact that although I have worked hard for what I have, others have worked far harder, and have far less.

And yet, it is also a mysterious and equally undeniable truth that we as human beings do have this capacity, not just in times of bounty but even in the most wretched conditions, to “always and everywhere” (as the Prayer Book urges us) be thankful. Stranger still, it often seems that the less folks have, the more grateful they are for what little they have.

There is this wonderful line from the movie Starman decades ago, where Jeff Bridges plays some alien who has taken the form of a human. He is slowly dying because he cannot adjust to earth’s atmosphere as the “bad guys” from the government are closing in on him. In one of the final scenes, one of the “good guys” has managed to find him in his hideout waiting for his mothership to return, and they have a brief dialogue.

“Do you want to know what I like most about your species?” asks the Bridges’ alien character, ashen and gasping for breath.

“Please…,” urges the good guy.

“When things are at their worst,” the Starman whispers, “you humans are at your best.”

And I think that’s true in a weird mysterious way. I am coming to believe more and more that such a wondrous and wonderful human trait is NOT of our own doing, alone.  Somehow, something or someone (or Something or Someone?) surrounds us,  protects us, nudges us forward, not taking away calamity, but somehow being there fully present in the midst of it.

As I go into this particular Thanksgiving, with various calamities and crises swirling around the globe (as well as inside my head), my belief in that Something or Someone — shaky and unsure but indeed present — is becoming for me both the object and source of “most humble and hearty thanks.”

All of this has led me to yet another mysterious but undeniable truth. When I can manage to adopt a true “attitude of gratitude,” it seems somehow to beget more blessings, or at the very least, my awareness of them.

That is no small thing, which of course is another blessing in itself.

God of Power and Might…

A central part of the sanctus we sing on most Sundays is that 5-word phrase of acclamation to our great “God of Power and Might.”

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

Most of the time, I manage to say or sing it with great zest, acknowledging this higher Power above all powers, so much mightier than even my silly stubbornness.

There are some days though, where this acknowledgment leaves me not just a bit uneasy, but resentful.

After all, if God is so all-fired powerful and mighty, how is it that this Good Lord so often seems to “choose to refuse” the use of that Power and Might?  Doesn’t God have a little more of that “P&M” to spare, to bring about maybe a little more healing in this world of suffering and hurt, both of individuals, and of nations?

Was Salieri mocked by God?

Was Salieri mocked by God?  (Are we?)

This nagging question first whacked me over the head in law school, courtesy of a movie that’s been rocking my spiritual boat for all the decades since.

In the 1984 Oscar-winning movie Amadeus, the popular and favored composer of 18th Century Austria was Antonio Salieri, not Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Salieri was the one invited to all the best dinners and parties. His operas had the biggest crowds. He was regularly given lavish praise and high recognition, and clearly was the “top dog” in the Emperor’s royal court of musicians.

This popular and likable Italian was grateful for such favor, and regularly and earnestly thanked God for his lofty position. He prayed, fervently and often, for even more good compositions to come from his hands to praise the Almighty (and yes, maybe to earn a little praise for himself, too).

The young and silly Wolfgang Mozart, on the other hand, was a sniveling immature brat who had undeniable and clear musical talent, but partied way too much and regularly offended folks with his crude behavior. He was best known for various “little trained monkey” tricks, begun as a small child while touring Europe with his over-bearing father. His musical compositions, to most folks of the Vienna in-crowd, were secondary to such things as playing the harpsichord blindfolded and backwards while hanging upside down.

Ah, but Salieri was not “most folks.”  The cruel irony of Amadeus, both in Peter Shaffer’s movie screenplay and his 1979 play, was that Salieri was “blessed” by God with just enough talent to know that — compared to Mozart — he had no talent at all. Salieri was the one person in all of Vienna who understood that it was Mozart’s music, not his, that contained the voice of God.

The most important “character” in Amadeus was the title character. “Amadeus” is Mozart’s middle name, yes, but it also Latin for “Loving God” and that title character was never seen or heard on screen or stage, but sure seemed to work behind the scenes.

Salieri could not comprehend why or how a “God of love” would choose such a babbling and ill-mannered flake over him to be the vessel through whom the most timeless music ever created would flow.  Not only was Salieri perplexed by God’s strange selection, he felt mocked by it. For less sophisticated ears, the rich complexity of Mozart’s brilliance was lost, but for Salieri (and only Salieri), young Mozart’s works were evidence of heaven itself. And because of that, he was in hell.

I am Salieri. And, I think, most Christians if they are truly honest, are as well, at least on some days.

Oh yes, I do sing praises to our “God of Power and Might” exclaiming that “Heaven and Earth are full of Your glory.” But at times those words come from my lips less with awe and praise than with bewilderment and bitterness, confusion and (at the worst times) contempt.

When the job offer goes to someone else less needy or less qualified, or the diagnosis comes back even worse than first feared, or a dear love is taken away, God’s “power” can seem either wholly impotent, or worse, cruelly apathetic. God’s choice to refrain from using “Power and Might” to change a clear injustice is something we can neither understand nor accept.

These are times when I have felt that my trust in God seems woefully misplaced and futile, if not downright stupid.

We all know of folks on the opposite end from Mozart, beloved creatures of the Divine who have been saddled — often from birth — with pitiful yokes of physical, mental and emotional handicaps. Why indeed does our great God endow some of His children with extraordinary gifts some of the time, while sadly shortchanging others so often? How do I, how can I, reconcile such knowledge with a faith in a Loving Creator?

We Salieri’s of this world must decide for ourselves whether this world’s unfairnesses are indications of divine mockery or Divine Love. Is it enough to answer that we may somehow learn to love more fully, through the presence of the suffering and incompleteness of others?

Even when (maybe especially when) I do not understand God’s choices, I am nonetheless led to conclude somehow that while there is at times unspeakable Evil and suffering in our lives, there is also inexplicable and undeserved Good as well. Even in the worst of situations, there is (Praise be to God, YES, there IS!!!) mercy and forgiveness and healing and selfless sacrifice in this world.  And all of it bound together, it seems to me, by a mysterious and relentless Love, that seeks us out and refuses to let us go.

I believe our God is a god of power and might.
I believe our God is a good god, full of Perfect Love.
I believe our God forgives me for my moments of rage and despair when I cannot reconcile those two things.

…bring us to that heavenly country

In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where, with all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters...

I’d like to think that the writers of the 1979 Prayer Book had Chapel Hill, N.C. specifically in mind as they labored over this part of Eucharistic Prayer B. That’s where I went to law school at the University of North Carolina in my late twenties, and where this “love for the liturgy” probably began. Like so many others who have come and gone, I hold Chapel Hill sacred. For me, just like my undergraduate alma mater of Davidson College, it is indeed “heavenly country.” And besides, Chapel Hill DOES have the nickname “Blue Heaven.” And it IS a well-documented theological fact that God is a Tar Heel…the sky being Carolina Blue and all.

But other than Chapel Hill or Davidson, what did the prayer writers intend — what to WE intend –when we pray about “that heavenly country”? What’s it like? Is it in fact an actual physical place in this universe? (When our entire galaxy is literally like a bread crumb in the Dean Dome, who can say what mysteries are held in its Vastness?) Or is “that heavenly country” more of a spiritual place? A sublime higher state of mind? All of the above?

…All questions of course way beyond my understanding — this side of Paradise.

What I DO know, without any hesitation or doubt or angst, is that I WANT there to be such a place. Its form and location matter little, so long as the promise is true. For if it is — IF it is — then nothing else really matters.