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.