…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.

In sure and certain hope…

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It is often said that the opposite of faith is doubt. When I look at the world today, and especially when I observe many self-proclaimed “Christians” in the news, the “evidence” points me to a different “verdict.”

The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty.

Sure and certain hope: Truth in Paradox

Many “Christians” on podcasts and TV and talk radio, particularly those that proclaim their Christianity the loudest, don’t remind me a whole lot of Jesus. They seem absolutely sure it is “God’s Will” — just to cite a few examples — that requiring a young student to wear a mask in school is “child abuse,” or that homosexuality is “an abomination,” or that government should force every woman to carry an unintended and unwanted pregnancy to term.  It is one thing to sincerely have and prayerfully be led to those beliefs. It is quite another to be so cock-sure certain that your beliefs are in lock-step with the Almighty in every situation and for all time, and to impose those beliefs upon all of society.  When that happens — and I wish it were not so often — it is not their faith that I see in action; it is their certainty.

That is not to say certainty is all bad. Indeed, there can be no doubt (pun intended) that certainty has its place in faith. It is just of a different variety.

In one of the most moving prayers in the entire lexicon within The Book of Common Prayer, we Episcopalians express a form of certainty at the grave, as we fully “commit” and “commend” our dearest loved ones — and ourselves — to God’s never-failing care.  These final words from “The Committal” liturgy never fail to take my breath away:

In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty
God our brother/sister N., and we commit his/her body to the ground; 
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless
him/her and keep him/her, the Lord make his face to shine upon him/her
and be gracious to him/her, the Lord lift up his countenance upon
him/her and give him/her peace. Amen.

It may seem paradoxical that “hope” can somehow still be “sure” and “certain.” The older I get though, the more I find great truths in paradox. This side of Paradise, that is my certainty.

.

…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.

…and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn.

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The Book of Common Prayer includes a specific collect for the celebration of Independence Day in the United States:

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Interestingly, today’s collect for “Proper 9” in Pentecost, even though not specifically written for the Fourth of July, works just as well,…especially for America in 2021:

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

In his song “Coming to America,” Neil Diamond has a line about immigrants and how they “are traveling light today…in the eye of the storm, in the eye of the storm.”

May it be so with us as well, both as proud patriots and struggling followers of Jesus, that we being “united to one another in pure affection” might indeed “travel light” in the midst of all our current storms.

That your Church, being gathered together…

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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.

THE CATHEDRAL IN COVID – The Very Rev. Randy Hollerith, Dean of the Washington National Cathedral, talks in an “empty” church building, addressing thousands worldwide via streaming and “in unity by the Holy Spirit.” https://mydigimag.rrd.com/publication/?i=666173&ver=html5

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.”

“…to prize highly, and guard carefully…all who have lived valiantly and died bravely…

Summer is here. Well maybe not officially in schools yet, but the dreaded slow “Summer Schedule” has taken over in most churches. While the old adage ithat “God never takes a vacation” is of course true (to which I can only quickly reply “Thank God!”), the plain fact is that God’s people do. And when they do, they tend not to attend church.

Dawn breaks at the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg.

Yesterday’s attendance at my parish on Memorial Day Weekend Sunday was sparse to say the least. And that’s a pity, because those absent would have heard an exquisitely poignant collect to commemorate the actual and original intent of this holiday. I asked the Celebrant afterwards about it, and she gave me her xeroxed copy. It’s not in the Book of Common Prayer, but rather from a book of collects for various occasions.

Now, I am not one to look down my nose at NASCAR and Indy races, beach trips and lake outings, or even a good retail “SALE!” or two. (Frankly, I wish I made more time to enjoy those distractions.) But it IS important, vital really, to indeed REMEMBER on Memorial Day, and to hold especially close in our hearts those men and women upon whose sacrifices we can enjoy such things.

Herewith then, the prayer yesterday that caught my breath so:

Almighty God, by whose grace thy people gain courage through looking unto the heroes of faith: We lift our hearts in gratitude to thee for all who have lived valiantly and died bravely that there might be truth, liberty and righteousness in our land. Help us to prize highly and guard carefully the gifts which their loyalty and devotions have bestowed upon us. Grant us the joy of a living and vigorous faith, that we may be true as they were true, loyal as they were loyal, and serve thee and our country selflessly all the days of our life, and at last receive the victor’s crown, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.