…of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

This season of Advent just seems to do a number on me.

Yes, there is the absurd rush, the frenzy to not miss a single party or sale or movie opening.  But there is also, from time to time, a sense of the surreal that breaks through.

Christmas Tree lights2
Christmas trees in the dark: Yearning for something, not knowing what it is, only that it is.

It’s another kind of absurd altogether — a fuller sense of the “absurd” reality that we Christians profess.  We are reminded this time of year more than any other that our God, the “one God, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” chose to appear to Creation in the form of an utterly helpless infant, born to a young unwed girl under desperate conditions.

Maybe I just manage to keep this absurdity at bay better during other seasons, more easily brushing off the sheer wonder and profound beauty of a single human breath.  Not so much during the longer, colder nights of Advent.

When I refer to the long, cold nights of this season, it has little to do with shorter hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere.  For me, these “long and cold nights” are more of a spiritual description than thermal — the darker, longer, colder nights of the soul.  Watching lights on a Christmas tree in the quiet dark lead to a deep stirring within.  My truest heart desires something intensely, to know something and to know it deeply.  And yet, that heart is not really sure what it is yearning, sure only in the deepest feeling that whatever it is, Whoever it is, it IS.

Most times when I am asked by the Celebrant to “stand and profess our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed,” I begin to mindlessly recite the words, and just gloss over the opening sentence, and its enormously powerful last phrase. But it is this darkness of Advent that reminds me more clearly that God is the maker of “the seen and the unseen.” God has made not just the stars in the heavens and the hairs on my head — not just what can be seen through telescopes and microscopes — but the Unseen, too.  We are surrounded by a holy host of maybes, which (or who) somehow swirl around us at the most needful of times, like a snowfall at night, unseen until one awakes in the morning, and  realizes what has been going on while we slept.

This time of year leads me to understand more clearly that part of our human nature is to seek and yearn for the unknown.  And it leads me to believe more and more that this very human trait exists because we have been “created” to seek and yearn for a Creator. We are meant to bathe in that Mystery. And perhaps, such a Divine (?) purpose goes even further. Part of my “rent” for occupying space on this planet is to purposefully search for that Mystery not only in what is “seen” around me in this universe, but also in the “unseen,” in those closest to me, and ultimately in myself.

And I as engage in that exploration, I am bound to be in that state perpetually.  I am like Bono singing “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…” and I’m beginning to understand I never really will. Advent is telling me that the finding comes most often is in the searching itself. The “answer” is not discovered by “arriving” at a destination but in the journey along the way.

And the deepest of such yearning is to know and feel Emmanuel. God with us.

God- the of the omnipotent loving Creator
With- not over us or far away, but closer than close, touching us and everything in our existence
Us – in this tiny speck of dust that is our little corner of galaxy in the universe.

I become like the author of Psalm 8 when confronting such things. Such knowledge is too good for me; I cannot attain it.

I can only yearn for it.

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We have not loved you with our whole heart…

In most Eucharist services, just before the exchange of “The Peace” there is “A Confession of Sin” said corporately by the assembled congregation.  As often as not, these are the words spoken together:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

I have my own “confession of sin” about the liturgical confession: I often don’t pay attention.

Most days I’m simply mouthing those words, trying to feel appropriately morose (which of course, given little things like redemption and absolution and salvation and forgiveness, is not really the appropriate emotion).  Such was NOT the case during a recent small Eucharist service I sometimes attend on Tuesday evenings, The sentence “We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves” had particular resonance. It froze me in the pew.

It immediately called to mind a mysterious and Godly gift I had received earlier this fall.

No need to go into the details of why I was suffering no end of angst on that particular Sunday morning.  Suffice it to say that the nagging little negative voices that were mumbling messages of failures with career, family, church, health and a long cadre of other concerns were coming through loud and clear. To say I was feeling not the least bit motivated to go sit through another boring church service would have been the understatement of the year.  Hell, I was not particularly motivated to do much of anything other than to leave my house and get to a coffee shop so I could attend the full-fledged pity party I had planned, before moving through a made-up list of Sunday errands.

It was not a blinding light or an audible voice that caused me to pause just before walking out the back door.  But it WAS something.  And I had this sense then, and still do, it was something external. And that Something, whatever It was, quite literally led me to turn around and close the door behind me. I felt myself walking with a steady and determined pace (unusually so, given my MS) back to my bedroom beside my bed, where I fell straight to my knees.

With my face buried into the mattress, one clear thought, one clear phrase, began in my head,  repeating gently — but incessantly — in my inner ear. Over and over, I “heard” it “say” to me: “Love your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind….Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And slowly, but oh so surely, all my worries, all my wranglings, all my nervous angst and dark imaginings…began to appear…unnecessary.

“It’s not that complicated,” that ineffable voice seemed to utter.

“Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it. That’s all you really need to worry about.  God will take care of the rest.  God WILL take care of the rest.”

With my my best lawyer cynicism, I fought back:  “But what about…?”
God will take care of it.
“But when will…?”
God will take care of it.
“How am I…?”
God is God. You are not. Let God be God. You be you….God, in God’s time, WILL take care of it.

Looking back at that holy moment, before I pushed on the mattress to rise up off of my knees, I remember taking in one long breathe, and realizing that it was the deepest I’d taken in a long time.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing…

Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  People:  It is right to give him 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…

Every Sunday, Episcopalians hear these words as the introduction to the central part of every Eucharist, a long narrative liturgical prayer known as “The Great Thanksgiving.” Whether it is “Form A,B,C or D” in the Book of Common Prayer or some other version, this “thankful” prayer always recounts the very first Holy Communion, the “Last Supper” on the night before his Jesus’ Crucifixion, and symbolically transforms the simple gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

While it may be a “good and joyful thing” 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: A keen observer of the human condition.

Being in a state of genuine gratefulness is, for me, full of mixed emotions. Because If I am really honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that much of what I have, I did not earn.  Yes, 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.  But 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.

Because serious contemplation of all my 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 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 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 be thankful. “Always and everywhere” as the Prayer Book urges us. Stranger still, it often seems that the less folks have the more grateful they become.

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, but is slowly dying because he cannot adjust to earth’s atmosphere.  In one of the final scenes, as the “bad guys” from the government are closing in on him, one of the “good guys” has managed to find him first in his hideout, and they have a brief dialogue.

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

“Please…,” urges the good guy.

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

And I think that’s true in a weird mysterious way, and I am coming to believe more and more that such a wondrous and wonderful human trait is NOT of our own doing.  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.”

And that 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 the very least my awareness of them, which is no small thing). And that of course in turn begets even more gratitude, which continues the Graceful cycle.

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.

On the night he was handed over…

At the wonderful little Communion service that I sometimes attend on Thursday mornings, one particular phrase just jumped out at me from the Eucharistic Prayer A today: “On the night when he was handed over to suffering and death, Our Lord Jesus Christ took bread…”

Tonight — “Maundy Thursday” — is that night.

It’s good for me to remember that Jesus took more than than bread and wine in his hands to bless and give to his disciples that sacred evening. He took their dirty feet, too. He gently washed them, setting for them — and us — an example of servant leadership. It is a role that I have difficulty not only taking on, but accepting…especially from Jesus. I am that old curmudgeon Peter in the painting by Ford Maddox Brown, not appearing a bit happy that his Lord has stooped so low…for him!  

The Servant Jesus - Peter seems none too happy with this arrangement.

The Servant Jesus – Peter seems none too happy with this arrangement.

But it was even more than sharing a meal, and showing servant leadership.  Today’s Gospel reminds me that Jesus set before us a “new COMMANDMENT” (hence the name “Maundy”): “Love one another, just as I have loved you.”   This parting instruction of Jesus to his disciples, I believe, is not “love” as in the the warm and fuzzy noun of feelings and sweet emotion (although that’s nice work if you can get it). But more important, it is I believe Jesus showing me and commanding me to “love” as the verb — that is, to do those act(s) of loving and caring and sacrifice, at all times and in all places and toward all persons, even if (maybe especially if!) I don’t really feel like it.

Oh, that is so hard for me to remember sometimes, and of course even harder for me to do. But so important. 

It’s a little easier if I can just allow myself on those blessed days to let go of my lawyer self, and allow for the very real possibility that maybe, just maybe, there is an Omnipotent Perfectly Loving Creator who lends a Guiding Hand in the ultimate outcome.  

One Who is willing even to wash my feet.

…From You No Secrets Are Hid

Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

For much of my younger life, the opening collect of the Eucharist frightened the heck out of me.
This prayer often acted as a warning shot across the bow of any complacent spiritual boat I might be trying to paddle into church, admonishing me that ALL my desires were known and my heart was WIDE open.
IF I got to the service on time, and IF I was actually paying attention to the priest while he (it was, sadly, always a “he”) prayed this opening collect, I most often imagined God considering me with all the righteous indignation of one of those family maids in an early sitcom or old black-and-white movie: “Don’t you be comin’ into MY house, sittin’ in MY pews, tryin’ to pretend that what happened last night (or week or month or lifetime) didn’t happen. Nosuh! All your fancy-dancy airs, all your notions that you got it goin’ on — They don’t mean nothin’ now! I know better… I know it ALL!”

The voice of the Almighty?

The voice of the Almighty?

As the decades have gone by though, I find that I pray it more and more with a growing sense of comfort, not dread. I still hear the Mammy in the divine Voice, but she (She?) has more of a lullaby lilt to whatever sound the Almighty might be sending to me: “Oh, child… There, there… I know, I know…Hush, baby. I know your heart. Heck, child, I gave it to you! It’s OK, little one… I know just how you feel. I know what you want. I know what you need. Lawd, child, I even know all the things you think you want that you DON’T need!…You just hush. Ain’t no secrets here, child. Ain’t no need…Come on in and get settled. You just rest and listen to me for a spell, then I’ll listen to whatever you got!”

Such an amazing God surely can “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts” so that I might “perfectly love” and “worthily magnify” Him/She/Them/It.

Thanks be to God.

He stretched out his arms…

Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you … sent Jesus Christ …to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you…
He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

Jesus stretching out his arms. A lovely image…by itself.

But that’s not the whole phrase, of course. In the second sentence of Eucharistic Prayer A, we are reminded that Jesus’ affectionate yearning, his arms stretched out, is done with the most cruel and torturous of consequences.  In celebrating the Eucharist, the officiating priest reminds us that Jesus “stretched out his arms… UPON THE CROSS!”

I can’t say for sure when or where I was when I was first struck by the ironic juxtaposition of those words. But I do remember being just overwhelmed.  Hundreds of times I had heard that phrase, but this one time my mind’s eye I saw the image of my Lord affectionately yearning to me with arms outstretched, and I remember being so comforted. And then just a second later — in the same image — that comfort was jolted by the reminder that such yearning, such indescribable Divine Love, came at an unspeakable cost.

In that one little phrase, only eight words, the paradox of Christian faith is defined and delivered in a sacred corporate prayer. I count it as one of the purist gifts ever given to me.

Coming to Jesus’ table on that occasion, I heard Jesus described in the most poignant and bittersweet of ways. Welcoming, yet weary. Beckoning, yet bloody. Christ crucified.

Maybe that’s what Irving Stone was trying to convey when he titled his novel about Michelangelo and his attempts to capture and convey that sacred paradox, as “The Agony and The Ecstasy.”

It’s not for nothing that the the bread we eat at that table is broken.