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 this liturgical confession. Most of the time I don’t really 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. My heart was anything but whole. 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.  Truth be told, 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 seem…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…

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.

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.

…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.