Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Looking for Light

Advent is a season of dark and light.  The days get shorter and more dreary but we light our candles one by one to show the light of Christ coming into the world.  First one tiny flame from a single candle and then a blaze of light by Christmas..... 

We also look for enlightenment.  Many of us attend quiet days during Advent, a time to look within, to ponder, to think and pray about how we want to be so that we can show the light of Christ ourselves.  Advent is a good time to do that, too, because it's the liturgical new year.  

I often look for enlightenment about what I am doing or what I am going to be doing.  Particularly, now, I am wondering what I am going to do next because the work I've been doing for the last three months is about to come to an end.  My experience has been that just when I think I am about to have nothing much to do, something happens - I get an email, a phone call, I run into someone somewhere and next thing I know, I'm busy again.  Nonetheless, when I am looking at an open-ended period with nothing on the calendar, I get anxious.

Recently, I was sitting in church by myself.  (This is one of the big perks of being a priest, in my opinion.  One can just go sit in church any time by walking down the hall.)  Well, not completely by myself - I brought my anxieties in with me.  While it is true that one can pray and one can listen for God anywhere, and I do those things, I find that when I am in a nave, I focus differently.  There's something about that sacred space that opens something up in me and helps me be more attentive.   At any rate, I was sitting in church by myself, and the light came in through some of the windows, and I had this sense of calmness and well-being.  I had this sense that all will be well, that I needed to spend my time right now being grateful for the good work I have been given to do in that parish and not to worry about what is going to come next.

It was neat how this thought came to me just as I was looking at the light coming through the windows.  True enlightenment.

 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”  (Matt. 6:25-31)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Troubled Water

Thanks to Netflix, today at home I watched the Norwegian film Troubled Water (2008, by Erik Poppe), which won a number of indie-film type awards.  This is the third of a trilogy by Poppe, and although the films all have different stories (and I haven't seen either of the other two), they all apparently hinge on the themes of forgiveness and atonement.

At the heart of Troubled Water (you can read the info about it, along with a review, here) is the death of a young boy, for which an older teen is sent to prison, although he denies the murder and insists the child's death was an accident.  The teen, now a man, serves out his time and is released and obtains a job as an organist at an Oslo church and begins to build a new life for himself, a life that includes the church's pastor and her young son.  Yet he is obviously still haunted by the young boy's death.

Halfway through the movie, the perspective switches and the same time frame is now shown through the eyes of the dead boy's mother, who happens to bring a school group to the church and recognizes the organist as the one convicted of killing her son.  She had built a new life for herself as well, adopting two children with her husband.  But she unravels as we watch the story unfold again, this time from her perspective.  And of course, the two finally cross paths for an intense extended climatic scene.

I won't tell you how it turns out in case you want to see the movie (and I do recommend it).  The idea of forgiveness (the young man insists he doesn't need forgiveness because he is not guilty) and atonement (the mother is not satisfied that the young man served out his prison term) loom large in the movie, and it gets really messy as we come to recognize that neither of these characters knows one another and yet have made all kinds of assumptions about one another and about what forgiveness and atonement really are.  The young man insists he doesn't need forgiveness, because he is not guilty, but he is haunted nonetheless.  The woman insists that the young man can never atone for what she believes he did and that unless he confesses his guilt to her, neither of them can move on.   The woman's husband tries to shield her from these things, which makes it all worse.

One of the most interesting scenes, to me, was a very short one in which the mother confronts a man who works at the church, wondering (that's much too mild a word to use for how she asked him) why the church would hire someone who was a convicted murderer.  The man responds calmly that if one cannot get a second chance at a church, where can they?  But you can tell that she doesn't believe that he should have a second chance; she is convinced that he is a menace, and her feelings run so high that she shoves the man down.  This same man told the young man that the woman had come to see him, and that it would be good if he could talk with her so that forgiveness could be given.  But the young man insisted that he was not guilty and therefore did not need forgiveness.  He, too, was angry at the man.

Forgiveness and atonement are hardly new subjects for movies or books (Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, which was also made into a very good movie is one of my favorites).  They're really hard to get your head around.  We get very technical about forgiveness:  I won't forgive you unless you apologize.  Or, I don't need to apologize because I am not guilty and also I don't need forgiveness.  We get really defensive about it.

I remember once in a Bible study we were talking about forgiveness, how it works or doesn't work in people's lives, and someone said rather irritably that if God made us the way we are, then why do we have to apologize for being sinful creatures?  Why do we have to ask forgiveness about being human?  I decided then that asking for forgiveness is not about God, it's about us.   We are the ones who need forgiveness, and getting all technical about it is way beside the point.  We need forgiveness because many of not most of us feel guilty because we are always falling short.  

And we need to forgive others as well, because if we do not, we become poisoned by our holding on to hatred and anger and disappointment.  God doesn't need our apologies; we need to confess our guilt and our sin and our anger and our disappointment and even our deepest secrets so we can let them go and keep them from killing us.  

And of course, there's atonement.  Can a criminal atone?  If someone serves out a sentence, have they paid their debt to society?  The law says so, but people usually do not say so.  Once someone has been branded a criminal, many people don't consider their having served out a sentence as the end of it.  When they get out, the label stays with them, debt repaid or no.  The woman in the movie did not believe that the young man should be able to start over, to get a second chance.  Not even at a church.  

What we never see in this movie is how the characters did manage to move on.  I had hoped we would (because I'm really interested in how one might tell that story), but that didn't take away from the power of the movie as it stands.  It was a fascinating story, well told and well acted, showing us yet again how difficult, and how powerful, forgiveness is in the life of a human being.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A sermon for the beginning of Advent

Texts:  Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44

Can you imagine a world in which all the nations took their weapons and turned them into tools that could be distributed to everyone so that they could grow their own food?  Can you imagine a world in which feeding the people, all the people everywhere, was more important than fighting?  A world in which making sure everyone had enough to eat was more important than patrolling borders, than capturing people to take them prisoner, than amassing wealth and treasure, than blowing things up and tearing things down?  Can you imagine a world in which feeding all the people was more important than killing men and women and children?

Can you imagine how many farming tools there would be in the world if all the weapons, the tanks and guns and bombs, were so converted?  Can you imagine people actually doing that?

The prophet Isaiah imagines that.  Isaiah who is no blithe Pollyanna, no stranger to the horrors of war, of the extreme destruction that ruins the land and snuffs out the lives of people and leaves the landscape desolate and unproductive.  Isaiah has envisioned all of that destruction and spelled it out dramatically and quite graphically in many chapters and verses to all who would hear.

But Isaiah also sees the world as God would have it, where, as he will say elsewhere, the lion will lie down with the lamb and will eat grass like the ox and a little child will lead them.  He sees the world as God would have it - as a world of peace, a place where all of God's people - all people - strive enthusiastically to learn God's ways.  Isaiah has envisioned God's terrified people streaming into the woods and caves and holes in the ground to get away from horrible destruction and now he lyrically describes them streaming eagerly toward God in great throngs.

Advent is upon us, the time when we stand somewhere in the middle and look toward the end, toward the time when Jesus will return in glory and all things will be made right, and also we look toward the beginning again, the birth of the baby and the time when Jesus came to live among us to show us God's love.

Those who read Jesus' words in Matthew today and imagine it to be the beginning of what will be some kind of bloodbath haven't read Isaiah.   The vision Isaiah has of the time when all things are made right is not about some kind of holy war, about tribulation, about intrigue, about gangs of insiders taking out the bad guys.  No.  It's about peace and about all of God's people being fed both physically and spiritually - being made whole, having what they need.  About a time when no one is hungry either for food or for dignity, no one is dying, no one is being shoved aside by the powerful, no one is being killed and maimed and no children are suffering abuse or starving.

Most of the end-timers search for signs of impending doom, the day of wrath, the day when the Lord will return in fury.  Why is it so hard to imagine the Day of the Lord as a day of incredible, beautiful, life-giving peace in which the Lord's glory reflects God's desire for us to have the life that is really life instead of fury that looks like bloody death?  Especially when we celebrate a Lord who came to us as a precious child born to an unwed teen-aged mother, sleeping in a hay rack?   Is not bloody fury rather in the realm of Herod as he slaughters the innocents in the wake of God's breathtaking generosity in coming to live among us?  Why would we assign that kind of murderous intent to God who became human so that we might become divine?

How does one prepare then, during Advent, for something so unbelievably incredibly wonderful and sublime as God coming to live among us, as sublime as the notion of peace and peacefulness reigning so that all, not just the rich, might have life abundant?  We frankly can't even imagine such abundance for more than a few minutes before the vision disintegrates and disappears into the broken chaos that is our world?    How does one prepare for such a sublime thing amid flashing lights and Frosty the Snowman and Santa hats and the constant ca-ching of the cash registers?  How do we prepare for such a thing as magnificent as the transformation of tanks into baskets of food amid the din of people yelling that they are being persecuted because retailers don't say Merry Christmas as they entice them to shop and spend and buy and ring up sales as if honoring Jesus is about going into debt for the sake of new electronic games for the kids?  As if we should be buying chocolate Jesus bars instead of chocolate Santas and reindeer?

In fact, during Advent, we are supposed to be preparing for Christ, but we usually spend it preparing for Christmas.

Because Christmas is on the calendar.  It happens at a definite time.  But God's coming to us, well that's another story.  Jesus says, nobody knows when this is going to happen.  Nobody knows when God will come to us, not even Jesus.  So this puts things into a different perspective.  It makes it seem as if that time when God comes will be never, or at least so far away as to not happen in our lifetime.  And how would anybody really be able to prepare for that?  We might even say, if we were pressed, why would anybody want to?  It seems like futility, fantasy, living in la-la land, being fixated on that which lives only in the distant past or the distant future.  What has that to do with us and how we live our lives now?  Isaiah's vision seems ridiculous and unreal.

But I think we are wrong simply to imagine ourselves in the middle plaec between the beginning and the end, in some kind of religious no-man's land, where nothing is really happening in terms of God's coming to us.  If Jesus came long ago, and will come again far in the future to transform the world into something radically different than it is now, is there just nothing doing in the meantime?  What does God have to do with us - and what do we have to do with God - if we are just part of a great vast middle time in between? So that Jesus is just a memory and the glory of God transforming the world into the New Heaven and New Earth is millenia away - as is the vision of tanks and bombs turning into instruments of peace providing food for all?

The way I see it, God comes to us often during this middle time in between.  But God is hard to see.  It is hard to see God's work because it looks like something else.  Jesus looked like a little Jewish baby born to a teenaged mother in the modern equivalent of a back alley.  God's angels who visited Abraham and Sarah to announce the impending birth of their son Isaac looked like three guys on a road trip.   God's covenant with all of the earth, not only the people but the animals as well, looked like a rainbow.

And so I think that during this Advent time, this time when we prepare our hearts to make room for both Jesus the baby and Jesus the king of glory, what that really means is that we need to prepare our eyes to see what God is doing in the world.  We need to prepare our eyes to recognize God's work beneath the commonplace.  To see a covenant within the rainbow, to see the hope of the world in a feeding trough.  We need to prepare our eyes to be able to see those swords that have already been beaten into plowshares.  We learn to sharpen our vision so that we can see God at work in the world here and now and say, look!  This is what I think God is doing here.  This is how I think God has come to me, this is what I think God has transformed in my life.  Here is my experience of God at work in me, in my family, in our world.   We need to develop the eyes to see the new things God is doing in the world so that we can be part of that new thing, too.

So, if we are to focus on how and when God comes to us in our own world and in our own time, we must be awake, as Jesus warns us.  We must be alert.  Watchful.  We need to remember that the coming of God to us is always surprising, always unexpected, to be found in places one would not normally look.  We must train our eyes to see and our hearts to wonder and our minds to allow for new things, unimaginable things, things as huge as tanks morphing into trees full of ripe fruit, things as tiny as a babe in arms.  To see love, to imagine peace, to look for and experience God's goodness in the face of the world's debilitating, pervasive, corrosive fear-mongering that is the stuff of Herod, not Jesus.

And then to show it to others.  To show that love, to tell of our experience, to speak about our own longings and imaginings that include the wellbeing of people in the face of a world that wants to demonize, castigate, and exclude.

Let us walk in the light now, let us stream to the mountain now, let us envision dignity and inclusion now, let us speak against fear-mongering now, let us look for God now, let us take hold of Isaiah's vision and make it our own in the face of hopelessness and cynicism now, not waiting for pie in the sky by and by because we are the people to carry hope into the world.  The makers of chocolate santas and electronic gadgets are not going to do it.  The political war machines are not going to do it.  Because they are not looking for Jesus to come among us.  But we are.    We are the ones looking for God to come among us to bring wholeness and love and sweet, sweet peace.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Morning Prayer

This is another day, O Lord.  I know not what it will bring

forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be.  If I
am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.  If I am to sit still,
help me to sit quietly.  If I am to lie low, help me to do it
patiently.  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. 
Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit
of Jesus.  Amen.

(BCP 461)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday afternoon fountain break

A fountain at a retirement complex.  
Not fancy, but a big enough flume of water to be heard by those who are hard of hearing.  
And a big enough pool to reflect the sunlight and provide a sense of abundant water 
to those who live in tiny apartments.  
I'm thinking, but of course I could be wrong, that this fountain has never gotten the "Tide treatment."  
I can't quite see the octogenarians pulling that particular prank.

Bringing in the Sheaves

Do you know the hymn "Bringing in the Sheaves" - based on the last couple of verses of Psalm 126?  (The chorus goes:  Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we will come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.  The verses are all about planting - in the sunshine and in the dew - and the harvest.)  But for some reason, this hymn is forever associated in my mind with people who have had too much to drink.  

This might come from a movie or TV show.  Some of us were talking about Andy Griffith yesterday and the guy Otis who was often in the Mayberry jail due to having had a few nips too many from the flask (in fact, the keys were on the wall so Otis could just let himself in when he needed to) might have sung the song then.  Maybe the folks at the Mayberry church sang it, because sometimes I associate the song with Aunt Bee, too.

But at any rate, it is a harvest song, and this is the harvest time, these days around Thanksgiving when we are grateful and thankful for the beauty and bounty of the earth, so the song got in my head today.  We will come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.  

Today is also the day known as Black Friday - the biggest shopping day in the universe, the day that all the retailers hope that their red ink will turn to black as a result of a buying frenzy (I hope you were not out at 4 a.m. buying televisions and whatnot) and they will end the year on the plus side of the ledger instead of the minus.  

And so I wonder, too, are the people coming home rejoicing, bringing in the stuff?  Are the retailers rejoicing, bringing in the cash?  Since we are not so much an agriculturally based society any more, does the notion of harvest now accrue to consumers scoring great deals on electronics and retailers racking up the receipts from the day-after-Thanksgiving shopping orgy?  Is this our harvest, scoring bargains and bags full of merchandise?  Are we drunk on an overdose of commerce?

It is hard to keep one's head and heart in the right place when we are bombarded with messages about consumption.  What are squash and corn compared to 52" televisions and cute boots?  I love a bargain, too.  I want the economy to pick up, too.  But I know that the harvest is not about those things but about God's abundance and how in the end we will have all we need, fed by God's own hand.  I need to remember the difference.

Morning Prayer for Black Friday

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor:  Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

(BCP 259)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Evening Collect for the Beauty of the Earth

We give you thanks, most gracious God, for the beauty of the earth and sky and sea; for the richness of the mountains, plains and rivers; for the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers. We praise you for these good gifts, and pray that we may safeguard them for our posterity. Grant that we may continue to grow in our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation, to the honor and glory of your Name, now and for ever. Amen.

(BCP 840)

A Litany of Thanksgiving

Let us give thanks to God our Father for all his gifts so
freely bestowed upon us.

For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and
sky and sea.
We thank you, Lord.

For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women,
revealing the image of Christ,
We thank you, Lord.

For our daily food and drink, our homes and families, and
our friends,
We thank you, Lord.

For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,
We thank you, Lord.

For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,
We thank you, Lord.

For the brave and courageous, who are patient in suffering
and faithful in adversity,
We thank you, Lord.

For all valiant seekers after truth, liberty, and justice,
We thank you, Lord.

For the communion of saints, in all times and places,
We thank you, Lord.

Above all, we give you thanks for the great mercies and
promises given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord;
To him be praise and glory, with you, O Father, and the
Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

(BCP 836)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, Y'all!

Lyin' Around vs Puritan Work Ethic

It's overcast, a little drizzly, and getting colder.  It's the day before Thanksgiving and I am not hosting the meal.  I had a long (and good) day yesterday.  I only have to cook one dish for tomorrow's feast.  It's a good day for lying around.

Sadly, despite the weather, there is a fair amount of drilling, sawing, and leaf blowing going on next door.  No rest for the weary over there.  

I have mixed feelings about lying around, actually.  On the one hand, I like to do it, and as I get older I do more of it.  On the other hand, I feel slightly anxious or guilty or frustrated that I'm not getting anything done when I know there's Lots to be Done.  Puritan work ethic, perhaps?  

(Thanksgiving naturally makes one think about Pilgrims, aka Puritans....)

The Puritan Work Ethic (also known as the Protestant Work Ethic; frankly some of my Presbyterian friends have suggested it's really the Presbyterian Work Ethic, but I digress) goes something like this.  Work before play.  Work builds character.  Work produces rewards.  If you do not work, you are lazy and have bad character; if you lie around all day and leave the beds unmade and the groceries unbought you are lazy and have bad character and you are not going to get anywhere in life because you are giving in to your base slovenly impulses and you'll just end up dead in a ditch. If you play before you've finished your work, you are irresponsible and Not A Serious Person (and you have bad character).  If everybody gave in to their base slovenly impulses, then what would happen to the whole world?  Nothing would get done and everybody would be thrown into chaos.  (And it would be your fault for not doing your work.  What have you got to show for yourself?  What did you do all day?) Or something like that.

Of course what the PWE mostly does, in my opinion, is make people anxious, depressed, and killjoys both to themselves and others.  In my experience, there is always work to be done, and so one can really never play.  (Maybe this is the point, for some P's.)

I have an uneasy feeling about all this, because deep down inside I think I have bought into the PWE.  I have a hard time enjoying my lying around time.  At the very least, I feel guilty afterwards.  I beat up on myself about the lack of progress on the to-do list.  I look at the unmade bed and the piles of stuff and I get depressed.  I have a lot of trouble playing (except for verbally - for some reason I feel as if there is an exemption for wordplay).  

So, given that it's Thanksgiving and all the little kids in first grade are drawing pictures of Pilgrims, I'd just like to say that if I had some first graders around here, I'd say to them, "Watch out for those Puritans, kids!  Don't buy into their Work Ethic!  It will not make you happy!"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

How'd it get to be so late?

I'm sitting here in the office; the ecumenical Thanksgiving service will start in a bit; I'm looking at the texts for Advent I; I have a post-it note on my calendar to get out some dishes for Thanksgiving take along food; my mom wants to go shopping.  How did it get to be the end of the church year, the beginning of the church year, the holidays, the end of the day? 

Time flies when you are having fun, and also when you are only in the office one day a week!  And what a lovely day it was - gathering with folks for the Eucharist, gathering with more folks for Bible study and a great discussion, gathering messages to send to those in the hospital and those who care for them, saying prayers for those we love.

We are all fed in and by our communities.  We feed one another and love one another and it is my job as priest to love and to provide spiritual food in my community, in God's community.  My prayer for today is that I can get through this hectic time with that thought always in the forefront and not stuck somewhere on a post-it note.

Morning Prayer for Young Persons

God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the says of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(BCP 829)

Monday, November 22, 2010


I am one of those people who sometimes has some issues with focus.  I am easily distracted.  This has its advantages.  I see all the pretty flowers and birds and some other things that go me (or I go by, in the case of flowers and other stationary objects) that other people miss.  (The fact that I irritate those other people by interrupting them, or sometimes myself, is another matter entirely.  Let's just say that I like seeing all those things I notice and leave it at that.)

One of the ways I manage this issue is to sit near or in the front, if in class or somewhere where there is seating in rows.   I stay away from "group tables" if I want to stay on task.  I also try to keep my desk organized, although often I fail at this, too.

The problem is, however, that most of life does not take place in places where there are rows, or even desks.  (In fact, I don't even have a desk but two days a week, and it's not mine anyway.)

It occurs to me that, therefore, I need to change my own perspective.  If I am trying to stay in line by working within a set of parameters that isn't realistic, once I realize that set of parameters isn't realistic, I need to change it.  I need to stop thinking about sitting in rows if I'm not in a row-organized system.  (Or else, I should think about going back to school again, which is not a bad thought.)

I'm living a nearly-unstructured life at the moment, and I am smart enough (really!) to know that imposing an artificial structure on myself will only work for so long before I announce to myself that I don't have to follow that artificial structure, and then it's all over.  So that's not much of a solution, unless I'm ok with coming up with a new structure every couple of months.

So, I've decided to think about myself as being in training for a surprise development that is coming my way someday soon.  And all the things I do (from staying in my jammies all day with a book to working out at the gym four days a week to avoiding going to the grocery store - all on my potential to do list today, I might add) is part of this training.  In other words, I'm in a long transition time, and I just need to let myself be in that space for as long as it takes to work through it.  And all the things I do (and don't do) during this time is part of the work in some way.

(Update:  After more thinking about this, I like the idea that I am collecting wisdom during this time.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Like many folks, and perhaps some of you, even though I was brought up in the church, I spent many years away from church.  Part youthful wandering and seeking, part anger at what I felt then and still feel was conduct unbecoming a Christian community, part religious immaturity, I worshipped at the “church of me” for a rather long time.

And when I came back to the church of God and Jesus and the Holy Ghost and all the saints, partly due to a crisis but also in response to some gentle but serious nudging by the Holy Spirit, I found that I needed to spend many Sundays crying silently in my pew.

There were many reasons for my tears.  Grief and sorrow.  Repentance and remorse.  And also, oddly but very powerfully,  relief.  Profound relief that I could lay my burdens down, relief at the sense of having arrived home, relief that I had found a place where I could be vulnerable to God.

The crying went on for some time - months and months, I guess.  And I have continued to return to that activity periodically, whenever the vulnerability thing happened or happens again - during hymns, as scripture is read, during a sermon, during a prayer, at the sight of little children and pregnant women after my own miscarriage, watching my teenage son carry a huge cross down the aisle on Passion Sunday.

I was glad to be in a large parish where I could sit in my corner of the pew and do my thing undisturbed at first.  I found church to be a place where I could feel what I needed to feel and not worry that the world was watching me and sizing me up, seeing my weaknesses and my doubts, and above all my vulnerability.  I was profoundly grateful for the space and time to just sit there and cry.

Today we see Jesus on the cross at the place called the skull, hanging between two criminals as if he were a criminal himself, having been done in by that which the world admires - raw power that serves only itself, power that works ceaselessly to oppress and disempower the very ones who admire and support it.  

We see a man who is nothing if not vulnerable before the unheeding and uncaring powerbrokers of the Empire, deserted by his friends; a man sized up and mocked by everyone around him, even, ridiculously, by the criminal at his side who shared his fate.

And just off stage are the women, watching at a distance, no doubt experiencing shock and horror and body-shaking grief; among them is Mary, his mother, her soul pierced, just as Simeon had prophesied it would be.

We call this man our king, this vulnerable, broken, bleeding man who despite his dignified demeanor in our passage today  suffered almost unbearable pain. One who knows what it is like to have been shoved aside, lifted up only for mockery.  One who has been rejected by friends and family, one who has suffered humiliation, one who has wished for the best but seen all around him, over and over again, rejection and failure.

We call this man our king, he who is defined by generous acceptance and forgiveness, forgiveness even in the face of humiliation and violence.  Forgiveness given even when it is not asked for.  We call this man our king, who invites us all simply to dwell with him in paradise, in spite of our own brokenness, or perhaps because of it.  Who looks at us from the cross and says, I know your pain and your despair.

Most of the time I direct our attention outside these walls, toward neighbor, toward being Christ's hands and feet in the world.  But today I want to bring our attention inside, into this community gathered, into this room, to ponder brokenness and trauma and grace.

Keeping this image of Christ the vulnerable, broken, brutalized king in mind as well as my own story and simiar stories heard from others, I am well aware that most of us are fearful - perhaps painfully so - of showing our own vulnerability and brokenness.  Many of us gloss over that aspect of our lives; it makes us uncomfortable to feel those feelings.  It makes us uncomfortable to see others' vulnerability, too.  It is very hard to stay in the moment of brokenness; our instinct is to look away, to seek distraction, to jump ahead to the happy ending, to run away both from ourselves and from those around us who remind us how fragile are our efforts at composure.

How often do we hear someone say that they stayed away from church because they were feeling sad or down or grief-stricken? They stayed at home, shut away from everyone, both to shield themselves from us and to shield us from what their vulnerability might bring up in us.  To keep their grief from upsetting us.  And perhaps to keep us from urging them - out of our own discomfort - to "perk up."  To put on a happy face and praise God with happy voices.

And yet grief and pain and suffering and trauma are all part of our Christian story. We highlight this aspect of Jesus' life that we read about today, calling it holy, even in its brutality.  We look upon Jesus in his suffering, but maybe some of us in our discomfort gloss over that part, prefering an empty cross to one that shows us a dying, agonized man on display for all the world to see, and leaving us with uncomfortable questions about what kind of God allows his son to die like that and whether or not we are somehow complicit in this horror.

A week or so ago, I heard a presentation by the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, who is the president of Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, on trauma and grace.  She talked a bit about working with people who have been traumatized, and how trauma works to short-circuit victims' psychological experiential-intake-and-storage systems so that the traumatized have little or no control over their horrible memories, which are not like regular memories but more like intrusive flashbacks coupled with feelings of terror.  The traumatized are visited by these flashes when something triggers them.  The triggers can be anything.  She told a story of how a young woman she was mentoring had such an episode during the Eucharist at their church.  "This bread, my body broken for you; this wine, my blood poured out for you" - these words sent the young woman running out of the church in a state of  terror that left her gasping for breath and unable to remember how to turn on the water in the ladies room sink.

Dr. Jones also writes in her book called Trauma and Grace about her own suffering - loss of a pregnancy, betrayal and loss of her marriage, a frightening illness - and how these things in their vortex of emotion and helplessness can sweep us to the brink of losing our faith.

She wondered aloud, what can we say theologically about these things?  How can we stay in community in our woundedness and allow God's healing to break through and save us without resorting to glossing over the trauma?  How can we in church and as a church acknowledge our pain and our grief and our sense of hopelessness rather than shut those things away, guarded, like a family secret that will only, eventually corrode our faith and our relationships?  And how can we meet pain with love and hope and make a place for grace amid the fear and dread and hopelessness that pervade our world?

One of the things I have been thinking about ever since I heard Dr. Jones speak was how the church ought to be - and can be - a place for healing for those who are suffering, even those who have suffered the most horrific traumas.  After all, our church gathers around our bloodied and broken king, hanging on the cross, and affirms that brokenness is not the last word.  Brokenness is not the last word.

And yet how difficult it is for many of us, both the traumatized and those who are simply among the faithful in the pews, to be able to sit with that and let it be for however long it takes.  How can we say to the world, it is safe to cry in here?  It is safe to bring your grief and your pain in here.  This is not only a place of praise but a place for lament.  You won't be stared at, you won't be urged to cheer up, just given the space to acknowledge and feel your pain and finally lay your burdens down at this altar, this place where we bring to mind again and again our broken king who knows our sorrow.

How do we make space for grief, for vulnerability, for brokenness among us?  There are so many people who live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau said, and there are also those who have suffered unspeakable horror, as Dr. Jones related in her talk.  Can we be - are we willing to be - a community of healing and reconciliation for the sad, the lost, the lonely, the grieving, and even the brutalized among us?  Can we simply sit with those in their tears and their terrors with no agenda save that of simple abiding?

Dr. Jones spoke of trauma and grace and it is, miracle of miracles, grace that comes forth out of Jesus' brokenness to heal us and to heal the world.  Grace, that free, unmerited gift of God, that lifts our burdens off our backs, out of our hearts, and even provides the altar where we might lay them down.  It is grace that proclaims forgiveness to the ignorant and assurance of paradise to the sinner.  It is God's grace that - like resurrection - breaks through the pain and grief and trauma to heal us.  It is grace - not sorrow, not pain, not sin, not even death - that is the last word in the story of brokenness.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday Morning Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

(BCP 236)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Morning Collect: Edmund

O God of ineffable mercy, you gave grace and fortitude to blessed Edmund the king to triumph over the enemy of his people by nobly dying for your Name: Bestow on us your servants the shield of faith with which we can withstand the assaults of our ancient enemy; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

(Lesser Feasts and Fasts)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Night Prayer

Almighty God,
we give you thanks for surrounding us,
as daylight fades,
with the brightness of the vesper light;
and we implore you of your great mercy that,
as you enfold us with the radiance of this light,
so you would shine into our hearts
the brightness of your Holy Spirit;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(BCP 110)

Friday afternoon fountain break

This is part of the Franklin D Roosevelt memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  It's a really beautiful and moving memorial, with a giant bronze FDR with his little dog Fala next to him. 
 Eleanor Roosevelt is nearby.  Excerpts from some of his speeches are inscribed on the pink granite stones and there is a particularly moving section called "I hate war."  There are also bronze Depression-era figures and plaques.  My mother examined all these with great interest when she went with us to the memorial a few years ago; having grown up during the Depression, she found herself immersed in her own family memories.  The entire FDR Memorial is dramatic with the rushing water sounds from the various water features always in the background.

Morning Collect: Elizabeth of Hungary

Almighty God, by your grace your servant Elizabeth of Hungary recognized and honored Jesus in the poor of this world:  Grant that we, following her example, may with love and gladness serve those in any need or trouble, in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(Lesser Feasts and Fasts)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Doing the things that we want to

Remember that Lou Reed song?  One of the kids thought that was such a great song - doing the things that we want to.  If only we could.

I struggle sometimes with the whole togetherness-independence spectrum.  I know we want to get to "interdependence" because that is what we all really are.  Interdependent.  

But certain personality types will end up sacrificing themselves (in a negative way, not in the "Jesus says it's good" way) for others again and again while the others claim that such is only right.  Parents sacrifice for their children - and sometimes they sacrifice too much for them, and the children never mature.  Some children are virtually forced to sacrifice for their parents, sacrifice their independence, their personal growth, their dreams - they are forced to act like grownups when they are still children while their parents never grow up and take responsibility for themselves.  These are not good ways to be interdependent - these are co-dependencies and there are a ton of books out there to address them.

But how far is too far; how close is too close; how much support is support and when does it become a crutch and eventually a prison?  So that finally one has to break out of that prison so that he can do the things that he wants to.  Or she.  Perhaps it's not that fine a line, but sometimes it feels as if it is, when one is a parent - or when one is dealing with a parent.  Sometimes it is really hard to know when to hold the children close and when to let them go; to know where to draw the line and when to decide not to fight about it; to know that what is our responsibility and what is theirs.

Family dynamics (both in actual families and in systems like churches) can become tangled and mangled and destructive.   "Interdependence" and "sacrifice" and "consideration" become weapons to be wielded in order to enforce continuation of dysfunctional behavior.  Sometimes the sacrificer is the one with the power (the martyr: "see all that I have done for you?"); sometimes the one for whom the sacrifices are made becomes the one with all the power (the diva: "you have to consider me!").    In this case, of course, something has gone awry.  Someone has become someone else's whipping boy/pawn/plaything/slave.

And yet, interdependence, consideration, and sacrifice are, in their unadulterated forms, truly beautiful things.  When we understand and appreciate and value our connectedness and are able to usually act upon our understanding and appreciation, we are happy.  Things are working.  We are content, satisfied; we marvel that we live in a healthy environment.  We aren't feeling resentful. 

And then we are doing the things that we want to!  

Morning Collect: Hilda, Abbess of Whitby

O God of peace, by whose grace the abbess Hilda was endowed with gifts of justice, prudence, and strength to rule as a wise mother over the nuns and monks of her household, and to become a trusted and reconciling friend to leaders of the Church:  Give us the grace to recognize and accept the varied gifts you bestow on men and women, that our common life may be enriched and your gracious will be done; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever.  Amen.

(Lesser Feasts and Fasts: Hilda)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Unexpected pleasures...

One of the unexpected pleasures (I am pretty sure there aren't many) of not doing the yard work is the abundance of rose hips in the garden this year.  Had I been more diligent about deadheading the roses, these beauties would not now be appearing and growing ever larger all around the yard.  This one is from Altissimo, an odd climber (in that its canes are quite thick and stiff so that it cannot be wound 'round any sort of climbing structure) with fabulously huge red single flowers.  Abundant hips are evident on Penelope (no giggling, please), Erfurt, and Dortmund as well.

Of course, many of us learn that not getting around to something can yield unexpected pleasures.  It turns out that not everything has to be done on time or even done at all.  (My family holds this to be particularly true for raking leaves.  Maybe they will just blow away....) Not getting around to cleaning out a closet or drawer preserves that odd little thing we might have thrown away that now is just perfect for another use.  Not weeding allows a lovely volunteer to appear in the garden.  Not pressing for resolution of a knotty problem at church or home or work allows a solution to emerge organically and gracefully and relieves us of the burden of being and being perceived as really too pushy.

I am glad both that the roses are still blooming even though it's mid-November and that I didn't get around to trimming off all the deadheads from the heavy September bloom.  Now all winter I (and the birds) will enjoy these beauties decorating the bare branches until whenever it is they finally wither away.

Morning Collect for the Harvest

Most gracious God, by whose knowledge the depths are broken up and the clouds drop down the dew:
We yield thee hearty thanks and praise for the return of seedtime and harvest,
for the increase of the ground and the gathering in of its fruits,
and for all the other blessings of thy merciful providence
bestowed upon this nation and people. 
And, we beseech thee, give us a just sense of these great mercies,
such as may appear in our lives by a humble, holy, and obedient walking before thee
all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost
be all glory and honor, world without end.

(BCP 840)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Sometimes one is just going along and suddenly one hits a roadblock. The way ahead, which seemed clear not long ago, now seems to be closing or already closed. There may be others who are on the road - you can see them! - going ahead or going the other way, but the sign in front of you says, "one way do not enter."

One thinks of Wile E. Coyote. He never gives up. He's creative. He is tirelessly optimistic. He is singleminded. He does not ever become defeated. Of course, he also gets blown up a lot and he falls with a big splat from great heights to the bottom of canyons only to get flattened even flatter by the rock or ledge or whatever that follows him down. And yet, in the next frame, he's back, maybe a little beaten and blackened and frazzled and missing some fur, but he's back nonetheless.

Is this tireless optimism or stupidity? Is Wile E. cunning or an idiot? Does he display focused drive, singleminded persistence and tenacity, or does he just never learn that he will never catch the Roadrunner?

And further, do cynical people sneer at optimistic idealists? Is it better to have low standards so that one will never be disappointed?

My grandfather used to say (and maybe yours did, too) that it takes all kinds to make the world go 'round. We need idealists and we need "realists." We need poets and number crunchers. The world needs folks who wish to push forward into new places and folks who remind us to be cautious. We need tradition and we need innovation.

So I don't want to be too quick to suggest that there is only one way to be in the world. There is a time to turn around and go home when the roadblock appears and there is a time when what is called for is strapping on some rocket-powered skates. A time to hunker down and a time to risk looking stupid. There's also a time to risk failure, and there is even a time to risk missing out on a chance to do something bold. One has to be able to ask "which time is it now?" and to discern the answer.

One's reaction to a roadblock often has to do with temperament. Some people are risk-takers and some people are risk-averse. Some people react almost without thinking to a challenge to their freedom (the "you're not the boss of me" reaction). It also has to do with life stage. Some people mellow with age and some people become emboldened.

And then there's the reality that one's own internal view of the situation is what is truly under one's control even if the external situation is not. One can choose to see a roadblock as a hostile act; one can choose to see a roadblock as an act of nature (whether human or corporate or environmental); one can choose to focus on one's response rather than the block. One can even choose to see oneself as capable of taking a risk even while not normally being much of a risk-taker. Myself, I sometimes have to choose to see myself as capable of walking away instead of putting on the skates and realizing that not everyone needs to do the big bold thing every time. There may actually be a time to risk letting an opportunity slip by. And then to choose not to second-guess myself over it.

Morning Prayer

Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth: We humbly pray that your gracious providence may give and preserve to our use the harvests of the land and of the seas, and may prosper all who labor to gather them, that we, who constantly receive good things from your hand, may always give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

(BCP 207)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Staring at the Ceiling

Today has been one of those down days - rain all day (which we need, so thanks God), tired from hard workout this morning, not much on the schedule, sleepiness setting in.  So instead of a boring reflection  based on my boring state of foggybrainness, here are some pictures of ceilings at the library at Yale.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Do we only feed people who have jobs?

It’s that time of year again - the time leading up to Advent when the lectionary readings get darker and we lose sight of Jesus and his stories in favor of foreboding apocalyptic-sounding speeches, at the same time we start to hear someone singing Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer at the mall.  

It’s that time of profound seasonal disconnect.

This week in Luke, Jesus starts talking almost incomprehensibly about wars and insurrections and false messiahs and the destruction of the temple, and how our relatives are going to betray us in some way, perhaps rounding us up to bring us before some authorities.

And over on the Epistle side, Paul announces what sounds like a mandate to close down all the soup kitchens and food pantries, making us wonder if he knew the story of the feeding of the 5,000 after all and if we should take our contributions back from the Rockdale County Food Pantry, not to mention cancel our harvest basket program.

Thank goodness for Isaiah, although our Bible study class can tell you that Isaiah can preach destruction as well as anybody.

So what’s going on in our readings today?

The gospel and epistle are actually related, in a way.  You see, there was this young church in Thessalonika, a city in Greece, the Roman capital of Macedonia.  It was a community Paul had planted and to whom he wrote the first letter we have in the whole New Testament, only twenty or so years after Jesus’ death.  The folks in the community were particularly concerned about the second coming of Christ.  
This was a great expectation of the Thessalonians, and probably all of the early Christian communities; in Paul’s first letter to them, he goes to some length to explain that their relatives and friends who have died will still be part of the great resurrection when Jesus returns.  They apparently are very concerned, but Paul assures them that they don’t need to worry about that.

But they do need to worry about doing their work within the community and setting a good example.  Paul himself set a good example, working night and day, he says.  The Thessalonians don’t want to be considered some kind of odd sect, he suggests, but they do apparently keep to themselves, so that they do not depend on the outside world.  

But it seems that at least some of the Thessalonians decided that since Jesus was going to come back any minute anyway, and they were all saved anyway, then they’d just sit back and wait in leisure, letting others take care of things.  

Paul had told them in the first letter that no one knew when Jesus would come back - that it would be as a thief in the night - and so they’d better be ready. And so some of them were somewhat compulsively examining every possible clue to see - could this be a sign?  How about that?  Is Jesus back yet, is he, is he, is he?

And so Paul had to write a second letter, in which he reiterates several of his points from the first.  Perhaps he overstated the issue about Jesus’ imminent return - time has passed and Jesus hasn’t come back.  Paul tells them pretty much what Jesus says in Luke today - that the gathering of the faithful will not come before there are some big events that are cosmic in scope.  They won’t be able to miss it.

And meanwhile, he gets on those who are continuing to sit back and wait for the big day without contributing to the community, warning them not to spend their time getting into everybody’s business.   And so he calls down the slackers, which is where our passage today comes in.  

We all are to work to build up the community, not to let everybody else do it while we wait in leisure for Jesus to come back.

So context, context, context.  Paul is not saying that we should not feed the hungry unless they get jobs. That would go against the grain of everything the Old Testament and Jesus are about - caring for the most vulnerable among us - feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, showing hospitality to the resident alien and the traveler.  

That would be like saying we only assist people who do not need help. 

Paul is saying, do your work, don’t be a busybody, don’t sit around and let others take care of you, don’t neglect doing your part in building up the community, because you’re “busy” waiting for Jesus to come and save you.  

For a variety of reasons, the early Christian communities did tend to keep to themselves rather than figure out how to live in the world of already but not yet; they lived somewhat separate from society and took care of their own.

Our world, however, is not very much like the world of first century Roman Macedonia.  We do live in the world, and we are not separated or treated like a funny sect nor are we persecuted.  We have long since come to the understanding that we really don’t have any idea when Jesus is going to come back and so meanwhile we are to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world while we wait.  

We look to Jesus himself for how we are to do that - to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the most vulnerable in the community around us.  Now that the church has become an institution, we have had to figure out how to be for the community outside, how to be for others, how to bring the good news into the world through our actions in the world.  

We are not called to be self-contained and to only care for our own. 

These last couple of days I, along with three delegates from the parish, attended our Diocesan Council, the annual gathering of clergy and lay delegates to attend to the business of the Diocese, to meet and greet our colleagues and co-workers in the larger Episcopal community, and to hear about what the church is doing about being for others, bringing the good news into the world through our actions in the world.  

It is always good to go to Council and see how many wonderful people and ministries we are connected to, to see the ways in which we are able to participate in mission work all over the Diocese and even the world - to be part of things that are much bigger than ourselves, to be part of things we could not do on our own.

We saw wonderful videos and heard presentations about such ministries as Rainbow House, which works with women and their children who have been victims of domestic violence, addiction, and homelessness. 

And The Church of the Holy Comforter, in East Atlanta just off I-20, a place close to my heart, where people who are mentally and physically disabled find a community, something that most mentally ill people simply do not have.  Several churches in the Diocese take turns going to Holy Comforter on Wednesday nights to cook and serve dinner after the Wednesday night Eucharist, to provide not only a meal but friendship with those who are among the friendless and the needy.   

We saw pictures of kids and teens at Camp Mikell and heard from some of the Kids for Peace who spend time there each summer making friends with Muslim and Jewish kids from Jerusalem.  

We heard about the upcoming Christmas celebration at Emmaus House where 1500 children received gifts last year, and were invited to come to downtown Atlanta some Sunday afternoon to worship at the Church of the Common Ground, a church without walls serving the homeless people who live on the streets and parks downtown, not only through worship and Bible study but through a foot clinic.  (Homeless people are on their feet a lot.)

We heard a report from our missionaries in Tanzania, who showed us pictures of the men and women who attend the new seminary there, the children who attend day school and the women who take classes there, too, including the pastor’s wives who often get left behind as their husbands get the education.  We saw the library full of books that people from this Diocese sent by way of one of our own priests.

We were challenged to pony up a few dollars to provide a micro loan through Episcopal Relief and Development so that a woman making only a few dollars a day can start a business that will help her raise herself and her family out of poverty.  In a matter of ten minutes, we raised enough to do that.

And we saw a stewardship video from one of our sister churches, in which an elderly woman explained that when she and her husband were new to town and looking for a church, they drove by one that had a thrift shop attached to it and immediately decided that this would be the right kind of church for them.

I was overwhelmed, as I am every year at our Diocesan Council, of the many relationships and connections we have with one another and all of the good work we are doing all over the Diocese and the world.  It was awesome.  

We are a long way from the early church’s tiny, self-contained, closed communities, and while we all know that institutions can spend a lot of their resources on self-maintenance and even become corrupt, it is also true that through institutions we can deliver many good things to many people in a more efficient manner.  Together, we are stronger than we are alone; together, we can do so much to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  

The church has evolved, it has grown beyond tiny communities anxiously searching the heavens for signs of Jesus’ return and figuring that, hey, they’re saved, so why not sit back, relax, and wait for salvation?  

Since Jesus is taking his time coming back, the church has over time discerned its call to be his hands and feet in the world, not just inside the church but for the whole community, as far as we can reach, and even beyond our own reach, which we are able to do through our being part of the larger community of The Episcopal Church.

There’s great hunger out there; people need to be fed in so many ways.  Families trying to escape poverty, addiction, domestic violence, homelessness need not only food but classes to teach them how to be self-sufficient.  There are mentally ill folks who need dinner on Wednesday nights and who also hunger for friendship and community.  Homeless people need peanut butter sandwiches and also the human touch provided by those who wash their feet and give them clean socks.  Kids hunger for relationships with other kids from all over the world so that they can learn how much they have in common with people of other faiths instead of learning to demonize them.  Young seminarians hunger for theological education so that they can in turn care for their own flocks.  Women in poverty hunger for the means to feed their families and become productive members of their communities. 

Our context, unlike that of the Thessalonians, is this:  There is hunger in our world, hunger of every kind.  And Jesus says, whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.  
Some of this hunger is up to us to work to satisfy.



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