under a threatening cloud of nuclear annihilation, a Christian prayer

nuclear cloud

O God, Your Apostle Paul hath testified that all authority, e’en that of the agents of governance of worldly principalities, flows from the Font of Your Power.[1]

With fervent faith, I pray, too, that Your Wisdom wend its way into the minds and hearts, souls and spirits of all leaders that they can and will build bridges of common care, paving paths of peace that all Your children of Your creation may dwell in safety.

For, today, on “this fragile earth, our island home”,[2] men – the “Leader of the Free World” and the “Supreme Leader” (though You both are alway and in all ways), with the ad hominem bombast of “Rocket Man”[3] and “dotard”[4] – wield weapons of hostile intent threatening decimation, each of the other, and of Your world.

Into this cauldron of roiling vanities, this hubris-stirred maelstrom of wounded honor-shame, pour Your balm of Gilead, the sweetness of Your solace;[5] that we may walk back from the dread precipice of war to face a future, though, yea, uncertain, that bears the possibility of continued existence and, dare I hope, armistice.

Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares (1959), Evgeniy Viktorovich Vuchetich (1908-1974), United Nations Art Collection

And, O God, I pray, in the words of Your Prophet Isaiah, that You ceaselessly call us to come unto the mountain, the holy hill of Your Presence that we may learn of You, walking in Your paths, beating our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks, lifting no weapon against another, and learning war no more.[6]

All this, by the breath of the Holy Spirit in the Name of Jesus, I beseech You. Amen.

 

 

Illustration: Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares (1959), Evgeniy Viktorovich Vuchetich (1908-1974), United Nations Art Collection

Footnotes:

[1] See Romans 13.1

[2] From The Holy Eucharist, Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, page 370

[3] Donald Trump’s derisive reference to Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea

[4] Kim Jong Un’s derisive reference, meaning a senile old person, to Donald Trump

[5] See Jeremiah 8.22, 46.11, 51.8

[6] A reference to Isaiah 2.3a, 4bc

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still more on God waiting…

Hosea is one of my favorite Hebrew scripture prophets. Courageously, faithfully, he went into the dire circumstance into which God called him.

The kingdom of Israel, also known as Ephraim, of the 8th century Before the Common Era, was in gravest tumult. Many of the people had turned away from the worship of God, threatening domestic solidarity. Royal politics were in upheaval; the secure succession from king to king violently disrupted by a series of internecine assassinations and usurpations. At the borders, foreign armies were poised to strike.

The Prophet Hosea (1309-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319), Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta, Siena, Italy

In one particular passage, Hosea speaks of an aggrieved God withdrawing from the people “until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face.”[1] The people, in desperation in their rapidly deteriorating national situation, seek divine deliverance, crying, “Come, let us return to the Lord!”[2] and bringing to God the proper and prescribed ritual observances. But God requires something more than perfunctory sacrifice prompted by suffering: “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early.”[3] God wants, God waits for the people to bear in their living “steadfast love, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not burnt-offerings.”[4]

Though this prophetic word was uttered nearly 3000 years ago, it remains for me singularly compelling. Every day, every moment of the day, God wants, God waits for me, to use an image of my namesake, the Apostle Paul, to offer the living sacrifice[5] of steadfast love, constant devotion to God and benevolence toward all people, and the knowledge of God, active, unassailable faith in God’s presence and power.

As I cannot attempt this on my own (verily, even my awareness of what God wants of me and waits for me to bear is a revelation to me of the work of the Holy Spirit on my consciousness), in the words of the spiritual, every day, every moment of the day, may I learn to sing, to pray:

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.

Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me,

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.[6]

 

Illustration: The Prophet Hosea (1309-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319), Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta, Siena, Italy

Footnotes:

[1] Hosea 5.15

[2] Hosea 6.1

[3] Hosea 6.4

[4] Hosea 6.6

[5] I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.1-2, my emphasis). Note: Paul uses the Greek sómata (translated into English as “bodies”), which means the whole of one’s being or self – mind and heart, soul and spirit.

[6] Words (1926) by Daniel Iverson (1890-1977)

the debt and duty of Love

Epiphany 1-22-17a sermon, based principally on Romans 13.8-14 and secondarily on Matthew 18.15-20, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 10, 2017

Owe no one anything, except to love one another…put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

LOVE

According to the Apostle Paul, the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus were…are about self-sacrificial, unconditional love. By “love”, it is alway important to remind ourselves, we are not talking about our affections or our emotions, which, at best, are ephemeral, but rather active benevolence that seeks not only to do no harm, but also to do good for others. And Jesus demonstrated his love for us in dying on a cross for the sake of our everlasting redemption. And we, being redeemed, are called to embrace, to embody this same love.

But let’s be honest. There’s a mighty difference, distance between this declaration of the Christian ethic – owe no one anything except love – and our doing it. For we, in this life in this world, have manifold obligations. In a word, we owe lots of things. To our chiefest relationships, we owe our fidelity. To America, our loyalty. To the letter and spirit of the law, our conformity. To our word as our bond, our reliability. To our creditors, money. And, yes, to others and to ourselves, we owe our integrity.

Yet Paul, though exceedingly aware of the ultra-hierarchical-and-patriarchal first century Roman culture where all owed honor to the emperor, debtors owed service to their benefactors, wives and children, submission to their husbands and fathers, and slaves, their lives to their masters, does not say, “In addition to your attention to these obligations, love one another.” No! Owe no one anything except love.

And we Christians in whatever era are called to take this seriously. Though impractical, as it always is, in a world of unavoidable, indispensable obligations set on the real-life terra firma of our relationships, roles and responsibilities, it is not impossible. For if it is, then Christianity is a story to be told and not a life to be lived. Yet I don’t believe that Jesus lived and died and was raised from the dead simply to tell a tale that might be considered in some circles “fake news.”

And to take this seriously, I believe, is to believe that the debt and duty of love are supreme, superseding all else. In everything, we are to love. With everyone, we are to love. We are to see in every face of everyone – whatever their age, color or culture, race or religion, status or stations of life, philosophies or theologies, perspectives or prejudices, and whether they sin not or sin against us[1] – those whom God created, those for whom Jesus died, and those whom the Holy Spirit sends our way to love.

And neither Paul nor Jesus tell us how, in the daily, concrete circumstances of our lives, we are to embrace, embody unconditional love in our thinking and feeling, intending and acting, and “binding and loosing”,[2] which is another way to describe establishing and maintaining our personal, relational boundaries. That’s for each of us to discern and decide. Nevertheless (and, with judicious restraint, rarely do I employ what I consider to be the sacred trinity of heavily morally weighted and freighted words, however as we are talking about the Christian ethic, I will), we must, ought, should discern and decide how to do love, indeed, how to be love.

Why?

Foremost because scripture tells us that love is God,[3] love is the gospel of Jesus,[4] love is the principal fruit of the Holy Spirit.[5] God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, thus, we are all about love! And, in existential terms, because we live in a polarized America. The conflagrations of culture and race that raged through the founding of our nation, through the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras, through the Civil Rights Era, I had hoped and prayed, if not wholly resolved, had abated. Yet now we see the public and palpable, alway divisive and destructive resurgence of cultural and racial hatred. As there is no other time than the present of now, now is the time to owe no one anything except love.

 

Footnotes:

[1] A reference to Matthew 18.15-20, the day’s appointed gospel passage.

[2] Another reference to Matthew 18.15-20.

[3] Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4.8, my emphasis).

[4] Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you (John 15.12, my emphasis).

[5] The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5.22-23a, my emphasis).

a restless prayer in perilous times

my-hands-2-27-17O Lord, our God, our times are perilous; our days o’ershadowed by threat of war, our nights, enshrouded by fear of what sorrow, whether on this land or half a world away, may befall before next light. Rocketry’s spears aim skyward, targets in sight, tipped with bombs; the only purpose of launch to rain doom and death. Leaders, comme des enfants terribles, trumpeting infantile bellicose threats of annihilation, disfigure the face of diplomacy and threaten to make nonviolent, even if uneasy resolution less an imagined ideal and more an impossibility.

O Lord, our God, though You ne’er herald our liberty from all trial and tribulation nor that our hearts ne’er will be made anxious by what transpires in time and space at the hands of despotic human wills, You alway assure, come what may, come whene’er, as Your Apostle saith, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from (Your) love in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[1] By Your Spirit, O Lord, our God, speaking, breathing through us “with sighs too deep for words,”[2] let us pray for Your presence and power to cleave to the impregnable peace of this Your eternal promise.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Romans 8.38-39

[2] Romans 8.26

reputation

Trinity Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

On January 10, 1989, I was installed as rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Washington, DC. The presider at that grand occasion was the then Bishop of Washington, the late, great John Thomas Walker.[1]

John Thomas Walker

John, a man of abiding faith and unassailable courage, was an institutional and social reformer of the first order; waging the good fight of inclusion in a church and a world that then wrestled, and sadly still grapples, at times, unrepentantly, with the issues, the realities of discrimination of all sorts. Though having risen to a lofty position, John, genuinely humble, did not think of himself, in the words of the Apostle, more highly than he ought.[2] He also was exceedingly insightful and gracious; able to make his point with a subtle turn of phrase and an earnest smile and without bludgeoning the hearts and minds of those with whom he disagreed (a characteristic mournfully missing from today’s American public political and ecclesial arenas).

This last noble trait comes to mind. During my installation, John, discerning (and keen to temper) my then overweening sense of self, whispered in my ear, “Remember, Paul, one’s good reputation in the eyes of the world is oft maintained by the silence of family and friends.” I recall being taken aback, not sure entirely what he meant, yet sensing an inner resonance of truth. O’er the years, many times, I’ve reflected on John’s good counsel. Indeed, those who know, for better and for worse, one’s behind-the-scenes persona, by their reticence, serve to uphold one’s best-foot-forward public image. And, a long time ago, I added “the silence of one’s enemies”, who, I believe, view us sometimes with a less than charitable clear-eyed honesty than our families and friends.

A friend and fellow priest, Rob Brown, recently shared a perception he had received from another, which I, in pondering, consider searingly, starkly spot-on: “Everyone has three selves. A public self known to the world, a private self known by kith and kin, and a secret self known only to one’s self.”

Speaking always and only for myself, this is true for me. I have a public face, which, though I’d like to believe in major part is sincere, is an outward expression of how I’d like to be viewed by others. I have a private face, which exposes more of my shadow-world, my ignoble traits, chiefly selfishness. And, yes, I have a secret self of thoughts and feelings, reflections and reminiscences to which I dare not give air and, deeper, those that are beyond the reach of my daily consciousness, appearing in the startling, scarifying images of dreams, nightmares. In this, how well I know, how oft I pray the words of the psalmist: Who can detect their errors? Cleanse me from my hidden faults.[3]

I wonder, too, as I look at myself in the mirror, knowing all that I know about me, including my awareness of what may lurk unseen and unknown within, how do I, who can maintain no silence from myself, preserve my good reputation with myself? In this, how well I know, how oft I pray the words of my namesake Apostle: I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?[4] And, in this, believing, knowing I cannot maintain my good reputation, for I have none, I, throwing myself afresh on the grace and mercy of a loving God, sing with Paul: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord![5]

 

Footnotes:

[1] The Right Reverend John Thomas Walker (1925-1989), Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (1977-1989) and Dean of the Washington National Cathedral (1978-1989).

[2] Romans 12.3

[3] Psalm 19.12

[4] Romans 7.21-24

[5] Romans 7.25

Paul’s (not my, but the Apostle’s!) law

1-22-17 a sermon, based on Romans 7.15-25 and Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017

“When I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

Portrait of the Apostle Paul

I wish Paul had written autobiographically. Only for himself. Only about himself. But, no. Paul reflects on an aspect of our universal human experience, so constant in occurrence and comprehensive in influence that he calls it “a law.” Overlooking the potential confusion he creates by using “law” in multiple ways, his point is simply, profoundly this: We can’t keep the law!

The law. Guiding, governing rules that frame our lives and focus our living; whether the Mosaic law, Paul’s particular point of reference, or another set of precepts transcendent in origin, spiritual in scope or natural laws deduced from keen observation about the way things are in the world around us or some philosophical ethical civil code. Whatever. It doesn’t matter what the law is. For in our efforts to follow it, we repeatedly discover that we, in practice, according to the prayer, following “the devices and desires of our own hearts”,[1] won’t keep the law!

Here is the power of the law. It’s a two-edged sword, simultaneously cutting both ways. The law points to a higher truth, whether God or some honored virtue; enabling us to imagine it and, striving to do good, reach for it. And, as we always fail to do good always, the law reveals, exposes our inherent capacity to do what is not good, indeed, what is sinful.

Hence, here is the paradox of the law. It’s our finest dream and worst nightmare; a useful tool and a weighty burden.

I believe that everyone – whether individual, family, community, nation, me! – experiences this blessing and bane of the law.

Speaking for myself, as I age, I am clearer, nearly by the day, about the person I want to be and become. Wise. Knowledgeable about the world. Understanding. Able to apply that knowledge in the concrete circumstances of my daily living. Passionate for justice. Compassionate. Loving and patient, especially with those with whom I disagree. However, the more I behold who I want to be I also see how often I don’t reach for it, but rather retreat to the known and narrow confines of my present perspectives and prejudices. “When I want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

I think of historically battle-scarred lands and peoples where the long, mutually recognized “good” of justice and peace is overshadowed by intractable conflict fraught and fought with the endless sins of generational resentment, rage, and revenge. “When humans want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

I think of America. Once again, we have celebrated our nation’s birth. In recalling our founding principles, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”, we are reminded afresh and our honesty compels our confession of how far short we fall in guaranteeing these rights to all. We are a nation of enormous wealth where poverty resists resolution; making Jesus’ observation, “You always have the poor with you”,[2] stubbornly, sorrowfully true. We are a nation increasingly pluralistic where bigotry continues to raise its ugly head and to cry out in angry voice resisting the spirit of universal tolerance. “When we want to do good, evil lies close at hand.”

Whether the scale is large or small, whether the scope is personal, communal, national, or international, the same dis-ease infects and afflicts us all. Paul is right, “wretched” we are!

Here’s some good news. Whenever we come anew to this realization, we can cry with Paul, hoping there’s an answer, “Who will rescue us from this body – that is, this inherent, inescapable way of our living in this world – of death!” Whenever we ask that question, we can sing with Paul, knowing there’s an answer. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” We with Paul praise God for Jesus, who, through his life and ministry, death and resurrection redeems us that through him we can fulfill the law!

This, I think, I believe, is what Jesus means: “Come to me, all you weary and heavy burdened…” Referring to the manifold stipulations of the Mosaic Law and any legal code, hard to remember, harder to do, Jesus offers in their place, one law, his law, his love. “Take my yoke (my love) upon you and learn (to love) from me…For my yoke (of love) is easy, my burden (of love) is light.”[3]

Double yoke for oxen, Musée de la civilisation à Québec

 

Illustrations:

Saint Paul, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Double yoke for oxen, Musée de la civilisation à Québec

Footnotes:

[1] From the Confession of Sin, Morning Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 41

[2] John 12.8

[3] Matthew 11.29a, 30, my parenthetical and italicized additions

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 36, Tuesday in Holy Week, April 11, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On a day’s reflection on the restlessness of yesterday’s early morn: O Lord, I feel afresh my frailty. I, whether joined with others or alone, do not have the wealth of strength or sense or substance to serve all of my sisters and brothers, whether near or far, in great and grave need. Yet I remember the words of Your Son, my Savior Jesus, “You always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”[1]

O Lord, through Your Spirit, alway pour Your Love into my heart[2] that I have kindness for those who suffer and that I may be kind, doing whatever I can with whatever resources I have at whatever occasion arises for whomever is in need.

By Your same Spirit, O Lord, lead me and guide me to believe and to trust in You that You, with whatever I offer, great or small, all of which You first have given to me, will bring good fruit.[3] Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Mark 14.7. To view and interpret this saying in its context (see Mark 14.1-9), this was Jesus’ response to those who were angry at what they considered the waste of costly ointment with which a woman had anointed him. They had professed a desire to have sold it and the money given to the poor. Jesus prophetically perceived that he had been anointed for his burial following his soon coming crucifixion and death. In his recognition and acceptance of his destiny (see the full verse [my emphasis]: “You always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me”), he graciously received the gift of the woman’s kindness.

Here, as I employ and pray this Jesus-saying, I recall that over generations some have interpreted this verse to suggest that as the poor always are present nothing need be done to help them insofar as poverty is an insuperable condition of life in this world. I, rather, believe that the ever-presence of sisters and brothers who are poor and the systems and institutions of avarice that create and maintain economic imbalances constitute a constant call to render sacrificial service to, for, and with those in need. To put this another way and succinctly, the “whenever” to show kindness is always!

[2] See Romans 5.1-5 (my emphases): Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Concerning “sufferings”, the Apostle Paul most likely refers, specifically, to the trials he endured in his life’s vocation of spreading the gospel and, generally, to the tribulations common to any human life. Regarding the latter, I include the sympathy one can have for another undergoing suffering.

[3] Here, I think of the spiritual and material principle that undergirds the Apostle Paul’s teaching about the primacy (or rather its lack, for only God is supreme!) of those who seek to do God’s will and work: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3.6-7).

I also am put in mind of John the evangelist’s version of the feeding of the 5000 (6.1-14), particularly verses 5-11 (my emphasis), which bears a detail the other evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not: When (Jesus) looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

In the face of manifold need, I often feel (indeed, I am!) like that boy; my provisions and resources of self and substance being woefully meager. Yet, by my faith in God, I trust that God, Who has given me whatever I have to offer, will use whatever I have to offer.