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.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 33, Friday, April 7, 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 what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions:[1] O Jesus, oft I have pondered Your Apostle’s word, wondering what would…what could be lacking in Your suffering for my sake; and, in my wondering, worrying that were there to be something lacking, making Your sacrifice somewhat, somehow less efficacious, then where would I be, who would I be without the grace of Your salvation?

Then I recalled what Your Apostle hath written in another place about my being a child of Abba, Your Father, my Father, and thus an heir with You in salvation providing that I, too, suffer with You for the sake and in the service of others.[2]

Ah, O Jesus, is this, at least, in part, Your meaning of taking up my cross and following You?[3]

I pray You, O Jesus, speak to me through Your Spirit that I may know the truth of it. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] See Colossians 1.21-24 (my emphasis): And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him; provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

[2]See Romans 8.15b-17 (my emphasis): When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ; if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

[3] See Matthew 16.24, Mark 8.34, and Luke 9.23. See also a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 27, On following Jesus and bearing my cross

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 27, Friday, March 31, 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 following Jesus and bearing my cross:[1] O Jesus, You call me to follow You daily and daily to take up my cross;[2] as Yours, one of suffering self-denial and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. O Jesus, though I delight that, by Your merit, You esteem me worthy to walk in Your Way, Your Truth, Your Life, You know that I fear and, for the sake of my self-preservation, would flee any hardship. By Your Spirit, continue to fill my heart with Your Love[3] that, in its perfection, casts out all my fear on this and any day and unto the day of my judgment.[4] Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Previous posts of a-Lenten-prayer-a-day concerning following Jesus: day 11, Monday, March 13, 2017, On following Jesus & repentance; day 12, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, On following Jesus; day 13, Wednesday, March 15, 2017, On following, not worshiping Jesus

[2] See Matthew 16.24, Mark 8.34, and Luke 9.23 (Luke’s version of this Jesus-saying adds the word “daily”): Jesus said, “If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Me.”

[3] Here, I refer to Romans 5.5, where the Apostle Paul alludes to an aspect of the ministry of the Holy Spirit: …God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

[4] Here, I have in mind 1 John 4.16b-18a (my emphasis): God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 26, Thursday, March 30, 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 my one, mine only one consoling thought: O Blessed Trinity, I take heart in this one, mine only one consoling thought: Your Changeless Faithfulness…

For I am neither changeless nor faithful…

Throughout my days, e’en with the best of my intentions, I find myself failing to do the things that I ought to do and flourishing[1] in doing those things that I ought not to do and, in both, falling prey to manifold temptations. Some new. Most old. This latter, these olden compulsions, I (I must confess) know all too well; for, o’er time and through my experience, well-rehearsed have they been and have become …

In (all!) this, I find myself falling short, well (truly, unwell!) short of progress toward the good, Your Good…

In a word, O Blessed Trinity, if I were to reckon myself changeless, then it is in the faithfulness of my unfaithfulness to You…

Thus, daily, I must sing:

Great is Thy faithfulness…

There is no shadow of turning with Thee;

Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not

As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.[2][3]

To which I alway then say: amen, amen, amen!

Footnotes:

[1] Here, I use the word “flourishing” not in the good sense of prospering or thriving, but rather to connote my accomplishing or succeeding in the doing of those things that I ought not to do.

[2] Words by Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960)

[3] When I contemplate God’s unfailing “compassions”, I am led to read and reflect on the Epistle to the Romans. To wit: I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand…Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord…There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words…What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us (Romans 7.21, 24-25a, 8.1, 26, 31-34; my emphases). I marvel at this truth: That when I most condemn myself for my unfaithfulness, the One Who can condemn me unto eternity is the One Who already has saved me!