waiting for Jesus – an Advent-season-prayer-a-day, Day 7, Saturday, December 9, 2017

 

Note: Advent, from the Latin, adventus, “coming”, is the Christian season of preparation for Jesus’ birth, the heart of the Christmas celebration, and, according to scripture and the Christian creeds, his second appearance on some future, unknown day and also according to scripture and Christian tradition, his daily coming through the Holy Spirit. Hence, the theme of waiting for Jesus is Advent’s clarion call.

O Lord Jesus, I wait this day for the wonder of Your Wind. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, yes, righteous in the manner of the knowledge of God’s Law, yet aware of his lack of understanding of You and of God, came to You under the cover of night. So, I, by earthly standards, learned and practiced in the fields of theology and ministry, oft lie awake in the small hours of the morning seeking You, awaiting Your coming to comfort me in my waging, warring struggle against the principal question that rages within me: Why, in a world wrought from nothing(1) by Your benevolent-almighty-all-gracious-giving Father’s will, does evil dwell? As You spoke to Nicodemus, so You speak to me: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above…The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”(2) Yea, O Lord Jesus, as I believe, so I know that only inspired by the Wind, inspirited with the breath of Your Spirit can I be…am I reborn so to behold, to know the mind of God and, thus, to know this truth: I, even I am to stand for the light of right in the shadow of wrong. I, even I am to be an active agent for good, lest evil prosper. Amen.

 

Footnotes:
(1) The idea of creatio ex nihilo (Latin, literally, creation out of nothing; as opposed to creatio ex materia, literally, creation out of material, that is, pre-existing elements) postulates that God formed the universe from nothingness.
(2) John 3.3, 8

 

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

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

On the air

There are 300 or so FCC[1]-licensed radio stations in South Carolina. Of them, 50 or so or a healthy 16% of market share are religious (read: Christian);[2] their perspectives tending, trending toward the conservative evangelical end of the theological continuum. The programming runs the gamut of biblical studies, sacred music, both traditional and largely contemporary, church services, especially sermons, and religious oriented talk and news formats, covering topics of local, national, and international interest.

Since February 2015, retiring to South Carolina from Washington, DC (the last nearly 17 years spent on Capitol Hill where everything was within walking distance[3]), I have done more driving. Lots more.

I describe myself (well, one of my self-descriptions) as a religious progressive. I am more suspicious of certainties or declarations of certainty and more trusting in life’s ambiguities. I believe most, perhaps all things are open to doubt and question, even the existence of God and, if not, then, given my ceaseless wrestling with the reality of evil in this world, God’s benevolence. (In all of this, I also believe that if or as God is God, then God can handle, perhaps even welcome my wonderments!) In league with my native (for I’ve been this way for as long as I can recall) propensity to think, then rethink, then think again about any and all things, I once described myself as “flamingly liberal” by which I meant and mean that the older I get my list of “negotiables”, things that are open to review and revision, gets longer and my list of “non-negotiables” grows shorter.

All this is to say that, as I drive, I listen to religious radio, especially those stations whose raison d’être it is to espouse a bedrock of unassailable belief in an immutable God. Why? My reasons, at least those of which I am conscious, are legion.

Mini interior

In the unswerving articulation of Christian conviction, I am confronted, at times convicted in my bewilderments and called to rethink my questions…

In the fundamentalist interpretations of biblical texts, I find myself deepening in my admiration and respect for what I consider a purity of understanding and application of foundational truths. I also marvel at how a text can be interpreted in myriad ways…

In listening to the sacred music, especially olden gospel tunes, I, remembering the melodies taught by my stalwart, sanctified Baptist grandmother, give full-throated assent in song; sometimes, in the face of my doubts, yearning to reclaim what I wish I used to believe…

In a word, I’m happy for the existence and happier still to listen to the many religious radio stations.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Federal Communications Commission

[2] In South Carolina, oft it is said that to throw a rock in any direction is to hit a church building. So, it seems is true of the radio dial, nearly every turn, whether clockwise or counterclockwise, tuning into a religious broadcast.

[3] By “everything, I mean everything – homes and apartments, stores and shops of all sorts, markets and restaurants, doctors and dentists, lawyers and realtors, banks and financial centers, post offices and commercial shipping offices, and in proverbial accord with that 18th century English nursery rhyme, “butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers”, and, when occasion necessitated, two stations on the fine Metro subway system that stretched throughout the DC and near Maryland and near northern Virginia region.

an overheard prayer – a sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter

preachinga sermon based on John 17.6-19 preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, May 17, 2015

What a gospel text! The language flows, like a winding, wandering river, endlessly, seemingly repetitiously, the words falling, perhaps nearly nonsensically, on the human ear. I’m almost tempted to say, “Jesus, you need a better editor!” Or to John the evangelist, “We need a rewrite!” Still, there is a spiritual feast for our partaking, our interpreting, which requires, I think, that we put this passage within its context.

As John the evangelist tells the story, Jesus soon will die at the hands of religious and secular authorities that fear him and his radical, counter-cultural, anti-institutional message of love and justice for all. He gathers with his friends. Eats his last meal with them. Washes their feet. A sign of his life of service among them and an example for them to follow.[1] Gives a final instruction, a new commandment. Not love your neighbor as yourself. At best, an egoistic, self-focused endeavor. Rather, “Love one another as I have loved you”[2] without condition or constraint. Recognizes and empathizes with their sorrow at his departure, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”[3] Offers a last will and testament, promising to be with them (more greatly, more truly than in mere mortal flesh) eternally, spiritually, “I will ask the Father to give you another Advocate to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth.”[4]

praying handsHaving said and done all there is to say and do, Jesus, standing at the threshold of the valley of the shadow of death, now prays to God. First, for himself that he will be true to his chosen destiny.[5] Then for those he loves.

It is here, in today’s gospel, we arrive on the scene. We encounter Jesus on this next to last day of his life in a solitary moment of prayer. Out of respect, we might retreat. But somehow we sense we are being asked, urged to stay and invited to listen. It’s like walking into a room and hearing our beloved talking aloud. Realizing that this is a private moment, we feel like intruders. But our beloved, undisturbed, welcomes our presence, continuing to speak. In this same way, Jesus wants us to hear his prayer, for he prays for us, we who would dare follow him on a life’s journey of love and justice.

What does Jesus pray? In effect, “Now, I lay me down to sleep, to die, I pray you, Lord, the souls of all I love to keep,” interceding, “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world…Holy Father, protect them.”

Protect? From what? The world. Why? Because the world isn’t a safe place.

The Greek kosmos, translated “world,” means neither earth nor creation. Indeed, we speak tenderly about the former in one of our Eucharistic Prayers as “this fragile earth our island home”[6] and gratefully about the latter in the General Thanksgiving of the Daily Office, praising God “for our creation…and all the blessings of this life.”[7] Rather “world” refers to that repeatedly demonstrable reality that this earth, this creation is a realm where evil dwells. Yes, in our lives on earth, in creation there is joy and happiness and, yes, evidences of love and justice. Yet equally, seemingly often overwhelmingly there is enmity and inequality.

At St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill, where I served as rector before retiring earlier this year, we marked our practice of baptism with an ancient Celtic custom: Shutting the Devil’s Door. A symbolic expression of our intention to protect our loved ones from all evil that can and will bring harm. Yes, an impossible task! Yet in the face of the impossible, there are two inherent, immediate responses. One, throwing up our hands in immobilized despair, saying, “We can do nothing!” The other, with the power and perseverance of faith, hope, and love, saying, “We will try harder!”

So, Jesus prays that we be protected from evil. Again, an impossible task. As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminded us over thirty years ago, bad things do happen to good people.[8] And as we are painfully reminded whene’er caught in the poet’s “fell clutch of circumstance”[9] life isn’t fair.

Yet if Jesus’ prayer is only another sobering aide-mémoire – that all our wishful thinking, euphemistically called hope, expressed in our desires in the face of things beyond our control, amounts to nothing; that, as the universe daily runs its course with no conscious care for us, all our bargaining and begging with God, the fates, the powers that be will not, cannot change a thing – if that’s all Jesus is doing, then we would be well off never having overheard his heartfelt, but impotent intercession. Thank you very much, Jesus, for your kindness, but powerless petitions we have aplenty!

But there’s more. Jesus prays that God not only protect us, but also make us holy: “(Holy Father) they” (we) “do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world; sanctify them” (us) “in the truth; your word is truth.” Praying for our protection, Jesus reminds us that we are vulnerable to the evils in this world. Praying for our holiness, Jesus calls us to be faithful.

Holiness. A state of being in, but not of (being “other” than) the world. Being inspirited, empowered by God’s name and with God’s truth (all that can be known about God and our life in God), so that as Jesus was sent into the world with a word of love and justice, spoken through his lips and shown in his life, then we are to be and do likewise.

The kosmos, the world, in the words of Martin Luther, “devils filled,”[10] remains an unsafe place. So unsafe that there are times when I do not want to know the latest news, which often is replete with new stories of old, ancient, I call them, “-ities” (human inequity and human iniquity, and natural calamity) and “-isms” (ageism, racism, sexism, terrorism). For sometimes the effect of the weight of the world’s woes, paraphrasing Luther, “threatens to undo me,” o’erwhelming me with fresh awareness of my impotence and worse numbing, anesthetizing me to my pain, your pain, everyone’s pain.

So, today, I pray: O Jesus, by your Spirit, protect us. Make us holy that we, in the face of all that can and will bring harm, by faith, will continue to do what we can, where we are, with what we have. And through it all, O Jesus, confirm in our hearts this truth:

A mighty fortress (are You) our God, a bulwark never failing;

(You are) our helper amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for (You) hath willed (Your) truth to triumph through us…

The Spirit and the gifts are ours through (You, Lord Jesus) who with us sideth:

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;

The body they may kill: (Your) truth abideth still,

(Your) kingdom is forever.

Amen, amen, and amen.

[1] John 13.1-20

[2] John 13.34

[3] John 14.1

[4] John 14.16

[5] See John 17.1-5

[6] From Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, page 370

[7] From The General Thanksgiving, BCP, page 125

[8] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981)

[9] From William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus

[10] From A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

fair enough (a 10-year old reminds me how we learn) – a personal reflection

question marksPaul…” On a December Sunday morning, “Jocelyn” approached me; her countenance bright with earnest concern, “…my 10-year old daughter, ‘Allison’, doesn’t think she believes in God.”

“Marvelous!”

Really?”

“Yes! It’s marvelous that she shared that with you and that you received it.”

“Thank you. She’s struggling with science and faith, and right now science makes more sense to her.”

“Perfectly understandable. I’d love to talk with her about this.”

“You would?”

“Of course! I live to have these kinds of conversations.”

Within days, Jocelyn sent an email, the subject line: Talking with a 10 year old Uncertain About God!, in which she wrote, in part, “…as I said to you, my daughter has decided that she doesn’t believe in God because she believes in science. Many thanks for your willingness to engage her on a personal level on this important issue with which she is struggling! (And I am glad we go to St. Mark’s where statements like this are not met with hair on fire, wailing, and gnashing of teeth!)”

Tuesday morning, December 23, Jocelyn and Allison, a polite, winsome girl with a ready smile and a preternatural air of self-possession, joined me in my office. Swiftly, a rich conversation ensued.

“Allison, may I ask you why you wonder about God?”

“I’m not sure I can believe in a God in a world with so much evil.”

“Fair enough. When you say ‘evil’, what comes to mind?”

“War, hunger, climate change and storms where people die, Ebola. Things like that.”

“Again, fair enough.” I scribbled on a piece of paper and held it before Allison. “Can you pronounce this word?”

“The-od-i-cy.”

“Yes. Theodicy is the study of why there is evil in a world created by a benevolent God. This is something human beings have wrestled with for centuries. Are you familiar with the story of Job?”

“I think so.”

“Can you tell me the story?”

“It’s about a man who lost everything…family, everything, and it was unfair. He didn’t do anything wrong. He asked God about it, but God didn’t give an answer.”

“Allison,” I marveled, “that’s as fine a retelling as I can imagine of this story of how bad things do happen to good people. Many years ago, I read a book, J.B., by Archibald MacLeish. It’s a play based on the Job story. One of the characters says, ‘If God is God, God is not good, and if God is good, God is not God.’ In other words, if God is all-powerful, God must not be good because God allows evil, and if God desires the best for the creation, God must not be powerful enough to make it happen. Does that make sense to you?”

“Yes, that’s really the question I’m wondering about.”

“Once again, fair enough. Let me ask you another question. Who or what is God for you?”

“God is a person…a being far away and above us.”

“OK.” Again, I scribbled on a sheet of paper. “Allison, forgive my poor drawing skills! Here is a three-level picture of the universe. This,” I pointed to the middle, “is the Earth, this,” sliding my finger to the top of the page, “is heaven, which is above the Earth, and,” running my finger to the bottom of the page, “this is the underworld where people go when they…”

“Die?”

“Yes, thank you. This is an ancient depiction of the universe. So, if we believed in this model, to find God we would look up. But I think we know that right now if we look up all we would see is the ceiling. So, what if God could be found all around us? What do you think about that?”

Allison, looking at me intently, shrugged. “What does that mean?”

“OK. What do you think God is like?”

“I want God to be loving and kind and fair.”

“I like your God. I want that, too. Suppose I told you that whenever you experienced love and kindness and fairness from others or in yourself toward others, there is God. Does that make sense?”

“That’s a nice way to think about it. Um, I’ll have to think about it, though.”

I smiled. “And again I say, fair enough. Allison, one thing I would like you always to do.”

“What’s that?”

“Hold on to your questions. Keep them. Treasure them. Because anyone can answer a question. For example, I could ask you a question and you could answer it, and then I could repeat your answer to your mother who had asked me the same thing. But it wouldn’t mean I really knew or understood the answer. At the same time, whatever questions you, your mother, or I ask, they reveal what interests or concerns and worries us. Our questions, in a way our answers cannot, say a lot about who we are. So, please don’t stop asking questions.”

“OK. I won’t.”

Again, I smiled. “That’s fair enough.”