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

More on public prayer

On each of the past two weekends, here, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla and I have had the pleasure of hosting and housing a bride, her maid of honor and her bridesmaids.

On both occasions, on Saturday morning, in the serving of breakfast, whilst expeditiously ushering hot plates of freshly and lovingly (that is, Pontheolla-) prepared culinary fare to the table, I was brought to an abrupt and dutiful halt by the voice of prayer – the bride and her entourage, with hands joined and heads bowed, sharing in supplications to God…

On each occasion, though different the groups in nearly every ostensible social category, in their eloquent prayers, I found, I heard a striking similitude – if I had to (and I will!) characterize – of praise to God for being God, of thanksgiving to God, the Giver of all gifts, especially life and love, and of oblation to God in the offering of themselves in service to glorify God and to edify all whose lives they touched.

As both groups were 20-and-30-somethings, I offered to God a silent prayer of gratitude for the gift of renewed hope for the next generation, which these women, to a person, embodied.

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a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 28, Saturday, April 1, 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 beholding the Image of God’s new creation: O Lord, all that is, yea, too, humankind is fashioned in Your Image, even more, redeemed by Your Son, still more, through Your Spirit, made a new creation.[1]

Yet, for the longest time, at least for me and at least much of the time, I found it hard to see Your Countenance in the faces of others, verily, too, in the face I beheld in my mirror…

confess - regret

For, despite Your creating, saving, sanctifying work, I, oft trusting more (most? only?) in my observation and opinion, continued to regard others and myself from a human point of view of judgment as alway failing, falling short of Your will.[2]

Today, I, in my being entire – my mind and heart, soul and spirit – am convicted of my sin of denying Your goodness and grace.

In my repentance, I give You thanks for being granted new eyes to see others and myself as You see us.

In this, I also need praise You for Your merciful, infinite patience with me. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] See 2 Corinthians 5.17-18a: (The Apostle Paul writes) So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ.

[2] See 2 Corinthians 5.14-16a (my emphasis): For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view. Note: The Greek, kata sarka, here, translated “human point of view”, literally means “according to flesh”, which, in light of the Apostle Paul’s theology, as I interpret it, connotes more than human perception, but rather the inherent opposition of sinful flesh to God’s work in and through the Spirit. Thus, to view others, indeed, myself, as I write in my prayer “from a human point of view of judgment” is to perceive all things and everyone “as alway failing, falling short of (God’s) will.” So, again, I thank God for being given new eyes to see life and creation, others and myself no longer (not only) from “a human point of view” of judgment, but rather, as God sees, with mercy and grace!

innocence lost

a sermon, based on Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7 and Matthew 4.1-11, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017

Innocence lost…

So I interpret this second creation story in the Book of Genesis.[1] The man and woman are confronted by a wily serpent scheming to disrupt the perfect life of guiltless and shameless nakedness, happiness with self and harmony with God. Falling prey to temptation, they partake of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Immediately, they recognize their nakedness, and, no longer, no more at ease with their vulnerability, immediately they cover themselves.

the-fall-and-expulsion-from-the-garden-1426-1427-masaccio-1401-1428

And so, ever since, for all humankind, it has been. None of us dare go nakedly vulnerable, literally or metaphorically, into the public square. There is too very much at stake. Our sense of safety and security. The experiences of others teach us and our experiences tell us (something the first man and woman, newly created, didn’t have!) that other people can and will hurt us. So, it is best that we don the mask, wear a façade lest we reveal too much of ourselves…

A common, daily scenario, verily, the social convention governing a chance, passing encounter between friends:

Me (I don’t feel so well): Hi, how are you?

You (you don’t feel so well): Hi! Fine! How are you?

Me: Fine! Have a great day!

You: You, too! Have a great day!

Me: Bye!

You: Bye!

All because we parade the pretense of our well-being, lest we reveal too much. Or have you ever experienced that awkward series of moments when a friend asked, “How are you?” You, not feeling so grand, demur, “Well…” Your friend, sensing something deeper, some state of your dis-ease, presses, “Really, how are you?” You, torn, desiring to be open and authentic, but not sure of the invitation and sure that you desire not to be a burden, again, demur, “Oh…I’m alright.” Your friend, now convinced all is not okay, offers the encouragement, “Please, tell me.” You, relieved, divulge your deepest worries and woes, only to be met, almost immediately, by the eyes of your friend glazing over in retreat. And all because we humans largely have lost our capacity for fullest self-disclosure and acceptance of another.

Would that it would stop there, but it doesn’t. It never does. For, as the Apostle Paul saith, “Now we look in a mirror, dimly”,[2] unable to see and know ourselves clearly, fully.

How is it, then, that we reclaim our innocence so to live with naked, shameless transparent vulnerability, viewing life with eyes wide in wonder, not in fear?

One way to read and interpret the Bible’s Jesus-story is to see it as a paradigm, a model for our lives…

As Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove upon him,[3] we, as followers of Jesus, baptize, presenting lives to be washed in the waters of baptism and praying the bestowal of the Holy Spirit.

the-baptism-of-jesus-bapteme-de-jesus-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

And as Jesus, after his baptism, “was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mark, in his recount of Jesus’ baptism, writes more forcefully, “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness”,[4] clearly giving indication that this was to be no proverbial joy-ride or blissful moment in solitary retreat!), so Lent calls us to enter the inner wilderness of our souls.

jesus-tempted-in-the-wilderness-jesus-tente-dans-le-desert-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Wilderness. Where, in its naked bleakness, all things, we are laid bare to our own eyes and we can ourselves as we are.

Whether we view Jesus’ wrestling with the devil as a struggle with an objectifiable, outward enemy or an inner battle between conflicting desires, one thing remains true. Jesus was forced to face himself, to know himself, to confess and possess all of himself. Courage and cowardice. Humility and hubris. Longing for peace with God and lust for earthly power. Then he could begin his ministry.

So, I believe it is for us. And, as my namesake, the Apostle Paul, oft gave examples so that his readers would know of what he spoke,[5] so I, in the light and shadow my experience, do the same today…

When I think of God’s grace in my life, I rejoice in the Spirit-gift I have been given to love you with affection, yes, yet more, with the benevolence of kindness through which I will to do the best for you. Still, I am prideful. I have few abilities, but one (I think!) is the power to think thoughts, deeply. Now, in this, is it possible that I, thinking less well of how you think about an issue or subject or concern, might be tempted, indeed, might fall prey to the temptation to be disappointed with you and to treat you less lovingly, less than as an equal? Yes! Yet knowing I cannot relinquish what I have not possessed, it has been through my soulful wilderness experience that I have beheld this aspect of my being, named and claimed it as my own, and, therefore, have been able to offer it, relinquish it to the Holy Spirit that I might be free of the burden of its influence.

In this holy season of Lent, we, again I say, are summoned into the wilderness of our souls, where all things are laid bare and can be seen as they are. Where we can face ourselves and know all of our selves.

What do you see?

 

Illustrations:

The Fall and Expulsion from the Garden (1426-1427), Masaccio (1401-1428)

The Baptism of Jesus (Baptême de Jésus) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Jésus tenté dans le désert) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Footnotes:

[1] See Genesis 2.4-3.24

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.12

[3] See Matthew 3.13-17

[4] Mark 1.12 (my emphasis). The Greek, ekballei, is better translated “thrusts forth”, which, I think, more than “drove”, indicates the force of the Spirit’s coercion that Jesus enter the wilderness for what was to be a harrowing experience.

[5] See, for example, Paul’s 1 Corinthians 12 discourse on spiritual gifts, especially verses 8-10, 28.

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 1, Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17 Note: 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 the incomprehensibility of the Divine:[1] O God, I do not understand You. The grace of Your Love, granting unto me a salvation that I do not, that I cannot merit, verily, that I think, that I believe impossible for me, and the mercy of Your Love withholding from me the righteous judgment that I, in my sin, deserve, is beyond my comprehension. You are beyond my comprehension. As Your prophet Isaiah declares, Your ways are higher than my ways and Your thoughts than my thoughts,[2] so my greatest imagining, my grandest thought of You, like a sightless, errant arrow falls far short, ne’er a threat to draw near to Your goodness and glory. Nevertheless, though You remain beyond the sight and reach of my reason, You, in Your love, ever stand within the light and grasp of my faith; a faith, which by Your Spirit you grant me, to trust in You. In that faith, in that trust, I give You thanks, always and in all ways. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] Over many years, I have pondered the words of The Creed of Saint Athanasius, which reads in part: “…the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance…The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible…there are not three incomprehensibles…but…one incomprehensible…” Each time, though drawing no nearer to understanding, all I can say is “Amen.”

[2] See Isaiah 55.8-9

here, by the grace of God, are we

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 6.20-31, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, November 6, 2016

According to legend, John Bradford,[1] a 16th century English reformer, destined to be imprisoned in the Tower of London and burned at the stake by Queen Mary Tudor, watching a group of prisoners being led to their executions, observed, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.” Thereby, he gave to succeeding generations a succinct statement of righteous recognition that another’s misfortune could be one’s own if not for divine blessing, more particularly, that one’s providence is in God’s hands, and, more generally, that one’s fate is not, is never entirely in one’s control, but alway subject to circumstance and chance.

Growing up, I often heard my father, when speaking of those amidst life’s travails, quietly comment, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Later, as a student of scripture, I realized that John Bradford, my father, and countless others had paraphrased Paul’s gratitude for having been called to be an apostle after having persecuted the followers of Jesus: “By the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”[2]

This spirit of righteous recognition is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”[3]

all-saints-albrecht-durer-1511

Today, we observe All Saints’ Day;[4] “saint” being a New Testament title for a Christian.[5] Today is our annual reminder that we, throughout the year, are to “sing a song of the saints of God,”[6] commemorating those of bygone days “who from their labors rest…who…by faith before the world confessed th(e) Name (of) Jesus[7] and those who “lived not only in ages past,”[8] including us in our time who follow Jesus and those not yet born who, known only in the mind of God, will proclaim Jesus as Savior and Lord in generations to come.

In Christian tradition, our heroines and heroes are those like the first apostles[9] who were martyred, though threatened with death, refusing to renounce their faith in Jesus or like Mother, now St. Teresa of Kolkata who demonstrated an especial degree of holiness of life and kindness for the living and the dying or like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., who lived and died for the cause of justice. Yes, they and more are worthy of honor as saints of God.

Yet we dare stand, do stand with them in saintly light because they, as we, were human. All, as we, flawed. All, as we, falling short of the glory of God.[10] All, as we, poor, impoverished in every way, except being perfect in imperfection. All, as we, Jesus calls blessed!

Let us, included among the saints, pay close attention to Jesus, who speaks to us, saying, “you that listen.” Listening to his declaration of discipleship, let us, on this All Saints’ Day, reenlist as saints, committing ourselves to do as Jesus commands: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you…”

This is radical! As in the Latin radix, “root”, in a spiritual sense, meaning a return to the origin of things, going back to the way God intended from the dawn of creation. And, let’s be honest, in an existential sense, radical as in extreme, even crazy; beyond the reach of reason, surpassing any sane expectation!

Yet Jesus’ declaration is a description of who a saint is and what a saint does. Jesus’ declaration is a description of saints who pray and saints who work, here and now, in this life, in this world to fulfill the prayer, “Our Father…Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Even more, Jesus’ declaration is a description of God’s nature, who God is and, still more, the way God treats us! God loves us, does good to us, blesses us – with the miracle of life, health, and strength; minds to think and dream, hearts to feel and love; the majesty of creation, the earth, our island home set in the ever-expanding sea of infinite galaxies; the marvel of families and friends to share life’s joys and sorrows – even when we are enemies of God, whether in ignorance failing or knowing, yet refusing to do God’s will.

Against a world continually rife with violence, against our American political scene sullied with the vilification of parties and the demonization of persons, Jesus’ declaration of saintly living stands in razor-sharp contrast. On this All Saints’ Day, as we remember those in ages past, we, for here, by the grace of God, are we as God’s saints in our day, are called to do God’s will and thus bequeath a legacy of righteousness for those to come.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: All Saints, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Footnotes:

[1] John Bradford (1510–1555)

[2] 1 Corinthians 15.10

[3] In the parallel text of Matthew (5.3), Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (my emphasis); being those who know their inherent lack of power to secure their futures, much less save themselves from eternal death and thus who know their daily, constant need for God. Luke refuses to spiritualize our human deficiency, viewing poverty as the scarcity of resources in every dimension of human existence; spiritual, yes, but also physical, intellectual, and material.

[4] Since the 10th century of the Common Era, observed in the western Christian Church on November 1.

[5] For example, see Romans 1.7, 1 Corinthians 1.2, 2 Corinthians 1.1, Ephesians 1.1, Philippians 1.1, Colossians 1.2.

[6] From the hymn, I sing a song of the saints of God, words by Lesbia Scott (1898-1986), The Hymnal 1982, #293.

[7] Paraphrasing words of William Walsham How (1823-1897), from the hymn, For all the saints, The Hymnal 1982, #287.

[8] Scott, verse 3

[9] See Stephen’s story in Acts 6-7. See also Acts 12.2: King Herod killed the Apostle James with a sword. According to legend, all of the apostles, save John who was exiled, died violently.

[10] Romans 3.23

preponderant prodigality – a Lenten reflection

Looking again at the Parable of the Prodigal, it occurs to me that the protagonists, all three, are prodigal – outrageously profligate, extravagantly wasteful.

The younger son improvidently requests his inheritance, in effect, crassly wishing his father was dead; forsaking, wasting – and belying any operative evidence of memory of or gratitude for years of – his father’s kindly care. Then, sojourning afar, recklessly squandering his money, neither via ill-timed investments nor ill-advised, though praiseworthy charitable largesse, but in “dissolute living.”

The father demonstrates a consistent and prodigious prodigality (leading some to call this parable not, as still common, the Prodigal Son, but the Prodigal Father; yet, given my sense, again, that all the characters exhibit an innate prodigality, I refer to the tale as the Prodigal and perhaps I might say the Prodigals!). First, in consenting to the impudent request of his younger son, who, I imagine, the father could have guessed (should have known?) would squander his birthright. Then the father sees his broke and broken wastrel son “while he was still far off,” meaning the father had been watching and waiting with the vigilant patience of love. We are assured the father is inspired by love, for, seeing his child, he is “filled with compassion.” Then the father runs, involving the indecorous necessity of pulling up the hem of his robe to free his legs. Then the father, not allowing his child to grovel penitently before him, “puts his arms around him,” treating him as an equal. Then the father “kisses him,” the Greek connotes fervency, indicating repeated PDA! Then the father interrupts his son’s pitiable confession, pronouncing no rightful judgment, demanding no equitable recompense, but rather bestowing “the best robe” (probably his own!), “a (signet) ring,” bearing the family seal, a symbol of prominence, “and” no longer the bare feet of a servant, but “sandals,” a sign of sonship. Then the father calls for the slaughter of “the fatted calf,” preparing not for a familial, but a communal feast so that all may “eat and celebrate.” Why? “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (At this point, I would encourage, expect the younger son, if he had a smidgen of sense, a soupçon of awareness of his good fortune, to burst forth in song: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I’m found!”)

The elder son, who, as an “elder” is a prominent person, perhaps the COO of the family business, is “in the field” hard at work (and, I presume, for whatever reason, not invited to the party!). He asks a servant (highlighting the demeaning irony of a superior inquiring of a subordinate) for information. Enraged by news of the celebration of his brother’s return, he refuses to take part. From a human perspective, the elder son’s angry reaction and rejection of the “opportunity” to honor his dishonorable brother, who he has disowned, for he soon speaks to his father referring to “this son of yours,” makes sense. Hard to fault him, and, in my experience, most folk reflecting on this story energetically take the elder son’s side. So where’s his prodigality? I hear it in his response to his father’s pleading. First, he, with little trace of humility, makes his case for having earned his father’s respect: “For all these years I have worked like a slave for you. I have never disobeyed your command. Yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends!” Then , given his father’s response, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” clearly the elder son never accepted heartfelt possession of all the property and power that his father, by the gift of grace, already had given unto him. The elder son, in dissimilar fashion, but no less indisputably than his younger brother, has forsaken, wasted – and belied any operative evidence of memory of or gratitude for years of – his father’s kindly care.

I identify with the prodigals. All three.

Have I been prodigal in wastefully forsaking love and acceptance offered to me by others because of my guilt about things I’ve done and my shame, because of it, about who I am? Yes, though I pray not to the extent of the younger son’s dissolution and I pray for his spirit of acceptance of the welcome he received!

Have I been prodigal in the extravagant bestowal of love’s forgiveness on those who have harmed me? Yes, though, never having drawn close the breadth of the father’s munificence, I pray for more grace to attain to his unconditional generosity.

Have I been prodigal in wastefully forsaking opportunities to share love, showing forgiveness to others I charged and condemned as unworthy? Yes, and, given how the parable ends with so much unresolved, in situations when another and I find ourselves at odds, I pray to write a new chapter bringing to life the power of pardon.