“we are clay, and You, O God, our Potter”

a homily, based on Isaiah 64.1-9, preached with the people of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Clinton, SC, and Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, at the joint Advent service on Wednesday, November 29, 2017

On the threshold of Advent, as we await the celebration on Christmas Day of Jesus’ first coming in his nativity and his second coming, whenever that will be, “to judge quick and dead”, we read Isaiah who asks God to “tear open the heavens and come down”…“as fire” to deal with adversaries; nations and peoples who don’t do right.

Truth be told, this year with Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and wildfires in the West, I believe that we’ve had enough of the heavens torn open and fire!

Yet there is a shift in Isaiah that the prophet bids, begs we consider: God’s people can be God’s adversaries; the ones who don’t do right. As Isaiah declares, “We sinned…we transgressed…(becoming) like one who is unclean…”

Back in proverbial day when I was a child growing up in All Saints’ Episcopal Church, St. Louis, when the American societal establishment honored religious observances and before we, in our culture-wide commercial and consumer haste to get to Christmas began to see holiday advertisements, first, soon after Thanksgiving Day, and now, any time after All Hallow’s Eve, Advent was considered “a little Lent”, a season of penitence in recognition that there can be no true celebration without repentance, no true festivity without reflecting, yes, upon our blessings, yet also our failings.

Isaiah, as a herald of Advent, calls us to examine our relationship with God and, in our earnest, honest examination, to confess again that it needs healing and to profess again that we, as clay, can’t fix it and to confirm again that God, as our Potter, is the only One who can.

potter hands

This means we cannot contain or control God to do our bidding, not now, not ever and that we can commit our lives, our minds and hearts, our souls and spirits, placing them in God’s hands to mold, shape, and fashion us into something glorious, which is, Who is the image of the One whose birth and second coming we await.

May the words of that grand spiritual be our Advent prayer:

Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on us.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on us.
Melt us. Mold us. Fill us. Use us.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on us.

the separable individuality of suffering

A friend, Daniel Gutiérrez, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania – though we’ve never met in the flesh, via Facebook we have connected and, even before, I, having known of him, Episcopal Church circles trending toward small, have admired his life and ministry from afar – today, in a FB post, wrote: Monday will be two weeks since the horrific violence in Las Vegas. Have we forgotten? Have we moved to the next news cycle? Let us embrace His Kingdom.

Bishop Gutiérrez, for me, an incarnation of passion for God’s love and justice, reminds me ever to remember, to “embrace” the sorrows of my sisters and brothers, in the instant case of his post, the October 1 mass shooting. His clarion call of loving and just remembrance gives me pause to reflect on how, if not easily, inevitably I do “(move) to the next news cycle.”

Thinking about this, I turned to Pontheolla and asked, not to induce her guilt, but rather as my reality-check, “Honey, when was Hurricane Harvey?”[1] She answered, “I don’t remember exactly.” I replied, “Neither do I.”

I repeated my question concerning Hurricanes Irma[2] and Maria,[3] the Mexican earthquake,[4] and the current California wildfires.[5] Her answers, the same. My replies, the same.

I wonder. Is this not true for any (all?) of us?

Do we not move on unless and until “it” (whate’er the tragedy) is our immediate experience or that we are vitally, viscerally connected because our loved ones, those near and dear to us, have suffered?

Do we not move on given the press, the pressure of our daily inundation through the 24-hour news cycle that continues to operate under an ages-old mandate, “if it bleeds, it leads” (which is to say, suffering, more than good news, sells, therefore, dominates the headlines)?

Do we not move on, for suffering hurts and there is only so much that we, psychically, even physically, given our own trials and tribulations, worries and woes, can tolerate?

I suspect that for these reasons, perhaps primarily the separable distance of tragedy not personally experienced, the painstakingly honest answer is “yes”, we do move on.

Yet, Bishop Daniel, I want to do as you implore…

I want not to move on…

I want to stay, as damnably discomfiting as it is, in the pain of the tragedies of others.

Why?

At most, for I want my mind and heart, soul and spirit never to be inured, desensitized to the hurts of others, so to be able and willing to act where I can, when I can, how I can for their good, and

At least, for I believe that the sufferings of my sisters and brothers, whate’er the tragedy, as easily, perhaps as inevitably could well have been mine and could well one day be mine.

 

Footnotes:

[1] mid-late August

[2] August 30-mid September

[3] mid-September-early October

[4] September 19

[5] early October-ongoing

continuing becoming…

“Honey, is something the matter with me?”

This is the question I asked Pontheolla after another restless, sleepless night channel-surfing among CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC following, fretting over the news of Hurricane Harvey’s relentless approach to the Texas coast, then, making landfall, stubbornly, punishingly, injuriously, fatally dumping catastrophic amounts of rain…

And this after equally fretful, restless, sleepless nights following the August 11-12 unrest in Charlottesville perpetrated by an unabashed and public display of vociferous and violent white supremacy and neo-Nazism…

And this after equally restless, sleepless nights and weeks and months of following what I view to be, at its heart and in its soul, a feckless, reckless presidential administration driven by the impulses of a man enamored by the self-manufactured mythology of the power of his personality.

Me: Honey, is something the matter with me?

Pontheolla: Why do you ask?

Me: I’m struggling. It feels like…it is like everything troubles me.

Pontheolla: What do you mean?

Me: Down in my belly and in my bones. I’m angry, but mostly sad.

Pontheolla: About what?

Me: Not what. Who.

Pontheolla: Who then?

Me: Those…all those hurt by the force of nature and human hands.

Pontheolla: Nothing’s wrong with you. You’re becoming who you were meant to be.

For 40 years, since my ordination in 1977 as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, then, in 1978, as a priest, I have served as a Christian minister. Knowing that I possess (or…and am possessed by!) an irrepressible selfish streak (ask Pontheolla!), oft I’ve thought, somewhat self-deprecatingly, that God called me into ministry knowing that the self-sacrificial nature of the work would…just might be a sanctifying, sanity-inducing balance to my overweening egocentricity.

Pontheolla’s incisive observation has helped me to see that one of my prayers truly, painfully has been answered…

During this past Lenten season, as a personal, spiritual discipline, I wrote a prayer a day. On Saturday, April 8, 2017, the 34th day of Lent, reflecting on Colossians 1.21-24,[1] I wrote, in part:

O Jesus…seeing You more clearly, I now know more surely that what is lacking in Your afflictions for my sake is my sharing in Your suffering for Your sake…For though I claim and call You as my way, my truth, my life, I…love to go my own way…so to liken my life unto mine own image. O Jesus, I pray You, by Your Spirit, bind my wandering mind, bend my wayward heart, bolster my wavering soul, break my willful spirit that I now, at least, on some days and moments of days, may…can…will sacrifice my self wholly unto You. Amen.

With joyous pain and painful joy, I believe that Jesus has answered my prayer. And though I also believe that I cannot be rid of all of my, at times, selfish self-interest, for such is the character and curse of the life of the flesh in this world, I pray that I, down in the depths of my belly and bones, continue to become, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s[2] description of Jesus, “a man for others.”

 

Footnotes:

[1] Colossians 1.21-24 (my emphasis): And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, (Christ) 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] Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), German Lutheran pastor and theologian executed by the Nazis for resisting the racial and military policies of Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian regime. In Bonhoeffer’s self-sacrificial living and dying, as he described Jesus, so he was, too, “a man for others.”

a message for my people…

Note: Following my February 1, 2015, retirement, I entered, as I’ve written in this space previously, my “rehirement;” since December 20, 2015, being privileged to serve the good and gracious folk of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, as their part-time Priest-in-Charge.

At the start of each month, we publish an e-newsletter, The Epiphany Star (well, by what other name would a missive from Epiphany Church be called?). Usually, my message pertains to the seasons of the church year or a coming event. For September, given the tremulous tenor of our times, I have been given different words.

Epiphany, Laurens, SC, facade

My Dear Sisters and Brothers,

As I survey the world around us, the words of Thomas Paine, who wrote at a time when the American Revolution seemed unsure, come to mind, which I paraphrase: These are the times that try (our) souls…

Though every historical age has its weight of woe, our time seems…feels to me particularly burdened.

Globally, we Americans are engaged in our longest war, in Afghanistan, with no sign of its end, and

The terrorists’ malevolence, which, save for 9/11, not so long ago seemed still far beyond our shores hath drawn closer, indeed, hath come ashore…

Nationally, however you voted in our last presidential election and whatever your political sympathies, daily we are witnesses to the roiling, tempestuous waters of our federal government in which the Leviathan of rank factionalism swallows the fair seagoing spirit of bipartisanship, and

We behold a renewed rise of cultural and racial turmoil that perhaps many of us, surely I, had thought, had hoped that we, as a nation, had resolved, and

The storm with a benign name, Harvey, has unleashed catastrophic horror on Texas cities and towns, especially Houston, and damaging the home of our own dear Bill and Marilyn Ladd.

At times like these that try our souls, one thing we, each and all, can do is pray; lifting our minds and hearts, souls and spirits in petition and intercession to God.

Recently, during a Sunday announcement, I shared this 6-fold pattern upon which most of the Collects in our Book of Common Prayer are constructed:

  • Our call or address to God
  • Our citation of an attribute or act of God
  • Our prayerful request
  • Our anticipated result should God grant our prayer
  • Our invocation of the Name of Jesus (or of the Trinity)
  • Our “Amen”, meaning, “so be it”

I offer this prayer for our daily use (I also encourage you to write and pray your own):

O God of glory and grace, from your almighty hand all good gifts are given to your children and your creation: We pray you spread abroad your Spirit of solace and strength that we, empowered and emboldened, in all our living may do your will, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.