Last words

by Linda Ryan

Now these be the last words of David. David the son of Jesse said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel, said,

The Spirit of the Lord spake by me,
and his word was in my tongue.
The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me,
He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.
And he shall be as the light of the morning,
when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds;
as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.
-- 2 Samuel 23:1-4 (KJV)

We are often intrigued by the last words of celebrities and people we know. What were the last words they uttered as they died? Not everybody gets the chance to utter last words, but to those around them at the time, they often have an impact, even if it poses a question.

Take, for instance, the last words of Giles Corey, a man who was tried in the Salem Witch Trials and condemned to death by crushing. His last words? "More weight." St Lawrence, tortured to death by being roasted on a grill is alleged to have said words to the effect of "Turn me over, I'm done on this side." I'm sure a lot of people have called on Jesus or God at their last breath, and some, like Steve Jobs, could simply say something like "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." Even Jesus' last words were remembered although differently by the gospelers. Matthew and Mark give his last words as "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?", a quotation from Psalm 22. Luke's gospel records the last words as "Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit." John states that he simply cried, "It is finished!"

The other day I heard a piece of music I hadn't heard in some time but which I have sung with various choirs since I was in high school. The tune, written by Randall Thompson, is haunting but the words, well, the words are some that maybe should be pronounced rather frequently, especially now with things in such a mess in this country and the world.

Looking at David's history with Uriah and others, his opening statement, "He that ruleth over men must be just" seems, in one light, a bit self-congratulatory. Or maybe he's being introspective and repentant for the times he messed things up by being unjust. The point is, though, that rulers must have a sense of justice that doesn't mean just pleasing themselves or their best buddies but also for the folks they don't particularly like or agree with on a lot of things but who, in that particular case, have the right end of the stick. I think some of our contemporary politicians have forgotten that.

"Ruling in the fear of God" is probably somewhat problematic for some, especially those who stoutly affirm that there is no God and that they don't believe in God anyway. I think the ones who need to hear that message are the ones who are so certain that they KNOW precisely what it is God wants and they're going to get it regardless of what happens to other people. It seems God in God's wisdom put a lot of "care for the widows and orphans" talk into the Bible so why do we get so much talk about God blessing the rich and claiming the blessing to acquire yet more stuff, including money, power and privilege? It isn't only atheists and believers in gods other than the Christian one who may have a problem with the statement. In fact, they could be following the tenets of God far closer than a lot who proudly announce themselves God's followers.

"And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds" is such a beautiful image. It's an even better description of someone who deliberately follows the ways of God and who treats his brothers and sisters, even the adopted and unknown ones, with kindness, justice and compassion. In this age of instant communications, it's often more common to hear about the injustices done in the name of the people, the corporate sins of our commercial sector and even the abuses in our churches than to see bright examples of leadership done for the benefit of the people who don't have a voice of their own. There are some, though, and they are like campfires on the distant hills, a reminder that some really do have the best interests of the poor, the sick, the oppressed and the disadvantaged at heart. The lights may not light up the sky, but they testify that those lamps are lit and not just sitting there waiting for a match to light them.

"[A]s the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain" evokes the renewal of the earth that comes when rain falls and suddenly all sorts of things spring to life and bloom almost joyously. Living in the desert we see it nearly every time we have our infrequent rains. It doesn't even have to be a gully-washer for it to happen; even a half-hour shower will do. So can be with just one person, one ruler who is just and who looks to do good for the all the people and not just the cronies who finance his campaigns or promise him luxuries in return for favoritisms. Can I imagine what it could be like if there were a whole lot of those? I can stretch my imagination but I know God already has done that, stretched the imagination to include a whole world full of tender shoots of grass springing up after a shower of justice if the desire is there within them.
David may never have spoken those words but the poetry of them certainly reflects the imagery and cadence of the psalms attributed to him. I still wonder, though, were they said as advice or as contrition? As an ideal or as an unrealized potential? Or maybe they were a vision of the kingdom that could be if, in the words of Amos, we "...let justice roll on like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (5:24, NRSV).

I listened to the musical version of this reading again and this time I saw David in the prime of his life, dancing before the Lord, uniting the kingdom, treating the people with fairness and concern. Still, David, like all of us, probably went to the bosom of Abraham with regrets and repentance but trying to leave a map for those who succeeded him to follow to avoid some of the pitfalls into which he fell. David's sun rose on a young and promising life and new hope was born in Israel. On his deathbed the sun set on that life but his memory lived in his people, even down through a thousand generations. What a legacy. I wonder how many of our rulers will fare as well or for as long? Maybe we should play "The Last Words of David" for them and ask that they think about it?

Sometimes music will touch hearts that words alone simply can't reach.

The Last Words of David composed by Randall Thompson, performed by the Rutgers University Chorus.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho's Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

Funerals at home

by Heidi Haverkamp

Recently, I presided at a tiny home funeral. Twenty people gathered in the living room of a mother and son, approximately aged 90 and 60, who had died on the same day. I’ll call them Leona and Joe. They had lived together for many years, and Joe had become his mother’s caretaker as she slipped into dementia. After a series of medical emergencies, they died on the same day. A small group of family members had gathered from all over North America and we had a funeral in their living room with a small group of neighbors and friends. It was more intimate and powerful than any funeral I have been part of – in churches or funeral homes or even at graveside.

This particular home funeral happened by accident. A parishioner of mine, who I’ll call Mary, had been one of Joe and Leona’s neighbors. She loved them dearly. It seems they had no regular church home and so Mary asked if I would come visit with their grieving family. A week later, the family called me and told me they were having a sort of “memorial party” the next day and asked if I could come and offer a simple service. With so little time we couldn’t plan a traditional Episcopal funeral, with full sermon and Eucharist, but I said I would come and offer something.

The next afternoon, I went to Joe and Leona’s home and joined their friends and family. We sat around their living room, on their couches, chairs, bar stools, and even the stairwell. Their music was playing on their stereo system. There was a laptop on a side table, with a slideshow of photos of Leona, Joe, and their family over the years. Two little wood boxes with their ashes had been set in handmade wreaths of silk flowers (made by a neighbor) on the dining room table, with framed photographs assembled around.

I invited each person to share their name and how they knew Joe and Leona. I offered three burial collects from The Book of Common Prayer, then we read two psalms from Leona’s family Bible, said the Lord’s Prayer, and finally, closed with words from the Committal service. We sat close together, crammed in a room designed for half as many people, facing one another in what had been Joe and Leona’s home. As the service came to a close, meaty smells from the grill wafted in.

I’ve done many funerals, and there have been things dear to me about each one. But there was something about this funeral that I can’t get out of my mind. Perhaps it was the novelty of it, but I think it was the intimacy, familiarity, and sense of community we shared in that living room: hearing each person speak, seeing each other’s faces, sitting on the very furniture that had belonged to these two people who were now gone to be with God.

On the other hand, this small funeral, which as far as I can tell wasn’t advertised in a public obituary, likely deprived some friends and acquaintances the opportunity to grieve Leona and Joe. This is a loss, certainly. (When my step grandmother died, her children decided not to have a public funeral, a decision I respect, but it was painful for some of my cousins and me to lose the chance to grieve her publicly.) There are some funerals where capacity for large numbers of people is necessary: for large families, to be hospitable to all those who may have known and loved someone, to make room for the shock of a community at a particularly tragic death. Large funerals can be powerful, moving, and healing.

But some families in my parish have struggled with making funeral or burial plans for loved ones, or have interred ashes without a service of any kind. A small, home funeral can offer closure, hope, and celebration without the large-scale planning required for a formal, public funeral and burial. Admittedly, it’s easier to do a home funeral if the deceased has been cremated, since transporting a coffin is difficult and costly. (Although, as my Filipino parishioners have pointed out to me, hosting a wake with an embalmed body in the home is common in the Philippines, for as much as a week!) There are many reasons why a home funeral might not be feasible for some families; but on the other hand, I wonder if this sort of intimate, simple funeral would be a spiritual relief and an emotional comfort to many others.

In a society where it seems every day less and less of our lives are private, and large gatherings of people are as ordinary as the nearest mall or megachurch, smaller, pastoral liturgies that emphasize relationships and intimacy may offer a deeper experience of God’s love and promise of resurrection than funeral home services or large church funerals. Where each person can introduce themselves, where a sense of spiritual communion, even without Eucharist, can be shared, where people are rubbing elbows and hearing each other breathe, witnessing to the reality of the communion of saints and powerfully recalling the Resurrection appearance of Jesus among his grieving friends, cowering in a locked, upper room. Home funerals will not replace church funerals or funeral home services, but a small, home funeral liturgy can witness to the Resurrection in a powerful, theologically vibrant way.

The Book of Common Prayer states, “Baptized Christians are properly buried from the church. The service should be held at a time when the congregation has opportunity to be present.” As an Episcopal priest, I pay attention to the Prayer Book’s rubrics and theology of liturgy. But as weddings are held more and more often outside of churches –in homes, backyards, and other places meaningful to the bride and groom – and as churches seek to take liturgy out of the four walls of their buildings and into public spaces, funerals held in homes or other special places strike me as liturgically appropriate and powerful. In Judaism, families “sit shiva” in the person’s home, in the South, funeral receptions are often held at home, and in many cultures and in our own country’s past, the visitation of a person’s body and family has been in the home.

I invite clergy, Christians, and families everywhere to consider the small, home funeral liturgy as a theological and powerful way to remember the dead, and Christ’s promise of Resurrection.

The Rev. Heidi Haverkamp is priest and the vicar of The Episcopal Church of St. Benedict, a congregation with a diverse and Spirit-filled average Sunday attendance of about 75 in Bolingbrook, Illinois. She blogs at Vicar of BolingBrook about home, church, suburbia, and spirituality.

How to be in the presence of Jesus

by Deirdre Good

Text: Luke 10: 38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

Think about the last meal with friends you really enjoyed. Was it at your house or theirs? Or maybe you were at a restaurant. In which case you were able to enjoy the company and the food without having to prepare, cook, or clear away afterwards. If the meal was at your house, then you know what was involved.

Before I arrived in Maine this summer, I was able to share a memorable meal at home with friends. It all came together at the last minute. I wanted to extend hospitality to our new President at the seminary where I live and work since he had just arrived and was temporarily without family. Fortunately, I was able to invite two other couples to join us. And thanks to Whole Foods, I was able to assemble the dinner at the last minute rather than cook it. So I was able to enjoy the company rather than worry about whether they liked the food I’d cooked. Why was it so enjoyable? Because all the couples (including us) knew and liked each other. Three of us work together, and six of us went to the same church at one time. We have the same sense of humour, values and interests. We respect each other’s viewpoints.

The meal Jesus shares with Martha and Mary presupposed in today’s gospel is quite similar in that the three of them are friends—they eat together in Bethany; they probably worship together and they love each other. How do we think about it? Does the story describe types of people, and continue by commending contemplative types over active types, as Luke’s Jesus apparently does? I know the story can be read this way but there’s a price to pay. It’s a moralistic reading, seeing figures as exemplars. It favors one character over another. Are all of the characters in Jesus’ stories intended to advise readers? Are they meant to evoke empathy and strengthen our proclivity for doing good? Or might we see the whole story in a broader context of Luke and thus as a meditation on deeper issues in the surrounding material. I want to suggest that the passage is a meditation on what it means to be blessed to see and hear what is at hand since others longed to see and hear it but did not (Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” Luke 10: 23-4)

A few words about context. Today’s gospel lies close to the start of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (9:51) that is a journey of many functions besides travel. One of them is shaping of a community around Jesus (followers, disciples, crowds) alongside the shaping of opposition outside that community. Travel and following Jesus to Jerusalem to death and beyond is also about discerning the meaning of presence and absence and how to be in the presence and absence of Jesus.

So here’s a suggestion: If you are on a journey and Jesus joins the journey, stop whatever you are doing. Look and listen. If there’s time for a meal, order a take-out and food to go. This is a meal to remember: tastes, sights, sound. Savor the meaning of Real Presence.

Now what Martha is doing in our gospel is the important task of service (from which we get the word “deacon”) that can be applied to church leadership with connotations of administration and organization. And the verb in Luke’s description, “Martha welcomed him into her home” shows Martha as head of a household, which leads us to think more broadly about Martha in the rest of the New Testament and beyond.

In John’s Gospel, for example, the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus are described as loved by Jesus, a term that scholars understand to describe relationship of disciple to teacher Jesus. In the episode reporting that Lazarus has died, it is Martha who engages Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” “But,” she continues, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus assures her that her brother will rise again and when he declares, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-6) Martha professes: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27). Her confession is a high point of the Johannine communities’ profession of belief in Jesus. Martha is every bit a thinking person.

And, when we look at the rest of the New Testament, it turns out that Mary of Bethany is every bit a doer. At a meal in Bethany where she functions as host and her sister Martha serves, Mary anoints Jesus as a prefiguring of self-giving in the service of footwashing he is about to enact and his death and burial. She does what friends are taught to do by Jesus says Johannine scholar Cynthia Kittredge.

If we take all the evidence of the New Testament, we see that both Mary and Martha have been with Jesus in ways that indicate they both listen, think, and act out a deep understanding of Jesus’ ministry.

I think the lesson for us from the gospel is how to be in the presence of Jesus.

Anthony Bloom, an archbishop in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, recounts in his book Beginning to Pray an experience with a Russian woman whom he visited in a nursing home before she died at the age of 102. It was shortly after his ordination and she sought his advice. “All these years I have been asking people who are reputed to know about prayer, and they have never given me a sensible reply, so I thought that as you probably know nothing, you may by chance blunder out the right thing.” She explained further that for 14 years she had been praying the Jesus prayer almost continually and had never perceived God’s presence.

Bloom blurted out in response: “If you speak all the time, you don’t give God a chance to place a word in.” “What shall I do?” she said. Then he suggested:

“Go to your room after breakfast, put it right, place your armchair in a strategic position that will leave behind your back all the dark corners . . . into which things are pushed so as not to be seen. Light your little lamp before the icon . . . [Orthodox homes traditionally have an icon altar, often with an image of the face of Christ.] and sit, look around, and try to see where you live. Then take your knitting and for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.”

At first, Bloom writes, the woman was suspicious that this advice was superficial. But when she returned to see him some time later, she announced, “It works!” Bloom was eager to hear her elaboration, so she told him how she had followed his instructions to neaten her room and then settle herself peacefully before her icon. She continued:

I settled into my armchair and thought, “Oh how nice, I have 15 minutes during which I can do nothing without being guilty! I looked around the room and thought how nice it was. After a while I remembered that I must knit before the face of God, and so I began to knit. And I became more and more aware of the silence. The needles hit the armrest of my chair, . . . there was nothing to bother about, . . . and then I perceived that this silence was not simply an absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. It was not absence of something but presence of something. . . . the silence had a density, a richness, and it began to pervade me. The silence around began to come and meet the silence in me. . . . All of a sudden I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was the One who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.”

So if Jesus appears on our doorstep, close the laptop, turn off the ipad, and sit down at his feet. This is a time to savor. And if Jesus doesn't appear – do what ever it is that you naturally do; and in that very action; in that deep silence, look and listen for the Divine Presence.

**Preached on Sunday July 21st 2013 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Castine, Maine.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

Why do people pray?

by Paul Fromberg

I used to preside at a weekly healing prayer service – it was in a very traditional kind of church. The congregation would come up, one at a time, to pray while everyone looked on. After the first service I’d ask each one what they wanted me to pray for, which took some of the congregants completely by surprise. They’d name the need for prayer, some changing it weekly, others repeating the same request week after week.

Why do people pray? I’ve wondered over this question as long as I’ve been aware of prayer as a thing that people do – which has been my whole conscious life. I come from a long line of pray-ers. It’s pretty easy to understand a kind of magical prayer; say the right words at the right time and the right thing will happen to you. Like making a wish on the evening star, or buttering up your boss before you tell her you’ve totally screwed up the project she entrusted to you. But the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, the prayer that we say week by week is different. It is impolite and demanding; there is no “please” or “thank you” in the prayer, just give us, give us, forgive us.

And the way that we pray in this liturgy when we gather around the Eucharistic table to say our own prayers aloud is just as demanding. The deacon demands that we pray for the sick, for the homeless, for the dead and we make our demands known to God. Maybe demand is too strong a word, maybe it’s not. But we pray with a voice full of expectation.

The story in the Gospel of Luke of the centurion begging that Jesus heal his slave boy is a kind of demanding prayer, almost a desperate kind of prayer. The translation that we just heard says that the centurion “asked” Jesus to heal his slave. The word also has a more urgent meaning, “beseeched.” There is a kind of desperation to his request that doesn’t have time for etiquette. No time for please and thank you. This man seems to be at his wits end. And he’s also someone that might be considered Jesus’ enemy.
Centurions were the lowest level of commander among the occupying force in Galilee. They were the ones whose work was to enforce the mission of the terror state of Rome. Centurions were not the sharpest members of the military; they were generally the most ruthless. Even the assurance that he’d built the synagogue and was a big fan of YHWH might not have been enough to settle the typical Galilean wonder-worker. The surprise in this story is that Jesus not only grants the centurion’s request, he uses him as an exemplar of faith. The enemy of Israel is the one whose faith surpasses any that Jesus has ever seen among the people.

This means – at least – that when we approach God in prayer it is the very opposite of magic or a kind of nostalgic wish fulfillment. When we approach God in prayer it isn’t about our worthiness or unworthiness. It isn’t about our terms at all. When we approach God in prayer it is on God’s terms, which are always terms of blessing. This passage says that God is always with us, but not always in a way that makes us comfortable. God’s presence isn’t just a private, one-on-one kind of thing; it is also a relationship with those unlike us. God loves us, and that’s the good news. But the unbounded love of God, the love that goes just everywhere, means that our prayer has to be filled with that same kind of mercy. God is at work in our lives, and in the lives of people that we consider to be our enemies. Everyone stands in need of God’s mercy.
God is at work in the lives of our enemies making a new creation. Which at first is just stunningly unexpected, until you remember that God is just stunningly free. God is free to use all beings to make a new creation. The longing and power of God will go everywhere. Don’t be afraid when faith shows up in the life of your enemy.

Notice that the centurion and Jesus never actually meet each other. Jesus accomplishes the healing work solely on the basis of other intermediaries. First the Judean elders, and then his friends intercede for the centurion. They pray for him. Just like we will do in a moment when we gather around the Eucharistic table. When we pray for others we get to see God at work in their lives in the same way we hope that God is at work in our lives. Which means that God is always moving ahead of us in making the world new again, drawing all beings to herself in order to make a new creation. Which might give us a way of looking for the Spirit breathing through every one of our relationships and experiences, showing us the places where God can be found in our lives.

The Rev. Paul Fromberg is the rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco

Praying with snakes

by Maria L. Evans

In my mind, Mack’s situation was different from that of a starving child or a civilian wounded in war. He was a competent adult who decided to stand by what he understood to be the word of God, no matter the consequences. And so I’ve started to come to peace with the fact that everyone in the crowded trailer, including myself, let Mack die as a man true to his faith.
--Lauren Pond, from the May 31 Washington Post article, "Why I watched a snake-handling pastor die for his faith"

This story still haunts me--not so much from the story, per se (I have no intention to handle vipers, personally) but because this is how the popular media views "faith."

Randy "Mack" Wolford was one of a small group of people whose ministry takes the words in Mark 16:17-18 literally:

And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

Yet, I could not help but think of what Jesus said in Matthew 4:2-12, based on Deuteronomy 6:16: "Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

It's disturbing that for the writers of secular news, "faith" is too often defined as "doing things that reek of magical thinking, including some pretty crazy things." Faith is seen as handling snakes, or thinking the world is coming to an end on a particular date, or eschewing evolution for a literal seven day creation. Now, these are the more severe cases. But even with the smaller stuff, it's clear that magical thinking is equated with Christianity in the secular press.

However, before we get too high and mighty about Mack Wolford's untimely and tragic death, the truth is, we're all guilty of some degree of magical thinking somewhere now and then. Fact is, any time we are praying for a particular outcome, we are, albeit in a usually very minor way, putting God to the test. We pray for our loved ones to change their behavior, or for something to be reconciled with an "and everyone lived happily ever after," ending. We pray for uncertain medical diagnoses to turn out benign over malignant, or perhaps we pray for malignancies to be Stage I when we fear Stage IV. We pray for rain and for the cessation of rain. We pray for safe travel for our particular loved one but don't think ten nanoseconds about every other person on the road in that prayer.

Oh, I think at the time, we're just being earnest. From another angle, though, it's pretty clear we, at times, assign outcomes to our prayers and pray for the things to happen in a certain way so that our petitions are fulfilled by our specifications.

Show of hands--how many of us have prayed for a specific outcome, and the exact opposite thing happened?

Yeah, me too.

Truth is, too often we've played God in our prayer life, and too often, the results reminded us we're not God. If we're not open to the awareness of the futility of praying for things to meet our specifications, it can breed feelings of skepticism and disbelief, as well as resentments towards God about the outcome. God's neither the celestial suggestion box, nor a supernatural catalog order form.

That said, it's not cause to chastise ourselves, either, when we come to that realization that we've been blurring the lines between our wills and that nebulous thing called God's will.

The other truth in this complex thing called prayer is that it's only human to express our desires to God. Sometimes, prayer is the only means by which we ever get around to revealing the deepest core of those desires to ourselves. It's why one of my particular favorites among the collects available following the prayers of the people is this one:

Almighty and eternal God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully accept the prayers of your people, and strengthen us to do your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer p. 394)/blockquote>
That collect doesn't say, "Do all the things we just asked." It simply asks for God to receive our prayers, and to strengthen us to do God's will. It asks for God to hear us, and for us to hear God. It changes the focus to the relationship rather than the outcome.

What changes in us when we stop handling the deadly snake of praying for a particular outcome and instead invest in the act of prayer being the purpose of prayer? Will we discover that we get "bitten" by the outcomes of our life situations less frequently?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Intercessory Prayer and
the Butterfly Effect

by Maria L. Evans

Almighty and eternal God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully accept the prayers of your people, and strengthen us to do your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
--Collect at the Prayers of the People, p. 394, Book of Common Prayer

This is going to sound a little strange, but I had to understand quantum physics a little better in order to believe in intercessory prayer.

Here's my sordid confession: When I returned to the institutional church after over two decades in the unchurched wilderness, I thought intercessory prayer was absolutely, completely bogus. I would just stand and grind my teeth during the Prayers of the People. In fact, it felt downright icky. In my mind at the time, it smelled of negotiating with God with all the schmooze of a Persian rug trader. "Hey, God, have I got a deal for you! I've got these friends here, and we're all gonna pray about this thing hear and surely the sheer numbers of folks I have rounded up on this will swing you over to seeing this my way." That just seemed to not work with why I thought I was back attending church.

I even avoided jumping in as a pinch-hit intercessor by fibbing to my priest at the time a bit. I claimed that I had "anxiety issues" about being an intercessor. Lector, no problem. I read what was in front of me at a lectern like teaching a class. I said I could do that, but I could not do the "stand in a middle of a group thing," doing the Prayers of the People from the pews. I poured it on thick. It worked for quite a while, actually. But the truth was, I did not want to admit to someone with a collar that I didn't believe in intercessory prayer. Over time, I stopped grinding my teeth, but I just more or less had come to a blank form of acceptance/non-acceptance that "Intercessory prayer is what we do in the liturgy and it doesn't last very long, and if I just don't think about it, it will be over soon enough." Eventually, I could at least pinch-hit on the intercessions--mostly by imagining someone else was doing it in my voice.

Switch gears to another end of my parallel universe. I was growing ever-more curious about the strange weather and the weird seasons we were experiencing. Huge snowstorms. Hurricanes that dumped inches and inches of water on northeast Missouri, turning it into a sea of mud. Days on end of 100 plus degree heat and (by my account) 120 percent humidity. Clouds of bugs I was not used to seeing at certain times of the year (a patio full of June bugs in March seemed just wrong, somehow.)

These odd weather phenomena got me to reading a lot of lay press about meteorology, which led me to something we now call "the butterfly effect." The short, highly distilled version is this: Meteorologists have been frustrated for decades that their most scientific methods still only allow the ability to predict the weather only a few days in advance with any significant reproducible accuracy. The phrase, coined by mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz, refers to the possibility that, in an atmospheric system, every single thing in the system and what it is doing has a very small effect on the initial conditions of that system. His catch phrase was "Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?"

Well, not exactly. The butterfly does not cause the tornado--but the butterfly flapping its wings is part of the initial conditions of the atmospheric state, and what it does, matters.

The idea that every single thing going on around me, matters, was a new concept. I've always felt so much of what I did in my life didn't matter much at all. Who cares what I ate for breakfast? What does it matter to you if I get five hours of sleep or seven? Then again, how do these things affect my "best" day behind the microscope versus one of my more disjointed days? How do the actions of other people hold me up on those disjointed days? I thought of all the times my office staff has reminded me of meetings, or reminded me a case was still pending.

This led me to read another book, "How God Changes Your Brain," by Andrew Newberg, M.D. It gave me pause. This guy was not some magic crystals and copper bracelets crackpot, he was (by my way of thinking,) a "real" neuroscientist with academic credentials that would be respectable in any large teaching hospital. He wasn't trying to "prove" God by means of science. He was only saying that people who devote a certain amount of thought to God, no matter what their religious tradition, experience neurobiological changes in their brains that are visible on PET scans.

This led me to one simple thought--"What if I pray in intercessory fashion, if only for the purpose of changing my own brain with relationship to my understanding of God? What if I don't even worry about whether I believe in it or not, but I merely concentrate on doing it?"

So I did. I did it in that way I learned to dribble a basketball with my off-hand or poke an outside pitch to the opposite field, or hit a golf ball out of a bunker. I just did it over and over and over with no thought to a single thing but to do it, do it repeatedly, and do it because I wanted to do it. (No obsessive-compulsive behavior in this house, nosiree Bob...) I would take the bulletin insert home from church on Sunday and pray that list of intercessions every day, sometimes two and three times a day, sometimes getting on one of those "light a virtual candle" sites and compulsively clicking on candle after candle and keying in name after name on the prayer list. Then I would go off about my business and not give it another thought.

Then one day, I heard the story of someone's experience with being the object of intercessory prayer, and for the first time, I actually listened to it. Then I realized what had not happened. I had not felt that twinge of irritation. I did not feel the urge to prevent my upper lip from curling into a sneer. I did not fight rolling my eyes. I listened, and felt calm and realized I had accepted what was said, with no sense of needing to challenge it, somehow. I backtracked my thoughts--did I just do that?--and then got smacked in the nose with another epiphany--I had actually started to look forward to doing the intercessions, in the previous week or so, and had actually started to feel odd if too much time elapsed between sessions!

One could say it was my own brush with a very personal Butterfly Effect--and perhaps that is where the real message lies.

Is it possible that every single thing we've ever experienced, good or bad, wonderful or awful, has the potential to bring us not just individually closer to God, but brings us microns closer to bringing in the Reign of Christ? We are told in various places and a variety of ways in the Gospels that God and the Kingdom are here, now, within us, and among us. Are we caterpillars, smack in the middle of a Butterfly Effect beyond our wildest imaginations? I can't answer for God, but it seems to me that quantum physics leaves that door wide open. All we have to do is choose to walk through it, believing or not believing--and let the butterflies do their thing.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Love is Listening::Listening is Love

Shortly after we welcomed Robert as a visitor to our fledgling congregation, he told me that we were welcoming him back to the Episcopal Church as well. It was early in San Francisco’s encounter with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Robert told me he’d spent some happy years in a Quaker Meeting, but when he’d gotten his diagnosis, felt he wanted more liturgy, holy words and action. And he felt hungry for sacrament.

Robert still looked well, but in the early 1980’s before anti-retroviral therapy, we learned to expect that friends who tested HIV positive would be in health crisis in months and likely dead months later.

When Robert first told me he was HIV positive, he asked that we not pray for him publicly, and he said he wasn’t ready for me to mention it to others in the congregation. He already knew that he’d be asking for public prayers and help later.

To begin Robert had simply come to his new pastor to say, “I need your help. My doctor tells me I’m facing a death sentence, and I can’t pray.” I asked him how his prayer used to feel before the diagnosis. “I had a strong sense of God’s presence. I’d speak and feel God listening, and sometimes I’d sense God speaking to me.”

I’d learned as a spiritual director to listen for anger when people said their praying felt suddenly dry or flat. Feeling Robert’s urgency to recover a voice and heart for prayer, I simply asked him, “are you angry with God?” Robert looked startled and maybe chagrined. “What right have I got to be angry with God? God gets to do whatever God wants, I guess.”

“Robert, I’m not talking about blame or asking how you might try imagine ‘God’s will’ in this, but if I were you, I’m pretty sure I’d be feeling a lot of anger including a lot of anger at God.” We talked some about the feelings he felt free to admit, an undirected mix helplessness and anger, until he asked me, “What difference would it make for me to toss that mess back to God?”

“If it’s all you’ve got to say to God, praying your anger might give you back a voice and ear for praying,” I replied. I gave him a copy of Pierre Wolff’s little book May I Hate God? Robert flinched as he took in the title, but then he grinned a conspiratorial grin. “You could be right.”

“Robert,” I told him, “it’s a quick read. Don’t pore over it, just keep reading, and keep and eye and ear to the weather. We’re about to get a big winter storm. When it blows in, whether you’re finished reading it or not, go out to Ocean Beach and pray your anger out loud. If you’re stuck for words, try shouting one of the angry psalms Wolff recommends, but I do mean shout. Pray the psalmist words in a voice so loud that the crashing surf won’t drown you out.”

I watched and wondered when the next big storm roared in from the Pacific. Next day Robert called me back. He had been to the beach to pray. He wanted to talk more.
He seemed different when I saw him, still speaking quietly as before, but he now knew where he was going and what he wanted to say.

Just as the storm passed over us, in the final downpour with the wind still raging, he’d driven out to the beach. At first he just sat in the car, staring as the raindrops pounding on his windshield blurred the huge waves crashing against the beach. He wondered why he was doing this, or even whether he really would. Then he got out of the car, walked down close enough that he could feel waves shaking the land and he started to pace back and forth, shouting the psalm. Before Robert had finished a dozen verses, he put the psalmist’s aside. Robert’s own words began to flow. He said things that astonished him, and his voice got bigger and his words more vehement, but he didn’t stop. He ranted and shouted his rage and accusation. He got louder and louder and louder and then…he paused as he told me this…”and then, I was done. I’d said it.”
“So what difference did it make?” I asked.

He waited before speaking, smiled a little, and shook his head. “I felt heard. And I knew I could say anything and it wouldn’t shake the love of that hearing. He paused. I felt known and loved. I had no idea. When the anger was all said, I was crying, grateful tears that I could pray again.

Musician and Sufi mystic W.A. Mathieu says “Listening is loving.” Joining Robert’s story to Mathieu’s wisdom tells me something I hope for when we pray together too. Throughout the liturgy, we’re saying things to God. Maybe what we most long for isn’t that God do something for us, but that we feel and sense God’s presence with us, with our whole selves, even the parts of ourselves that frighten us or that we disapprove of. As we pray, we’re listening or feeling to know whether we’re heard.

Robert’s breakthrough liturgy was alone at the beach. God had listened to him and walked with him by the surf. So he let his new congregation listen and pray and walk with him. From that beginning he prayed through quitting his job and going on disability, through letting the congregation cook imaginatively for him as he faced more and more severe diet restrictions and became housebound, and he invited us to pray his name and offer his doctor’s specific concerns Sunday by Sunday. He prayed until he was ready to go home to die.

How can all our prayer, alone and together become as honest, unedited, and whole-hearted as Robert was shouting the psalm over the roar of the waves? What loving, listening silence could our prayer discover if we learned to forgive ourselves and simply pray the feelings we dislike and of which we disapprove?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Praying them home

by Maria L. Evans

May God the Father bless you, God the Son heal you, God the Holy Spirit give you strength. May God the holy and undivided Trinity guard your body, save your soul, and bring you safely to his heavenly country; where he lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen. ~Blessing for Health and Body of Soul, Book of Common Prayer, p. 460

One of the lifelong oddities of my life has been my penchant for stumbling into the middle of "other peoples' crises" and suddenly being their "go-to girl." (In fact, just now, as I am drafting this reflection, I just got a text message from a friend who wants to talk to me about her dog's emergency surgery. Seems her dog has been eating roofing nails and other metal debris...I rest my case.)

Not long ago, all I did was show up at one of my "country hospitals" for my regularly scheduled visit, which is normally a rather staid and boring half hour or so of signing my name on the various pieces of lab quality control data, and visiting with the laboratory supervisor over coffee about issues in the hospital lab. I knew it wasn't going to be one of those visits when the laboratory supervisor met me in the hallway, hugging me and crying.

The short version was this: One of the employees in the lab had, three days prior, been handed a very serious diagnosis which required immediate treatment if there was any hope of survival. Rather than initiate treatment, he had chosen to return to his home country for treatment--an 18 hour total flight time and probably more like a little over a day's journey, total, and the flight did not leave for another day--putting about five days total between the moment of his diagnosis and his potential arrival home. My supervisor's plea was to "talk some sense into him."

Believe me, I related every single medical reason I could think of--most of them involving the various permutations of how he could die in his untreated state in a five day span--as well as difficulties entering and exiting the various countries en route, the fact that his choices potentially affected the lives of others on the trip, and for the final push, that he could be "too ill to treat" when he arrived, possibly delaying life-saving treatment and putting him further at risk. But he would hear none of it. He was going home and that was that.

All of us have times in our lives where despite our best efforts, our good intentions, and our fears for those we love, they will make their choices and we are left with no other tasks but to let them go, and "pray them home." I realized I had tried my best, and did what I could. As I left to go back to my office, I told him, "God be with you. I mean that."

Over the next several hours, my mind kept being drawn to the prayer cited above. I have found when I am out of words, or my words seem insufficient, the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer has words enough for me in my times of inarticulate-ness. But as I read it, I started wondering, "Who was I asking to be blessed? Him, or me?" I recognized the answer probably was, "both," and everyone else who was fearing for him on his journey. I then enlisted the help of other friends as co-pray-ers. I've come to realize that co-praying is key to our spiritual health. Let me make it clear that I don't sign on to the notion that sheer numbers of pray-ers have any influence on God, whatsoever--but I do believe they have influence on us and our own faithfulness in prayer. It's easier for me to focus on my own prayers when I can see others praying with me, in my mind's eye.

As time unfolded, so did an image in my mind's eye--the image of a flock of geese, traveling thousands of miles, called by voices in nature that our human brains have somehow become blunted in their recognition. I thought about how every goose in a "V" of geese flies along without question, trusting only in the sense of the lead goose, and with the only view of the trip being the rear end of the goose directly ahead of it. Our gravely ill traveler was responding to the same kind of pull that the lead goose is called to obey, and I was simply a goose in the formation, staring at the tail feathers of the goose ahead of me, irritated I could not see a Google Maps overview of this trip. I had started this journey thinking I was supposed to play the role of lead goose, and in reality my role was just "one of the flock."

Our lead goose in this story did, indeed, find his way home. I may or may not ever learn the ultimate outcome with his diagnosis--but I have to let that one go, too. I imagine geese don't always take the trip North or South with the same flock, and have one-time companions on the trip, from year to year, as well as familiar ones. Such is the nature of pilgrimage.

When we embark on pilgrimages of prayer, we are being invited into an intimate space within "the cloud of unknowing." We fly in formation with familiar faces, new faces, one-time faces, and faces we will never know in this world. We are powerless, not only to the outcome, but to the choices of companions--flocks of geese flying to a home we've never seen. To never be bold enough to fly at all, I believe, is the greater loss.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

Love, lament and longing

by Martin L. Smith

Fundamental to all the great wisdom traditions of the world, including our own Christian spirituality, is the core insight that human beings are hard wired for self-deception. We are constantly finding plausible reasons for behaviors that in fact are motivated by quite different impulses largely hidden from consciousness. Modern brain science has found ways of demonstrating this hard wiring in action. There have been remarkable experiments with people who have had their right brain disconnected from their left brain through a drastic surgical procedure to relieve severe epilepsy. In one of these, the experimenter met with a boy who had had this operation in a trailer outside his home, and used picture cards to indicate that the boy was to go into his house and then come back. When the boy returned, the experimenter asked him why he had gone. Of course this verbal instruction was processed by the other side of the brain than the one that had processed the original signing. He instantly replied, "to get a Coke." It appears that the brain cannot tolerate gaps in the story we are weaving about what we are up to, and has an active 'department of inventiveness' responsible for fabricating fake reasons.

Authentic spirituality is always marked by a gentle but probing skepticism about the reasons we come up with for acting or failing to act in certain ways in our relationship with the Holy One. Take our difficulties in getting down to prayer. The faithful practice of prayer has now become largely an optional extra for many Christians, something most of us never actually get round to, and the reasons we tend to give for this point to our hectic lifestyle, pressure on our time, difficulties in finding the right place, problems we have with focusing. All perfectly true, of course. It was also true that the little boy in the experiment liked Coke. It just wasn't the real reason for going into the house. The real reasons for our avoidance of prayer might be concealed from our awareness. Spirituality addresses the task of allowing these hidden real reasons to break through our inner censorship.

Perhaps the real reason we find prayer so difficult to get around to is because it really demands today a level of emotional honesty most of us are unsure we can risk. Previous generations may have just prayed. Maybe it was the thing to do. But now prayer has become peculiarly psychologically demanding. Even the most basic prayer presents us with three challenges to our emotional life that can only be met from the place in us inside that is committed to maturity and honesty. I call them the three Ls.

Prayer asks that we Love with the brakes off, that we Lament, and that we Long. Loving, lamenting and longing ask a lot of us. Is it any wonder we find excuses to avoid prayer?

Since our faith is centered on the radical permission to identify ourselves as lovers of God, to "love God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and with all our strength," prayer must be about experimenting with expressions of love for God so that we declare that love. And prayer is the place for "taking the brakes off" so that our expressions of love for God aren't paltry and stilted, but generous, risk-taking and even passionate. These experiments are what is meant by praise and adoration. It isn't easy to let go. It takes practice.

Then there's Lament. It is impossible to express love for God without facing the shadow side of our relationship with God. The more we express love for God, the more painfully we become aware of how inadequate and precarious that love is, and how mixed up it is with our projections of fear and resentment, and our reluctance to forgive. We have to lament our own daily follies and tepidity and inconsistency, and lament the havoc and pain loose in the world because of our human disconnection from the Creator. Praying takes us to a place of grieving. Pain can't be avoided. Is it any wonder we find other things to do than pray?

And there is Longing. Prayer demands that we let desire out. We let loose with our longing to change, and for things to change, and the world to be changed. The bible ends with words that remind us that without the awakening of desire, nothing happens: "Let the one who desires take the water of life freely." But to identify oneself as a person of desire is very risky. We have surrendered our desire mainly to consumption: everything around us screams that things for sale are the true objects of desire and we have given in. To pray is to rebel, to take back our desire and let it loose on God and the world of possibilities Jesus called the realm of God.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba's, D.C., this first appeared in Washington Windows

Money, might and the name of God

How many Christians know what the opening of the Lord's Prayer--Hallowed be your name--really means? It's a prayer that owns up to a crisis, getting right into God's face. No wonder the early church devised the introduction "as our Savior Christ has commanded and taught us, we are bold to say," admitting that the prayer is so blatantly frank that we need reminding who gave us the right to pray it.

The crisis is that God's name, God's honor, reputation, integrity, has been disgraced by the infidelity of his own people. We have made God irrelevant, incredible or disgusting to millions of our fellow beings whose image of God has been deformed by our spiritual impotence and stupidities. Our dilute 'updated' version of Christianity has reduced God to a benign figure of fixed smiles, who doesn't do much except refrain from anything 'judgmental' that would interfere with our project of maintaining self-esteem. Or our vehement religiosity has projected a God who behaves amorally, or sanctions violence and displays favoritism. But what has most drastically stripped God's name of its holiness is our habit of taking the authority that belongs to the Creator alone and investing it in mere human institutions, the 'word of human hands'; the perennial sin of idolatry.

To cry, "Father, hallowed be your name" is a confession brought on by the crisis we have created through idolatry, and an urgent pledge to desacralize the institutions we have been falsely treating as sacred, and let God alone be holy. A lot of the current malaise in our own country and in the world today is a consequence of being forced to recognize that institutions we have been falsely treating as sacred are in fact only provisional, fallible human fabrications. I was struck the other day listening to one of the daily radio programs on economic affairs. A pundit high up in the affairs of the multi-national corporations used the word 'sacred' about 20 times in just a few minutes to describe the instruments and machinery of global capitalism. We have gotten to the point where questioning the ultimate validity of the transnational capitalist system and the authority of its secretive priesthood is the equivalent of blasphemy.

Now when the system is imploding here, and exploding there, there is frantic activity to shore up our faith in this 'divine' dispensation ruled by the corporate angels. It's too late to prevent us from seeing the idol has feet of clay, but the powers that be cannot allow doubts to spread about how much more of it is made of fragile base materials that could give way and bring everything crashing down. But only God is divine, only God's name is holy. Supposing capitalism as we know it today is only provisional, no more eternal than feudalism was, and that God's urgent will is for something better, something more just.

Then there is the crisis of American self-confidence, which may be a salutary crisis, very suited to give a fresh impetus to the Lord's prayer. Think how Americans have invested our own nationhood with a sacred character stolen from the name of God. We see how popular in some quarters is the delusion that the Constitution itself is a sacred, eternal revelation, rather than a great achievement of the 18th century, but one that has poten- tial flaws that are beginning to open up. The horror roiling the political scene shows the difficulty of admitting that this 'sacred revelation' can't guarantee that government won't lead us into a blind alley of prolonged political deadlock and impotence.

And if we 'hallow the name' of our own military might, sacrificing more of our resources on its altar than all the rest of the world spends on arms, if we depend on the myth that American might must be right this time, what happens when we simply don't know how to make up endings for our war stories any more? War is justified by made-up stories. It is not a divine mandate at all. What if we don't know how to end the stories spun by our costly prolonged foreign interventions?

To pray, 'hallowed be your name' is to appeal to God to help us restore to his name all the worship we have invested in, and the authority we have falsely attributed to fallible schemes of our own devising. Believers have been here before; Jesus in teaching us this prayer was reviving the words of the great prophet Ezekiel who trusted that God would re-sanctify his own name, which we have weakened and debased. "I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations will know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before your eyes." (36:23)

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiri- tual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba's, D.C.

Pray for your enemies

“You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...
- Matthew 5:43-44

By Randy Lord-Wilkinson

Not long after 9/11, someone asked me how in the world we were supposed to pray for somebody like Osama bin Laden. I can only speak from my experience and beliefs. One of the reasons I am an Anglican is because our tradition takes human beings seriously. By this I mean that Anglican Christianity sees our formation toward the full stature of Christ as a process, not an instantaneous consequence of "accepting Christ." For many of us, our journey in and to Christ begins before we have made up our minds about him. And even then my transformation continues until I die, and possibly beyond that.

The implication of this for praying or one's enemies, or forgiveness in general, is that we know from our walk in faith that God knows our frailties and foibles better than we do, and still expects us to do these extraordinary things. The operant word is 'do'. So often I have confused how I feel with sin, or sanctity, if I'm feeling particularly holy. But love as Jesus lived and taught it, and the forgiveness that can issue forth from love, is not about denying my humanity or having God take it away from me.

Love is what I am doing when I pray for my enemy or forgive one who hurt me. God does not demand of me a psychological impossibility, or that I deny my human nature! I can be angry, feel hatred, desire revenge, want to kill somebody with my bare hands... and do love. I think it is cheap grace that teaches that I can forgive, or heal, or overcome loss and grief or anger, just by praying really well. My feelings are part of how God put me together. My actions are my response to God's command to love.

So I consider the people who murdered all those human beings in New York, D.C. and Pennsylvania my enemies. Note that Jesus never said, "you shall have no enemies." He said pray for them. Sometimes I pray for those who have violated my world by imag- ining how they were when they were first born: vulnerable, loving, needing, open. Inside every murderer - somewhere! - is buried that innocent. The stamp of the author of all life is deep inside, somewhere!

And then I begin to grieve and grow angry that years of formation in the ways of hate - mixed in with mother's milk and later the love of family and friends - gradually erodes the humanity of the infant. I curse the evil that creates the conditions where such malice and murder can flourish! Can a Christian, then, support retribution and revenge? Can a Christian who prays for enemies wave the flag and cheer when the country or countries giving terrorist cells sanctuary are bombed back to the Stone Age? Does forgiveness mean just letting it go?

Some seem to think this is what it means. I don't think either lots of bombs or letting it go are effective responses to what we are dealing with. I've heard the attacks of 9/11 com- pared with Pearl Harbor. But I think they're more aptly compared with Oklahoma City. The disciples of bin Laden are murderers and outlaws every bit as much as Timothy
McVeigh. We should deal with these criminal nomads in the same way. I think it would be a great step forward for the world if we began to recognize that what happened on U.S. soil that day was not just about America. All humankind was wounded.

If we "let it go" then such atrocities will happen again, and no one will be safe. But neither will a declaration of "war" eradicate the existence of murderers who hide behind, in this instance, the banner of Islam. We who want to rescue civilization - regardless of which flag we salute (American citizens were not the only victims on September 11, 2001, people from many other nations lost their lives as well) - will work together. When we pray for peace and preach love and forgiveness it does not mean we condone evil, but face it in all its horror and mystery. The peace of Christ is not like the world's peace, which is typically an armed truce. It is the peace that comes from knowing where our true home and life is, so that we are not intimidated by evil, but confront it with goodness and justice.

The Rev. Randy Lord-Wilkinson is rector of the Church of the Ascension, Gaithersburg, Maryland. This essay originally appeared in the Washington Window.

Paying attention to the presence of God

By Bill Carroll

One of the most profound responsibilities we have as Christian people is to persevere in prayer. Prayer is by no means limited to petition and intercession, in which we come before God for our own needs and those of others, but these forms of prayer are central to the life that we are called to live.

More broadly, prayer means paying attention to the presence of God. It means listening for God and responding to God, by our words, deeds, and silence. Prayer means giving thanks for God's many gifts, taking refuge in God's promises, and adoring God's goodness. It means seeking God's will and offering ourselves up for God's purposes. Petition and intercession are but one dimension of a relationship with God that is much broader and deeper--and far more meaningful.

At the same time, however, there is something paradigmatic about the prayer of petition and intercession. If to focus exclusively there might seem narrow and self-absorbed, to neglect it entirely would be to forget our profound spiritual poverty. It would be an attempt to escape our status as God's children--fragile, dependent creatures, who come before God in need of many things. Even in the Lord's Prayer, the paradigm for all Christian prayer, we ask God for our daily bread. We ask God to meet our material needs, as well as less tangible needs like the forgiveness of sins.

Even though the prayer of petition is more risky than intercession, because it is focused on ourselves, it has a lot to teach us about grace and life in the Spirit. Persistently bringing our needs before God will teach us, as nothing else can, the difference between what we want and what we truly need.

If prayer is always answered, as indeed it is, then it takes the gift of discernment to understand God's answer. For often, God's response to our prayer does not take the form we thought it would. Petition teaches us to seek God's perfect will, to align our wills with God's will, and to seek only those good things that God wants for us.
In the end petition reaches out beyond itself to those other forms of listening and paying attention to God that make up a complete life of prayer. Truly, through petitionary prayer, we discover the meaning of Peter's words in his epistle: "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you."

But, we might object, our prayer life is so weak. At times, it is so self-serving and mercenary. I suppose it can be, especially if it becomes a mere wish list, rather than an act of listening for God. But how else are we to cast our cares and anxieties upon God, if we do not name the profound longings of our hearts? In fact, it may be especially important to name these needs, when they turn out to be vain, illusory, or misunderstood. For then, we are thrown back on our relationship with God. We assume a more humble posture before the throne of grace and discover, again and again, the abundant mercies of our God.

When our prayer is weak, as it often is, we also discover the power of praying for one another. Our brothers and sisters can hold us in prayer through times of difficulty and doubt. In the end, it's all about relationship. If we are open to this gift, we can discover a depth of love that is itself an answer to prayer, a form of divine response to the deepest longings of our hearts.

In the seventeenth chapter of John's Gospel, we see Jesus himself praying for us. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus lifts us all up into the presence of God, asking his Father to protect us in his Name, so that we may be one, even as he and the Father are one. The words of Jesus in this powerful prayer summon us to become what we already are, a united Body, gathered in the Spirit, sharing his own relationship with God. In the prayer, Jesus reminds us that we belong to him and therefore to God. For we have been given a Name that the world cannot take away.

In these days after our Lord's Ascension, we remember that Christ has entered into heaven on our behalf. Now he prays for us, day and night, within the heavenly temple. Jesus sits at the right hand of God, which is not so much a place, as a position of authority near to God's own heart.

By his Ascension and exaltation to the Father's right hand, Jesus consummates the purpose of the Incarnation. He brings our very flesh--the fullness of our humanity--into the near presence of God. In so doing, he brings our brokenness and all our various needs before God. And we have his promise--his sure and certain promise--that no matter what the world may bring, no matter what may happen to us, God will hear and answer our prayers. Perhaps not always in the ways we want, but in the ways we truly need.

And so, brothers and sisters, "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. "

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Through the valley of the shadow of death

By Donald Schell

I’d visited Joe in the hospital several times before he fell into the coma. The cancer was taking him quickly. Joe had co-chaired the parish search committee that had taken the big risk of calling me, a divorced twenty-nine year old priest from across the country, to be their rector. It hadn’t worked out as he’d hoped, I guess. After Joe died, I learned that he and his co-chair had taken the big risk of insisting that their good friend, my predecessor, retire for the good of the congregation. When I came, the congregation was mostly people in their 60’s (the age I am now). The search committee was looking for someone to lead change and attract new young families.

Joe’s co-chair on the search committee was mayor of a small town a couple of miles out from our parish. Small town politics and conflict in his police department had made him courageous even when he was a target, which was a good a thing, because change came hard to our little congregation. We introduced the brand new 1976 Proposed Book of Common Prayer to the parish, instituted every Sunday communion and shared it with young children, and sang more of the liturgy than some believed was appropriate. I was grateful that Joe’s co-chair was ready to cover my back; he and I talked over everything. Sometimes he counseled patience or steered me from crazy risks, sometimes he stubbornly made me see the good in someone in the parish who was angry, upset, and speculating that I’d come to destroy the church, and even when his friends made no sense to him or he thought I was being headstrong again, he stood beside me in conflict.

Joe’s particular goodness made him more shepherd than warrior or diplomat - Joe was faithful to his old friends. His ear was ready with sympathy for anyone who was upset, angry, or condemning of changes we were making. His heart went out to old-timers, and he made their pain and grief at every change his own. When the new younger adults began asking for a voice in running things, Joe reminisced with old-timers about building the church, brick by brick with their own hands twenty years before.

For a while he became their messenger
- They don’t know where you’re getting all this stuff.
- They just don’t feel like it’s their church anymore.
- We had our ways.
- Most of us chose the Episcopal Church.
- You keep telling us the church is change and we don’t see why.
- They don’t see why.
- They just don’t trust you.
- We built this church with our own hands.

The messages shifted back and forth that way between “they” and “we.” Eventually Joe’s being their ready ear and voice made him their leader.

Joe’s shepherding fit him well. Years before he’d literally spent a summer herding sheep. Before Joe and I quit talking, he’d told me of an early Rocky Mountain snowstorm that summer that had stranded him and the sheep in a high altitude pasture.

Sudden snow had made it impossible to get the sheep down the mountain and back to his camp. As darkness descended he drew the sheep in close in a tight circle on the ground, picked his way into the center of the circle, and wiggled in to lie on the ground surrounded by warm sheep bodies, sheep breath and wet wool. Snow continued to fall through the night. Joe recited the 23rd Psalm quietly to himself and then said his “Now I lay me down to sleep,” hoping he would not actually “die before I wake.”

Next morning he woke covered with a layer of snow, but alive and well. He stood in the radiance of morning sunshine and shook off the snow as the sheep did the same.

“The one good thing about this new Prayer Book of yours,” he’d told me, “is that we’ve got ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,’ in the words we all know.” He appreciated that the Rite I burial office included the King James Version of Psalm 23.

As Joe’s friends got angrier, and with me welcoming new strangers who volunteered for tasks and wanted to run for vestry, Joe found it harder and harder to talk to me. I called on Joe trying to talk it through. The last of those visits, when I knocked at his front door, Joe’s wife came to the door shaking her head. “He doesn’t see the point.” “You mean he won’t talk with me?” “I guess not.”

About a year later I got word of his cancer. It was probably that long since I’d seen Joe. I drove out to his place and knocked on the familiar door. This time he welcomed me himself. “I’m surprised you’d come,” he said smiling wryly. He invited me in to sit and talk and be quiet.

I watched him walk across the living room. He was hunched over with pain in his abdomen and his steps were slow and sitting down slower, but we talked, and from that day we fell into a routine of me visiting him a couple of times a week. I’d taken some risk knocking on his door. Joe took the bigger risk - he let me, the kid, the troublemaker, be his pastor. He began telling me stories again, rich stories of his life as a rancher and cattle broker, more sheep herding stories, memories of rocky desert and huge sky and mountain pastures that he loved, stories of ranching friends and homesteading farmer friends, memories of pulling over to watch a radiant red sunsets as he returned from a cattle buying expedition to a remote ranch. As he felt himself nearing death he told me stories of people he loved who had died well.

Eventually his pain got too great for him to be at home, and he was getting too weak to stand or sit. We didn’t have hospice care in our town. Getting adequate pain management meant he’d die in the hospital. I visited him there daily and continued visiting after he fell into a coma. I’d take Joe’s hand and pray aloud with him and then just sit for a little while longer holding his hand. When it was time to leave I’d pat his hand again and say “good-by” out loud. It was what I’d learned in CPE not so many years before - “Talk to people in coma. Hearing seems to be the last of our senses to go.”

The day I’m remembering was my second to the last visit with Joe. Something had changed. His breathing was labored. The nurse said death was close. When I sat with Joe and took his hand, something reminded me of Joe’s story of sheep in the snowstorm. With my free hand I opened my Prayer Book to Psalm 23 and slowly and deliberately read the version he loved -

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He began so quietly I’m not sure when I first noticed Joe’s voice speaking with me, his lips barely moving.

He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

We finished. He breathing was as labored as it had been. I turned to look at him and his eyes were still under his eyelids. Nothing in his face or presence reflected what we’d just done, what he’d just said, yet somehow those words he’d heard had bridged that unbridgeable gap between my consciousness in his hospital room and his wherever it was in his coma.

We spent that moment together somewhere far beyond our disagreements. I felt it as a moment of our seeing and knowing one another, a final remaking or restoration of care and respect for one another. And the moment was powered by memory, and by spoken words and by memorization.

The twenty-third psalm had become a part of Joe’s body and soul. He’d rooted it in his neurology where it became a means of our making peace.

I think on my startled hearing of Joe’s voice and remember finishing that evening as I left his room, walking the hospital corridor calling to mind prayers and songs I knew by heart to find what I could speak from coma.

Something from that night lives in questions I’ve worked on ever since: How do we form people in community? And what’s our liturgy for?

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is
President of All Saints Company.

Praying "Abba, father"

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Bill Carroll

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial."

And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
(Luke 11:1-13)

Lord, teach us to pray.

When his disciples ask him this, Jesus responds with a prayer we pray every day. The Our Father is deceptively simple. To pray it rightly plunges us into a world of grace—into the heart of Jesus’ own relationship with the one he called “Abba, Father.” How often, though, these words become rote recitation, rather than a mind-blowing revelation of God.

Familiarity is not the only obstacle to overcome. Feminist scholars have rightly put into question a one-sidedly masculine image of God. We need a broader spectrum of images, including feminine ones. Good examples are given in the Scriptures. But we ought not to lose sight of what “Abba, Father” meant to Jesus or underestimate the significance of the prayer he taught us.

For Jesus, the Father is the source of all goodness, the giver of our daily bread, and the wellspring of forgiveness and mercy. He has nothing to do with the God of patriarchal religion. Bathed in glory, he is powerful and generous beyond measure. Without reservation, he gives of himself to others, bringing them into being, holding them in life, and blessing them with more gifts than they could ever receive. The Father of Jesus has nothing to do with violence or domination of any kind.

Jesus goes on to teach us about persisting in prayer and boldly asking for what we need: Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Prayer isn’t magic. No special words can coerce God to give us what we want. Petitionary prayer is instead an appeal to the generous Source of life and light, who is always, already at work and knows our needs before we ask. Prayer involves aligning ourselves with the hidden Wisdom at work throughout the universe. When we pray, we take sides with God’s love, God’s will, God’s Kingdom. Prayer involves a fundamental breakthrough in our relationship with God. In it, we join in Christ’s own prayer to the Father. Empty handed, we approach the mercy seat. We who have given ourselves to other masters come before God in all our poverty and weakness. And though we deserve nothing, God is never, ever stingy with us.

Martin Luther used to speak about our tendency to whittle God down, to create a small god, with whom we could trade for favors. Somehow it seems easier to have a god with whom we can enter a quid pro quo. Perhaps we think we could oblige him to hear us: if only we were holy enough, if only we said the right words in the right way or could somehow earn his affection. The problem with such a god is that we can never do enough to please him. He is made in the image of fallen humanity, and we are not generous. We are shot through with unforgiveness and resentment—even malice. And, if for a while we seem able to appease this god and live with a clean conscience, we are well on our way to despair.

But the Living God is not like that. We come to this God empty-handed, or we do not come at all. By free grace, God renews us in God’s own image and likeness. God reestablishes us in our created goodness and restores our capacity to love—without the lies and duplicity and half-hearted evasions that mar our best attempts at being human.

A while ago, I shared with you a bit from Thomas Merton’s teaching on humility and spiritual poverty. Today, in light of our Gospel reading, I would like to explore his retelling of the myth of Prometheus, found in the collection of essays called Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1964). Prometheus, you will recall, stole fire from the gods and was severely punished. Zeus chained him to a rock, and he had his liver torn out each day by vultures.

Merton contrasts Hesiod’s version of the story, which glories in the rebel punished and the Olympian order restored, with that of Aeschylus, with its far more complex portrait of a Zeus infected with hubris. (To these, we might add Shelly’s version, with its Romantic celebration of humanity in rebellion.)

For Merton, the fundamental sin of Prometheus is neither theft nor rebellion but idolatry. And Merton’s analysis of idolatry has much in common with Luther’s. Prometheus rebels, because he has placed his heart’s trust in something less than God. Here is what Merton says:

The small gods men have made for themselves are jealous fathers, only a little greater than their sons, only a little stronger, only a little wiser. Immortal fathers, afraid of their mortal children, they are unjustly protected by a too fortunate immortality. To fight with them requires at once heroism and despair. The man who does not know the living God is condemned, by his own gods, to this despair: because, knowing that he has made his own gods, he cannot help hoping that he will be able to overthrow them.

And so, according to Merton, we ought not to trust in the Olympian gods, or the other idols we manufacture for ourselves, because an inadequate object of trust leads inevitably to despair. These “household gods”—these “fire-hoarders”—use and abuse us as they squabble among themselves. They are miserly rivals of humankind, keeping the things we need clutched tight and locked safely away.

Not so with the Living God. This God of abundant and amazing grace has willed to give us everything as a free gift. Again, listen to these words from Merton:

Christ who had in Himself all the riches of God and all the poverty of Prometheus, came down with the fire Prometheus needed, hidden in His heart. And He had himself put to death, next to the thief Prometheus in order to show him that in reality God cannot seek to keep anything good to Himself alone. Far from killing the man who seeks the divine fire, the living God will himself pass through death so that man may have what is destined for him.

Brothers and sisters, as we approach the altar, with empty hands and feeble hearts, may we remember that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom. As we come to the climax of the Eucharistic Prayer, may we pray together as Jesus taught us—in simplicity, sincerity, and truth.

For when we pray “Abba, Father,” we are united as his brothers and sisters. We are caught up once more in his own dying and rising, as he renews the gift that is in us by Holy Baptism. For we are children of his Father, and he has passed through death, to fill us with his love.

Beloved, if we, who are evil, know how to give our children good gifts, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

Lord, teach us to pray.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

Read the Psalms. Write a psalm

By Leo Campos

What do we use language for? In a church setting how is language used? On Sundays what is th elanguage you use, and how does it compare to your Monday language? We tend to think of language as this “thing” that points to an experience. The experience (“Look at this tree”) is “out there” and language points us to it (“looking”, “tree”). But language itself is an experience. If you are trying to be fully present to this moment you should get lost in the experience of language itself.

Church language, BIble language is also a vaccine. It contains some agent (words) that resembles the disease (divorcing ourselves from God’s Reality, the Fall, Babel as well) . Vaccines are made from weakened or killed forms of the disease. So good word-vaccines are made of neutralized strong emotional statements (“dash the babies against the rock”). Strong vaccine! But it is neutral in the sense that it is not my experience or my actions which are described, so it gives me an “out” a way to not get too involved. And yet these are all actions I could (and probably would) commit in the right circumstances.

So through skillful use of language we can overcome the poison which is language. Thus a common exercise is to read the psalms over and over. They are a vaccine against our crass use of language. They refine and purify our own language until all we say and all we hear is psalm.

For example here is a vestry psalm (no resemblance to my wonderful colleagues at my vestry):

Have been having some issues with the leaders The vestry is full of barking dogs They prowl around growling, keeping everyone in line They bite with their teeth, they hit everyone with their rules They prod the people with their regulatory spears What are your “job duties” they ask? We will tell you what God says! O God I dislike interlopers who say “You are not godly unless...” Lord come quickly and rid us of all these rule-mongers Why can’t people just trust in your love? They email me harsh words, make demands But I want only to have space to be with you In the silence of the evening I want to sit Content as a chick waiting for you

And here's a psalm about looking forward to a massage:

After the work of days and days After the tending of data, planting of reports, the cycle of meetings Today O Lord I get to be tended. Please Lord God of Life do not let me be disappointed. Let their hands be skillful who will tend your servant Lord, I cry out to you let their hands be supple With a stronger body O lord I will sing for joy and give you praise!

You will find much in your own life which is psalmody, if you listen carefully to language, and become a prayerful presence to your own life.

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude (, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

Daily prayer that works for us

By Donald Schell

How many tries did it take to start a morning prayer practice that worked for my wife and me? I've lost track.

Maybe I should say “re-start a regular practice of daily prayer” because what made me want to be saying prayers was daily morning and evening prayer at General Seminary 1969 - 1971, and even more my first four years as a priest at the Episcopal Church at Yale from 1972-76, where twenty or so of us gathered to sing Evening Prayer and Eucharist every Monday through Friday in term. Those four years were a gift and joy that were hard to leave when I went to be rector of a parish in Idaho.

The students in our college chaplaincy lived and studied in walking distance of Dwight Chapel on Yale’s Old Campus, so our 5 p.m. daily office and Eucharist slipped easily into a slot when their afternoon studies were either done or becoming half-hearted, and they found friends, song and prayer a welcome respite. Finishing our prayers at 6 p.m. meant many of us would go to dinner together afterwards in the dining hall of one of the Yale colleges. The memory of those four years kept me wanting to ‘re-start’ something daily.

My first year in Idaho I made a closet in our house into a chapel and went to it frequently to pray the psalms appointed for the day and sit silently for fifteen minutes of praying the Jesus Prayer. For a new rector facing a congregation upset at the new 1976 Proposed Book of Common Prayer, the prayer time was a lifeline. One of the two times I’ve heard Jesus address me happened in that homemade prayer place. It was a hearing in prayer that changed everything, but even so, there were days I skipped whispering to myself, ‘I should do this every day.’

In 1980 when we moved to San Francisco to help Rick Fabian found St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, he and I planned to gather our nascent congregation for some kind of daily prayer as we’d done with the students at Episcopal Church at Yale, but finding a daily time to gather proved much more difficult than it had been at Yale. Proximity and parishioners who shared living schedules had been our gift in the chaplaincy setting.

From its beginning, even when the group was very small, St. Gregory’s drew from all over the city and across the Bay Bridge in Oakland and Berkeley. Many urban churches, particularly those with a distinctive character, ‘destination churches,’ face this challenge. Twenty minutes away by car on Sunday morning became an hour in weekday traffic. It took St. Gregory’s about twenty years to find its way to a daily morning prayer, twenty years and a handful of committed laypeople who lived quite near.

Meanwhile, repeatedly and sporadically I tried to find a daily prayer practice my wife and I could share. At one point I’d become an associate of one of our Episcopal monastic orders, but to make certain I could sustain their associate’s rule of life, I first prayed the daily office for a whole year, 365 days. She was supportive and encouraging, but not part of the experiment. At the end of that year, I wrote to the religious community’s director of associates and asked to be enrolled. Then almost immediately something in me suddenly balked at being accountable to someone else for doing what I’d done freely for the year previous. My daily prayer discipline came a crashing halt, so I sent my letter asking to be removed from the associate’s list a few weeks after I’d received my acceptance letter in the mail.

There were more bumps on the road, but each one had the same outcome – thinking, believing, wishing I or we wanted to be praying daily, looking for a structure, not finding one or trying one on for a while and not seeing my way to make it stick.

What changed in 2001 when my wife made her first trip to Africa with her new work as International Programs Director for the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance? [ES1] On the way she and Sally and Bill Rankin (Bill’s GAIA’s president) spent a couple of days in England with Bill’s old seminary classmate from EDS, Peter Selby, an Englishman who’d returned to the UK and had become bishop of Worcester. Bishop Selby and his wife welcomed Ellen and the Rankins to their official residence, the medieval bishop’s palace, and Ellen accepted the bishop and his wife’s invitation to join them for morning prayer in the chapel attached to the palace. Mrs. Selby told Ellen how much pleasure she and her husband took in their long history of daily prayer, and Ellen came back saying, ‘We’re just going to do this.’ And we did.
We did and it stuck. What was different from my and our previous attempts?

Well, first of all, I must confess, it was different that the priest, me, wasn’t in charge. I have a liturgist’s determination about what shared prayer should look like. Ellen took a different tack, “We’re going to keep this really simple. Let’s just read some Bible and a couple of psalms, have some silence, offer intercessions as we’re moved to, and say the Lord’s Prayer.” In substance that’s what we’ve been doing for the last nine years.

Another change in circumstance is that our children were mostly grown up. Our youngest was in high school when we began, and he could get himself ready to go in the morning.
And we settled on morning because (now beyond the happy domestic chaos we’d known when we had to get various children up, dressed, and off to school), we knew we could make morning a dependable time.

Our existing morning routine offered another kind of support. For some years I’d been making us tea and a simple breakfast to have in bed together. Before we began daily prayers we’d been having a quiet time for conversation as we watched the morning begin. After our breakfast in bed, I’d leave to go to Aikido (a self-defensive martial arts which is also part of my daily spiritual practice). The pre-morning prayer routine had me getting up at 6.

Our new routine to accommodate morning prayer moved wake-up to 5:30. When I was thirty, that hour would have seemed insane. In my 50’s it seemed easy. And now I particularly love the season when I’m making tea and oatmeal in the dark and we can watch an entire sunrise from first hint of green-blue light on the horizon to a line of gold, to sun rising above the mountains to make the waters of San Francisco Bay shine.

Ellen’s simplification of morning prayer rested on doing something we wanted to do. Without me trying to make it ‘right,’ we’ve also given ourselves permission to shape it beyond the lectionary, and to allow ourselves reflective conversation on the texts we’re reading.
When the Prayer Book daily office lectionary had us reading stories of David the shepherd and David the King, Ellen said she wasn’t getting the sweep of the story and asked if we could just start over and read through I and II Samuel a chapter a day. We did and so enjoyed (and sometimes stumbled over) the folkloric sweep and often-recognizable political propaganda that portrayed a sometimes ruthless, sometimes tragically impulsive leader as the founder of the Messiah’s line. When I read a review of R. Crumb’s graphic novel of Genesis, I said I hoped we could read that after we finished I and II Samuel. We’ve been reading Genesis for the past month and a bit, reading a chapter a day. The skeptical cartoonist’s patient illustration of the whole book, a frame at a time, slows us down to see and hear what the familiar stories actually say. The repetitions and contradictions of the stitched together sources are even more evident in the frame-by-frame format.

What we’ve found in this homemade morning prayer is something we love doing and look forward to, continuity between speaking and silence, between conversation together and prayer and listening (sometimes perplexed or very impatient). It’s a long circuitous route finding our way here from the daily office and Eucharist at the Episcopal Church at Yale, but it’s in very similar territory – shared prayer for one thing, a praying that fits the actual rhythm of our day for another.

Most of all, we stuck with a daily practice that was shaped by desire and pleasure, and we’ve that our morning prayer remains a pleasure not only in our times of gratitude and joy but even in times of uncertainty and fear.

As simple, and profound, as the days of the week

By Derek Olsen

My younger daughter has been running around the house singing a song from preschool; it’s called “Days of the Week” and it’s to the tune of the Adam’s Family theme complete with finger-snaps. So—for no better reason than that—I’ve had the days of the week on my mind.

If I rail against those who fiddle with the Prayer Book liturgies, it’s typically on the grounds that the texts and arrangements that we have received transmit centuries of theological habit and reflection. All too often these are cast away not with malice aforethought, but simple ignorance—we just don’t realize what we wander by and what we cast away. Let me offer as an example of the depths of our Prayer Book a brief and entirely non-exhaustive glance at a topic as basic as…the days of the week.

Most of us are pretty clear on Sundays—Sunday is the day we go to church and have the Eucharist, right? Well, it is now. Sundays have always held a special place in the lives of Christians but exactly what we do together then has not always been so clear. The very first (and still rather catholic) Book of Common Prayer in 1549 appointed Collects and Lessons “to be used at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper” for all the Sundays of the year. The Readings for daily Morning and Evening Prayer moved through the Scriptures sequentially taking no notice of the day of the week and thus offering an ancient monastic pattern: Daily Prayer punctuated by celebration of the Eucharist on Sundays and Feast Days. A spare ten years later, Elizabeth’s 1559 BCP offered a clear protestant option, a special table appointing readings for Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays. Elizabeth’s pattern dominated Anglican life for the following centuries, flowing into the first American Books of Common Prayer, and—aside from the Anglo-Catholic wing and the Parish Communion Movement—the chief Sunday service was Morning Prayer.

What happened between now and then? Quite simply—Vatican II and the accompanying Liturgical Renewal Movement. Reaching back to the earliest recoverable Christian paradigms, Sunday was given pride of place and the centrality of the Eucharist was emphasized. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Consilium states at the very head of its decrees on liturgical time:

“…the Lord's day is the original feast day, and it should be proposed to the piety of the faithful and taught to them so that it may become in fact a day of joy and of freedom from work. Other celebrations, unless they be truly of greatest importance, shall not have precedence over the Sunday which is the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year.”
Following this thought—and reaching back to the pattern enshrined in the 1549 BCP—our Prayer Book states at its start that “The Holy Eucharist [is] the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts…” (p. 13). Following the notion that Sundays are “the foundation and kernel of the whole liturgical year,” Sundays—all Sundays—are designated as the second highest class of feast in the section on the Calendar (p. 16). The logic is placed at the start: “All Sundays of the year are feasts of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Every Sunday, then is a little Easter; every Sunday is a festival of the Resurrection.

But then we get to the rest of the week—and what we find there might surprise us… There’s another weekday lifted up as special in our Prayer Book’s directions on the Calendar. If you let your eye move from the Sundays in numbered section 2 on page 16 and drift across the page to page 17’s numbered section 4 you’ll find this notice under the heading “Days of Special Devotion”:

“The following days are observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial: . . . Good Friday and all other Fridays of the year, except for Fridays in the Christmas and Easter seasons, and any Feasts of our Lord which occur on a Friday.”
Everybody knows about Sundays—Fridays, well, they’re a bit less observed. However, the observance of Fridays enshrine a fundamental Christian principle of balance. We believe that the love of God in Christ has sanctified and transformed our whole life—not just the happy bits. Christ (as Hebrews reminds us) was like us in all things except sin and walked the same paths of pain and sorrow that we tread. If every Sunday is a festival of the resurrection (and it is), then it is only fitting that each Friday (except during our high-party seasons) be likewise a remembrance of the cross.

Interestingly, even through our protestant periods Fridays have been identified as special times of remembrance. The first BCP to explicitly detail days of feasting and fasting, the theoretically normative English 1662 Book, states that “All the Fridays in the year, except Christmas Day [if it should fall on a Friday]” are days of fasting or abstinence. (And I’ll pass in silence over the troubles that the simple “or” caused among the scrupulous!)

Sundays and Fridays—these are the weekdays that get special treatment. But I’ll let you in on at least one other weekday pattern concealed within our book… As Eucharistic piety rose in the early medieval period, cathedrals and monasteries began offering masses every day. But outside of Lent, Propers were only appointed for Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays—what services were to be used on the others? Furthermore monastic communities began offering two masses daily—only one of which could be the Mass of the Day. What to do with the other? The answer was the votive mass: a celebration of the Eucharist with special intentions for problems facing the people (plagues, storms, Vikings, etc.). But when none of these perils threatened, a standardized pattern sprang up that recommended certain votives for certain days of the week:

• Sundays celebrated the Holy Trinity,
• Mondays, the Holy Spirit,
• Tuesdays, the Holy Angels,
• Wednesdays, All Saints,
• Thursdays, the Holy Eucharist
• Fridays, the Holy Cross,
• Saturdays, the Blessed Virgin Mary

(From Andrew Hughes’s Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office, page 157). There was local variation, of course, especially on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. My favorite 10th century English missals, for instance, celebrate Holy Wisdom and Holy Love on some of these weekdays instead.

Now, what does this have to do with the days of the week in our Prayer Book? Just this: flip to page 251 if you’re a contemporary sort of person, or page 199 if you like your language traditional… Here you’ll find the collects appointed for “Various Occasions”; meet the BCP’s votive masses. And, interestingly enough, here are the first seven:

• Of the Holy Trinity
• Of the Holy Spirit
• Of the Holy Angels
• Of the Incarnation
• Of the Holy Eucharist (specifically recommended for Thursdays)
• Of the Holy Cross (specifically recommended for Fridays)
• For All Baptized Christians

With the exception of some apparent scruples over the place of the saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the votives are the same! (In fact, if you flipped the fourth and the seventh you’d come even closer still…) Furthermore, if you look hard at the collects at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer you’ll find echoes there too of the ancient weekly pattern.

So why do these patterns matter? First, they shatter the cultural assumption that attempts to restrict our faith to Sundays. The God who entered time has sanctified our time and blessed our days; these patterns remind us to return the favor. Second, they present us with the patterns of Christ in miniature—almost a weekly repetition of the yearly liturgical cycles. Third, they remind us weekly of the fundamentals: of the Spirit that blows through our lives, of the mystery of the Word made flesh, of Christ’s self-giving on the cross and in the meal.

The Prayer Book is filled with patterns and possibilities like these. But they do us little good if we ignore them or alter them without thought. This week I urge you to consider the patterns, consider the habits, into which the Prayer Book invites us. Consider, for instance, the days of the week...

Dr. Derek Olsen recently finished his Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

In praise of adoration

By Martin L. Smith

What is your very earliest memory? How far back can you push the frontier of remembrance until it will go no further? I thought of this during a brief halt in my dusting last week after I had rubbed the frame of an old photograph of my Ukrainian grandmother. I had a flashback to a moment of terror I had before I was 3, when a sparrow flew into the bathroom, scaring me to death. I staggered onto the landing with my pants entangling my ankles, wailing. Relief came with the sight of my grandmother hauling herself up the stairs to rescue me, murmuring soothing words in a muddle of Russian and English and waving a Mars bar.

What is your earliest spiritual experience? How far back do you go to reach the first time you had some intimation of the Holy One? I must have been 4. My mother had to take me to the office one day, where she worked as the secretary of a formidable stock-broker, Miss Moscrop-Robinson. I was forced to come to terms with her hideous, snuffling pug-dog as I whiled away the hours, listening to the tap of the typewriter and the clanging of the clock. But I must have been good, because my mother gave in to my insistence that we visit a peculiar building across the road before going home. I could tell this made her uncomfortable but I was intrigued by the pointed black chimney that towered over the entrance, and I could see that people were coming in and out. I was astonished by what we found inside. Men and women were scattered around sitting very still. Some were kneeling. Others were lighting candles. Beautiful colored windows glowed. The walls were the hue of a thrush’s egg. I could tell that something quite wonderful was going on, even though nothing appeared to be happening. There was a look on people’s upturned faces I had never seen before. They were paying attention to something I couldn’t see that made them serious and calm. I was thrilled. I was told this was a church.

No one in my family practiced religion, but I must have pumped my mother later for further explanations, and she must have drawn on her experience at a convent grammar school to do her best to satisfy my questions. What were those people doing? “Adoration.” Somehow I got it, and to everyone’s bafflement by my 5th birthday I was announcing my intention of becoming a priest.

Sometimes first impressions give us a spool of thread to be unwound as we negotiate the labyrinth of life, the thread we can use for getting home again wherever the twists and turns have taken us. There’s something in me that is going to light up when we start singing again soon, “O come, let us adore him.” Adoration. I can’t help thinking that this belongs to the core of religion for all, and if it is relegated to the attic or pushed offstage then that seems to me a church’s worst betrayal. When I was very small I could tell that perfectly ordinary people going about their daily work (not some special niche group interested in spirituality, as we so often imagine today) had been initiated into a practice, an activity, a way that they wanted to return to again and again, in which they let themselves experience a kind of rapture. There in the midst of ordinary activities in this dirty industrial town, they could let themselves go and bask for while in the sheer reality of a loving God. Those who ached from life’s demands could soak in God like a hot bath. Those who felt cold and wet could simply “dry off in the sunshine of his love,” as Therese of Lisieux would say. Or they could simply look at God, “looking at them lovingly and humbly,” as her namesake Teresa of Avila put it, and it wasn’t a big deal, something they were in the habit of doing before they caught the bus home.

I can’t accept that adoration is some kind of special faculty for a few. The folks I saw praying in St Marie’s would have been deeply perplexed by the notion that it was for contemplatives. Wasn’t this simply the core of religion? I saw it, I felt it and I suppose I was unselfconsciously coached in it by working people with no sophistication. My earliest spiritual director was Nora, our Irish cleaning lady. She adored Christ, and actually adoring was for her as concrete and real as swimming. It wasn’t an idea. It was something she knew how to do and she assumed that it was what we were born for, and that the feel for it was latent in everyone. She was poor, but she felt rich, and it saddened her whenever she found that someone had not discovered that God is wonderful.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, in Washington, D.C.

Walking the way of the psalms

By Leo Campos

Lately my kids discovered passwords. Not the type we use on computers, but rather the daily shibboleths we have. For example, my 3-year-old is having to learn the "Please" password. Without the password he will not gain access to whatever goods or services he needs from mother or father. His older brother has taken the password game to a whole new level.

He will say: "What's the magic word?"

The younger one will diligently say "Please."

"Wrong," the older one says. "the magic word is 'magic word'."

Round and round they go, trying to out trick each other, in the verbal equivalent of computer hacking.

The other night I was retelling the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves to them. I think the question came up regarding "Open sesame" and what exactly is "sesame". At any rate, it was important that Ali Baba use the correct password. To say "Open bananas" would not work no matter how heartfelt, how loudly it was shouted.

One, or perhaps "the", most marked trait of monastics of any stripe are their focus on the psalms as a primary way of prayer. Be it Benedictines chanting in choir or Jesuits whispering psalms to themselves as they go about the world, psalms are part and parcel of a monastic's toolbox.

I have been asked, by those who begin to be more concerted in their spiritual efforts how to pray the psalms - as if the psalms will open Ali Baba's cave. Apart from learning some secret chanting technique, people are concerned about what appears to be the spiritual and emotional immaturity of the psalm composers. The conversation usually goes something like this:

"David is whining again! I do not know how I can be uplifted by his psalms!"

"Why do you think he is whining?"

"Because he keeps blaming everyone else for his problems. Does he really think he is perfect?"

"And you think this is wrong?"

"Of course it is wrong! No one is blameless. He is falling into this victim-hood trap!"

"And the way to avoid it is?"

"To accept responsibility, of course! To rely on God!"

"So in your spiritual life you live with full realization that the things that happen to you are really your fault? Or God's?"

It is easy for us to blame David for blaming others. But the opposite view is equally unbalanced. We cannot blame ourselves for everything that happens either! If you do that you are going down the road of such New Age mumbo-jumbo as the Prosperity Gospel and the stuff preached on the book The Secret. If you blame God for everything then you are falling into some sort of Calvinistic fatalism which denies the freedom which God has granted you.

So there has to be a balance, of course. But this work of balancing your life is not the purpose of the psalms. They are not there to balance you, but rather to expose your heart to its own imbalances.

Another very important part of the psalms is what it feeds us. We are what we eat, or to put it more generally, we will become like whatever we give our attention to. If you think and dream about money then everything you see and do is colored by money, value, profit and loss. The same thing goes to any of the eight wrong thoughts as outline by Evagrius. That is why they are "deadly". They deaden your heart and spirit. Jesus asks us to find our hearts by looking at what we treasure. This is not as complicated as it seems. What do you treasure?

There is another level of reading the psalms which is important - and this is to just read the psalms. Let me tell you what I mean. Let us take a well-known psalm such as the 23rd psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want..." But how we usually read it is to put a lot of silent commentary between the ideas. Add emphasis or some personal "tone" to each psalm. If your mind is like mine the inner dialog tends to be both absurd and profane.

To really make the psalms your way, or as the Camaldolese would say it "the way is in the psalms", you need to resist the temptation to follow any association of ideas. You just take the one psalm in front of you and it alone. You can follow the various connections to specific Old Testament passages later when you do Bible study. There will be other times for that. You can also let the psalms inspire your thinking at other times of the day, and even to let your prayer life be circumscribed by the psalms. This is all very good and profitable, but it is not using the psalter as a tool.

Read a psalm very slowly. At first read it as if there was a comma between each word: "The, Lord, is, my, shepherd." Then do it as if there was a stop: "The. Lord. Is. My. Shepherd." But do not put any special emphasis in any of the words. Just each word at a time. With plenty of silence around them.

Of course, at this rate it will take you about 10 minutes to recite the 23rd psalm. Clearly you cannot go through the psalter with a lot of speed! You may end up spending a week or more on the longer psalms, like 119. But so what? What's the hurry? You can read through and study and cross reference the psalms during your Bible study time. But when you are using them to pray just say the psalms.

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude, a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the "tech guy" for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

Freaks for Christ: Mourning Brother Squirrel

By Christopher Evans

Imagine someone holding a funeral for a squirrel on the roadside as you drive to work. Crazy, no? Probably.

Some time back as I drove to work, I noticed a dead squirrel in the middle of the opposite lane. Two other squirrels were trying to rouse him, shaking his body to and fro without success. A third was chattering from the bank on the side of the road, clearly agitated. They were all running back and across the road. Should I stop? Keep going? I continued driving on. I had nearly made it into the parking lot at work when my fellow-feeling hit. In their attempts to help their fellow squirrel, now presumably dead, one of the other squirrels might get killed as well.

So, I turned around and drove back. I parked. I got out and searched through the trunk, coming up with some cardboard and a plastic lid with which to move his body. As I moved toward his body, one squirrel was trying to move his body, little legs widespread, pushing the body toward the curb with great difficulty. I paused as a truck approached, put my hand up to indicate slow down, and waived the driver around. I turned back to the body. He, for he was clearly male, was dead. I was relieved for that much for his own sake and for mine, as I do not know what I would have done if he were still alive and suffering ever so slowly to death from crushed innards. His right-hand eye was popped clear out of its socket. His teeth were pushed clear forward nearly out of his mouth, blood beginning to dry on his lips. I stooped down and scooped his furry tan-and-black body onto the hard plastic lid using the piece of cardboard. I moved his body to the side of the road beneath a three evergreen trees.

I placed his body on the ground, resting his paws in his breast, and having no spade with which to dig, I did my best to cover his body with earth using the plastic lid which I’d used to move his body. And with one squirrel on the ground to my left observing, another nearby in a tree chattering, and the third to my right up another tree, I made the Sign of the Cross, paused with them for a moment of silence, and then raising my hands in the orans position, I chanted aloud a version of my “Roadkill Prayer”:

Blessed are you, O God of all creation, we give you thanks for the life of this squirrel, your creature. Now receive him into your eternal care where he might enjoy you forever according to his estate; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I closed with the Sign of the Cross. Yes, it all felt a little silly at near 8:00 AM on a workday morn. A man was mowing his law across the street. What must he have thought as I stood there praying with three very twitchy squirrels momentarily still? Another Bay Area freak?

But the gesture was profoundly right. I was changed. It is as if scales began to fall from my eyes just a bit. Who pauses to mourn a squirrel? To think anew about how we drive without care of our surrounds and those who inhabit them with us? There are countless millions of these pesky rodents. Yet, this squirrel was a fellow creature, a unique creation of flesh and blood whom God declared “good, indeed, very good.” He too is a subject of God’s care and concern in his own right irrespective of how he stands in relation to us human beings. God hears his “Holy, holy, holy” with our own, as the Psalmist reminds: “All thy works shall give thanks to thee, O Lord, and all thy saints shall bless thee!”

In our anthropocentrism, we are only now discovering the vast and varied intelligence of our fellow creatures and the relationship of ours to theirs. And as our own existence and survival is pressed, we are just beginning to understand the ecological and cosmological dimensions of our faith in Christ and calling as Christians. We need not go far to readjust our vision. We need only put on our Prayer Book lens to recover a sense of reverence.

This line of oblation from Prayer D in our Prayer Book exemplifies and sums our role in Christ and our proper orientation to all of creation: “and offering to you, from the gifts you have given us, this bread and this cup, we praise you and we bless you.” In the Orthodox tradition from which Prayer D heavily borrows, in Jesus Christ we are priests of creation, called to glorify, bless, and praise God without ceasing and to pray for and serve all of God’s creatures as bearers of blessing.

To give thanks, eucharist, is our rightful place at Holy Communion as well as in the Daily Office. These properly mark our daily life and work as thanksgiving in their own right. Thanksgiving and blessing and service are our “dominion” and “rule,” “right” and “image.” Our Prayer Book stands in complete contrast to those who justify the “rape of the earth” for the sake of production, consumption, and progress.

Tongues wagged as my own bishop, Bishop Steven Charleston, addressed the close of General Convention 2009 with a prophetic challenge: This earth, “our island home” is in grave peril. Species are dying. Biomes are changing too rapidly for adaptation. Toxins are killing everything. We cannot keep living like this.

While most paid all of their attention to matters of human sexuality, I rejoiced at the passage of resolutions addressing animal welfare. I am sure some eyes rolled at the passage of Resolution C078: Liturgy for Loss of a Companion Animal.

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That this 76th General Convention reaffirm that all animals are a part of All Creation, for which we are called to be stewards of God's gifts; and be it further

Resolved, That the Episcopal Church embrace the opportunity for pastoral care for people who grieve the loss of a companion animal; and be it further

Resolved, That this General Convention direct the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to develop liturgical resources to observe the loss of a companion animal and that it reoprt its work to the 77th General Convention.

Various groups within the Church have shown an interest in developing inclusive liturgies for events that touch people's lives, for which there currently exists no authorized rite. The bond between humans and their animal companions can be strong, causing a deep sense of loss, grief (or even guilt) over the animal's death, especially when dealing with the loss alone, without the presence of their community of faith, or having the preconception that such an event falls outside the interest of their church. Our animal companions provide a unique connection to creation and expand our sense of God's diverse gifts in creation. In many cases they also join us as partners in ministry, in such capacities as assistance animals, i.e., seeing eye dogs, etc. as well as therapy dogs and cats used in health care facilities and for pastoral care. An authorized rite in the Book of Occasional Services would give clergy and others a resource for offering pastoral care at the death of a companion animal.

How far-gone must the Episcopal Church be that they are passing legislation directing the development of rites for animals? Too few in the Episcopal Church know of the jabs the Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey has taken for developing precisely these sorts of liturgies and a theology of animals heavily rooted in the Incarnation upon which his thought and concern are based. We are witnessing the expansion of our lex orandi through revisiting and reappreciating our lex credendi: Christ’s Incarnation is for the sake of all flesh. No less than SS Benedict, David, Francis, and Seraphim could have told us as much, if we would but pay attention to our ancestors in faith. Again, the seeds are already planted in our Prayer Book and resources.

To bless God in Christ by the Spirit is the foundational act for our living, our serving, our dying. This is the embrace to which our Lord Christ calls us as images of His own “great High Priesthood,” in the words to the close of Prayer C. Reverence begins with what is in front of us by giving thanks for God’s goodness. A bow for He who comes in the Name of the Lord matters at the Thrice-Holy. A thanksgiving before eating daily bread acknowledges gift. A desire to see each person blessed by tangible graces and up-building words greets Christ. An unwillingness to pause in appreciation at the felling of a thousand-year old tree teaches blasphemy. The put-down of another makes flesh our curses. Or in F.D. Maurice’s words, “the Incarnation may be set aside in acts as well as words.” The recovery of this sense of wonder and awe at a God’s creation is a first step to finding our proper place again, that is, to learning humility. To recover reverence of God’s gifts is to profess the Incarnation.

Certainly, to offer words of thanksgiving for the loss of a domesticated animal companion will not save the planet. Nonetheless, to bless God for the life of just one animal, who has been a friend and companion, begins to have us think anew about our fellow creatures, about creation, about ourselves, about God. Such a gesture may be small, but it is significant step toward recognizing our coexistence with, our reliance upon, and our shared flesh as fellow creatures. And so we find these words from another resolution passed, D015:

Resolved, the House of Deputies concurring, That the 76th General Convention support the humane and merciful treatment of all of God's Creatures; and be it further

Resolved, That the General Convention urge Diocesan Environmental Commissions or Committees to provide information to educate our congregations about decisions that would affect the lives and health of endangered species, farmed food animals and domesticated animals; and be it further

Resolved, That each congregation be encouraged to refer this resolution to their outreach committee or other such venue in order to ensure the education and dissemination of information to their members about endangered species, farmed food animals and domesticated animals.

The Christian Tradition holds that God has created the earth and all that lives herein. It teaches that all God created is “good”, and further, that we are held accountable for the right stewardship of God's creation. A number of endangered species are rapidly becoming extinct; a notable example is the Red Knot bird that traverses between Argentina and the Arctic with a key food stop in New Jersey where one specific local species is under siege threatening the elimination of the Red Knot's critical food, the eggs of the horseshoe crab, by the crabs' over-capture as fishing bait. And overdevelopment of United States' virgin lands has put a large variety of indigenous species' existence in imminent jeopardy. Food animals continue to be cruelly and mercilessly treated: pregnant sows are totally confined in gestation crates, veal calves are penned in veal crates and are barely able to move around or even stand up; chickens are crammed together for life into battery cages in a space no larger than this page; geese are brutally force fed to make foie gras; grazing animals are fed antibiotics to increase size, that are then contained within their meat, passing these antibiotics on to consuming humans who become more and more vulnerable to resistant bacterial strains. Huge factory farms house animals in deplorable and unsanitary conditions resulting in foul run off, polluted ground water, and contamination linked to human diseases. Stressed food animals produce stress hormones. This can compromise their immune systems. Antibiotics are in turn routinely given to ensure that the animals are not overwhelmed by ambient microorganisms. Small doses of these antibiotics, showing up in the meat eaten by humans, actually increase human vulnerability to resistant strains of microorganisms. By education we can make a real difference in the level of awareness of these problems and practices. Congregations can become aware of the most vulnerable of God's creation and respect the dignity of “all things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all” (Cecil Frances Alexander, Hymn 405 in Hymnal 1982).

In all truth, to do so is to begin to recognize the height and depth and breadth of the Incarnation. In the words of our newer prayers, Prayer 3 of Enriching Our Worship: “through Jesus Christ, your eternal Word, the Wisdom from on high by whom you created all things.”

It is precisely these lines borrowing from the Prologue of John and the hymns of Colossians and Ephesians that inspired a revolution in theology—Creation is in Christ. As St Maximos the Confessor, F.D. Maurice, and Charles Gore and the Lux Mundi school discovered, Jesus Christ is a social Person. We are not autonomous, but embraced. In Christ is the whole of creation. In Christ we live and move and have our being. By Christ we have hope for all of God’s creatures. We are most ourselves in Christ. And we humans are charged to “live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he [who] sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” May we be freaks for Christ. Amen.

(For footnotes, click Read more.)

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Words for God

Psalm 116:1-8 Page 759, BCP

I love the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.
The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.
Then I called upon the Name of the LORD: *
"O LORD, I pray you, save my life."
Gracious is the LORD and righteous; *
our God is full of compassion.
The LORD watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and he helped me.
Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the LORD has treated you well.
For you have rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.
I will walk in the presence of the LORD *
in the land of the living.

By Ann Fontaine

Sometimes in church I take off on my own tack during the service, especially if I am in the congregation and not presiding or preaching. Sunday, September 14, was one of those days. We read this psalm in unison and I went over to a corner in my mind - struck by the words.

Perhaps it was because this was the Sunday closest to 9/11 and I have been thinking about all those people who were just doing their day when life stopped for them. Whether for the people who actually died or their families, friends, or colleagues – the prayer of the psalmist seems empty. God did not save their lives – they did not continue in the land of the living.

How do I pray psalms of protection knowing that God does not work this way as far as I have ever experienced? I cannot believe in a God who pulls some out of the plane crash and not others. Although I would love to be rescued from death in most circumstances, I believe we are mortal and things happen that take our life away. The LORD does not seem to watch over the innocent or the guilty for that matter. Grief and sorrow do overwhelm many – even the faithful. So where does that leave me with this particular psalm and its plea?

Tuesday I attended a session of Lectio in Manzanita, OR with members of St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church and others. When St. Catherine’s moved to their new building after years in this space in a small beach town strip mall, some members took over the rent to use for a spirituality center, space for workshops and art gallery. Surrounded by trees and beach homes the interior is light and filled with the prayers and work of years. Gathered with eight others on a sunny fall morning, following some meditation exercises and much to my surprise, we sat in silence with the line from the psalm:

Then I called upon the Name of the LORD: * "O LORD, I pray you, save my life."

It was a great opportunity to continue my Sunday contemplation. What do I want from God when I ask for something that seems contrary to my experience of what God will provide? I love the psalms, as they seem to speak to the true human condition more that any other part of the Bible. They range from terror and fear to the desire for terrible revenge when offended, from abject shame at one’s own offenses to joy and praise to God and to awe at the grandeur of creation. No human emotion is left out of these songs and meditations. They also offer endless puzzles in their contradictions and paradoxes about the nature of God.

As I sat with the lines from the psalm, I heard, “Call, Name, Save, Life” and began to listen to them over and over somewhat like reciting a mantra – not really thinking consciously or linearly about the words.

Later we shared our thoughts about our time together and the passage. My experience was one of more questions. To whom am I Calling? By what Name is that One known to me? What is it to be Saved? What at the core is Life?

In this moment, for me – the word “God” is more like a pronoun with few antecedents. I know my life is less anxious and fearful and more fulfilling when I follow Jesus as I see him revealed in the Gospels and in the breaking of bread in community. Grandmother is the name that most embodies the unconditional love that I have experienced in my life of faith. Ocean speaks to me of the power to give and take away life, the terror and the awe, that is part of the Holy. I have used other names but those are core. My prayers are more like ongoing dialogues (hopefully not monologues) than petitions.

As I think about the word “Saved” I hear it as healing and wholeness, not so much about afterlife. When we enter into the fullness of life with God – we will be fully ourselves in the way that God intended. I believe we experience glimpses of that fullness as we live a life of faith, much as St Paul says “in a mirror darkly.” Life is what I am given in this time and this space and asking God to save it seems more a prayer to live it fully in this moment, not obsessing about the past or anxious about the future. When I can be in this place, I feel aligned with some greater life, in tune with the dance of the universe whether rejoicing or sorrowing, singing or lamenting. I can’t hang onto it by myself – it takes something that encompasses all of us and fills the spaces between us.

This is where I am with my puzzle today. Maybe tomorrow I will receive a few more letters that will make it more clear – like the online Scrabble™ games I like to play with my friends and family.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

Audacity, tenacity, physicality--prayer

By Bonnie A. Perry

How's your prayer life? Anyone here satisfied with your prayer life? I have spent 20 years in parish ministry, and never yet has someone plopped down next to me and said, “You know what Bonnie? I've got this killer prayer life.”

Now you may be thinking, “Well that's because no one actually talks that way, Bonnie.” But the thing is, I hang out with some pretty churchy-type people who regularly talk about spirituality and theology and liturgy and scripture. Since I am a priest, a bunch of the folks I consort with are church geeks, and I'm telling you, no one is happy with his or her prayer life.
Heck, even Mother Theresa, when it was all said and done, was disappointed with her prayer life.

Why is that?

Is it because we are novice Christians, spiritual slackers? Is it because our faith is shallow and our commitment faltering? Or is it because we think prayer is something that it's not? Or something more than it is?

Is it something we think we are supposed to have mastered on our own--without any help? Or in the end, is it something only really pious people, folks long gone from this life ever came close to doing right?

For my money, a recent Gospel has a number of insights about prayer.

Jesus is out and about, and apparently is a bit tired of all the people following him. So he ducks into a house to lay low.

But a gentile woman sees him go into the house, and forgoing all the customs regarding Jews and Gentiles, abandoning the established etiquette on not just barging into someone else’s house, she follows him. Her daughter is ill. Her daughter needs help, and her need, not social norms and customs, is what matters.

She sees Jesus slip inside. She follows. Bows down low, and asks him to please heal her daughter. He attempts to blow her off. He says, in effect: I can’t help you. I’m only here to help my people. Helping you would be like taking the special food set aside for the children and giving it to the dogs. I’m not gonna do that.

( Please note this is not Jesus at his most pastoral.)

To which this woman tenaciously replies: Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs!”

And that stops him. She’s right—he’s wrong. So he says with admiration, because he does enjoy a well argued case, “For saying that, you may go. Your daughter is healed.”

So when seeking something from the Holy One of God, it seems audaciousness, tenacity and the ability to hold our own are all helpful. And please take note at just how forthright she is. No flowery language here. Barges in, bows down, asks the question and refuses to be blown off.

Next story: Jesus is in the region of Decapolis when a group of people bring of friend of theirs to him to be healed. Their friend has a speech impediment and is unable to hear. They beg Jesus to make him well.

This interaction is incredibly physical. Not just a verbal interchange, but a physical, tangible, yet private event. Jesus takes the fellow away from all the eyes, away from the crowds. Then he sticks his fingers in the man’s ears. Then he spits on his fingers and touches the man’s tongue.

Jesus looks to heaven, sighs deeply and says, “Ephaphatha—be opened.”

And the man can now hear clearly and speak plainly.

What might this tell us about prayer?

It’s physical. It doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, a purely intellectual/verbal pursuit. Jesus is sticking his hands in his ears, spitting, sighing—all the senses are being used.

Prayer is hands on. It’s also sometimes corporate or communal. The man’s friends brought him to Jesus.

Sometimes we just can’t ask for something ourselves. Sometimes our friends and family— the ones who know us best and love us the most—need to be the ones to ask and start the prayer.

Sometimes we need to be the ones who do it for folks who just cannot do it on their own. This part isn’t long or complicated. It doesn’t require special insight or advanced degrees.

Sometimes prayer is just physically putting someone in front of another who can help.

Finally, in both of these stories, prayer begins with being wildly aware of our surroundings: where we are, who is with us, what we need, what our friends may long for, who can assist. Prayer in its most effective form always begins with being aware.

Prayer is—if I were to list some ingredients—audacity, tenacity, community, physicality, and most important of all, a longing for what could be and an awareness and openness to all that is around us.

Or as the poet Mary Oliver puts it ever so much more succinctly in “Praying”

It doesn’t have to be the blue Iris. It could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.

Indeed. Amen.

The Rev. Bonnie Perry is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, Chicago.

Wondering about risk

By Joy Caires

As a pediatric chaplain I saw people of all faiths pour all of their being into the attempt to save a child's life, again and again--regardless of any differences we may have had. The Orthodox Jewish family anticipating their baby's heart surgery; the lesbian couple seeking baptism for the infant they knew would not survive much beyond birth; the Hindi family I led in prayer as we gathered barefoot at their adult son's bedside; the Jehovah's Witnesses watching their son's last breath leave his body; the evangelical fundamentalist father expressing concern over his son's obsession with Heaven; the teenager I baptized who's grandmother had left the Episcopal Church over the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy-desperate in their need they welcomed my presence. They didn't question whether I was "eligible" to pray for them, bring the sacraments to them, or love them. They clung to me like a life boat and I in turn held steady at their grasp. As they watched their children struggle their relief at the presence of the priest was often palpable. In that moment all they cared about was the fact that a child, their child, was dying and that I was there.

Now that said, the relationship was primarily one way. I had something they needed, I wore a collar, and they were in crisis. So, no personal questions were asked of me-and I rarely volunteered information about myself. Occasionally in the quiet moments, or as the relationship grew I would answer their questions while still dodging the inevitable "so are you married?"s with an answer of "yes" and a quick follow up question. They would keep talking and I would keep listening--their question answered but not answered--and I would feel relief at my preservation of the pastoral relationship. Yes, I often found myself wondering, did my duplicity help or hinder my ministry? If they knew about my sexuality would they still call me to anoint their dying child? Would they still ask for me if they knew that part of my familiarity and comfort in the medical setting came from having met my beloved while she was still in medical school and learning the language of medicine second hand?

And, I wonder, and part of my wondering is the knowledge that many of these families want the pastoral relationship to continue beyond the bounds of the hospital. They want to visit me at my parish; they invite me to birthday parties for children that made it despite it all. They, gasp, want to friend me on Facebook so that they can share photos taken of me with their children! How much do I let them into my life now that their crisis is over? Would knowing more about me harm their memory of the relationship I had with them in the hospital?

As a chaplain it was about them--and after the crisis I got to walk away. There was little risk of rejection and I knew with surety that what I did was crucial. In the parish I find that getting the bulletin proofread does not strike me as a crisis (at all) but that it is its own kind of ministry. I find the parish world to be a different kind of challenge-with greater personal risk. Because, now, as a parish priest I find that it is usually about us, as a congregation, as a gathered community. These are people who share the journey with me-they know my spouse, in sermons I share with them some of my story as we embark on the journey of faith together. It seems odd at times to have so many know so much about my life. But, at the same time, I can see the difference it makes to the people who make up the congregation to have these insights into my life and love.

So, I wonder...what would have been different if I'd let patients and parents in a bit further, if I'd answered instead of evaded? And, as these relationships settle firmly into the past, I wonder whose loss it has been?

The Reverend Joy Caires, a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School, is currently the Associate Rector at Church of Our Saviour in Akron, Ohio. Joy's first call, after ordination, was as the pediatric chaplain at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.

Prayers amidst political tension

By Donald Schell

Mundaka, Spain, St. John’s Church, Sunday June 22, 2009

I usually dislike having liturgy texts and hymns projected on a wall, but projected words in that Sunday’s bilingual Spanish and Basque mass felt simply welcoming. My wife and I can follow liturgy in Spanish reasonably well, but when the old priest was praying in Basque, projecting the Spanish translation of his words on the church’s old plaster wall felt like godsend. Ditto for Basque hymns - not knowing what we ‘meant,’ we (and the Spanish speakers present) welcomed the chance that phonetically easy Basque offered us to join the singing.

Mundaka is Basque-speaking village on Spain’s north coast, 1800 people off-season and something like 10,000 on-season. The village hugs a steep mountainous coast eleven kilometers downriver from Guernica. We were just a week ahead of the main influx of visitors, but the first wave was there, Spaniards fleeing Madrid and central Spain’s brutal heat. Summer in Mundaka offers pleasant sunshine, predictably cool weather and the pleasures of swimming or surfing the ocean’s big waves or walking and kayaking the estuary’s peaceful tidal flats. In the fall when ‘the wave’ is big, Mundaka is an international surfing destination. La Iglesia de Santa Maria sits on a bluff looking out over the estuary to the east and the wave and the Bay is Biscay to the north.

In Spain “Basque-speaking” actually means bi-lingual, so the parish regulars, though fluent in both Spanish and Basque have a strong political and cultural preference for a Basque liturgy, and those devout enough to attend weekday mass get exactly that - an entirely Basque language liturgy. A family member who’d visited ahead of us reported on the weekday Basque liturgy, and knowing Mundaka’s fierce Basque separatist sympathies, we’d prepared ourselves for a wholly Basque liturgy for Sunday too. When we heard enough Spanish for us and the other visitors to enjoy (and mostly understand) the liturgy we knew someone there – probably priest and parish council together – valued welcome above their personal preference.

Were there ETA members present? Is ETA in Mundaka? Experts estimate that ETA has no more than 200 members total in its autonomous terrorist cells. They’re spread across the Basque country and some in other parts of Spain. Mundaka proudly and unequivocally identifies itself as Basque nationalist. The legal Basque independence party has its office on the town square. Mundaka predictably encourages and supports any gesture in support of Basque autonomy. And ETA is both nowhere and everywhere in Basque country. It’s not possible to say whether anyone in the village or attending that church is secretly part of ETA or not. But any Mundaka villager would know or be related to one or more Basque political prisoners.

And who were the out-of-town visitors? The largest number of us were Spanish, Mundaka’s neighbors in one sense, but also symbols of another culture’s dominance and living reminder of bitter history under Franco’s dictatorship. A handful of French people and us two Americans completed the picture. Spanish was the language we shared, so the bilingual mass and the projected words were gestures of inclusion to us who brought the congregation Gospel diversity that Sunday.

The readings were in Basque (texts projected in Spanish), the psalm and the Gospel were in Spanish. The priest delivered his heartfelt sermon half in Spanish, half in Basque, his aura of warm wisdom and kindness, included everyone in the whole sermon, even though half of us could only understand half of what he was preaching. The priest’s own graceful, forgiving good humor and made it very clear that he was speaking Jesus’ healing, forgiving love.

An hour away in Bilbao and just two days before this mass, ETA had killed Eduardo Puelles Garcia, a Basque police officer and twenty-year veteran anti-terrorism investigator. The day before, Saturday, urban Bilbao had turned out in massive peace witness. But in Mundaka, bars shut off the sound on Spanish TV news broadcasts, and people simply turned their backs on the silenced news images. At the mass, the prayers of the faithful broke that deliberate silence. A lay minister prayed them in Spanish, ensuring that the whole congregation would hear and understand her simple prayers
- for all the victims of ETA,
- for all who mourned their deaths, and
- for peace.

Though the region’s struggle for peace and reconciliation would continue, the prayers spoke the Gospel’s unreserved embrace of Basque and Spaniard, of people living into loss, of victims of human violence, and of the healing that comes when we leave our killing certainties behind to live into God’s forgiveness. I listened hard for any uneasy shifting, for coughs, or for other signs of defensiveness or protest from the congregation, but I heard none. Whatever our politics, this mixed congregation could pray together for peace, for a widow and her two sons, for a slain public servant and for all who were grieving. It came at the end of the prayers and then we paused in a short silence before the concluding collect, willingly lingering in a stillness that honored all our sadness and tragic human loss, and then we waited on the Spirit to bless our hope for peace.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

Collects 101

We are now observing summer hours on Daily Episcopalian. Rather than six essays per week, we will be running five, with fresh essays appearing Sunday and then Tuesday through Friday.

By Derek Olsen

For American Episcopalians, the authorized Book of Common Prayer has always been the center of our common spiritual life. The prayer book not only presents us with common texts for worship but also with an implicitly liturgical “rule of life” marking the hinges of the day with prayer, the cycle of the week with Eucharist, the passage of years by the Temporal and Sanctoral cycles, and incorporating the turning points of life: birth, growth, love, penitence, and death. The prayer book doesn’t just show us how to worship or how to order our steps towards Christ, though—it also inculturates us into classical Anglican theology that is heir to both the teachings of the Historic Christian West and the Protestant Reformation. One of the best and most effective vehicles for this theology and spirituality are the short prayers called collects.

Collects have been an important prayer type in the Western Church; our earliest examples are contemporaneous with our earliest Western liturgical books (6th century). Originally referred to simply as orationes—literally “prayers”—they were the first prayers in the Eucharistic liturgy. The clergy would enter, the congregation would pray silently, then the celebrant would offer one of these brief prayers appointed for the day. Our word “collect” comes from the term collectio or collecta from the Gallican liturgical books as the liturgies morphed in what is modern-day France (from the sixth through the eighth centuries). Both the spare Roman collects and the verbose, effusive Gallican prayers were incorporated into the mainstream of the Western liturgy. At the Reformation, Archbishop Cranmer took many collects directly from the English Sarum Rite but also composed new prayers fitting the reforming theology of the English Church. Many new collects have been added in recent years, some of which harken back to the very oldest Roman books, others are thoroughly modern.

Following the ancient pattern, our prayer book appoints a collect for every Sunday and Holy Day—some even receive more than one. They open each Eucharist and are closing prayers for both Morning and Evening Prayer. Generally, the prayer appointed for the Sunday is used at Morning and Evening Prayer throughout the following week (Holy Day or collects for saints may interrupt this for a day based on local use). As a result, Episcopalians who follow the discipline of the Daily Office may pray a single collect as many as sixteen times in one week!

This is how theology gets in our bones—through repetition. Praying these collects over and over during a week, over and over through the yearly cycles forms us and shapes us in their patterns. And, studying them, many of them are gems of succinct theological thought. For instance, whenever the vexing question of the Atonement raises its head, I instinctively go to the collect for Proper 15 as a solid Anglican starting place:

Almighty God, who hast given thy only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavor ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Instead of an “either/or” choice, this prayer, dating from 1549, gives us a healthy “both/and” approach that encompasses substitutionary atonement, Christ as moral exemplar, and uses vocabulary that points us to the Eucharist. There’s a lot packed in here—especially if we take the time to notice.

The collects, short yet meaty, are ideal candidates for memorization. As each Sunday rolls around, I try to take a few minutes and memorize the collect. As I move through the week, I can stop and reflect on it, rolling its words around in my mind. Instead of passively receiving the piety and theology of the prayer book, I can actively engage it as it fits both into my life of prayer and my daily experiences. I’ve found this an enriching way to not just pray but to grow deeper into the Anglican way of following Christ.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Simply poetry?

By Kathleen Staudt

I was caught up short by the title of Bishop John Bryson Chane’s column in the latest Washington Window: “Prayer without Action is Simply Poetry.” It raised the ire you might expect from a poet. “Simply poetry?” The phrase was clearly dismissive. It seemed as if the title meant something like “faith without works is dead” – and actually, in reading the article, I didn’t find much I disagreed with – of course we are called, as Christians, to address injustice in the world, to examine and refashion ways of life that are draining resources from the poor, to keep in mind the mandate of Matthew 25. The statistics the Bishop offers are horrifying, numbing, about the level of human suffering in the world. And of course addressing these things is part of how we are called as Christians.

But I think we need poetry as we respond to the gospel’s call to action in the world. Talking with college students about vocation over the past year or so, I have been struck by the way that many young adult Christians are intimidated, overwhelmed, by the whole notion of the call of Christians to heal a clearly broken world. The task seems too great for them and they don’t know where to begin, and how they can contribute. It seems like a lot of pressure, trying to identify a vocation that will save the world. In these conversations it seemed to me that some imagination, some poetry, needs to be brought into our preaching and teaching about the call of Christ to a ministry of healing and reconciliation amid the world’s brokenness. Poetry can help us imagine our way to the particular ways we are called to heal a broken world, “wherever we may be”

It seems to me that there is a great deal of “poetry” in our faith tradition and story – the act of imagination that story and poetry invites is a powerful source of the energy and spirit that propels us to love and serve the world. And the practice of prayer, of receptivity to God, requires imagination – is a kind of poetry. Modern prophets Bishop Desmond Tutu and Verna Dozier both invite believers to an act of imagination as we attend to the brokenness of the world. They speak of the “dream” of God – a poetic expression of our common awareness that the world is not what it is meant to be – and that we are called by our faith to participate in its transformation. Tutu writes, in lively, imaginative mode, drawing on the poetic language of our tradition:

"I have a dream," God says. "Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. I have a dream that swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that my children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, my family.” ( God Has a Dream, pp.19-20)

Verna Dozier makes a similar point when she points to the poetry of the Biblical story, with it’s account of a God who loves us and calls us to return, and a Saviour who gives himself to that work and calls us to new life. It begins, as Bishop Chane implies out, with the ability to look squarely at the world’s brokenness and to see the huge chasm between the world as God desires it to be and the world as it is. But to address this without being overwhelmed, we need imagination, poetry and faith.

Dreaming with God requires ongoing discernment: we need to learn to look at the story God is telling about the world, known through Scripture and tradition, and also at the world as it is. Then we need to ask, “Where is my heart breaking; what is calling me here: what is my small piece of this great work of redemption and reconciliation that God is calling me to?” We need to be imaginative enough to “dream with God ” and to give ourselves to that dream.

No one of us can do it all. We can and should participate in large programs through our institutions; but each of us, as individuals and as congregations, need to look at the relationships, needs and communities around us and say “what is the dream of God for this situation, even if I can’t figure out how to realize it all by myself? What might be my piece of the work of reconciliation here?”

My point is, of course, it’s “both/and.” Prayer without action is passivity; Action without prayer can wind up being about more narrowly political and social agendas – it can lead us to miss the dream of God in the work we are called to do. Genuine prayer will lead us to action. But it is folly to dismiss either of these as “simply poetry.”

Walter Brueggemann has named the poets as the “prophets” of our time. We are required, in reaching out to the world, to learn compassion through imagination, to name suffering and to speak truth to a corrupt social order. And activist poet Denise Levertov described imagination as “the perceptive organ by which it is possible. . . . to experience God.” We need poetry, the expression of imagination, to name the brokenness and imagine the healing, to help us to dream with God, and to ourselves keep humbly open to possibilities we may not have imagined. True poetry, like true prayer, will call us to action, powered by the energy of the imagination, which enables us to touch the heart of God. It teach us, within whatever sphere of life we are called to encounter and name, to live into the dream of God.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Lessons from a grumpy Zen master

By Jean Fitzpatrick

On a recent cherry-blossom trip to Kyoto I went to a Zen meditation class and learned more than I'd expected. The Zen master, a corpulent man who nonetheless looked relaxed in full lotus pose, nodded at the dozen of us North American tourists who straggled in, and Tammy, our local translator, told us to sit on the zafus, or meditation cushions, lined up in two rows on tatami mats overlooking a garden. We all arranged ourselves on the cushions in various awkward poses. One man, spotting a chair in a corner, carried it over to his meditation space. "The master says no chairs," Tammy said, whisking it away.

We all stared at the master, waiting. "The master would like to know if there are any questions," Tammy announced.

Silence at first. "What are the benefits of meditation?" asked Deborah, a psychotherapist and practicing meditator from Texas. I had the sense she wanted to help get a dialogue going.

The Zen master replied quickly in Japanese. "There are no benefits," Tammy said, interpreting. Then, apparently counting on his fingers, the Zen master spoke again in Japanese. "There are various benefits," Tammy said after a while. "But this is not why we do meditation. We do meditation just to do it."

So much for dialogue. Oh, I recognized that he was operating on a higher, if-you-meet-the-Buddha-in-the-road-slay-him plane, all right, but I think our band of wanderers was hoping for a little help reaching those stratospheric spiritual heights.

Next came a series of breathing exercises. We learned to control our spine, breath, our gaze. We sat for three minutes, then took a break, then sat for five more minutes. The Zen master talked for a long while to Tammy in Japanese, then brought out a long wooden stick. They talked for a while longer as we eyeballed the stick and exchanged doubtful glances. (Think Lost in Translation meets Into Great Silence.) "He is going to walk up and down and watch you," Tammy announced. "If you want you can bow to him" -- she showed us how, head down and palms together -- "to tell him that if he sees you are not sitting up straight or concentrating, you would like him to hit you."

We started the third period of meditation -- ten minutes -- and the Zen master walked up and down the room with his stick, his bare feet padding on the tatami. Whack! At the sound of the first hit I nearly toppled off my cushion. John, a twenty-something Hawaiian with a winning smile and an enthusiasm for hot sake, was on the receiving end. "Every time he walked by I was worried he was going to hit me," John told me later, shrugging. "I decided to get it over with."

A few more whacks and we were back out under the cherry blossoms. Having decided not to participate in the whacking tradition, I'd sat up as straight as a board and kept my focus as close to laserlike as I knew how. The purpose of the stick, I read later on, is to focus you on physical sensation, to empty your mind and get you out of your head. I can't say any of us figured that out. "What good did all that meditation do him?" one novice said afterward as we wound our way through incense-filled alleyways toward a noodle shop that came highly recommended. "That Zen master's the grumpiest guy in Japan."

I'm not saying it was the end of the world. To tell the truth, part of me thinks the Zen master brings out the biggest stick and lands the loudest whacks on the classes full of Western tourists. But hitting people with a stick during a meditation class is an approach to adult ed that most of my clergy friends would frown on, I'm thinking. (Not that they might not have fantasized about it once or twice.) We're too sensitive -- too pastoral -- to treat people that way, right?

I wonder. At a time when many people are working long hours, hanging onto their jobs by their fingernails, I'm still hearing complaints from clergy about parishioners who didn't attend every Holy Week service but just showed up on Easter Sunday. When we have all too few years to teach our little ones that they are infinitely precious and lovable, I still hear children being taught about the Crucifixion by having nails rubbed into their palms. As the church shrinks, I'm still meeting people who longed to be part of parish life but found the Sunday morning liturgy more historic than inspiring.

Some might say the way we do things reflects lofty spiritual goals. But are we meeting people where they are?

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at

Singing Judith's song

By Deirdre Good

The Daily Office, the daily common worship experience of professionals and proficients in many mainline Christian denominations, incorporates the Song of Judith as one of the Canticles we sing on a regular schedule (the asterisks denote a pause):

A Song of Judith

I will sing a new song to my God, *
for you are great and glorious, wonderful in strength, invincible.
Let the whole creation serve you, *
for you spoke and all things came into being.
You sent your breath and it formed them, *
no one is able to resist your voice.
Mountains and seas are stirred to their depths, *
rocks melt like wax at your presence.
But to those who fear you, *
you continue to show mercy.
No sacrifice, however fragrant, can please you, *
but whoever fears the Lord shall stand in your sight for ever.

A canticle is any song in the biblical text other than Psalms. Based on Judith 16:13-16, the Song of Judith is part of a larger song forming a conclusion to the astonishing tale of Judith's defeat by decapitation of the Assyrian General Holofernes. But the canticle we sing in the Daily office extolling God for the defeat of God's enemies, powerful as it is, has been severed from its connection with the wider context of Judith's song and its recapitulation of the deeds of her hands. Do we recognize that Judith sings a new song celebrating the omnipotent Lord who set enemies aside at the hand of a woman? Can we who sing it hear the textual echoes and transformations of God's spirit in Exodus not now being sent to drown the Egyptians but to effect the creation of the world?

The fuller version of the Song of Judith (Judith 16:1-17) celebrates in song the earlier prose form of the narrative of the book of Judith in which Judith celebrates the deliverance of Israel from her enemies. At the same time, the complete version of the Song of Judith draws in form and content on other biblical songs of deliverance by God sung by women such as the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 (attributed to Moses but now widely recognized to have been sung by Miriam and the women of Israel), and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. And the Song of Judith in Greek anticipates the Song of Mary or the Magnificat in Luke's Gospel in the New Testament.

We know that Judith quotes the Greek text of Exodus: Judith 16:2 states, "For the Lord is a God who crushes wars," an allusion not to the Hebrew but to the Greek version of Exodus 15:3, "The Lord crushes wars, the Lord is his name." In the Hebrew text, Yahweh is a man of war but in the Greek text, the Lord crushes wars. This situates intertextuality at the level of the Greek text, not the Hebrew.

Exodus 15:10 describes God's "spirit" as potency and power for destruction: "You sent your spirit; it covered them: sea clothed like lead in violent water." Spirit in Exodus covers and drowns. But the same phrase, "You sent your spirit" appears in Judith as direct borrowing with different application: the spirit in Judith 16:14 creates: "You sent your spirit, and it built them up, and there is no one who will withstand your voice".

Specific to the Song of Miriam and the Song of Judith is the enemy threat of the sword in the hand: Ex. 15:9 describes the aggression of the Egyptians, "The enemy said, 'I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them'". Similarly, Judith describes the boast of Israel's enemies at 16:4: "He said he would set my territory ablaze and dispatch my young men with the sword". Yet when Israel's enemy is routed in Judith, it is not by the hand of God but by the hand of a woman holding a particular short sword.

Miriam's song celebrates a victory wrought by the hand of another, her brother. In Miriam's song, the sword is wielded by God; but Judith wields the sword of deliverance herself. In a sense, there is an identification of Judith with God so that she embodies God's triumph.

We can now reflect on the difference this makes to our corporate worship. Worship embodies human beliefs about God. Recognizing that the language of war, subjugation and victory undergirds worship intrinsically, we can restore to the Song of Judith the meaning of God's actions on behalf of a broken and subordinate people by the hand of an inferior and marginalized woman. And we can thereby begin to redeem language of war in worship.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

The wisdom of "Whatever"

By Heidi Shott

My prayers have taken a certain turn in recent months. Increasingly my supplications tend toward “Whatever God.” Not spoken in a flip, slangy tone, but with the growing recognition that I am in no position to dictate terms to the God of the Universe.

Not that I have this dynamite prayer life. When I wake early and, in a myopic haze, happen to catch a beautiful, impressionistic sunrise that I’m usually not privy to, I whisper, “Way to go, God.”

When I leave my Portland office late and race to pick up my son whose carpool has dropped him in the Moody’s Diner parking lot, I plead for traveling mercies and step on the gas. The “Whatever God” prayer has entered my repertoire as a substitute for “Please heal this dying loved one right this second” or any number of other extremely specific demands I’ve been known to make of God. The big picture about what we need, what is best, what blessings we will count further down the road is not, I’ve decided, for me to know in great detail.

But I’m beginning to perceive this spiritual myopia as a gift. By not being allowed to see, we’re required to trust. Were we to have the whole, big show of our lives, our congregations, our Church, our world laid out before us, how smug we humans would become. Were we to know, “Oh yeah, that problem will turn out fine,” would we ever grow or attain new strength from having to work our way through it? Were we to know the sadness and tragedy that await us all from time to time, would it color and ruin our joy today?

Graham Greene once said, "You can't conceive, my child, nor I nor anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God." Perhaps, to paraphrase his fellow poet, T.S. Eliot, we could not bear very much of it. Perhaps God gives us clear vision – God-eyes – in small moments, in little doses because it’s all we can handle. With near-sightedness we’re required to get close, nose-to-nose like lovers. We work to eliminate hunger by serving hungry people on Tuesdays. We model loving-kindness by treating gently those who challenge us. When we can’t see, we’re not afforded the luxury of distance. Our blurry, temporal vision keeps us both engaged and in need of frequent spiritual sustenance.

The wisdom of “whatever” is not Doris Day singing “que sera sera” or a gloomypuss affectation, but rather shorthand for the prayer, “Into your hands, God, I commend my spirit and the whole nine yards.” St. Peter, with all of his problems during that first Holy Week, probably never stopped to pray too specifically. I can’t imagine, “Dear God, please let Jesus rise from the dead, later send the Holy Spirit, and then pull this whole worldwide church thing together,” ever left his lips.

As I open my eyes these late winter mornings, the big blurry Norwich maple in our backyard is outlined by the rising sun. Without my glasses, the bare branches are indistinct, but I have faith that the leaf buds are present and will burst forth on a fine spring day of their choosing.

Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.

Prayer in the desert

By R. William Carroll

As is true with other portions of his Gospel, Mark’s account of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert is remarkable for its brevity. Mark’s is a simple, punchy story, filled with movement. An incident is recorded, often in very few words, and then, boom, the camera cuts to the next scene. Mark knows nothing of the devil’s three famous questions or the three equally famous replies of our Lord. Instead, he inserts just two short verses between the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public ministry. Still dripping wet with the waters of Jordan, Jesus is plunged into the wilderness and tested. Listen to what Mark says: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

In early Christianity, as for Jesus himself, the desert is a place of temptation and prayer. Early monks withdrew from inhabited places, such as Alexandria in Egypt, so that they could face their demons and discover the mercy of God. This week I’ve been having an online discussion with a small group of friends around the world. We’ve been talking about prayer. How do we pray? Why do we pray? What, if anything, do we ask for? Do we use words? Or do we pray better through our desires and actions? What is going on in our hearts? These are questions that can become the focus of reflection for each one of us in Lent.

In the course of our conversation, a friend of mine named Ted Mellor observed that he finds that “when words fail, it can be an invitation to move beyond the kind of praying we've been doing, full of words, words, words, about our plans for ourselves (and for others!). A chance to move into a wordless reliance on the Word, an utter dependence on the wisdom and love of God.” Ted went on to tell a story about one of the desert Christians of ancient times. “Abba Macarius was asked, 'How should one pray?' The old man said 'There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one's hands and say, 'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.' And if the conflict grows fiercer say, 'Lord, help!'"

Brothers and sisters, it should not surprise us if we find ourselves in desert places this Lent. The Christian life is filled with temptations. In fact, it may only be in the context of Christ’s calling to holiness that we can name our temptations for what they are. Our lives in the early twenty-first century are filled with things that are killing us but have come to seem normal.

Whatever temptations and dangers we face, our Lord knew them first. For he chose to live and die as one of us. The path from the waters of baptism to the joys of the Kingdom runs straight through the wilderness. Christianity is not safe. It is not all sweetness and light. If we are to find God and discover our true lives, we will often walk on wilderness paths. Forty years, the People of Israel wandered in the desert. Forty days, our Lord fasted and prayed. The saints have always returned here, year after year. The disciplines of Lent are meant to remind us of the desert, which, if we are honest, is where we often find ourselves. Even the inhabited places—our cities, our neighborhoods, our churches—can become so many deserts for us. Do we dare to hope that we may also discover here the half-remembered promise of freedom? The flight from the world can also be a flight into real community with others. Our most pressing temptations involve sins against love.

On Ash Wednesday, we confessed our “blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty.” We also confessed our “false judgments,” “uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors,” and “our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.” It is these sins among others—sins that are deeply ingrained in us—which have helped transform paradise into a dry and barren land. Our greed and malice have turned the manifold gifts of God into so many things to clutch—into so many weapons to hurt each other with. The desert is a place we go to be disarmed—to rediscover our radical dependence on God and our interdependence with one another. On Ash Wednesday, one of the possible Old Testament readings comes from Isaiah. In it, the prophet calls us to a fast that involves housing the homeless poor, feeding and remembering our own kin.

This Lent, we intentionally journey into the wilderness, but we do not go alone. We go, first and foremost, with Christ, who shows us the way. We go also in the presence of our brothers and sisters. Even the desert hermits came to one another for counsel and strength. Hence, the brothers went to Abba Macarius to ask him how to pray. His answer is profound, and it comes straight from the Gospel. There is no need for so many words. What we do need is a direct appeal to Christ for mercy. We are to raise our hands up and say, “'Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.'” And if our conflict grows fiercer, we are to cry out, “Lord, help!”

True prayer finds its power in a simple confidence in God’s goodness, as well as the depth of our own need. All prayer, moreover, is the work of the Spirit within us becoming our very own. As Christians, we believe that even now, the Holy Spirit, the Lord and lifegiver, is at work in the world. The Spirit is an outpouring of God’s mercy and love, who is always moistening our dry places and preparing us for new graces. The Spirit does so, even when we have no idea God is there.

This Lent, may we rediscover what one great spiritual teacher (Karl Rahner) called the “need and blessing of prayer.” May we be delivered from every temptation by the never failing presence of Christ. May we be caught up in the wordless presence of the Word. And, if we should find ourselves moved to speak at all, may our hearts cry out continually to God for mercy, in these or other words: “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.”

Like those who sought wisdom on the subject from Abba Macarius, the disciples of Jesus also asked him how to pray. His answer still forms the heart of our prayer in the Eucharist. There is some evidence that it was the original form of the Eucharistic Prayer and that all the other words we pray are but an elaboration of it. Recently, I encountered a tradition that goes back at least to Saint Augustine, according to which each of the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer is a request for one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Whatever we make of this tradition, the Our Father draws us into the prayer of Jesus. It involves crying out for God’s mercy and our daily bread in power of the Holy Spirit.

I commend it to you, along with the simple prayer of Abba Macarius and the wordless prayer of the heart. These are powerful tools as we confront our ancient enemy and “every power that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God.” As we walk along desert paths, may God make speed to save us.

“Lord, help us!”

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He is a member pf the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

The Daily Office: The perfect Lenten observance

By Derek Olsen

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a widely used psychological modeling tool. That is, it uses four sets of dichotomies to help a person make sense of who they are and how they relate to the world. I find it and the categories that it gives one of many helpful tools as I approach understanding myself and helping other people think through themselves and their spirituality.

The last of the Myers-Briggs dichotomies is “Lifestyle” and the official names for the two ends of the spectrum are “Judging” and “Perceiving”. Now, I don’t find these terms particularly helpful. I mean, how can anything labeled “judging” possibly give you a neutral sense about it? As I’ve experienced the test, as I’ve worked with people who taken it, as I’ve worked with people who use it professionally, this last index seems to measure organization, time and space management, and a general tolerance (or lack thereof) for spontaneity. So in my head, “J” stands for organized, regimented, controlled, and planned; “P” stands for spontaneous, free-form, disorganized.

Me—I’m a P. No, like—I’m seriously a P. But despite my natural tendencies and inherent inclinations, I keep getting called back time and again to a rather J spirituality. It even drew me into the Episcopal Church.

As an earnest first-year seminarian I discovered a group who met together before the start of classes who did a thing called “morning prayer.” It wasn’t long before I was hooked. I can’t say I was there every morning—but I managed to get there more often than not. The more I learned and explored, I discovered that this “morning prayer” thing was one bit of a whole cycle called the Daily Office. Learning about and seeking out modern forms of the Daily Office was one of the things that led me as a Lutheran to begin studying the Book of Common Prayer.

Now, I consider the Daily Office to be a pretty J kind of spirituality. It’s ordered. It’s regimented. It has a set structure. The structure changes in certain, set, predictable ways at the change of days, weeks, seasons, and years. Rather than being repelled by the J-ness of this way of prayer I fund it nourishing—grounding. Like the rhythm of the waves on the beach it afforded me with something constant, something that didn’t vary with nor depend upon my whims or fancies.

It’s been almost a decade and a half since I encountered the Daily Office, and it’s my spiritual home. It was one of the main factors that led me from the Lutherans to the Episcopalians. It’s one of the great treasures of our prayer book. And so it both astounds me and pains me to meet so many Episcopalians who have never encountered this way of praying, this way of being—or who think that it was something that we replaced with the coming of the ’79 prayer book and its move to making the Eucharist the normative Sunday morning service.

We’re right on the cusp of Lent here—and I’d like to offer a suggestion. If you’re looking for a discipline to help you take Lent seriously this year, I’d like to recommend the Daily Office—or at least a portion thereof.

Let me give you a quick orientation to what we’ve got here. The prayer book has two basic forms of the Daily Office, one in traditional language (Rite I) and one in contemporary language (Rite II). The traditional language one offers the two classical parts that have been in every Book of Common Prayer stretching back to 1549—a service of Morning Prayer (p. 37) and a service of Evening Prayer (p. 61). The contemporary language one is a bit more expansive. It has Morning Prayer (p. 75), a short Noonday Prayer (p. 103), Evening Prayer (p. 115), and Compline—a short prayer office for the close of the day (p. 127). There’s also another bit, Order of Worship in the Evening (p. 108) but it’s intended primarily to be done in church whereas the others are suitable for doing with family or by yourself.

Speaking of families—there’s also a section of really short self-contained versions of the Daily Office that are especially suitable for families called the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families (p. 136). These are one-page prayer sets for use at Morning (p. 137), Noon (p. 138), Early Evening (p. 139), and Close of Day (p. 140) and are short enough to hold even a toddler’s attention. I speak here from experience—this is what we use with our two girls.

Now—the major offices are the ones for Morning (p. 37 or 75) and Evening (p. 61 or 115). There are three other parts of the prayer book that you’ll need to make these work: the Psalms (p. 585), the Collects (p. 159 for Rite I; p. 211 for Rite II), and the Daily Office Lectionary (p. 934) which gives you three readings—one from the Old Testament, one from the New, and one from a gospel—that you can divide up as you choose.

I’ll warn you right now—there are some options, choices and decisions to be made as you learn to pray the Office. It can be tricky when you first start out. In order to help you out, let me recommend some trustworthy guides.

First, there are some great resources on the web that give you the Daily Office intact with no book juggling or page flipping required. The top two that use the current American Book of Common Prayer that I’m aware of are:

The Daily Office blog
Mission St. Clare

Second, if you think you’re not quite up to a full-on Office experience but think you’d like to dip your toe in, or if you’re looking for something that you can do with your kids, here’s a lightly Lent-ified version of the Morning and Early Evening prayer sets from the Daily Devotions section of the prayer book.

Third, if you think you’re ready to tackle the Offices out of your prayer book, then grab your prayer book, a Bible, and one of these handy guides. The first is a quick reference guide to the Rite II (contemporary) Office. It’s an anonymous composition that I found on the web a few years back—I don’t know who put it together, but it’s a great source for helping people learn the Office. In the spirit of that reference, I put together an introduction to the Rite I Office from an Anglo-Catholic perspective.

Fourth, talk to your priests! If nothing else, they learned about the Offices in seminary and if it makes them go back to the books and get a quick refresher, well, so much the better.
The Daily Office is a habit. It’s a discipline. Even if you’re not, well, disciplined. And that’s where its J and my P start tangling—and where yours might too. Some people I know fear the Office because they’re afraid they won’t get it right, that they won’t do it enough, that they’ll miss a time or two and then they just won’t measure up. I understand. I’ve been there—and it’s ok. A house with kids is nothing like a monastery. Four offices a day each and every day is a goal—not a starting place. Start with whatever makes sense for you. And if you slip up and miss a day (or even a week…) then it’s time to enact another Lenten discipline: repent, receive forgiveness, and give it another shot.

So if you’re looking for a holy habit this Lent, something spiritual, something classic, something Anglican, look no farther than the Daily Office. Try it for a season—relax in the ebb and flow of the psalms and canticles and give it a chance to speak to you the way it does me.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

Traditions ripe for revival

By Martin Smith

A surprise parcel arrived. A friend had been clearing out drawers and had found a stole I had woven years ago. Would I like to have this memento from the old days? Just smelling the wool brought about a flashback from that time when I was a new immigrant to the States. I’d taken a retreat day in a cabin in the woods, and as night came I found myself utterly awake. A strange feeling came upon me that I must get up again and make up the fire to wait for a visitation—but for what? I found myself pushing the furniture against the walls to clear the floor. And then something strange happened to me. I started to dance, and the dancing took on a life of its own. Or rather, it was my life that was being danced. I realized as the hours wore on that my entire life-story was dancing itself out. It must have been well into the small hours of the morning before I caught up with the present. By the glow of the now sunken fire, I sank exhausted onto the bed and slept the deepest sleep.

It was something of a revelation. A physically awkward intellectual, my experience of dancing was restricted to rare tortuous efforts which ballroom dancing classes at school had only taught me to dread. But apparently my body knew my life story better than my head, and it had to find a way to express itself through dancing.

Since then, I have had a strong sense that movement is more of a royal road to awareness and spiritual transformation than we imagine. I had struck the bedrock of human religious experience. Human beings danced themselves into spiritual awareness long before language emerged. Ritual is primal. Doctrine is a latecomer. I wonder whether as the implications of post-modernity gradually sink in we might realize just how alienated we are from our bodies in the religiosity our very recent ancestors invented. In the modern mutation of Christianity we assume that we think and argue ourselves into change. This Christianity stuck in its head is the one that called down the indictment summed up in the phrase that echoes in the Marabar caves in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India—“Poor talkative Christianity!”

I wonder whether I’ll live to see a really widespread renewal of true ritual movement, in which ordinary Christians discover freedom from the constraints imposed by the wooden cages we call pews. Two of the most primal avenues for creating transformative communities that celebrate the Great Mystery we call God are chanting and ritual movement, and scientists are now discovering the actual neurological mechanisms that explain why both open human beings up to enlarged experience. There are signs that chant is re-emerging, not least due to the widespread influence of the Taize community. And there are pioneering efforts here and there for restoring sacred dance and movement to the whole body of worshippers, such as the fascinating experiments of St Gregory Nyssen Church in San Francisco.

One of the challenges of post-modern spirituality is losing our fear of ancient traditions that are ripe for revival because they embody innate wisdoms that modernity repressed. Sometimes the chances of revival seem far fetched. I remember taking part in 1974 in a very profound retreat based on the Labyrinth. What a rare topic it seemed, and how skeptically we would have greeted any prediction that by 2008, this ritual of meditative movement would have sprung back into life all over the world!

I’ve used a processional dance in worship based on one that has survived in the pilgrimage church in Echternach, Germany. The dance involves taking five steps forward and then three steps back. It’s pointless to explain to people ahead of time the transforming insight that can only emerge from personal experiment. But the congregations’ puzzled, rueful and then delightful smiles eloquently expressed the felt sense that such a dance tells certain truths about our exploration into God and our life stories that the linear progress of regular church processions can’t. Life involves setback after setback, they belong to the sacred rhythm!

Perhaps sometime in the future the church will challenge the disembodied virtual world into which millions are losing themselves with a new sacramental physicality that welcomes people to be more emotionally available to one another and to God in the direct flesh and blood, face to face, arm in arm experience of community. I hope to see a new wave of delight in the gospel of Incarnation to wash away tired doubt. Dance and movement are sure to be at the heart of renewed practices of community. Dear God, we celebrate at Christmas that the Word was made flesh, and we have spent so much effort resisting the mystery by turning holy flesh back into words.

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

Happy Thanksgiving
from Episcopal Café

I wrote this column eight years ago for Daily Episcopalian is taking the weekend off. Happy Thanksgiving. See you on Monday.

By Jim Naughton

A few years ago, while I was on an academic fellowship, my family and I spent Thanksgiving with other fellows and their families. In religious terms, we were a mixed bunch: Christians, Unitarians, Jews, agnostics, and atheists.

A multi-religious dinner table always presents a bit of a problem when it is time to say the grace before meals. But Thanksgiving presents a particularly sticky situation, because it is the one occasion on which even the irreligious feel that some sort of invocation should be made. But who, or what, should we invoke?

After several minutes of communal hemming and hawing, one of the braver of our number delivered a prayer to the earth, thanking it for its bounty and seeking its forgiveness for our environmental sins. In all, it sounded more Green Party than pagan. Having crossed that hastily improvised bridge, we tucked into our feast.

But the moment stayed with me, for it illustrated what a peculiar, not to mention sneaky, holiday we were celebrating.

Thanksgiving is not a purely civic holiday like Memorial Day or Independence Day, although we are, in part, celebrating the fortitude of our Pilgrim forebears. Nor, like Christmas or Passover, does it come freighted with the content of a particular faith. Rather, Thanksgiving straddles these two categories; it is civic and religious. To paraphrase Jesus, Thanksgiving gives both to Caesar and to God.

In doing so, it discomfits believer and unbeliever equally. For giving thanks assumes the existence of one (One?) who deserves our gratitude--anathema to atheists. But giving thanks as a nation assumes that we stand before God as citizens of a country, as well as members of a faith. And that should offend anyone who believes that salvation flows from the church and not from the state.

Thanksgiving, in other words, assumes the existence of something that doesn't exist: an American faith.

On these grounds, I suppose one could argue that this holiday violates the establishment clause of the Constitution. I leave that task for some particularly dogmatic member of Americans for the Separation of Church and State. What interests me is the ubiquity of gratitude, the understanding, even among witnessing atheists, that it is important to be grateful for our good fortune.

For me, the desire to give thanks is evidence, at a minimum, that human beings are innately religious. The theologian Karl Rahner wrote that there is a "God-shaped hole" in every one of us. With Rahner, I believe that it is God who put it there.

You can take that argument or leave it. But if you leave it, help me to understand why we experience this particular species of gratitude. I'm not talking about the kind of gratitude we feel toward someone who has done us a favor. I mean the sort of global gratitude inspired by gifts we could not have known enough to ask for, or the kind we feel when matters beyond our control end well for us.

Who do you thank for your sweetheart's brown eyes; for growing up where it snows (or doesn't); for being alive at the same time as Bruce Springsteen; or for seeing your children born into a country that is prosperous and at peace?

You might argue that there is no one to be thanked. Maybe all our purported blessings are a matter of random chance. Perhaps the desire to extend gratitude beyond the human is an evolutionary glitch--a useful social trait that got too big for its britches.


Or perhaps we awaken one day and realize that we are not now, and have never been, masters of our own destinies; that our successes were not entirely of our own making; that our souls magnify the Lord, whether we like it or not.

Again, you can take this argument or leave it. It is easier to believe in chance than in grace. Chance requires nothing from us. In fact, if life is a succession of random events, than any response to good fortune is superfluous.

Grace is different. In receiving grace, we are challenged to become channels of grace. This is more than a matter of a few good deeds (although those help); it is an invitation to place one's self in God's hands, and devote one's self toward what we perceive as God's ends.

Thanksgiving, then, is a call to action: a gentle poke to awaken our collective conscience from its postprandial slumber. To whom much is given, etc. etc.

In a county as religiously diverse as ours, we may never be able to express our gratitude in words that are acceptable to everyone. Fortunately, deeds work even better.

Jim Naughton is the editor of Episcopal Café.

Prayer in a time of anxiety

By R. William Carroll

It’s no secret that these are troubling times. I’ve found myself talking, writing, and preaching a great deal about how we might be faithful in such times by what we do. In an editorial for the Covenant Journal, I found myself urging both political engagement that serves the common good and conscientious stewardship of finances:

If you belong to a congregation like ours, you are probably facing some difficult budget choices as you enter a season dedicated to financial stewardship. As an outsider to your congregations, I would urge those of you who can to consider giving more. There will be anxious people who tighten their fists, and there will be others who need to trim back on charitable giving of all kinds in precisely the hour when it is needed most.

In the congregation I serve, my own stewardship sermon relied heavily on the Convention address of Thomas Breidenthal, the ninth bishop of Southern Ohio, one of the best sermons I have ever heard. You can download a copy of it here. In that sermon, Bishop Tom reminded us that it was at the time of the Great Depression, that Bishop Hobson, the third bishop of our diocese, established the Forward Movement and that he did so as a way for those in the grip of poverty and despair to begin moving forward together, day by day. He also reminded us that it was in the aftermath of the Second World War, with Europe on the brink of starvation, that our diocese helped establish the fund that became the Presiding Bishop’s fund for World Relief, now known as Episcopal Relief and Development. He also used an image that I found quite compelling. He told us that we are called to be like trees at a time of drought: to sink our roots deeper (in prayer) and spread our branches further (in service).

Having already tended to the branches in several different contexts, I would now like to turn to the roots. I do so in precisely the same spirit as my earlier calls to action. For Christians, action is always rooted in prayer. The heart of this prayer, of course, is corporate worship, above all the Eucharist, in which through the Church’s Spirit-graced act of giving thanks, the Lord Jesus gives himself to us anew and draws us ever more deeply into his dying and rising. It is here, above all, that we become rooted in the vine, so that the branches might bear fruit. It is here, above, all that we find strength to expend ourselves for our neighbor, because Jesus, in his Body and Blood, has given himself for us.

But it is also necessary in times like these, to clear space for personal devotion, both in the context of the community’s celebration and in private. We need to ask for God’s help for ourselves and intercede for the needs of others. There is a danger here, however, because this praying can become just another form of action. We also need to sit still and listen for God. We need to empty ourselves of the many thoughts, to let go of the many distractions, and pay attention to the still, small voice of God.

One reason we are so anxious is that the problems we confront are bigger than we are. There is no obvious place to begin. If we thought too much about the challenges that face our country and the world right now, we would find ourselves overwhelmed and unable to act. The problem with prayers of petition and intercession is that they lie far too close to action. When we pray like this, we are in danger of asking God to help us with our priorities rather than asking how we might get in on God’s.

In true prayer, our roots need to go deeper, or we will never find the living water for our desert journey. We will not find the serene joy and power to face the difficulties of the present moment with confidence. Nor will we even know what to ask for. To intercede effectively, we need to do so from a posture of listening for God—of radical availability to the Holy Spirit. We need to break in to the heavenly throne room, in a way that’s only possible if we relax in God’s bosom and discover how deeply and completely we are loved.

Another reason we may be anxious is that the present crisis is unveiling to us the depth of brokenness in so much that we formerly took for granted. Above all, it is revealing our own brokenness, poverty, and finitude. Only in the near presence of God and in the light of God’s countenance can we face the mess we have made of our lives without shame or fear. The contemplative tradition, with its insistence that we listen to God with no expectation for how God will answer, has much to say to us in times like these.

For Christians, contemplation is never an end in itself. It is meant to serve love. Centering prayer, to name one form this tradition takes on the contemporary scene, must never become “self-centering prayer.” But to rush to action, or even to petition, without taking time to hear God’s painful silences and bask in God’s loving presence, is just as dangerous as a contemplation that turns in on itself. In paying attention to our relationship with God our Creator, we receive guidance and renewal for times like these. More than that, however, we also receive the greatest gift of all, quiet confidence that our Being is not in the end our achievement but instead a gift from God’s most generous hands.

Friends and family may let us down. We can lose our job, our home, and even our life. Even our young and gifted president-elect, in whom so many of us have placed our trust and hope (pray for him!), can and will disappoint us. But still the love of God abides.

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson, and his sermons appear on his parish blog.

Unanswered prayers

By George Clifford

Benny Hinn, a purported Christian faith healer whose ministry grosses in excess of one hundred million dollars per year, recently held a healing service in Raleigh that thousands attended. Afterwards, the Raleigh newspaper featured a story that did not surprise me. Someone hoping for a healing had attended Hinn’s service but left disappointed. That incident highlights what we already know: prayer is neither as simple nor automatic as a prima facie reading of passages like this one suggest:

Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops at Lambeth, and many Anglicans have spent much time praying for Anglican unity, which remains an ever more elusive goal. Globally, many Christians fervently and frequently pray for war to end, a request that would improve the world and keep us or loved ones out of harm’s way. If only life were that easy!

So, what do those troublesome scriptures about the certainty of prayer really mean?

During seminary studies prior to ordination, I learned the orthodox Christian response to that question. God sometimes chooses not to grant our prayer requests because to do so would require God to abrogate human freedom. Sometimes this makes sense. For example, a drug addict suffers the physical, personal, and social consequences of addiction because he or she chose to abuse an addictive substance. The only way that God could end that suffering requires divorcing the action – misusing drugs – from its consequences. Those consequences are generally essential elements of a successful recovery. The addict must hit bottom, or at least an artificially constructed bottom, before intervention and recovery can succeed in freeing the person from addiction. For the addict, the redemptive power of suffering inherently leads to healing.

Generally, I find the explanation of God not granting our petitions to preserve human freedom unsatisfying. Some suffering exceeds any possible redemptive value or other good. Poignant examples of this include genocides like the Holocaust and incurable, debilitating diseases that inflict a good person, innocent child, or entire third world village. Although some good can arise out of such situations, more often unmitigated, non-redemptive suffering continues in the face of persistent, collective prayer. Why would an all-powerful God allow that to happen?

During further studies, I discovered an alternative explanation of continued suffering in the face of persistent, collective, godly prayer. Some contemporary Christian theologians, disproportionately Anglican, propose that traditional ideas about God's omnipotence are incorrect. Perhaps in creating the cosmos, God lost (or never had) the power to do anything at any time. God must therefore rely upon human cooperation to accomplish God's purposes on earth. God abhors evil and suffering, but both persist, even after we persevere in collective prayer, because you and I fail to act as God's hands, feet, and voice.

Attracted to this new understanding of God, I did some research. Only two Bible verses explicitly speak of God's omnipotence denoting a God for whom nothing was impossible. In Luke 1:37, Mary responds to the angel’s annunciation of her imminent pregnancy by saying, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Matthew’s gospel reports Jesus saying, “All things are possible with God” (19:26). Like most Christians, I am very skeptical of placing too much emphasis on just a couple of Bible verses. Perhaps both passages reflect a first century cultural and scientific worldview rather than timeless theological insight. I also found that the widespread practice of addressing God as the Almighty might not be a theological statement. Biblical scholars have concluded that ancient Israelites appropriated the term God Almighty, or in Hebrew El Shaddai, from their Mesopotamian neighbors. The Hebrews seem to have used the term to emphasize their monotheism rather than God's omnipotence.

In this post-Christian era, the Church must bravely and honestly admit points at which traditional conceptions of its faith no longer make sense. We do exactly what the Bible seems to tell us to do. We pray. We pray with one another. We pray according to the mind of Christ. Yet God does not always grant our requests. Not squarely acknowledging these difficulties leads us down the path of Benny Hinn, not of Christ Jesus. Too often, I have heard well-meaning but ignorant Christians tell those who grieve that God did not or will not heal a loved one because God respects human freedom. These words hurt rather than comfort. Dishonest or disingenuous answers to faith’s difficulties only push true seekers further from God.

A power exists that changes lives, a power that turns bread and wine into an encounter with absolute love incarnated in human community, a power that transforms despair into hope, defeat into victory, weakness into strength. When our puny human minds believe that we have successfully packaged that power into a well-conceptualized God, such as the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God of Christian orthodoxy, we invariably even if unintentionally imagine an idol. The controversy currently convulsing the Anglican Communion is the living God shattering one such idol as God's people discover that God does not respect gender orientation any more than God respects race, nationality, or gender.

God's continuing activity in the world, and God's open invitation for us to partner with God in that continuing activity, represents the realistic promise of a better future. Prayer makes a difference. The dynamics of prayer may not be as simplistic or automatic as the gospel reading seems to suggest. However, this does not mean that we should cease to pray or abandon our faith. Holocaust survivor Wiesel wrote in his essay, “Why Pray”:

God does not need our prayers. We need them. We need to be able to pray in sincerity and beauty. And the prayer should not be against somebody but always for somebody. That is a true prayer, when it is for some one else, not for yourself.

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Beyond words

By Martin L. Smith

I’ve been traveling around Turkey, in slow trains and buses that give leisure for musing. Ancient sites passed by and triggered old memories from reading the spiritual classics. I peered through the window at Nevsehir on the way through Cappadocia, which was the see city of the bishop, mystic and theologian Gregory of Nyssa. Later, as I walked through canyons riddled with ancient monasteries and settlements, I got to thinking about what the ancient fathers of the Church can still teach us. We think of theology as the profession of academics, but this wasn’t true in Christianity’s springtime. At first the word theology referred not to a field of study, but first hand spiritual knowledge gained from contemplation. “If you are a theologian, you pray in truth. If you pray in truth, you are a theologian,” wrote Evagrius, one of the pioneers of Christian spirituality.

Today the word ‘theology’ is so embarrassingly degraded that TV pundits often use the term as a scathing reference to abstruse theorizing unmoored in reality. And the word ‘orthodoxy’ has had a similar fate. These days, orthodoxy is almost a synonym for rigid dogmatism and moralism, hidebound ecclesiastical formulas in which changeless truth is supposed to be set in stone. But originally orthodoxy meant the lived experience of being on the right track (orthos) in giving glory (that’s what doxa means) to God, in worshipping and adoring God, in community. And what these pioneers of Christian orthodoxy insisted on, with all the eloquence at their disposal, was the utter impossibility of capturing God in words and images, or grasping God in even the most sublime spiritual experience. God surpasses anything we can possibly say or imagine, and all our experiences of God are merely touching the hem of his garment. God is without rival and nothing is really like God, therefore all language, all symbolism, all our metaphors can only point into further unexplored depths. Christian orthodoxy was—dear God, what has become of it?—a passionate commitment to the mystical core of the Gospel. As such, orthodoxy is the polar opposite of what we call fundamentalism.

As our trains rumbled through the endless valleys of Anatolia, I was running over in my mind some of the meditations that Gregory has left us. He wrote a marvelous commentary on the life of Moses, using it as an allegory of the journey of faith. He comes to that strange vision that Moses has from the cleft in the rock, when he is allowed a fleeting glimpse of God’s backside. This odd detail in the legend Gregory takes as a symbol of the truth that we can only follow God. God is always ahead of us, leading us out of ourselves further into the unexplored territory of his glory. We can only see God’s back, because he is carrying us on his back into mystery. And Gregory taught that even in eternity we will always be on the move as explorers into God, since God is infinite and inexhaustible. There will always be more God to know.

The Church Fathers surprise us. Later I stayed in Sanliurfa, ancient Edessa, a city which embraced Christianity in the second century. I thought about Saint Ephrem who lived and worked here at a time when the city was ringing with a cacophony of rival versions of Christianity (not so unlike modern America.) How did he bear witness as a voice for the orthodox teaching about the Incarnation and the Trinity?

Not through argument, lectures, propaganda, classes. He bore witness through passionate song, writing hundreds of lyrical, fabulously imaginative hymns which were sung in the public squares by a dedicated choir of women. For him, the incandescent truth of the Christian message was best suited to poetry, in the exaltation of music, not prosaic argument. And this is the strange, paradoxical dynamic of the theology of the ancient fathers. At one and the same time they are passionate about the absolutely mysterious character of God, the utter impossibility of defining him, and yet they feel authorized and inspired to use a vast array of imaginative, even outrageous symbols and metaphors, to point to the mystery. Orthodoxy is the paradoxical state of being both blinded by the dazzling darkness of God’s unknowability and of being thrilled by God’s encouragement and permission, through the Incarnation, to deploy every kind of metaphor and poetic symbol to kindle the heart’s awareness of the attractiveness of God’s beauty and power and love. Ephrem’s poetry, like Dante’s, is ablaze with the erotic audacity of lovesong. We pray for God to send laborers into his harvest. Are we praying for spiritual poets, prophets and visionaries, who will help us set our speech about God on fire again today? Or will we as Episcopalians succumb to the fate of becoming—you know—the bland leading the bland?

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

Who has time to pray?

By Martin L. Smith

Recently, I had a visit from an old friend who had been at seminary with me in the late 60s, and as always our reminiscences caused us rueful laughter, especially about how far off target our training had sometimes been. We recalled how a visiting lecturer in religious sociology, full of the latest academic ‘futurology,’ earnestly warned us that we would be responsible for guiding people through a tremendous cultural revolution—the onset of an era of leisure! Cybernetics, the replacement of human labor with robots, and a host of new technological developments were bound to bring about within a few decades, we were told, the halving of the work week and widespread earlier retirement. Our challenge would be to guide people spiritually to deal with all this newfound time, as technology released us for creativity and play and community building, or for ennui and frustration.

No such development occurred. What an irony that the much vaunted technology of American society is dictating a harried pace of life where work has made deeper inroads into people’s lives, reducing vacations, fostering 24/7 work availability. Priests are hardly in demand as resources for interpreting the meaning of leisure! They feel just as pressured as the rest of us to keep up the pace, cram the schedule, put in the hours. Who has time to pray these days? Most of us have really good excuses for not praying. To find time for it seems so unrealistic that we can safely leave it unexplored. We complain, but our sincerity is questionable. Addictions and patterns of conformity are effective means of fending off challenges that intimidate us, challenges that would demand time if were to meet them.

To have a prayer life at all now is usually a symptom of considerable courage, the chutzpah to swim against the tide. And perhaps that is how it should be, since Jesus’ teaching, is about learning to swim against the tide of conformity. And prayer itself is a paradoxical activity. It requires leisure to be opened up by unplugging from the pressures of everyday demands. But it isn’t itself leisurely; it isn’t a pious version of stress management that temporarily recharges the batteries for a return to the fray. It is itself a kind of inner work.

Jesus’ teaching about prayer often appears to be simple, but in fact he gave people the outlines of a practice that is very searching. Take the seemingly simplistic injunction, “Ask, seek, knock.”

Think what we would be doing if we actually took that seriously. These three verbs goad us to explore three areas of vulnerability to which most of us can get access only by what we properly call soul-searching. To do what Jesus commends means to explore three areas of desire. What do I lack that I really want? What am I searching for that I haven’t yet found? What do I feel shut out from that I want to be let into? If most of us don’t in fact pray much, it might be because we are in some way appalled at the prospect of opening up these cans of worms. If we did we would be face to face with the reality that deep down there is a lot that is missing from our lives, that there is some experience we haven’t yet attained, and that we feel excluded from some kind of belonging we can hardly name.

Now our busyness provides us with daily alibis for not praying. But if we ceased to be busy, we would probably try to bring other avoidance mechanisms into play to let ourselves off the hook so that we wouldn’t have to open up these very sensitive areas. Jesus’ words, though, are literally en-couraging. Apparently, the secret of God’s reign lies in the paradox that it is precisely by leaning into our feelings of lack, lost-ness, and exclusion that we can begin to connect with God’s overflowing fullness. By learning (laboriously at first) to spell out what we desire, what we want to find, how we want to be welcomed, we open ourselves up to first-hand experience of God, (as opposed to religious chatter about God or second-hand ideas about God).

Overwork and stress inhibit desire. Period. (Picking up hints, one gets the impression that the sex-lives of conformist over-workers are being as damped down as our prayer-lives.) We might even start to pray again if we realized that God in fact wants to kindle our heart’s desiring, not repress it. The church should be a school of de-repression, which trains us to be men and women who reclaim these currents of desire for themselves, with freedom to use passionate words like longing, yearning, desiring, thirsting, hungering, seeking, knocking…

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

Mother in Heaven

By Luiz Coelho

A few months ago, after Evensong, I decided to do one of my “favorite” Sunday night activities – grocery shopping. There I was in one of Midtown Atlanta’s supermarkets strolling my buggy, drinking my latte and trying to get everything I needed as fast as I could. Until, at a certain moment, my eyes were attracted to a cute little girl, with a big smile and curly hair, who was fascinated with a basket full of multicolored tie-dye balls in front of her.

As I contemplated in awe the beauty of innocence, a horrifying thought suddenly came to my mind: “where are this girl's parents?” I was not the only one to wonder where they were; within seconds the little child also realized that she was alone in the midst of strangers. Immediately her smile was erased from her face, and my heart started aching as I heard her begin to yell desperately, “Mommy, Mommy!”

Thankfully, within seconds a young woman came from behind a pile of products and hugged the frightened girl. Everything was alright; Mommy was there. My heart settled in peace as that same wide smile that had first caught my attention came back to the child's face as she was embraced by the one who has loved her for her whole life. Since that Sunday night, I have not been able to erase that scene from my mind; and, the reason, I believe, is because through it God has been speaking to me.

That scene speaks a prophetic message to me and to all of us ‘adults’ that even when we pretend to believe we are strong and self-sufficient, we know deep down that we are as lonely, frighened, and vulnerable as that little lost girl. There are moments when we walk away from God and think we can live our lives apart from God; yet, even in those moments when we think we are capable of controling our own lives, our hearts are crying and we too are yelling, “Mommy, Mommy, where are you?”

It happened to me; I can still remember it vividly. I was serving in the Brazilain Army and was on a flight from Manaus, in the Amazon, to Brasília, in order to take part in a “War Games” symposium. I boarded the plane, confident in the power of humankind, knowing that it would arrive to its destination safely, since it was a safe aircraft and the weather was wonderful. That's not what happened, though. As the plane flew through the Amazon forest, it found itself being sucked by an unpredictable low-pressure zone, and went deeply into freefall. Passengers screamed; dishes, bags and even a baby were flying around us. A woman on my right side held my arm so tightly that it hurt. I knew that there was no way of surviving. Even if we landed in the forest, it would still be in the middle of nowhere and our chances of surviving in the wild were nearly impossible. At that moment, I knew that nothing that human beings had ever developed or created would be able to save me. All of the things in which I had placed my trust were powerless to help me. I was defenseless and scared.

And then I decided to pray. It was nothing more than a simple sentence: “God, into your hands I commend my life.” It was my first prayer in years, as I had given up on “church” and walked away from God. But, I can say those words were probably the deepest and truest ones my mouth had ever said. Only God knows why, but the plane shook hard, and found its track back on course. Everybody was safe again. Even the baby who was flying over our heads was rescued and restored to his mother. My life (and probably the other passengers' lives too) would never be the same, though.
I think most of us have been through similar situations. An accident, a disease, the death of a loved one – each of these moments, and other tragic moments like them, remind us that we are nothing but children running around carelessly, until we find ourselves apparently lost, and begin to scream for our parents. The pain of human impotence and the realization that we human beings are powerless towards such situations bring us the scariest, deepest fears. Even our Lord Jesus in the fulness of his human nature, felt the fear and pain of his abandonment and loneliness on the cross and he too screamed to God in agony.

The good news, however, is that it does not end there. We are not left in our despair, and neither was Our Lord Jesus. As we go through Eastertide, let us not forget that the greatest rescue took place in Jesus Christ's Resurrection. God did not forsake the forsaken One on the cross; God heard the cries of agony, and raised Jesus Christ on the third day. Christ is risen indeed, and the power of sin and death is no longer upon us. We, who were lost, are now found; as the mother was at there in the supermarket to rescue her child, so God is always present to rescue us to new life.

After that moment in the airplane, I knew there was someone who really cared about me. Soon, I began to view all of those Christian beliefs and Biblical stories that I had been taught in my youth and had cast aside as a set of irrational children's tales in a new light. I began to relaize that they meant something; and I rediscovered truths that I will never forget.
Throughout my life, I have seen the Risen Christ with his message of hope even in the midst of despair. He has been there through the prayers of friends, through the tears in the eyes of my family, through the intercession of his Blessed Mother, though hymns, icons and scripture verses... and in my heart, always giving me a reason to live and have hope that in the end, all will be well. I can not say my life is perfect, but I know, now, that I have a “mother in Heaven” who will always come to me with a healing embrace when I cry out in moments of despair.

Our highest Father, God Almighty, who is ‘Being’, has always known us and loved us: because of this knowledge, through his marvellous and deep charity and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity, He wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Saviour.

It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. Our Father desires, our Mother operates and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms; we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being, to thank him reverently and to praise him for having created us and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Ghost, to obtain help and grace.

I then saw with complete certainty that God, before creating us, loved us, and His love never lessened and never will. In this love he accomplished all his works, and in this love he oriented all things to our good and in this love our life is eternal.

With creation we started but the love with which he created us was in Him from the very beginning and in this love is our beginning.

And all this we shall see it in God eternally.

Blessed Julian of Norwich

Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."

Prayers ascending?

By Ann Fontaine

Every so often someone will ask for prayers and a common response is “prayers ascending.” My questioning mind thinks – hmmm, ascending? Going up? Where? How? Since the photos of earth came back from the astronauts in space, I have had the question that the Russian cosmonauts were asking, "Where is your God? We've never seen Him out there in space. We circled the globe again and again, and He wasn't out there!" If God is not out there and there really is no “up” in realms of outer space where do I locate God when I pray? Where and how do I think about God when I pray? I suppose that there is no need for location when it comes to God and prayer but it helps my praying to think of a direction.

Much of our religious language speaks of an “up there” – words that have now become an anachronism. Can the metaphor hold our religious imagination? Without location is there a place where God dwells and where we can direct our prayers?

We believe that God is not an object found in creation but the creator of all – as Genesis declares in the creed-like statements of the first chapter, it is all good but it is not God. Our faith uses objects and nature as pointers to God, but God is not in the objects themselves. Icons and other symbolic objects can be paths for prayer but like the natural world are just pointers to that greater reality of the Holy and not stopping places.

In addition to all the passages of scripture that speak of God as high above us in the heavens and our popular conception in poems like Robert Browning’s:

The year's at the spring;
The day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn:
God's in his heaven...
All's right with the world!

Or Bette Midler singing: From a distance, I find more reassurance about the location of God and the place for my prayers in places like Psalm 139.

Lord, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
but you, O LORD, know it altogether.

Where can I go then from your Spirit?
where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me
and your right hand hold me fast. (BCP p. 794)

or in Romans 8:38-39 (NRSV)

For I am convinced 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 the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

When I pray for someone I believe my prayers are received by the Love that is God and directed to those who need them. For me God is located in the midst of us. My prayer is often that the person will feel surrounded in and borne up by prayer. I don’t think that my prayers have taken off for outer space or gone to an unknown location. My hope is that the prayers are wrapping any one who needs them in a comforter of prayer. I hope the recipients will feel that prayer is carrying them through their days and they feel that peace that passes understanding as they receive healing or strength in their lives.

Jesus says in Luke 17: “For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

And that is where I put my heart and my prayer. Where do you think your prayers go? Or does it matter to you?

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps the blogs Green Lent and what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

New Year's resolution

By Derek Olsen

The secular New Year has come and gone—and that means it’s time for resolutions for the year that will be 2008. Like many Americans, I’m making a resolution to do something about my physical health. Now, I could just resolve to “be healthy” but something that vague and general will never translate into actions, something that vague and general will never be formed into habits. And that’s what we’re really talking about, right?—habits, dedicated ways of being.

I’m not just resolving to “be healthy”, I’m resolving some specific things: to buy organic food whenever possible, to buy local food whenever possible, to eat my five servings of fruits and veggies daily, and to exercise at least three times a week.

So far so good, but now—what about my spiritual health? Doesn’t it require just as much nurture as my physical health? And again, what sort of resolution should I make? Let me give you a hint: if “be healthy” didn’t cut it, neither will “be holy”… Just like the physical goals, we need something that we can be accountable for. As a Scripture scholar, I’m always partial to the goal “read more Scripture” but even that’s too vague and general to form a habit.

One option is to select a plan that reads through the whole Bible in a year. Some folks may be wary of such a thing…as if it weren’t properly Anglican or something...but let me assure you, nothing could be farther from the truth! As it turns out, the earliest one-year Bible reading plan that I know is thoroughly catholic. It’s a set of instructions from the 8th century that lays out the cycle of readings for the monastic Night Office. Biblical books were read straight-through in patterns that coincided with the liturgical seasons: for instance Exodus was read in Lent, Isaiah in Advent, Acts and Revelation in Easter, etc. It was a plan with staying power, too—I’ve seen versions with minor edits and tweaks from the 11th century and we can even find references to it in the very first Book of Common Prayer.

In the preface to the 1549 BCP, Archbishop Cranmer (following the work of the Spanish liturgist Cardinal Quiñonez) laments the loss of this yearly reading system and goes on to present a new version of it in the body of the prayer book. No longer restricted to the Night Office for monastics and clergy alone, Cranmer incorporated it into reworking of the monastic liturgies that we know today as the Daily Office—Morning and Evening Prayer. This revised system offered two readings per service for a total of four daily that read sequentially through the Old Testament (except for some bits of Leviticus, Chronicles, and Ezekiel) once every year—and through the New Testament (except for Revelation) three times every year. This system remained in place until sometime after the authorization of the 1662 prayer book. In short, a one-year Bible reading plan is about as Anglican as you can get!

If a one-year plan sounds like a little much, another terrific option to work on your spiritual health is to move to the modern two-year plan. Cranmer’s one-year system eventually gave way to longer versions with shorter readings. The Daily Office lectionary in the back of our current prayer book stands in direct continuity with these. It reads through most of Scripture with three readings a day stretched over two years. Perhaps taking up the discipline of the Daily Office and utilizing this Scripture reading plan might be a good option for you.

While either of these plans appears daunting at first glance, remember that we’re talking about habits here, not one-time—or even one-year—events. If you want to start reading through Scripture or praying the Daily Office, approach it with the same strategies as you would a physical exercise plan. Find some buddies to help out! You don’t have to read or pray together—though it may help—but checking in and being accountable to others is often a great motivator. Also, commit to reading your Bible or doing either Morning or Evening Prayer a certain number of times each week and increase it as you are able. If you pick a sequential plan and you miss a few days or even a week, show yourself a little grace; don’t beat yourself up or even try to make up what you missed—just continue on with your plan. After all, it’s a cycle—you’ll catch it the next time around!

Click here for a copy of Cranmer’s original reading plan and here for online and downloadable resources to help you get started with the Daily Office.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

The story of The Prayer of St. Francis

By Martin L. Smith

Serendipity. A peculiar word, from an odd source. An English writer of the late 18th century, Horace Walpole, concocted it from the Arabic name for Sri Lanka after he came across it in an old Persian folk tale! The story dealt with fascinating discoveries we stumble across accidentally while we are looking for something else. Recently, browsing on the internet, I came across—serendipitously!—the intriguing account of the origin of the famous “Prayer of St. Francis,” which is now in our prayer book (p. 833). It is known and loved the world over: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”

The story illustrates how grace works through odd, accidental ways and surfs the waves of human error. Apparently (it feels a bit like telling a child there is no Santa Claus!) the prayer was not written by St. Francis. It is a modern prayer originally composed in French. It first surfaced in 1912 in a devotional newsletter called La Clochette, piously recommended as a “beautiful prayer to recite during Mass.” We can picture devout subscribers cutting it out and using it throughout the devastating war-torn years that followed. But the author remained unknown. It was just one prayer among thousands of devotions like it.

How on earth did it spread across the world? Well, not long after World War I started someone sent it to the Pope and then it was printed in the Vatican newspaper. And then around 1920 a French Franciscan friar decided to print up some holy cards to circulate the prayer, now entitled the Prayer for Peace. He happened to use cards with a picture of St. Francis on the front. One of these cards must have fallen into the hands of an ardent group of Protestant peace activists, because when they started using the prayer in their movement committed to radical non-violence, they gave St. Francis as its author! It was an easy mistake, to assume the famous saint had written the prayer on the reverse. In 1936, an American Disciples of Christ minister called Kirby Page included an English translation in his book Living Courageously, based on the same mistaken assumption that St. Francis was the author. After that it was taken up during World War II as the most favored prayer for peace and spread across the globe, borne along by the reputation of the beloved saint of Assisi, becoming in every sense of the word a living classic of prayer and an ecumenical treasure, loved by people of every tradition.

Is it a let-down to learn the prayer is not by St. Francis? Not for me. The serendipitous discovery reinforces the truth that deep, creative spirituality isn’t confined at all to the saints who achieved fame. The Spirit is like a vast underground aquifer, and while many who have drilled their wells deeply to draw on it became known and loved, there are countless numbers who in their time dug just as deep, while carrying on their lives in the same obscurity as most of us do.

Our own cultural bias in modern North America is so ludicrously geared to celebrity, to notoriety, that we need to compensate for it by learning to rejoice in the mysterious contributions that flow to us from the anonymous and obscure. And surely no one would encourage us more than humble St. Francis, who is presumably more than happy to have played a part in spreading, through a blunder, a prayer which reveals that some unknown author had as deep a gift for prayer as he had!

Embracing this as a modern prayer, a prayer emerging at the beginning of the blood-soaked 20th century, a prayer that faces into the staggering challenges posed by human entrapment in the cycle of violent retaliation, jolts us into realism. Perhaps in some quarters the association with St. Francis actually weakens the impact of the prayer by linking it with a nostalgic sentimentality, since he is so often suffused with a pious haze of sweetness and light—the simplistic saint who preached innocently to the little birdies, the patron of pets; charming, but quite impractical.

I’ve decided to learn the prayer by heart in the original French. Sometimes using another language in prayer helps us really attend to its meaning. The original version, at least to my ears, encourages us to point quite specifically at the situations in which we are promising to practice gospel reconciliation. Là où il y a la discorde, que je mette l’union. As if to say, there! just here! in that place where I see discord, may I take responsibility to act as a reconciler. It is not a prayer of pious generality but a demanding pledge of commitment to the crucified Messiah to whom we owe our vows as peacemakers.

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

Timely Ember Days

By Derek Olsen

In an organization that has structured and arranged its ways of being in and out of weeks and months and years in a succession that passes through decades and crawls through centuries, old ways are covered by new ways, then rediscovered, then forgotten again in tides and waves of memories. Sometimes practices and ways and observances slowly drift to the bottom of the sea of memory and are silted over to be fossilized; at other times they are unexpectedly discovered and brought to the surface, admired for their anachronistic oddity then discarded yet again as obsolete. But sometimes these obscure treasures of time resonate when brought beneath the light of a new sun, revealing a vibrancy to once again be admired and treasured.

This week yields such an observance, or rather a set of them: the Ember Days. The Spirit moves as the Spirit wills and those who live by calendar of the Church come to note, to appreciate, to wonder at coincidences and collisions of observances and events. Indeed—we almost come to expect them. So at this time when the House of Bishops gathers, as the Archbishop of Canterbury and distinguished guests meet in New Orleans, it is no surprise that this week finds us at a time when the calendar itself urges us to pray for growth, for sustenance but above all to pray for the Church.

The Ember Days are of ancient origin. In each season of the year, a Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday are devoted to fasting and prayer. Formerly, they were Roman festivals to beseech the blessings of the gods: one in summer for harvest, one in autumn for the vintage, and one in winter for the planting of seed. By the second century, Christians in Rome had baptized these observances and sometime (probably in the third century) a balancing fourth was added for spring. In fact, in the early days of Christian practice these four markers anchored the church’s year when its calendar was yet in its infancy—no Christmas yet, no Advent, an uncertain and emerging Lent—just Easter, Pentecost, and the Ember Days…

Originally tied to the earth, to the birth and growth of crops, a new meaning was given to them by the fifth century: the Ember Saturdays became the quarterly dates for the ordination of deacons and priests. Thus, the Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays became days of fasting and supplication not just for the earth, but for the Church, for its ministers and ministry. They became a time to pray for the Church.

As the centuries circled the contours of our current calendar began to appear—Advent, All Saints, Feast of the Holy Trinity—and the Ember Days receded, their fortunes waxing and waning as liturgical fashion regarded or discarded them until the Roman Church suppressed them at Vatican II. In our own Anglican world they remain little known and little observed but for postulants in the Church: for these are the days when they are required to write letters to check in with their bishops. The current Book of Common prayer locates them among the Days of Optional Observance and, if you flip to the collects you will find none appointed there in course. Nevertheless, if you continue past the seasons of the year, past the Feasts and Holy Days to the numbered group of collects you will find three under number 15, prayers for “For those to be ordained,” “For the choice of fit persons for the ministry,” “For all Christians in their vocation”—one for each day, provided to pray for the Church.

As media hubbub and heightened rhetoric converge on New Orleans, humming and swarming around the House of Bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury like so many gadflies, I invite us to recall and recollect the Ember Days. It is time to pray for seeds, for growth, and for a bountiful harvest. It is time to pray for the faithful, the ordained, and the consecrated. Truly—it is a time to pray for the Church.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

In praise of the Daily Office

by Derek Olsen

At six o’clock on a Friday morning the darkened rooms of our seaside vacation condo were filled with the happy shrieks of our fifteen-month old younger daughter, affectionately known as Lil’ H. Dutifully I rolled out of bed, paused long enough to throw some clean clothes on me and fresh diaper on her, lobbed a bottle of milk somewhere in her direction, and strapped her in the stroller; the goal, of course, was to get her out as quickly as I could before she woke my sleeping in-laws or her sister. (My wife was already awake, but I hoped she could catch a little more precious sleep.) By seven-thirty we had strolled the boardwalk several times, visited the playground twice, and had donuts in hand for a light breakfast. As luck would have it—well, okay, maybe it wasn’t just luck—we found ourselves in front of a small Roman Catholic church with a signboard advertising a 7:30 mass. We ducked inside in time for the pre-mass rosary—and left promptly in the middle of the first lesson. Not content to stay in her stroller, Lil’ H insisted on running around as fast as her little legs could go, offering a running commentary on all around her that made up in volume what it lacked in coherence.

That service we left has been on my mind for the past two months now because of what I saw there. That little church, at 7:30 on a Friday morning, in a resort town, had been packed to the gills. The sanctuary that I had expected to be desolate was almost entirely filled. And not all the hair in the place was white either. Certainly the elderly were in attendance but I saw some folks my age, and some a bit older with teen-agers in tow. Some were in beach-wear, others in work-wear; some were clearly vacationers, others seemed to be permanent residents. I was—I am—jealous. Why couldn’t the innards of my church look like that?

The Episcopal church in town was one street over, but was shuttered up and locked down. To be sure we’d been there on Sunday and had been pleased at the size of the congregation and number of children in attendance that seemed to have improved from the year before—but during the week it sat quiet and empty. I would much rather have had Lil’ H run about, gleefully scattering cake donut crumbs (bad choice in retrospect…) in the midst of an Episcopal Morning Prayer service, but it wasn’t an option for us. And I wonder why not. Oh—certainly I understand that there are reasons—but still I wonder…

One of the glories of the prayer book and of its tradition is the retention of the Daily Office. For centuries before the Reformation the Western Church had regarded the eightfold pattern of daily prayer formulated by our monastic ancestors to be the norm for committed Christians—theoretically meaning everybody but practically meaning monastics and clergy. By Archbishop Cranmer’s day, many religious satisfied the obligation of saying the Office by means of aggregation, that is, combining these eight hours into blocks at the beginning, middle, and end of the day. Cranmer—following in the footsteps of a Spanish reformer—sought to restore ancient intention with two aggregated times of prayer, one in the morning and one in the evening that would read most of the Bible through in a year and the Psalms every month. (Don’t believe me? Check out the preface to the first prayer book on page 866 of our current ’79 BCP…) His intention was not to make life easier for the clergy alone but to realize the goal the Church had long sought—to integrate these times of prayer and readings of Scripture into the life of the people.

The Daily Office is one of the things that drew me into the Episcopal Church. Benedictine in spirit, evangelical in nature, the rhythm of psalmody, the constancy of the Scriptures and the experience of the ebb and flow of the liturgical year guided me into a deeper understanding of the Word of God and the way of the cross revealed therein. I can’t pretend I pray the Office every day and every night—but I know I miss it when I don’t or can’t pray it. It has slowly become a part of me, and a central part of what it means for me to be an Anglican, an Episcopalian. The rhythm of the Office punctuated by the Mass on Sundays and feast-days—this is the pattern of Episcopal life as I know it.

I do wonder, though: why isn’t the Office more widely known and practiced in our congregations? Part of the answer, I suspect, is historical and lies with the obligations of the clergy. In former days and in some places still throughout the Anglican Communion clergy were under obligation to say the Office twice daily. (Indeed, I’m told a certain Canadian bishop is known for asking the clergy she meets on her daily rounds of their opinion of the morning’s readings… Are any of our clergy in danger of similar queries?) In such circumstances the priest might as well open up the church and toll the bell to invite others to pray alongside. But this is no longer our way—and I think it’s a shame. Yes, both clergy and laity can and should read the Office on their own, but we as parish communities make an important statement about our beliefs and our values when we take the time and make the effort to pray it together.

I’m told that the reason why Episcopal churches aren’t open in mornings and evenings for the Daily Office is because modern people don’t have an interest in that kind of thing. Really? Then why was the Roman church I stopped in full? One reason I can think of is because of married clergy: morning and evening logistics are far more complex when school, daycare drop-offs, after-school programs, and family dinners rear their heads. I imagine it’s much easier for an unattached Roman priest to roll out of bed for an early morning mass than for an Episcopal priest with a warm lump beside her—and two or three more just down the hall. Another reason is practical: for those hurrying off to work or school an 8:45 or 9:30 service (both of which I’ve seen at some of the few Episcopal Churches that do offer weekday Morning Prayer) simply won’t do.

I have a fantasy about this matter and my fantasy is this: that there would be at least one Episcopal church in a given area that would offer the Office at times when regular people, yes, people who work and have children and all, could attend. I know it’s possible—I think of that full congregation on an early Friday morning, and I think of evenings I stopped at St. Mary the Virgin in New York on my way home in my City days. It may not be easy—but it’s possible.

What stops us? What’s the gap between your average Episcopal congregation and that early morning Roman Catholic crowd? For one thing, it’s a religious culture that sees such observance as the norm rather than the exception. What would it take for us to cultivate that? A recapturing of the rhythm is in order, a recapturing of what Cranmer intended to feed the whole flock—not just the set-apart few. (Clergy, cover your eyes for a second…) The Office isn’t the special province of the ordained, it belongs to us lay people just as much as it does to the clergy. We need to rediscover it and to make it heard. In our homes, in our churches, in our cathedrals. Unlike masses, there’s no part of the prayer book Office that actually requires a priest. If there is no sound of prayer in our churches and in our cathedrals maybe it’s not really their fault; maybe it’s ours…

For those who would like to learn more about the Daily Office, check out pages 75 and following in your Book of Common Prayer (or, if thou wilt, pages 37 and following) or look online at Mission St Clare

Derek Olsen is completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

The souls of the departed

Derek has posted links to the morning and evening Offices of the Dead at haligweorc, and that seems an appropriate way to mark this mournful day.

Please pray for everybody at Virginia Tech

At least 32 are dead and 24 are injured in the deadliest shooting spree in American history, says The Washington Post.

Updated: Episcopal Campus Ministry reaches out.

Descending Theology: The Resurrection

Happy Easter!

Descending Theology: The Resurrection
By Mary Karr

From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in — black ice and squid ink —
till the hung flesh was empty.
Lonely in that void even for pain,
he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse's core, the stone fist
of his heart began to bang
on the stiff chest's door, and breath spilled
back into that battered shape. Now

it's your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.

From Sinners Welcome

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday has not inspired an outpouring of excellent poems, but here is a fine one from Denise Levertov called Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell. It begins as so:

"Down through the tomb's inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn."

W. H. Auden's Horae Canonicae

Horae Canonicae

The phrase means canonical hours, and Auden has written a poem, set on Good Friday, for each of the seven offices of the monastic day.

An excerpt:

What we know to be not possible,
Though time after time foretold
By wild hermits, by shaman and sybil
Gibbering in their trances,
Or revealed to a child in some chance rhyme
Like will and kill, comes to pass
Before we realize it: we are surprised
At the ease and speed of our deed
And uneasy: It is barely three,
Mid-afternoon, yet the blood
Of our sacrifice is already
Dry on the grass; we are not prepared
For silence so sudden and so soon;
The day is too hot, too bright, too still,
Too ever, the dead remains too nothing.
What shall we do till nightfall?

Just as I was about to post this item I learned that the BBC's Radio 3 is featuring all seven poems at intervals throughout the day today. The poems are introduced by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and read by the actor Tom Durham. You can listen here.

Good Friday

Descending Theology: The Crucifixion
By Mary Karr

To be crucified is first to lie down
on a shaved tree, and then to have oafs stretch you out
on a crossbar as if for flight, then thick spikes
fix you into place.

Once the cross pops up and the pole stob
sinks vertically in an earth hole perhaps
at an awkward list, what then can you blame for hurt
but your own self's burden?

You're not the figurehead on a ship. You're not
flying anywhere, and no one's coming to hug you.
You hang like that, a sack of flesh with the hard
trinity of nails holding you into place.

Thus hung, your ribcage struggles up
to breathe until you suffocate, give up the ghost.
If God permits this, one wonders how
this twirling earth

manages to navigate the gravities and star tugs.
Or if some less than loving watcher
watches us scuttle across the boneyard greens
under which worms

seethe and the front jaws of beetles
eventually clasp toward the flesh of every beloved.
The man on the cross under massed thunderheads feels
his soul leak away,

then surge. Some windy authority lures him higher
till an unseen tear in the sky's membrane is rent,
and he's streaming light, snatched back, drawn close,
so all loneliness ends.

You can listen to it here, (Scroll down to March 7.) and buy Karr's Sinners Welcome here.

Descending Theology: The Garden

I pushed Mary Karr's wonderful book Sinners Welcome on you at Christmas. Allow me to push it once again. This is "Descending Theology: The Garden" from a five-poem cycle on the life of Christ.

Descending Theology: The Garden

We know he was a man because, once doomed,
he begged for reprieve. See him
grieving on his rock under olive trees,
his companions asleep
on the hard ground around him
wrapped in old hides.
Not one stayed awake as he'd asked.
That went through him like a sword.
He wished with all his being to stay
but gave up
bargaining at the sky. He knew
it was all mercy anyhow,
unearned as breath. The Father couldn't intervene,
though that gaze was never
not rapt, a mantle around him. This
was our doing, our death.
The dark prince had poured the vial of poison
into the betrayer's ear,
and it was done. Around the oasis where Jesus wept,
the cracked earth radiated out for miles.
In the green center, Jesus prayed for the pardon
of Judas, who was approaching
with soldiers, glancing up—as Christ was—into
the punctured sky till his neck bones
ached. Here is his tear-riven face come
to press a kiss on his brother.

Mary Karr

A poem for Palm Sunday

I am not sure why I focus on the donkey in today's Gospel. Donkeys pop up in Scripture all of the time. One of them even talks. But it is the donkey that Jesus rides into Jerusalem, the one who is mysteriously waiting at just the right place, that really gets my attention. I have no New Age inclinations, but in a strictly metaphoric way, donkeys strike me as the surest spiritual guides in the animal kingdom. And if you follow this link, Francis Jammes, via Richard Wilbur, will explain why. The poem is called A Prayer to Go to Paradise with the Donkeys , and I will bet that at least a few of you will never forget it.

Thank who?

I wrote this column seven or eight years ago for Happy Thanksgiving from the Diocese of Washington.

A few years ago, while I was on an academic fellowship, my family and I spent Thanksgiving with other fellows and their families. In religious terms, we were a mixed bunch: Christians, Unitarians, Jews, agnostics, and atheists.
A multi-religious dinner table always presents a bit of a problem when it is time to say the grace before meals. But Thanksgiving presents a particularly sticky situation, because it is the one occasion on which even the irreligious feel that some sort of invocation should be made. But who, or what, should we invoke?

After several minutes of communal hemming and hawing, one of the braver of our number delivered a prayer to the earth, thanking it for its bounty and seeking its forgiveness for our environmental sins. In all, it sounded more Green Party than pagan. Having crossed that hastily improvised bridge, we tucked into our feast.

But the moment stayed with me, for it illustrated what a peculiar, not to mention sneaky, holiday we were celebrating.

Thanksgiving is not a purely civic holiday like Memorial Day or Independence Day, although we are, in part, celebrating the fortitude of our Pilgrim forebears. Nor, like Christmas or Passover, does it come freighted with the content of a particular faith. Rather, Thanksgiving straddles these two categories; it is civic and religious. To paraphrase Jesus, Thanksgiving gives both to Caesar and to God.

In doing so, it discomfits believer and unbeliever equally. For giving thanks assumes the existence of one (One?) who deserves our gratitude--anathema to atheists. But giving thanks as a nation assumes that we stand before God as citizens of a country, as well as members of a faith. And that should offend anyone who believes that salvation flows from the church and not from the state.

Thanksgiving, in other words, assumes the existence of something that doesn't exist: an American faith.

On these grounds, I suppose one could argue that this holiday violates the establishment clause of the Constitution. I leave that task for some particularly dogmatic member of Americans for the Separation of Church and State. What interests me is the ubiquity of gratitude, the understanding, even among witnessing atheists, that it is important to be grateful for our good fortune.

For me, the desire to give thanks is evidence, at a minimum, that human beings are innately religious. The theologian Karl Rahner wrote that there is a "God-shaped hole" in every one of us. With Rahner, I believe that it is God who put it there.

You can take that argument or leave it. But if you leave it, help me to understand why we experience this particular species of gratitude. I'm not talking about the kind of gratitude we feel toward someone who has done us a favor. I mean the sort of global gratitude inspired by gifts we could not have known enough to ask for, or the kind we feel when matters beyond our control end well for us.

Who do you thank for your sweetheart's brown eyes; for growing up where it snows (or doesn't); for being alive at the same time as Bruce Springsteen; or for seeing your children born into a country that is prosperous and at peace?

You might argue that there is no one to be thanked. Maybe all our purported blessings are a matter of random chance. Perhaps the desire to extend gratitude beyond the human is an evolutionary glitch--a useful social trait that got too big for its britches.


Or perhaps we awaken one day and realize that we are not now, and have never been, masters of our own destinies; that our successes were not entirely of our own making; that our souls magnify the Lord, whether we like it or not.

Again, you can take this argument or leave it. It is easier to believe in chance than in grace. Chance requires nothing from us. In fact, if life is a succession of random events, than any response to good fortune is superfluous.

Grace is different. In receiving grace, we are challenged to become channels of grace. This is more than a matter of a few good deeds (although those help); it is an invitation to place one's self in God's hands, and devote one's self toward what we perceive as God's ends.

Thanksgiving, then, is a call to action: a gentle poke to awaken our collective conscience from its postprandial slumber. To whom much is given, etc. etc.

In a county as religiously diverse as ours, we may never be able to express our gratitude in words that are acceptable to everyone. Fortunately, deeds work even better.

Veterans' Day

Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
From The Book of Common Prayer

Not long ago, a friend who edits a neurology magazine asked me to write a profile of a soldier who had returned from Iraq with a traumatic brain injury. Such injuries, typically caused by roadside explosive devices, have become the signature wound of this war.(USA Today is on the case here, Stars and Stripes here and you can listen to an NPR piece here.) It is as if nobody just gets shot anymore, someone at Walter Reed Hospital told me in a moment of balck humor.

These injuries are particuarly challenging to treat because many of the symptoms are behavioral as opposed to "physical" in the traditional sense of that word, although obviously the symptoms are rooted in physical damage to the brain and nervous system.

The public relations people at Walter Reed, paired me up with Brian Radke, a native of the Pacific Coast who had moved to Arizon shortly before enlisting. The article I wrote hasn't appeared yet, so I can't excerpt it here, but Dean Baker, of Brian's old hometown newspaper The Columbian has been following his story pretty closely, and has written excellent pieces available here and here. There's another sweet piece about him by a Columbian columnist here.

Brian was a pleasure to meet and to talk to, very honest about the difficulties he was facing in recovering rom his multiple injuries, and able to laugh at some of his new infirmities in a disarming way. Working on the story about Brian, and reflecting on the service, of the Rev. Stuart Kenworthy of Christ Church, Georgetown, (read a letter he wrote when he was in Iraq here, reminds me that working with warriors is grace-filled work, whatever one thinks of the war they are involved in.

Please remember Brian, his wife, Nova, and his parents Dave and Lynn in your prayers today.

Candlemas Eve

As regular visitors to the blog know, I frequently invite people to have a look at our diocese's spirituality site. We feature daily meditations, chosen from spiritual writings. Today's meditation is from the works of Jean Vanier and closes with this verse:

Blessed are you because you have allowed
your own conscience to develop;
you have not been swayed by what people might say about you
and you have acted as a free individual;
you have accepted persecution;
you have not been afraid to proclaim the truth.

The site also has flash meditations on scripture. I mention that because one of them is called "Candlemas" which Episcopalians, Catholics and the Orthodox churches (anybody else?) celebrate tomorrow, Feb. 2. It is referred to by some as the feast of The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, and by others as the feast of The Purification of the Virgin, but both titles refer to the event which inspired the scriptural passage that those who say the Liturgy of Hours know as the Nunc Dimits :

"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people, To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel."

If you are intereted in the Liturgy of the Hours, also referred to as the Daily Office, visit the meditations and readings page of the spirituality site and click on the daily office link of the appropriate day.

This Friday's episode

Update on Sunday night: turns out they skipped this episode to advance the plot and get to the episode regarding Jimmy's death before the Olympics.

Here are two questions prompted by the the episode of "Daniel" that will air this Friday night: Do you have experiences of prayer from which you feel that God is absent? If so, what do you do about it?

Some of the great mystics, I am thinking particularly of St. John of the Cross, have described the experience of losing the consolation that was once present in their prayer lives. If I am remembering right, that is what he was talking about when he first used the phrase "Dark night of the soul." John and others portray this feeling of absence as a phase in a person's spiritual growth, rather than a punishment. But it doesn't feel that way when you are mired in the middle of it.

Anybody care to share their experience? I talked a bit about mine in a column I wrote when I used to work for Beliefnet.

"I'll pray for you"

Recently, on the blog and in personal correspondence, I've noticed people tossing around the phrase, "I will pray for you," in a way that gives me pause. There are, of course, all kinds of good reasons to pray for someone, and, come to think of it, who needs a reason? But suppose all you are praying for is that a people will abandon what they believe and embrace what you believe? What if you are praying that somehow someone can be induced to do something that that someone really doesn't think is right?

Is this sort of prayer an end run around another person's conscience? Does it presume that the individual being prayed for has not prayed about the issue himself or herself? Or, supposing that he or she has prayed over the issue, does it assume that your prayer is superior to theirs?

It can be argued that all someone who says "I'll pray for you," in the heat of an argument is saying is, "I hope God will guide you." But it can also be argued that people who say "I'll pray for you," in the ways I've discussed is trying to enlist God's help in shaping other people not in God's image, but in their own.

(And if you don't think I'm right abuot this, don't worry, I'll pray for you.)

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