I have seen the Lord

The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene

John 20:18

With this very simple, direct formulation, Mary Magdalene reports the miracle of the ages to the cowering, defeated disciples of Christ.

She had gone to the tomb; seen it empty and upon emerging saw Jesus, who called to her by name. How fitting that Mary, at best a second-class citizen, is the first to proclaim the miracle of the risen Christ.

She does not say: the Lord spoke to me and I spoke to Him. The gospel simply records: I have seen the Lord. There was no voice in the clouds; no burning bush. Face to face, Mary had seen the Jesus they loved and lost. He who was dead, buried and mourned; was now risen, alive and calling to them.

Mary proclaimed the risen Christ to the disciples, but they remained fearful and disbelieving – until they too had seen the Lord. Later that same day, Jesus came into their locked hideout. Suddenly He was there, showing His wounds, blessing them, calling them to carry on His work, exhorting them: As my Father sent me, even so send I you.

Later came the famous meeting with doubting Thomas. Jesus convinced the doubter of the resurrection by taking Thomas by the hand and thrusting it into His wounds with a message that comes down the centuries to us today: …blessed are they that have not seen and yet believe.

Which is where we come in: 21st Century Christians working out our salvation in a world apparently devoid of miracles. A world that tells us the resurrection is a legend. Jesus is an historical anomaly. Stop looking for him in a post-Christian era…

No less a committed Christian than C.S. Lewis warns us: Seeing is not believing. This is the first thing to get clear…about miracles. His premise is that miracles must be seen through the eyes of faith. And through these eyes we look at this central miracle of faith: our redemption through the sacrificial life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

In the face of doubt and despair, we are blessed to proclaim again: We have seen the Lord!

We have seen the Lord in sick rooms, welcoming the dying home to their Father, consoling the grieving with the gift of faith and love…

We have seen the Lord at christenings bringing us together to reaffirm our faith and pass the light down through the generations…

We have seen the Lord bringing the personal resurrection of hope and human dignity to the addicted and who suffer…

And we have seen the Lord in bringing brothers and sisters together over the ages to celebrate the miracle of our redemption. By His specific promise He is with us when we gather week by week in His name. That is the power of our faith.

To William James: Faith is the will to believe. But where do we find the will? Too often life has to break us and bring us to our knees before in our desperation we see the Lord. But whatever the route we take, He is there in His shining, risen glory. Not only waiting for us; but rising for us everyday. He is there only a prayer away, if we but open our eyes to see Him.

He is risen in our kindness and patience. He is risen in our forgiveness of injuries. He is risen in charity, truth and justice. What greater joy than to look to our families, our congregation, our daily lives and say: I have seen the Lord.

The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.

Tongues and ears

Why do you boast, O mighty one, of mischief done against the godly?
All day long you are plotting destruction.
Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery. (Ps. 52:1, NRSV)

I am troubled by the on-going conflict in the Holy Land, as I'm sure everyone is. Two groups of the children of Abraham, unwilling to see the justice of their opponent's position, unwilling to acknowledge that the other has a legitimate narrative, plot destruction and boast of "mischief done against the godly," both sides being (I think) among the godly.

In yesterday's gospel lesson (RCL Proper 11, Year A), Jesus tells a parable and ends it, as he often does, with the admonition, "Let anyone with ears listen!" (Mt 13:43) In this psalm, Jesus' ancestor David (the psalm in its prelude is specifically attributed to David) calls attention to the deceitful tongue. Tongues and ears, the transmitters and receivers of communication, neither seem to be working in the modern land of David and Jesus.

What can we do? We can bear witness that each side has something to say, that each side has a holy obligation to speak not boasts of mischief but narratives of justice, and that each side has a commensurate holy obligation to listen. We can encourage both sides to live up to these obligations. But mostly, we can pray. Pray for peace and reconciliation.

The Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston is rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, an EfM mentor, and a writer of Daily Office meditations offered on his blog, That Which We Have Heard & Known.

St. Simeon: the holy fool

Ship of Fools celebrates St Simeon, the holy fool, their patron saint:

The Desert Saints of the early centuries were a wild and strange breed – and none were bred wilder or stranger than the saints of Syria. Some of them stood and prayed for years on end without sitting down. Others lived on top of pillars in the desert where they preached, wrote epistles and drew crowds of pilgrims. Numbered among these maverick saints is our patron, St Simeon the Holy Fool.

Simeon's saintly career started out quite normally. It was the usual story: 29 years living on lentils in an isolated cave next to the Dead Sea, at first struggling against temptation and then advancing to an alarming degree of holiness. But Simeon's story took a dramatic turn when he left his cave one day and set out for the city of Emesa in Syria. Arriving at the city gate, he found a dead dog on a dungheap, tied its leg to the rope around his waist, and entered the city dragging the comatose canine behind him.

This was only the beginning. For Simeon had decided to play the fool in order to mock the idiocy of the world and also to conceal his own identity as a saint. His behaviour was eccentric and, of course, scandalous.

Read it all at their website. Have you been a fool in the name of God lately?

Whitewashed walls

Psalm 63:1-8(9-11), 98 (Morning)
Psalm 103 (Evening)
Joshua 6:15-27
Acts 22:30-23:11
Mark 2:1-12

You know, some insults just get lost over time.

In today's reading from Acts, Paul flings a curse at Ananias that probably doesn't register with us--he calls Ananias "a whitewashed wall." He also quickly retracts his statement. ("Ooops. Sorry. Didn't know I was insulting the high priest.") What's up with that whitewashed wall business?

Well, this is one of those times being rural helps.

It wasn't that many years ago that people were more likely to whitewash their barn rather than paint it. Most old barns in rural northeast Missouri are not red, interestingly enough--they're white, because particularly during the Depression, no one could afford paint. It was far cheaper to mix a bag of slack lime with water, add a little chalk, salt, and a dash of linseed oil for adherence, and slap that on a barn, a picket fence, or a shed. To people of my late grandparents' era, it was a marker of rural poverty--"He's too proud to whitewash and too poor to paint," was a phrase my grandparents threw around from time to time. Yet it was better than nothing--the ingredients were cheap, it was relatively thin, easy to apply (even a kid could do it--remember Tom Sawyer being sent out to whitewash the fence?) provided at least some protection over a bare surface, and from a distance, at least, it looked halfway decent.

The problem with whitewash is it never really covers up anything substantial, like an old paint color or graffiti. You can always see anything that's under whitewash if the sun hits it right. It fades quickly in the hot summer sun, so some surfaces need to be whitewashed every year.

It's evidently one of the oldest forms of exterior decoration. Even Jesus illustrated the metaphorical nature of whitewash in Matthew 23:27: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth."

In this light, we start to see the nature of Paul's insult. "I can see right through you, Ananias. You look painted and clean from a distance, but I see the graffiti marring your soul! You haven't covered it up THAT well!"

Of course, the truth is that we all have something about us that is a tad whitewashed, and even the dirtiest of us has the occasional white and gleaming surface. In Paul's case, it's probably the fact he sticks his foot in his mouth a little too often. Every one of us has something that, at best, we've treated with a thin veneer of whitewash. Maybe we simply gave up trying to cover it at all and simply leave it exposed to the elements in the hope it fades. Experience teaches us that it never quite does. All one has to do is drive through small rural towns to see the remnants of 80 year old Bull Durham Tobacco ads still faintly clinging to brick walls of old store buildings to realize that.

Our story in Acts ties in with our other two readings: In Mark, the paralytic had pretty much given up. It was his friends who bore him to see Jesus, even bringing him in through the roof to get him there. It's a reminder that when others are too tired or have given up, we can still take them to Jesus' healing touch. In Joshua, we are reminded that sometimes, the way to restoration is to take those graffiti-laden walls down with God's help and rebuild.

What is something you've been whitewashing for a long time that is in need of real resurrection? Is there something you're too proud to whitewash and too poor to paint, that awaits transformation and restoration?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.

Never Say "Never"

Matthew 26:26-35

I grew up in a small but historically important town on the East Coast. It was a beautiful place, probably one of the most beautiful I've ever been. There were trees everywhere and roads lined with almost virgin forest. There was my river, my sacred place before I knew what a sacred place was. It was beautiful, but it wasn't where I really wanted to spend the rest of my life.

Through my travels I lived in several places, like Southern California, the Philippines, and then a period in Eastern Oregon. Now everybody thinks of Oregon as green, wet and mossy but that's basically the western side of the state. Much of the east is a high desert with sparse vegetation, dry climate, very hot summers and cold winters that can feature an occasional goodly bit of snow . Even though I lived near the Columbia River, it wasn't MY river. I lived there for seven years before I escaped, and as I left, I swore I would never live in another desert as long as I lived.

Fast forward about three years. I met and married a man who worked in construction as I did. I was in San Francisco and loving it but he was in Arizona. You see where this is going, I'm sure. I ended up just on the southwest edge of Phoenix in a high desert surrounded by sparse vegetation, very hot summers and little rain. So much for saying "Never."

I thought about all that when I read the passage this morning, especially the part after the institution of the Eucharist. That Last Supper was like a banquet given to soldiers going out to fight, a kind of royal send off before things get bloody, beastly and deadly. When Jesus reached the Mount of Olives, he gave his disciples a vision of what was to come beginning that very night. It too was going to be bloody, beastly and deadly. They really had no clue of what was to come, although Jesus had given them some pretty broad hints from time to time. This time he got a little more specific, telling them that despite their faithfulness during his ministry, they were going to desert him and his cause. Of course, Peter led the charge, "Oh, no, I don't care what anybody else does, I'll never leave you, I'll never desert or deny you."

There's no doubt he really meant it--at the time, anyway, but we know how it all ends with Peter in the courtyard during Jesus' trial, pointed out by someone as a follower of Jesus. He didn't just deny it once, he did it three times! So much for saying "Never." His fellow disciples weren't much better. Peter and most of the boys holed up somewhere in Jerusalem as Jesus was hung on a cross and suffered for what must have seemed like forever. Only one unnamed disciple, his mother, Mary Magdalene and a few other female supporters were actually brave enough to not just show up at the crucifixion but to stay through the whole thing and close enough for the crowd to see them as family to the guilty man hanging there. He had to be guilty, right? They wouldn't crucify innocent people would they? Meanwhile the deniers were safely hidden, wondering how it could have all gone so wrong.

"I'll never do that again." We say it almost without thinking when things don't go well. "I'll never shop there again!" "I'll never speak to Bob (or Sue) again!" "I'll never smoke another cigarette/take another drink/drive recklessly/shop at that store..." The list goes on and on and quite often we who have been so adamant about something we'd never do again find ourselves precisely in that predicament of having done it, are doing it, or getting ready to do it without thinking about the "never" we swore probably not that long ago.

The disciples, especially Peter, had no inkling of how quickly his "No, I'll never deny you" would be put to the test. I also wonder how long it took him to not only get past the shame and guilt of doing what he swore to his teacher and friend he would never do but the added shame and guilt that he hid out to save himself while Jesus was dying.

I wonder if Peter, when he saw and knew the risen Lord, wept and humbled himself before him, confessing things Jesus already knew? I wonder if Peter felt a bit like Isaac after Abraham had untied him and sacrificed a ram found in the thicket instead. I wonder if Peter and the others reflected on what they had done and tried to find ways to make it right. I wonder too, how often do we?

"I'll never deny you" as a statement to Jesus is far higher on the list of things to regret than "I'll never live in another desert" but the word "Never" is there in both of them, a common thread of being something we would normally consider as impossible. It's when it becomes not just possible but actual that it gets noticed for what it is--a broken promise whether to self or to God.

Jesus was forgiving of those who said "Never" to him and then turned around and did that very thing. He is even forgiving when I promise "I'll never...," no matter what it is, whether it is failing to reading more scripture, praying more prayers, or remembering to be mindful about the things I should do. He forgives before we ask, just as he forgave the disciples before they expressed regret and repentance. Sometimes forgiving oneself is far harder but just as necessary.

I think I shall have to be more careful about the use of "Never" in my thoughts and words. The thing I say I will never do may become the very next thing I will do, or will have to do, no matter how ugly or hard or dangerous. It's the same for any of us, whether it is something like never smoking another cigarette or never denying our faith because it could be dangerous to us if we don't.

But we never know...

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.

Attacking ourselves nursing grudges

Psalm 31 (Morning)
Psalm 35 (Evening)
Joshua 4:19-5:1,10-15
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 26:17-25

Anyone in Missouri who knows anything about mules knows the granddaddy of trail rides for mule aficionados is the trail ride in Eminence, MO. Some friends of mine go every year, and I think the only time they've ever missed it is if there was a marriage or death in the family. I've never been, myself, but I feel like I have been there from hearing some of their stories over and over. My favorite one out of their combined library of stories goes like this:

A few years ago, there was this one old mule, getting up there in years, who had been going on the trail ride for what seemed like forever, and everyone always thought this year would be his last. He'd been sold around for a lot of years as a safe, dependable, not very perturb-able mule for a new rider. Different people would be riding him from year to year, but it seemed like that old mule was always there.

Evidently, one of the mule's former owners was a cruel man, and not a popular guy on the Eminence trail ride. Now, this man had sold the particular mule in the story, and probably 15 years had passed. (Admittedly, I've heard variations of this story saying it was 10 years, others 20. I'm splitting the difference here.)

mule.gifAt night, the riders tie the mules out on an overhead "high line" so they don't get tangled. Well, the mule's former owner just happened to walk behind the line of mules, not even noticing how close he was to their behinds. Well, that mule wasted no time delivering a single, well-placed kick, square into his former owner's rib cage, knocking him flat giving him several broken ribs, and pretty much ending his trail ride. That mule never forgot, and he certainly seized the opportunity when it presented itself!

No doubt, human nature being what it is, we dearly love it when bad folks "get what's coming to them." Paul, however, asks us to try a new way in our reading from Romans today--the Gospel way. It's a way that asks us to consider the possibility that there is no "us" vs. "them"--that we are all one body in Christ--that when there is disease or dis-ease anywhere in the body, the whole body is affected. Rather than go on search and destroy missions to placate our wounds, the Gospel asks us to build each other up and respect each other's gifts. It calls us to present all of us--the good and bad of us--to God and trust that we are enough, that we contain all the basic material for transformation. Tending each other's wounds is a part of that transformation, as is revealing our own.

The significant thing, I think, about that mule story, is I highly doubt that mule had plotted that moment against his former owner. It simply presented itself, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and it was over in one swift kick. We humans, on the other hand, can sure expend years and years of energy plotting. How much time have we wasted plotting, when we could, instead have used it for a greater good? No doubt we all have our unattractive impulsive moments, but it always seems easier to recoup and regroup from those than it does trying to come out from under a systematic pattern of holding resentments and nursing grudges.

When is a time you've attacked your own body (literally or figuratively) by hanging onto a grudge? When is a time that it came to light in one swift kick?

"Zoopraxiscope 16485d". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, is a grateful member of Trinity Episcopal Church and a postulant to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. She occasionally finds time to write about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid.

The Right Thing

Matthew 26:1-16

The woman opens a costly jar of oil and pours it over Jesus' head. The rich perfume of the burial tomb fills the house, ruining everyone's appetite. What is this wanton waste, this melodramatic display? Surely the Rabbi will be angry with her.

Instead Jesus praises her for her generous gift, confusing his disciples and making them angry. His followers have, up until now, put their own needs below those of their impoverished neighbors, giving away everything, keeping nothing back. Now, suddenly, the Rabbi commends a woman who squanders a huge chunk of her resources on a defeatist symbolic gesture.

It is a story about levels of understanding. Usually the disciples see, as I do, the landscape of ordinary reality. This viewpoint limits us to judging things in terms of our behaviors and categorically declares that some acts are good and others are not so great. From this perspective we might ask, “Giving to the poor, now – isn't that always the right thing to do? Doesn't it trump most other activities we could engage in?”

The woman who anoints Jesus does so because she has really, deeply, heard and responded to what he is trying to say to his followers. She has seen the future, and she accepts it. Her enacting this anointing is her affirmation of her Master as he engages his destiny. It is a gift of understanding and compassion.

617px-Italian_-_Dish_with_Mary_Magdalene_-_Walters_481319.jpgDoing the right thing is never really the issue. Our behaviors by themselves do not bring us closer to or lead us further away from the kingdom of heaven. The realm of God's rule is not a set of actions. Instead it is a point of view. What matters is the outlook that comes from that place within us where our ordinary conscious perspective has been swallowed up in God's. Then we see meanings that would otherwise be hidden, and everything we do reflects a deeper sensibility and purpose.

God, take me beyond my limitations of thinking and experience and make me an instrument of your unfathomable compassion. Amen.

Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries.

Jesus on the Border

Matthew 25:31-46

Today’s gospel starts with a discussion of separation. In the vision of judgment Jesus describes, one people will be separated from another, and he compares them to the sheep and the goats. Using symbolism that appears repeatedly throughout scripture, the sheep are those who are blessed and obedient to God’s will—in this case, God’s will of radical generosity and care for others: feeding the hungry and providing drink for the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and those in prison. Jesus’s vision makes it clear that he himself had been welcomed when the poor, the sick, and the outcast had been cared for.

Psychologically and sociologically speaking, the boundaries of our world usually progress from our own self, to our family, to our neighborhood, to our community, to our state, and to our nation. Some of us include other circles within this mental Venn diagram: our parish, our diocese, our denomination, and the Church overall, in the case of Episcopalians. It is a common occurrence in our culture to see a sharp separation between ourselves and others. This is nothing new.

Throughout scripture, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, there are dozens of laws and reminders to treat the strangers and the aliens among us with hospitality and compassion. Closer to home, there is Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, which he told in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” In short, the answer was, “Not whom you expect.”

We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves by being reminded that that neighborhood encompasses those we traditionally think of as rivals and enemies. We are called to care for those who seek our help. Again and again, we are called to break down the barriers that separate us in response to the vision of the kingdom of heaven, as Matthew likes to phrase it-- a unified humanity in a unified creation bound together in love to God and each other.

We are commanded in our gospel reading today to welcome the stranger, with dire consequences if we fail. Yet we seem to have more than enough problem welcoming our neighbor, much less the stranger among us. It seems modern society is more fractured than ever, both in the United States and elsewhere in the world—even among our countrymen there is so much contempt and denigration directed at those we have deemed different from us. If we can’t love our neighbors, how can we respond to the stranger and the alien among us?

We are not seeing many good results regarding the increasing crisis along the US southern border, where, in just the last nine months, 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been placed in detention while seeking asylum from violence in their homelands. We have read reflections on this crisis in just the last few weeks from our Presiding Bishop, the President of the House of Deputies of the General Convention, and the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church, to name but a few.

But the challenge of care for those who are outcast is certainly not limited to the United States. In Israel, we have the ongoing bloodshed between Hamas and the Israeli government in Gaza. Earlier this spring, anti-immigrant candidates in Europe received a shocking amount of support in European Union elections, buoyed by a backlash against a surge of refugees from Europe and Africa. In Africa, refugees flee Nigeria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, to name but a few areas of turmoil.

The ancient Hebrews were commanded to provide for the orphaned and the alien among them, which was an act of remarkable generosity if one considers what a small people they were, often subject to displacement themselves. We Americans are blessed to have been largely immune as an entire people to displacement. Does that mean we can have no understanding for or humanitarian response to those who have been torn from their families and homes, and who have experienced warfare and bloodshed?

We are called to transform our vision of the “least of these” from nuisances who place demands upon our finite resources of money and compassion. Again and again, we are called to remember that Jesus was not, and is not, the one everyone expected. He was not born into the ruling classes, from a powerful family, from a cosmopolitan city in the center of the empire. He was not the warrior king who would restore the political fortunes of Israel.

For those of us who cling to Jesus’s teachings today, we are reminded that Jesus not just was but IS. This is why scripture still speaks to us. “As it was, is now, and ever shall be.” We read about the Jesus who was, and many of us try to appeal to the Jesus who will be, but we often forget about the Jesus who IS , right now. Can we understand that Jesus is among us now? The face of Jesus still is the face of our neighbor, the face of the poor, the sick, and the refugee. Jesus remains on the border, then and now.

In Jesus’s parable, the goats, those who did NOT respond with openheartedness to those who were vulnerable, protest that they did not turn away Jesus, because they did not recognize who Jesus was at the moments when compassion was called for. Jesus stands in solidarity with “the least of these”—those who cling to the margins of society, those who were easily spurned or shunned, those who are seeking to survive. These are our neighbors. These are the faces of Jesus.

Repeatedly, we have to be reminded that the Jesus we claim to follow is not the Jesus we expect. Jesus was not really that well-groomed, handsome man who smiles at us from so many paintings, sculptures, and, lately movies. Jesus is, however, the one who calls us to open our hands and our hearts, to love as we have been loved, to give as well as receive. Jesus calls us to serve him, to see his face in those we could turn away.

Leslie Scoopmire is a newly retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She will attend Eden Theological Seminary beginning in the fall of 2014. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.

The Journey from "Shall Not" to "Shall Love"

Matthew 25:14-30

Once again this morning’s gospel finds Jesus in the temple fielding questions aimed at tripping him up, discrediting him and finding grounds for condemnation. This time it’s the Pharisees turn to give it their best shot. They know that the Sadducees had just struck out trying to nail Jesus on a fine point of Mosaic Law. So they brought in one of their heavy hitters, a lawyer specializing in all the intricacies of law and tradition, prophecy and religious practice. His brilliance will surely destroy this Nazarene bumpkin.

You can hear the sarcasm dripping as he addresses Jesus as “Master.” He wants to draw this uneducated carpenter into an elevated legal discussion and expose Jesus as a presumptuous hick who’s way out of his depth bantering with the big boys. Pity the proud lawyer. He came to engage in verbal jousting and found he was up against the greatest original thinker the world has ever known. Rather than get drawn into the fine points of old covenant law, Jesus lays out the basis for an entirely new covenant. And he does it in just two sentences:

Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. And the second is like unto it, Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself.

Two thousand years later, the brilliance and the brevity of the essential Christian concept are still breathtaking. The Ten Commandments and 27 chapters of Leviticus were dominated by a laundry list of “thou shall not.” The Old Testament is an encyclopedia of transgressions and prescribed punishments, both in the abstract and in endless cautionary tales. And then in two sentences the entire dynamic of our relationship with God is redefined.

Gone is the recitation of “shall not’s.” In its stead, the affirmative shall love is our new imperative. Avoiding evil becomes the natural byproduct of actively doing good. We are commanded to live positive lives of action, not lives of avoidance. More recently the basic Christian concept has been boiled down even further, into only four letters…WWJD… What Would Jesus Do? And from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we know the answer. We will joyfully live in and for the love of Jesus Christ. We will gratefully praise God and serve our neighbor. From “shall not” to “shall love,” we’ve really come a long way.

The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.

There's a wideness in God's mercy

Is there anyone that does not know and love the hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea…”? Think of the instances in which you have sung it or when it comes to mind. Think of the contexts in which it is sung and those it interprets.

The six verses actually come from a much longer hymn written by Frederick William Faber, published in 1854. Fr. Faber was born in Yorkshire and received Holy Orders in the Church of England in 1839. At Oxford as an undergraduate he became involved in the Anglo-Catholic preaching of the Oxford Movement and in 1845 he entered the Roman Catholic Church. Many of the hymns Fr. Faber wrote were specifically for a parish setting. He says, “People were anxious to have Catholic hymns of any sort.” As commentators note, Faber’s text soon became popular in the hymnals of many different denominations, and this hymn was even translated into Swedish. Hardly any of the borrowers selected the same stanzas for their use, and it was paired with various tunes. In our 1982 hymnal, #469 and # 470 provide two settings for three verses of the hymn. The first version is set to the tune St Helena which was composed by Calvin Hampton in 1978 expressly for this text.

In his hymns, Fr Faber emulated the simplicity and intense fervor of the Wesleys. This is nowhere more true than in Calvin Hampton’s setting, St Helena, of #469 which expresses musically the metaphor that God’s mercy is as wide as the sea. Musicians understand far better than I its rhythmic rendering of the vast rolling sea through meter and tune to convey the fluid, yet ever-present nature of God’s compassion and mercy. Surely it is this for which we yearn and with which we resonate. Yet in Fr. Faber’s hymn there is a another verse to ponder as a reflection on our tendencies to restrict God’s wide pity:

But we make His love too narrow
By the false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own

And the hymn concludes:

Pining Souls! Come nearer Jesus,
And oh come not doubting thus,
But with faith that trusts more bravely
His huge tenderness for us

If our love were but more simple
We should take him at his word;
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord.

Deirdre Good is Academic Dean and 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.

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