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Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Category: Christianity (page 1 of 51)

In Season and Out

Paul tells Timothy to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). When I think of this verse however, it comes to mind in the words of the Authorized/King James version of my youth: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine (2 Timothy 4:2, KJV).

In many ways the time of the virus Covid-19 is, without a doubt, “unfavorable.” But for all that it has sent us into varied levels of seclusion and sequestration, and taking into the account the horrible impact on people’s lives, families, and yes, the economy, it is nevertheless a good season for the proclamation of the Good News.

When the Apostle wrote these words about an unfavorable time, I’m not sure he had in view a time when people wouldn’t need to hear the Gospel. Instead, I think it has to do with the potential consequences for the one proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and defeat of Hell, Death, and the Devil. There have certainly been unfavorable times in the history of the Church. The Soviet era. China today under President XI, whose plan for solidifying authority has seemed to include intensified restrictions and persecution of religious groups, especially Christians. The Second World War (Terrence Malick’s latest film, A Hidden Life explores that one).

Our time and place is not unfavorable in such overt ways to the proclamation of the Gospel. There are challenges–some of the questions raised in Malick’s film attest to that in their applicability to our present moment. And yet, as it relates to the Coronavirus, I wonder if we are indeed in a favorable time.

I don’t mean that the virus was a “good” thing. Far from it. What I mean is that this is a “good” time for the proclamation of the Good News. This is not because of the peculiarity of our current situation in which people are lonely, anxious, grief stricken, confused, and sometimes without a clear sense that anyone cares about their struggles. It’s not because of the peculiarity of this time, because precisely what makes this time a good one for the proclamation is that it is even now stripping away a facade that has allowed us to imagine that these sorts of challenges aren’t barely under the surface in the best of times.

In this context the message that you are beloved of God, that God became one of us so that through him we might be with God, is sorely needed. At a time when people might be questioning their worth, reminding them that they are not worthless but priceless in the sight of God–purchased at the unfathomable price of the Son–can provide necessary perspective and fortitude to make it through.

Making it through such a time with its heavy doses of reality is a challenge. Making it through in a way that might allow for thriving takes all our resources: Spiritual, relational, intellectual, physical. One sort of resource that comes to mind for me quite often in stressful times is literature. Scripture, of course, is its own category here. After years of doing the daily office, some scripture has gotten into my bones–particularly portions of the Psalms, which I will read even when I can’t do the entire office. But in addition to scripture, poetry is often an important emotional bulwark for me.

John Donne (1572 – 1631) one of the great metaphysical poets (and, along with George Herbert, one of my favorite poets overall), has come to mind quite a bit for me over these past few weeks. In particular, lines from Donne’s poem “Hymn to God, My God, In my Sickness” have pushed themselves to the forefront of my consciousness several times.

Per fretum febris. Donne inserts this Latin phrase in his poem, and it was among the first to come floating back to mind as I read about the effects of Covid-19. I recall reading it the first time and stumbling over the exact translation with my rusty Latin. “By the straight of a fever?” It took me a few moments, but I got the gist, if not the underlying reference. Donne was writing about a sickness that entailed a dangerous fever. Literary anthologies usually translate the phrase as “through the straights of fever.”

Donne’s Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness is in a sense Donne’s answer to the question: does God care?

Donne makes evocative use of references to cartography and exploration in his poem and his later reference to Magellan’s straits makes it all the more fitting that he’s calling to mind the death of the explorer Magellan who, while giving his names to straits, himself died before circumnavigating the globe–not reaching his intended destination. I believe Donne wants his readers to understand life–and death–as a journey. Not only in the general, but the particular sense. Sickness and dying are themselves journeys. And I think, unlike some contemporary commenters, Donne would be quick to both affirm the importance of the journey and the destination, as he focuses so closely on his “west,” i.e. both his impending death and his end/telos in union with Christ.

So it is that Magellan who navigated the globe and lent his name to the straits, died before reaching his goal, and now Donne, struck down by fever, navigating his life and what he believes to be his impending death, believes he may die by these straits–but his journey is will not be cut short. He will achieve his promised end. The destination not only matters, but is assured.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Per fretum febris. This phrase came to mind as I read descriptions of the symptomatology of the Coronavirus. Out of curiosity I decided to do some reading about the historical context of Donne’s composition. When had he written “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness?” How close to Donne’s own death had it been? I remembered that Donne had died of what we now assume to have been stomach cancer. I also remember reading about his last sermon, “Death’s Duel” delivered at the beginning of Lent in 1630–but when had he written this moving poem the lines of which were brought to mind by our current societal predicament?

After a little digging I discovered that while some earlier commenters believed the poem to have been written shortly before Donne’s death in 1631, most commenters today believe it was written around 1623 (roughly the same time Donne is supposed to have written “A Hymn to God the Father”). John Donne: The Complete English Poems, in the outline of Donne’s life, says this of the year 1623: “Donne seriously ill.”

The sickness that Donne endured in 1623 is believed to have been either Typhus or relapsing fever–though he believed himself to have the plague (the last round of which hit England in 1666, after being endemic since the late 1300s and striking regularly with periodic peaks). This served as the background for the experience that prompted his famous words in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: “…never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Donne’s words and our current predicament has led me to think long about what it must have been like for our forebears to live in a world that was perceived to be so much more precarious than our own. I say perceived not because I want to deny the advancements in technology, science, and public health that have been made over these few hundred years, but because of the fact that just because we have not recognized the fragility or precariousness of our situation, it does not mean it was not so. And I believe a recognition of that fact is actually necessary–perhaps paradoxically so–to build the sort of certainty we are comforted by.

The first sort of (albeit limited) certainty comes from taking seriously the threats that are simply of a piece with being part of the natural world. This may be especially true when we are under stress, and even more, when we have put our world under, and the creatures with whom we share it, under stress. As the Pope said recently in his Urbi et orbi address:

We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”.

Pope Francis, March 27, 2020

The second sort of certainty testified to by Donne’s poem is likewise in evidence in the Pope’s words, and in his reference to the imploring words of the disciples: “Wake up, Lord!” This cry is one that may seem to come from desperation, but as Pope Francis pointed out, even their cry is a witness to a particular faith. They have faith in Jesus, but they wonder: does he care?

“Let us try to understand. In what does the lack of the disciples’ faith consist, as contrasted with Jesus’ trust? They had not stopped believing in him; in fact, they called on him. But we see how they call on him: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.”

Pope Francis, March 27, 2020

Donne’s Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness is in a sense Donne’s answer to the question: does God care? This question of whether or not God cares about what happens to humanity is an important one. The Christian response is fundamentally that God does care–we do not believe in a divine and sublimely distracted clockmaker, but in the God who became human in Jesus Christ. Because of this, someone like George MacDonald might warn that doubting God’s goodness (a species of which might be doubting whether or not God cares) could be worse that doubting God’s very existence:

“To deny the existence of God may, paradoxical as the statement will at first seem to some, involve less unbelief than the smallest yielding to doubt of his goodness. I say yielding; for a man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood…”

George MacDonald, Sermon on Job, Unspoken Sermons

I take comfort in the fact that, as MacDonald says, there is a difference between having doubts, or asking questions, and in yielding to such doubts. Certainly believing in a capricious or monstrous deity is worse than believing in no deity at all–for while the latter may lead in some cases to an insidious or evil nihilism, the former may lead to a nihilism that boasts divine approval.

All the Saints in Paradise surrounding Christ in Majesty

So it is significant that, when confronted with the possibility of his death, Donne reflects on the way his body has become its own cosmography, a type of map for his physicians to read. He despairs of their finding a means of his cure–rather than the straits of health, he believes that they are simply showing him the reality of his situation, and that the straits of his fever will likely mean his death. Imagining what his end might be, he describes a holy room, where–in a beautiful image–he writes “with thy choir of saints for evermore, I shall be made thy music…”

For Donne, his end is Christ. Jesus is his destination because Jesus is essential to his present. “Shall my west [death] hurt me?” he asks, then answers,

As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.

This unity of apparent opposites gets even more pointed as he invokes the tradition that Christ was crucified on the site of the fall, and imagines what it means to be united with humanity’s natural head (Adam, who fell) and with the head of renewed and redeemed humanity and restored creation, Jesus:

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

Ultimately it is Christ’s union with humanity upon which Donne places his trust. The solidarity of God with us, first in the incarnation and lifted up on the cross is an essential aspect of the way Donne works out the specific uncertainty around what he believes to be his impending death. I believe it is also the core of his ability to live with the uncertainty and fickleness of nature that was so much more in evidence in his day than in ours. “Coronatide” as some on the so-called Weird Anglican Twitter have dubbed it, is a time when we get a glimpse of what normal life was like for our forebears. Frailty was more difficult to deny and uncertainty drew close–but closer still was the Good News of God’s love.

This is why Donne could write/pray with such awareness in Holy Sonnet 14 “Batter my heart, three-personed God…” and why he could close this hymn of his sickness with a strong affirmation of ultimate union with Christ–it was a union already real, set to be revealed:

So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word,
Be this my own text, my sermon to mine own:
"Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down."

While the entire poem is a favorite, perhaps my favorite line in the whole is the final one: “Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.” One could get into a deep theological discussion about the nature of providence and of God’s active vs. God’s permissive will. Here though, I believe the background of this line is a type of the question posed by the Disciples, and highlighted by Pope Francis: “Do you not care?” At some point we all have to come to terms with the fact of our own mortality. Whether that is experienced per fretum febris, in a singular event or as part of some wider calamity. In doing so, we have to ask, if we believe in a loving God, “do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Donne’s answer, I believe, is summarized in this final line: “Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”

We do not know why such evils are allowed–and let’s be honest, God’s allowance as all powerful is only finely distinguished from God’s activity, therefore we may feel that the natural trials we face are in some way God throwing us down. But Donne’s answer, if I can call that, reminds me of Jesus’ answer to the disciples when they ask why the man had been born blind. “Who sinned?” they asked, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ response is revealing: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:4).

Donne’s answer, and its reflection on our current situation may be summarized this way: we do not know why evils befall us, whether exceptional, as with this virus (at least in our own day) or more common–death itself. But we do know that God loves us (Jesus is exhibit alpha through omega of that). And because of Christ, we know that God is with us even in the most dire and challenging circumstances. And because God–specifically, because Jesus–has been with us, we know that Jesus will not abandon us. We know that we have been made one with him and that his crown of thorns, adorning his brow as he united himself with us in death, becomes a crown of glory as we are united to him in resurrected life. Why does God allow evil to befall us despite the ability to prevent it? Because we do not yield to the doubting of God’s goodness, we must believe something good for us is ultimately purposed, turning even the bad to those good ends.

“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.” The tragedy, the falls we endure, can in the end, only be redeemed if there is an even greater lifting up awaiting us. And if we are not left alone to endure in the present moment.

We are in a season where the saccharine claims of a false and comfortable piety will be revealed for the weightless fantasies they are. Where the ultimate nihilism of a consumeristic materialism will be unmasked as mute and powerless idols. So this is indeed a season when the proclamation of the Good News is needed. The Good News of God in Christ, of Christ’s love for us, of his death, resurrection, and ascension–and ultimately his coming again. A gospel message that can lead us all to echo the words of Donne, “Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me…”

Look on your people, Lord, who know you love us because you came to be with us, and find not only our failures and hatreds, but our striving after goodness and our love for each other. Look on us and find your Son, Jesus, working in our hearts.

The Lord Watch Between You and Me. (Because someone has to keep us honest).

Last week I had the opportunity to go on our Diocesan clergy silent retreat. This is only my second time participating in this particular retreat and I’ve enjoyed both gatherings very much.

One of the key points made early in the series of five reflections (delivered this year by our Bishop, John Bauerschmidt) was the way in which memory breaks in during times of silence and we may find ourselves enjoying pleasant memories, or confronting awkward or even negative ones. Silence allows things to bubble to the surface that often don’t have the opportunity. Part of this means that we might be surprised by the memories that come to the fore.

One of the memories that came to mind for me was only partial, and it wasn’t particularly positive or negative–though it was humorous. It came to mind during Morning Prayer on Wednesday, when the first lesson was from Genesis (I’ll share the reference later). the reading brought to mind the vague memory of an event I attended at some point–maybe a youth retreat, or some other function. I don’t recall much, but I do recall the ending of our time together. One of the leaders spent a fair amount of time–and maybe there was a prayer or a song related to the same theme–talking about how the Lord would protect us when we were absent from one another, and quoting the passage from Genesis, that is rendered in the King James version, “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another” (Genesis 31:49).By the time I heard this I’d been doing morning prayer long enough that the reference tickled my awareness and I looked it up. In context I couldn’t imagine why this phrase would ever acquire the use and meaning it had.  “How in the world could someone use this in a positive way at the end of an event.” What is recounted is Jacob’s surreptitious departure, at God’s command, from the territory of his father-in-law Laban, and their subsequent meeting after Laban follows.The meeting is not a positive one, but while bitter, it does not fall into violence.  Nevertheless, one of the few things that Laban and Jacob agree on, is that they do not trust each other, and therefore they asking God to keep watch because the people aren’t trustworthy to each other after a bitter argument.  As Robert Alter pointed out in his commentary, this exchange even stands in the background of the establishment of an international border.  That is, a boundary between people groups: 

Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he called it Galeed, and the pillar Mizpah, for he said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other.  If you ill-treat my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.”

Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and see the pillar, which I have set between you and me.  This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm.  May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor”—the God of their father—“judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac,  and Jacob offered a sacrifice on the height and called his kinsfolk to eat bread; and they ate bread and tarried all night in the hill country (Genesis 31:48-54).

Of course, I thought this was hilarious at the time, but I’d forgotten it.  The combination of reading the passage at Morning Prayer (Gen. 31:25-50) and thinking about past experiences brought it back to mind. Because I happen to be reading Robert Alter’s newly published translation of the Hebrew Bible now, I looked over the passage in his translation which makes the conflict even more clear in some ways.  For example, Alter translates part of the exchange as “May the Lord look out between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight. Should you abuse my daughters, and should you take wives besides my daughters though no one else is present, see, God is witness between you and me” (Genesis 31:49-50, Alter’s translation). Alter’s version highlights the loss of trust between the two men, and how God is being called on to keep each of them on the straight and narrow, and to bear witness should either of them violate their agreement.

This background makes the presence of paired pendants with this phrase on it, marketed to friends, family members, and sweethearts all the more ironic.  It’s about separation, and God’s attention, of that there’s no doubt.  But it’s a divine attention prayed for–and threatened–because there’s no trust between the two people in question.  And I have to wonder–is this the sentiment you really want to invoke when you’re going to be separated from a loved one for some period of time?

Bonus content:
Here’s a sample of Alter’s book and the notes on part of this section. I can’t recommend it highly enough:

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The Chinese Dragon and the Cross

For a number of years the Chinese government has been increasing its persecution of Christians by tightening enforcement of building regulations, requiring the removal of crosses, the use of political imagery, and pursuing the arrest and detention of Christian leaders from the underground house church movement.

Not all of this oppression is unique to Christianity. Readers may remember the suppression of the Falun Gong movement, for example. In China, as elsewhere, Communism is no friend to religious belief and practice.

But I do think the antagonism between Christianity and Communism is particular and intrinsic to the foundational assumptions of both as ideologies. China has vacillated between limited toleration, hoping to capitalize on the social benefits that may come with Christian belief among the citizenry, and persecution when Christianity seemed to be getting too strong.

These issues have recently been brought to the forefront of my mind by the protests in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is one area of China, because of the one nation two systems approach, that has maintained more freedom of religion. Additionally, the Hong Kong legal system has been strongly shaped by the Common Law tradition, which has been heavily influenced by Christian presuppositions (though, of course it is in the nature of the Common Law to be influenced by the presuppositions of those who adhere to it).

All of this being said, there is a specific danger as President Xi of China consolidates power and sets himself up more firmly as a modern day totalitarian leader. That danger is that religions, including Christianity, will find themselves co-opted into the service of Chinese nationalism.

Precisely because this situation is not new or unique, Christians need to be watchful and pray for our brothers and sisters in China. We need to pray for their clarity and their discernment, as well as their fortitude and courage. The tweet below demonstrates one example of the problematic nature of this sort of coopting:

Folks might rightly point out that you could see similar things at American Megachurches on Memorial Day. But while theologically that too is a marker of something disturbing, it is not a coercive or commanded obedience and nationalism. Even more concerning are efforts by the Chinese government post Tiananmen to influence the media of the Chinese diaspora, as well as their faiths, so as to be more amenable to the plans of the Chinese government.

So, if all of this is the case (and I hasten to add I am no expert, simply thinking about the issues as I understand and have read about them), then what is the hope in terms of Christian witness in China? To answer this question, I think about the words of the late Lamin Sanneh, a scholar of world Christian mission, who wrote of Christianity in China, that:

“Mao might be far from Christendom, but not far enough to avoid rousing the Christian ghost from the mountain recluses and political backwaters to which rhetoric banished it. The political mission of China seemed too evocative of the Christian mission it combated for it to succeed without the Christian alibi. And that alibi came to haunt the gatekeepers of the revolution”

Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations, 269

Trinity Sunday Sermon, given at Christ Church Cathedral on June 16, 2019

Sermon given at the Ordination of Charles W. Hall to the Sacred Order of Deacons

Sermon Notes for Diaconal Ordination
June 1, 2019
Scripture: Luke 12:35-38

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“…Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks” (Luke 12:36).

Today we celebrate the ordination of a new deacon in Christ’s Holy Church.  Another leader called, equipped, and now ordained from the midst of God’s people.  Charles, the ordination which you receive today is a gift. Today, when Bishop John lays hands on you and consecrates you a deacon, he will do so for the Church.  Through that apostolic authority, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will make you a deacon. You will become part of the order of deacons, and you will bear the responsibilities of the order.  And everyone here will be reminded of the gift, and obligations they bear to God and God’s Church.

Our Gospel text gives us a good summary of part of that obligation: “Be like those who are waiting for their master… so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”

This teaching is given to all Christians, but it is a particular call for those who are ordained to the task of helping all Christians honor it.

Our orders do not belong to us, even though to properly exercise them, we must embrace them, and let them shape us. In a way, ordination is the simplest thing in the world–if we didn’t have it, we would have to invent it, so central does it seem to the exercise of the church’s ministry–someone, after all, needs to lead services, to teach, to preach.  In another sense it is strange. How, to paraphrase Stanley Hauerwas, can an individual be ordained to do what only the whole church can do?  Hauerwas was speaking specifically of officiating at the Holy Eucharist, but the same question can be asked of each of the orders that make up the three-fold ministry.  These orders are a gift from God for the benefit of the Church. Instituted by Christ and the Apostles, and later guided by the Holy Spirit in development, they are the means whereby the people of God have ordered our common life and ensured the apostolic witness, teaching, and ongoing faithfulness.  They are particular embodiments of the way the church has pursued faithfulness to Jesus.

This important aspect of each of the threefold orders is highlighted in the preface to the Ordination Rites, which at the end says “It is also recognized and affirmed that the threefold ministry is not the exclusive property of this portion of Christ’s catholic Church, but is a gift from God for the nurture of his people and the proclamation of his Gospel everywhere” (BCP 510).

This means that while we are ordained in the Episcopal Church, our orders are not strictly of the Episcopal Church.  but belong to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.  While other traditions may disagree, we have never seen ourselves as doing anything other than continuing the means whereby the church set out, by the Spirit’s guidance, to organize itself.

Which brings us back to the strangeness.  How can one person be ordained to do what only the whole church can do?  They can, because it is impossible for the church to *do* anything except through the actions and example of particular Christians.  Paul attests to the diversity of gifts given God’s people by the Spirit. Ordination is a recognition and expansion of that fundamental insight.  The Church recognizes that we need individuals to serve in specific ways so that the Church as a whole can fulfil its mission.. They are the possession neither of us as individuals, nor of our communion within the Church Catholic. Yet we must own them in the sense of fulfilling their purpose and honoring their example–whether as lay or ordained Christians.  A Bishop is ordained to exercise oversight within the body of Christ, to offer teaching, exhortation, and occasionally correction, because this is a service and obligation the church owes to itself corporately and to its members individually.  A presbyter is ordained and celebrates the Eucharist by virtue of being in fellowship with the Bishop, and preaches, teaches, and upholds tradition because it is a responsibility that the Church owes to itself, and in order to fulfill it, someone must do it. tRe Spirit Calls.

Christians are called to love our neighbors sacrificially, and to work for the good of our communities.  We are all called to serve, in imitation of Christ. And yet, we need examples of this love and service. and people who are especially equipped to encourage us in the fulfillment of these tasks.  So we have the order of Deacons. In each case, the order exemplifies a call, an obligation born by the whole church, that must then be exercised by specific people within the church in order for it to be fulfilled, and to which people are called, having their ministries recognized and affirmed by the people of God.

A former professor of mine once said that he sometimes thought that those called to ordained ministry were called because God knew we needed a little extra help.  Personal experience says that may be. But those called to greater intentionality, are called to serve the church that needs a witness and an encouragement. So your ordination is a gift to you, and to the whole church.  Your ministry is your offering. Your call is to greater personal faithfulness, for the greater faithfulness of God’s people.

Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit Jesus tells us. In this service, you will be dressed in the garments of a deacon, and you will fulfill the liturgical functions of a deacon for the first time. It is an honor.  The work in the service is symbolic of the work to which you are called in the world and in the church. As a Deacon you will be tasked with searching out and interpreting the needs of the world and of the people of God, to those who are in leadership in the community.  You will also have particular opportunities to interpret the Gospel to people in the world. Proclaiming the Gospel, preparing the Altar–these are important acts, and they are also illustrative of the way your ministry should be carried out beyond the liturgy. More fundamentally, they are examples of Christian service that when reflective all of our lives, can draw us to greater faithfulness as baptized people.

Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. All Christians are called to be spiritually awake, to live in anticipation of Christ’s return, and to be observant of opportunities to follow Jesus.  And yet, we know as human beings, we have a need for reminders and encouragement in order to do what we need or ought to do. So it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to the Church, that there would be Christians called to do just that.  One of my favorite analogies for the priesthood comes from a little book by George Sumner, now Bishop of Dallas, where he refers to the priest as a giant finger pointing the people to Jesus. I’d like to expand that analogy. Once again, it is one that properly fits the witness of every Christian- in general-we should all be pointing others toward Jesus.  In a narrower sense, it fits the call of those who are ordained. We are called to point others to Jesus, and to point our fellow Christians toward one another and their neighbors.

It could be tempting to be trapped by the imagery of the household, to think that the knocking of Jesus is just about him coming to where we are passively waiting, and opening the door to let him in.  But we can expand the imagery of hearing Christ knocking–perhaps it’s hearing Christ knocking in our hearts. Perhaps it’s hearing or seeing Christ present in other people who are in need, or who are highlighting some needed action by the Church.  Perhaps the knocking is actually our being willing to discern the eagerness with which Jesus hopes to encounter those who have never heard the Gospel, or to understand their need to hear it. In each case, it is our task to seek out the places where Christ is knocking, where the Holy Spirit is at work anticipating our engagement with what God is doing.

Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes
We must be alert in our lives of faith, and in the exercise of our ministries.  But I want to share a thought for you in particular Charles. Because you will be moving toward ordination as a priest.  Because your vocational path lies in military chaplaincy in the US Navy, I think it’s fair to say that you could face the temptation, as you look ahead at schedules and requirements, and tasks, to allow this season of your direct diaconal ministry to pass by in a blur. I want to encourage you not to let that happen.  Take time to explore this new ministry.  Listen to what the Holy Spirit and the People of God are telling you.  There’s much more to alertness than simply being awake.  Being alert means being aware.

Take the time to be aware.  To be aware of the people you are called to serve, to be aware of what God is doing in their lives and yours, to be aware of the work of God in your community, and how you can share that with your parish, and with the neighbors, Christian and non-Christian you encounter.
If you can do that.  If we can all-take the time to hear and see what God is doing, where Jesus is knocking, we will be faithfully fulfilling not only our vocations as ordained people, but as the baptized–and if he comes in the middle of the night, or near dawn, in the Sunday liturgy, or the Wednesday bible study, the committee meeting, or the neighborhood gathering, in the hospital room, the family supper, or in the prison, or anywhere else Jesus might show up–and finds us so engaged in the ministry with which he has entrusted us, then we will all, indeed, be blessed.  Amen.

When God Opens Our Eyes, We Dare Not Look Away

Sermon Notes for Proper 25
XXIII Sunday after Pentecost
Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-9 • Hebrews 7:23-28 • Mark 10:46-52

The following sermon was preached at the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, October 28, 2018. It varies from the notes below, and slightly from the version preached at the 8 AM service. The recording includes the sequence hymn and Gospel proclamation. The sermon itself begins at 3:38.

It was difficult to know where to begin this sermon. I suppose I’ll just begin with what made me throw out what I’d written earlier in the week and start over. Yesterday a tragedy occurred in Pittsburgh at Tree of Life Synagogue. At least, many of us instinctively call it a tragedy. But that may not be the best or most accurate word. Hurricanes are tragedies. Floods and other natural disasters are tragedies. A sudden death from a heart attack is a tragedy. These are forces of nature out of our control, or even if influenced by our actions, several steps removed from them.

The event at Tree of Life (and I’m using a circumlocution for the benefit of the younger ears among us), the earlier events in Louisville, in Los Vegas, In Charleston, in New Town, in Antioch just down the road–these were not tragedies, if by that we mean something that just happens. These events did not happen on their own. As Dorsey McConnell, the Bishop of Pittsburgh wrote yesterday, in response,

“The newscasts, sickeningly, are referring again and again to this horror as a “tragedy.” It is no such thing. A tragedy is inevitable. This was not. It was murder, murder of a particularly vile and poisonous kind. Human beings have moral agency. Someone chose to hate, and chose to kill. And now we are faced with a choice as well— to do nothing, or to reject this hatred in the strongest possible words and actions, and to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society.

The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of Pittsburgh

I agree with Bishop McConnell, but I think there’s a major step that we have to take in order to properly reject this particular hatred, and so many others: we have to see them, recognize them for what they are, and refuse to accept easy explanations or soothing platitudes that remove any hint of our own culpability–as individuals or as a society–in allowing or even fomenting hate and evil. 

If this is what we need to do, then we could have no better example than the prophet Jeremiah, and as usual, no greater Lord than Jesus. Jeremiah teaches us what it is to look at what is, Jesus shows us how to live once we’ve seen it. In saving us by grace, Jesus frees us from the repetitive cycle justified by the logic of a world turned inward that fuels hatred and discord, and makes us citizens of the kingdom of God, meant for all people, which is always turned outward (you should know from the biblical descriptions, the gates of heaven are always open, it is the gates of hell that are closed, which cannot withstand the assaults of the church).

After the I read the news reports yesterday, these words came to mind:

“Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more” (Jeremiah 21:15).

This passage illustrates a facet of Jeremiah’s work that is essential. As Professor Ellen Davis puts it: “The prophet speaks for God in language that is literally visceral: ‘My guts, my guts; I writhe!’ (Jer. 4:19); ‘My guts yearn for [Ephraim/Israel]” (31:20). Although the visceral character of Jeremiah’s words is (regrettably) obscured by most translations, this feature of his poetry is an important indicator of his distinctive place within the prophetic canon. For Jeremiah is a witness to horror who never looks away, and thus he may teach us something of what it is to speak and act on God’s behalf in the most grievous situations” (Davis, 144).

It is that last bit that is so significant for us. It is so easy to look away. To turn the channel, literally or figuratively (caveat lector: ok, if your little kids are watching the news and see something come on that they shouldn’t watch, turn the channel or turn it off, “shield the joyous” as the prayer says). The point is not to do what is comfortable at the expense of facing the truth or doing what is right. 

Jeremiah could shoulder this burden because he was faithful and followed God, delivering the word of God to the people in a time of military defeat and literal and figurative captivity, receiving God’s words of faithfulness and love, even as he railed against the evils and injustice he observed. The Prophet did not hesitate to challenge God or to lament his situation, or that of his people, but he did so in the midst of proclaiming hope based on God’s fidelity. Jeremiah was able to unflinchingly look at what was happening to his people, and to record the word of their trials and even their destruction, because he did so in the context of God’s ultimate faithfulness. So it is that the lament of Rachel losing her children–a poetic way to talk about actual death and destruction–takes place within the context of the earlier passage we heard this morning:

Thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
“Save, O Lord, your people, 
the remnant of Israel.”
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and
those in labor, together; 
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn (Jeremiah 31:7-9).

Because God is faithful to us, we can be freed from the anxieties and fears that prevent us from looking at ourselves and our society with clear eyes, and from responding to our neighbors with love. When set them aside and look at ourselves, we might be surprised what we see. 

The day before he launched his attack on Tree of Life Synagogue, the perpetrator wrote on social media “HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Earlier he had written, while posting a screen cap of their web site, “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided…” ominously thanking the organization for sharing a list of their supporters.

But here’s the thing. Some folks will want to say about him, as with the recent bomb maker, that they’re crazy, and shouldn’t be taken as indicative of any greater trend. But let’s be honest: how many of you have heard family, neighbors, friends, say similar things about the work of World Vision or Catholic Charities around Middle Tennessee? How many of you can point out similar phrases used to describe the Islamic center in Murfreesboro? I know I can. And if I’ve heard it given the way people often hold back around clergy, I know some of you have heard it.

Some people who perpetrate attacks are clinically mentally ill. Most aren’t. Paranoia and conspiracy theories are popular because they have explanatory power that is attractive to rational people given certain prior convictions and commitment to fear-laden worldviews, fostering different sorts of confirmation bias. Was every Nazi clinically insane? Every Soviet citizen who transported former comrades to the Gulag? As philosopher Hannah Arendt convincingly argues, evil is much simpler and more frightening than that. It’s most frightening because it is banal, ordinary to the point of being boring. It’s not a magical text that takes a special tool to decode. It’s a random off-color email forward from an eccentric relative taken a step too far.

If people can shoot folks in a gas station parking lot for their music being loud, or for texting in a movie theater before a movie starts, or pull guns on each other on the interstate, is it really that surprising that there are folks on the fringes–we hope they’re fringes–who only need the slightest permission to act on hate founded on fear and often willful ignorance?

In 2011 Anders Breivik, as self-styled Christian Nationalist from Norway carried out an attack in that country. Initially, prosecutors treated him as insane. But eventually he was found fit to stand trial and the time limit on his incarceration was lifted as a result. A Norwegian author writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2012 shared these incisive thoughts:

This verdict is also the end of a long trial process far too focused on Breivik’s persona, and to little on the social and political climate that created him. By prosecuting on insanity, the state asked “Who is Anders Behring Breivik”, and to answer that question every little piece of his personal history became important. But in a political and social context, this is an indifferent question. People such as Breivik have always existed.. But the actions they take and the way they are formed differs from society to society.

The author goes on to say that the is not who Breivik is, but why he became who he became that is important:

If Breivik had been from Afghanistan, Iraq or Nigeria, we would have asked what it was within these countries and cultures that made him a terrorist.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/24/anders-breivik-verdict-norway

I have written before about the lengths we will go to to distance ourselves from the perpetrators of these attacks, but the reality is, for the most part, they aren’t that removed. Growing up I used to go to Gun and knife shows a few times every year. I heard the pitch of folks selling AR-15s by talking to buyers about how easily you could convert one to full-auto. I saw the pamphlets that were inevitably at at least one literature rack where the same author seemingly published the same booklet over and over, only swapping out the word Jewish/Catholic/Masonic/Illuminati banking conspiracy. I recognize the similarity of those well-worn bits of rhetoric to claims that church-based refugee resettlement agencies are just in it for the money and are doing it all–willingly or as dupes–at the behest of the UN or the Vatican in order to weaken the United States.

Which brings me back to 2012. Some of you who had children in school that year, or who worked in Sumner County Schools that year. If you were around and remember, we had some difficulty starting school that year. There was a conflict between the School Board and the County Commission over funding. Eventually schools were started and there was a political shift in the county so that we haven’t had another issue like that.

About a year after that, a representative from World Vision asked if they could present to the Hendersonville Pastors Association. It turned out that they were looking for new communities in which to resettle refugees, and they thought Hendersonville met the criteria: good local economy, available housing, lots of churches. You never heard anything about this initiative from me, because the pastors collectively decided it wasn’t a good idea given the politics in the county at the time. You see, the rhetoric had gotten so heated about the cost of education, and how the children of people “moving in here” were driving up costs and possibly property taxes, that, as we put it to World Vision: we wouldn’t want refugee families to come into a situation where they’d immediately have a target on their back.

Another way in which this cuts close to home. As you know, there’s another Hendersonville. Hendersonville, North Carolina. In the summer of 2016 we were visiting my mom who lives there, and heard some rumblings in local politics.  

What do we do once we’ve faced up to the wickedness abroad in the world, and the wickedness within? When we’ve looked squarely at the suffering and injustice in the world, and the wounds inside ourselves? That’s where Bartimaeus comes in. Mark includes his story in our gospel text as an exemplar–and a more direct exemplar would be difficult to find.

“For Mark, giving sight to the blind is the beginning and the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem” (Bryan, 104) but the stories are not exact echos of one another–for one thing, Bartimaeus addresses Jesus two times by the clearly Messianic title “Son of David” and is not corrected for it. Nor does Jesus tell him to remain silent. Jesus knows where he’s headed and there’s no point in encouraging silence now–the time approaches. And in the midst of this, Bartimaeus has his blindness–often a metaphor for idolatry–lifted, receiving his sight, a metaphor for faith, and not incidentally having left everything behind when he threw his cloak aside, begins to follow Jesus on the way, that is, the path of discipleship.

When we have faced the truth about the world in its specific sins, in which we and our society are implicated, will we turn away? When we have discovered that we have been blind.

The Hopefulness of Humanity in the Heart of God, and God in the heart of Humanity

Sermon Audio for Proper 24
The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Scriptures: Isaiah 53:4-12 and Psalm 91:9-16 • Hebrews 5:1-10 • Mark 10:35-45

The sermon begins at 2:46

A Collect inspired by our Hebrews reading, which I started today’s sermon with:

What Possesses You?

Sermon Audio and Sermon Background notes for Proper 23
The 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Scriptures: Amos 5:6-7,10-15 · Psalm 90:12-17 · Hebrews 4:12-16 · Mark 10:17-31

The sermon begins at 5:20.

The text below consists of my sermon notes and some of the background research I did, but it is not itself a manuscript.

Sometimes our language can reveal more than we intend. Certain phrases carry more weight than we realize, more historical and intellectual freight. Unfolding it all can be an interesting exercise. And sometimes spoken phrases can catch us up short, like the written word that stands out strangely on page or screen even though it is spelled correctly, taunting us with its alien nature, its out of shape edges.

One such phrase that stands out for me is “What possessed you…” The first time I heard it used–or at least the first time I remember hearing it–was when I was in the third grade. My teacher had called me up to her desk during a quiet moment in class, when we were all working on something or other at our desks. She was looking down at a note, and then she looked at me over her glasses and said “What possessed you to throw a rock at the school bus?”

Now, as a matter of fact the afternoon before when I’d gotten off the Bus I had thrown a rock, but not at the School Bus precisely. I’d thrown it at my cousin who it happens was on the School Bus at the time. He had been irritating me the whole drive home and was at the moment the rock left my hand, leaned out one of the rear windows making a face or shouting some taunt. In one way, I knew very well why I had thrown the rock. I was angry and I’d had enough. Cousins that you grow up with, like other close friends and relatives, often know just the buttons to push, and this was an example. 

But in another sense, as soon as the rock left my hand, I’d wondered why I’d done it. The phrase “what possessed you…” was an appropriate one, though at the time I was confused by it. I remember being a little offended by the phrase, though I didn’t know why. Nothing, I thought, had made me, at least, nothing except my loving cousin.

But of course, something had possessed me. I acted without reflecting. I was impulsive. Anger had me in its grip. I gave myself over to my baser instincts and, well, my action was an indication that my faculties had indeed been possessed by them. I wasn’t in control.

The language of possession that holds on in such a seemingly innocuous phrase is intriguing. What do we really mean when we ask what possessed someone? Of course we can mean something rather mundane–what emotions drove them to act out of accord with rationality? But we can also mean something beyond the normal parameters of this world, something mysterious or even something founded on the evil powers of this world. The phrase can, in other words, be a sign that we are looking for some explanation where no reasonable explanation exists. 

And when no reasonable explanation exists, it can be a sign to look beyond what we normally think of as reason. Father Gabriele Amorth, late Vatican Exorcist (d. 2016) has written for example, that “one of the determining factors in the recognition of diabolic possession is the inefficacy of medicines while blessings prove very efficacious” (Amorth, An Exorcist Tells His Story).

Lest you think I’m going to slip into a reflection on the unseen powers of this world, and how our post-enlightenment rationality can coexist with a biblical view of the unknown–if indeed it can–that is another conversation. Instead, I want to emphasize that sometimes the things that possess us appear to be far more mundane, far more this-worldly than other worldly. Our gospel text this morning invites us to consider that our possessions may be the source of our possession. In other words, the things we own, the things we covet–they may control us; control our thinking, feeling, and acting in a manner as diabolical as any spirit of the air.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey he is respectfully approached by a young man who asks him “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” Things get more complicated when the young man, who is quite wealthy, claims to have kept all these commandments from his youth. But it is possible that Jesus knows otherwise. Commentators debate whether the rich young man is depicted in a positive or negative light.  Sometimes it is suggested that the man’s wealth itself calls into question his claim to have kept all these commandments–and the pairing with Amos in the lectionary might lead us in that direction. But before we write the man’s claim off, I think we need more evidence than his wealth. Remember that when Jesus interacts with the wealthy, he doesn’t tend to condemn them for their wealth out of hand, but he does have a tendency to push against the possibility that any of their wealth may have been ill gotten, and to encourage their hospitality. Consider the case of Zacchaeus as an interesting parallel. Jesus sees Zacchaeus and invites himself to supper. Zacchaeus obliges and does not protest (though the crowds grumble, for he is known as a sinner because he is a Tax Collector). But Zacchaeus says something interesting:

Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”  And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:8-10).

Did you notice something about Jesus’ summary recitation of the commandments? It’s not point for point from Deuteronomy, instead, Jesus imports a command or interprets and expands the commands to include the statement “You shall not defraud.” It is possible that Jesus is gently challenging the Rich Young Man, knowing that his wealth may not have been accumulated by entirely just means. When the man says that he has kept all these commands from his youth, Jesus looks at him, and we’re told he loved him. 

One commentator makes a good argument for the intertextuality of portions of the Gospel of Mark and Malachi 3. Here intertextuality is defined as the “imbedding of fragments of an earlier text within a later one.” In this sense then, this section of Mark may have portions of the book of the Prophet Malachi lying behind it. Specifically, Malachi 3:5 may be in view, and could bolster the view that the young man’s sin of defrauding others in order to gain wealth is in view:

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

(Mal. 3:5)

And yet, it should encourage us that Jesus doesn’t chastise him, correct him, say “surely you could only say you’ve kept all of this if you’re deceiving yourself.” No. Jesus looks at him and loves him. Just as Jesus has looked at people and felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, here Jesus looks at this man and loves him, and gives him an opportunity to be a disciple. Come. Follow me. If we believe that he has defrauded others and is deceiving himself about his culpability, it is an opportunity for repentance and amendment of life. If we believe that he is being truthful and Jesus accepts his statement, then it is an opportunity to enter more deeply into discipleship. But it is more than the man can handle. Mark tells us that when “he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

In reflecting on this passage we should remember the context that we have talked about for several weeks in regard to this section of Mark. It’s all about right relationship. As my New Testament professor wrote about this section, it moves from sections dealing with right relationship to the vulnerable or powerless, represented by children, to our appropriate relationship to other disciples, particularly those who don’t follow our plan (we’re meant to realize that Jesus’ plan and our plan–particularly when it comes to others–may not be the same), our relationship to “little ones” (both literal children and believers in Jesus), to each other (have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another), relationships to wives who were the vulnerable partners in marriages of the period (and by extension, between spouses in general), to children again, and to possessions today.

“In all these passages the underlying emphasis, in vivid contrast to the disciples’ concern as to who shall be “greatest,” is on the strong yielding to the weak, the privileged transferring privilege to the underprivileged, the very wealthy foregoing the fruits of wealth for the sake of the gospel. It is striking that at the climax of this the disciples do seem, momentarily, to see the point. ‘Then who can be saved?’ they ask. The answer, Jesus tells them, lies not in their attempts at obedience, but in God for whom ‘all things are possible’ (10:26-27). Is it then the case that those who attempt obedience are wasting their time? By no means: they will receive their recompense–with suffering! (10:28-30). the summary of it all is, ‘Many that are last will be first, and the first last’; in the context, a splendid paradox, threatening to those who seek to claim to be ‘greatest,’ yet full of promise for those who seek (but do not claim to be very good at) obedience”

(Christopher Bryan, “A Preface to Mark” 102-103).

“As is made clear in the story of the rich young man, Mark is aware of the danger of those riches that make it ‘hard’ for us to enter the kingdom (10:17-22; compare 4:19); but even that sequence has some of its sting drawn. ‘Hard’ it may be for the rich to enter the kingdom, yet ‘all things are possible with God’ (10:23, 25, 27). Indeed, the conclusion to that particular conversation implies that willingness to abandon all for the sake of Jesus is not followed by a life without human ties, even ‘now in this time,’ but rather by its opposite (10:30). While it may be conceded that this passage in particular refers to the believer’s new ‘family’ in the Church (compare 3:31-35), still the followers of Jesus in Mark are made powerfully aware that ordinary human marriage remains a lifelong commitment, precious in God’s sight (10:1-12), and that children, the natural fruit of marriage, are not to be ‘hindered’ (10:14; probably a baptismal phrase: compare Acts 8:36, 10:47) in their relationship with Jesus.”

(Bryan, 157-158)

All of this raises the question: maybe these concerns aren’t so mundane. Maybe they are spiritual after all. Amorth’s definition, that possession is defined by something that won’t respond to medical treatment–to medicine–but will respond to blessing  reminds me of one of my favorite songs by the North Carolina band, the Avett Brothers. I’ve quoted the song before, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I reference it again. The Avett’s grandpa was a Methodist pastor, and sometimes they seem to be channeling a sort of Augustinian perspective, whether intentionally or not. In it they express the concern that “medicine” isn’t cutting it–what they need is a cure. What the Rich young man needs is a cure. What we need is a cure. Jesus offers it to us, if we’re willing to receive it.

I am sick with wanting
And it’s evil and it’s daunting
How I let everything I cherish lay to waste
I am lost in greed this time, it’s definitely me
I point fingers but there’s no one there to blame

I need for something
Not let me break it down again
I need for something 
But not more medicine

I am sick with wanting 
And it’s evil how it’s got me
And everyday is worse than the one before
The more I have the more I think,
I’m almost where I need to be
If only I could get a little more

I need for something
Now let me break it down again
I need for something
But not more medicine

Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I don’t wanna be
Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I know isn’t me
Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed

Temporary is my time
Ain’t nothin’ on this world that’s mine
Except the will I found to carry on
Free is not your right to choose
It’s answering what’s asked of you
To give the love you find until it’s gone.

The background information about Malachi in the Gospel of Mark was brought to light in the following Journal article: 

Hicks, Richard. 2013. “Markan Discipleship According to Malachi: The Significance of Μh̀ Αποστερήσης in the Stroy of the Rich Man (Mark 10:17-22).” Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (1): 179–99. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a6h&AN=ATLA0001984130&site=ehost-live.

The Law of Prayer, #1

I have started a new Priest’s Forum at St. Joseph of Arimathea which will involve delving into the theology and doctrines behind the collects and other prayers of The Book of Common Prayer. We often say that the Prayer Book contains our theology, it makes sense that we would take the time to plumb the depths of the central texts of the Prayer Book–the prayers.

The title of the series is “The Law of Prayer,” which comes from a well known–though sometimes misunderstood–phrase “The law of prayer is the law of belief,” (in Latin, Lex orandi, lex credendi, or as Prosper of Aquitaine originally wrote, ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, the Law of Prayer establishes the law of belief).

Last week we spent out time looking at the different types of prayer and especially the parts of a collect. I thought I would share those for those who are interested.

I hope to post something after each lesson for those who might to follow along from a distance, or who can’t make it on Sunday morning.

The Five Traditional Forms of Prayer

There are five traditional forms of prayer:

  1. Blessing & Adoration
  2. Prayer of Petition
  3. Prayer of Intercession
  4. Prayer of Thanksgiving
  5. Prayer of Praise

Sometimes these are grouped differently, but you can see the formulations are thematically similar: Adoration, worship, praise, thanksgiving, blessing, confession, petition, supplication, intercession, aspiration, consecration, lament (Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality, Evan B. Howard, p. 301).

The most common prayer among Christians is probably the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). The petitions of the Lord’s Prayer fall into several categories:

Hallowed be thy name (worship)
Thy kingdom come (aspiration)
Thy will be done (surrender)
Give us this day, our daily bread (supplication)
Forgive us (Confession)
Deliver us (Warfare Prayer)

The prayers recorded in early Christian literature can be categorized into six type: petition (including intercession), thanksgiving, blessing (or benediction), praise, confession and finally a small number of lamentations. The first five of these types have persisted throughout the centuries and been expressed in a large number of Christian prayers. However some prayers may combine some of these forms, e.g. praise and thanksgiving, etc.

Modes of prayer

  • Vocal Prayer
  • Meditation
  • Contemplation

Others

  • Centering prayer: Centering Prayer is a receptive method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship.
  • Lectio Divina, literally meaning “divine reading,” is an ancient practice of praying the Scriptures. During Lectio Divina, the practitioner listens to the text of the Bible with the “ear of the heart,” as if he or she is in conversation with God, and God is suggesting the topics for discussion. The method of Lectio Divina includes moments of reading (lectio), reflecting on (meditatio), responding to (oratio) and resting in (contemplatio) the Word of God with the aim of nourishing and deepening one’s relationship with the Divine. have divided prayer into the three simple categories:
  • Spoken prayer ordained by God and the holy church (“common” or “public” prayer).
  • Spoken prayer expressing the stirrings of those who are in a state of devotion (“conversational” prayer)
  • Prayer in the heart alone and without speaking (“contemplative” contemplative prayer, broadly understood).
  • I would add Written Prayer as an area to consider: Liturgical texts, such as collects

A collect generally has five parts:

  1. An address to God.
  2. A relative or participle clause referring to some attribute of God, or to one of his saving acts.
  3. The petition
  4. The reason for which we ask
  5. The conclusion

Here’s an example from the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It may be broken down as follows:

  1. Address: Almighty and everlasting God,
  2. Attribute: You are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve;
  3. The Petition: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things
  4. The Reason:for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of
  5. Conclusion: Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

There are some prayers recorded in scripture that follow a similar pattern. That’s not to say they are collects (they’re not), or that collects consciously used the same pattern (they didn’t), but rather to point out that the language of prayer follows certain patterns, and contains variations within a tradition.

Acts 1:24-25, when the Apostles prayed before the election of Matthias, contains 4 of the traditional 5 sections of a collect:

“Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”

Similar prayers in the Apocrypha can be found at 2 Maccabees 1:24-29 and 1 Maccabees 4:30-33.

Welcoming those who can’t repay, giving of the gifts we’ve received.

Sermon notes for Proper 20
XVIII Sunday after Pentecost
September 23, 2018
Scripture: Mark 9:30-37

The sermon begins at 4:51

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