WHAT IS CORPUS CHRISTI? DOES OUR CHURCH DO IT?

At last night’s meeting of St. George’s Buildings & Grounds Committee, the members were discussing and making plans for the upcoming renovation of the sacristy. The sacristy is pretty much a large storage area and closet and vesting room, used in preparation for worship. Most of the conversation, then, focused on counter-tops and cabinets and solutions to storage issues.  “When we do this, I’d like to add a piscina,” one member of the Committee – herself a member of the altar guild – spoke up.

“What’s a piscina?” others asked.

A piscina, they were told, is a drain used to return water and any other liquids that might be consecrated and/or involved in cleaning consecrated items directly to the ground. Once consecrated, or once mixing with consecrated substances, that item is not longer just a thing; it’s substance is also changed, made different, made into Christ’s real and living presence. And thus, last night, our church’s Buildings & Grounds Committee learned a little bit about our church’s understanding of what’s going on on the altar: what we mean when we talk about real presence.

Today in the life of the church is the Feast of Corpus Christi. The Thursday after Trinity Sunday, the eighth Thursday following Easter is technically known in the Latin church as Corpus et Sanguis Christi – the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Not just a town in Texas, Corpus Christi is a venerable and relatively old Christian celebration, and a kind of counterpart to Maundy Thursday, now nine weeks ago. Maundy Thurdsay, that is, Thursday during Holy Week, that is, the Thursday before Easter, however, is a complicated and busy liturgical day. The liturgies for Maundy Thursday remember Jesus washing his disciples feet (found in John’s gospel, which, interestingly, doesn’t have a last supper) as well as the institution of the Holy Eucharist on that night. Congregations such as St. George’s, Valley Lee have some form of a community meal that night, as well, followed often by a night-long vigil at the altar of repose. In all, Maundy Thursday is about a lot of things, and one consequence is that the Holy Eucharist tends to recede into the background. What Jesus actually did on that last night in that upper room was a really fascinating thing, we believe. Not just the Last Supper, the Holy Eucharist is a profound gift wherein Jesus promised to always be among them “in scripture and in the breaking of the bread,” as we pray in a Collect, and he promises, literally, to show up in the present tense every time we, ourselves, break bread. The word remember in the statement “…do this in remembrance of me” is actually the Greek term anamnesis which is far more than a memorial or history lesson but, in fact, means something like ‘to make actually present again.’ That is, when God’s people in prayer remember (anamnesis) Jesus, Christ literally shows up again, and changes our substance and the substance of our assembly, including what was, previously, just bread, just wine.

Didn’t get that lesson at Maundy Thursday or during Holy Week? Obviously. You’re not alone if this never really occurred to you, and you are joined in this by a thirteenth century Augustinian religious woman named Juliana of Liege. Born in the 1190s in Liege, Belgium, Juliana de Cornillon developed a fascination with the Holy Eucharist. It was bound to happen, anyway, because Liege and much of northern Europe in the thirteenth century had a number of confraternities of the Blessed Sacrament, groups of persons who devoted themselves to adoration and benediction of the Holy Eucharist and, in many cases, had organized continuous prayers and vigils for its efficacy and power. Juliana was orphaned at the age of five and together with her sister, Agnes, they lived in the convent of Mont-Cornillon.

Visions came to her, she reported; the first in 1208 instructed her “to plead for the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi.” One particularly powerful vision was, for her, “the appearance of the full moon having one dark spot, which signified the absence of such a solemnity.” Juliana kept the visions secret but eventually confided in her spiritual director who, breaking all modern understandings of confidentiality (!), told the bishop. In 1246, Robert de Thorete, Bishop of Liege, ordered the celebration of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and declared that it should continue on that day and in that fashion ever since. This was only in south of Belgium, in the region of Liege, however. By 1251, Hugh of St.-Cher, a Cardinal, brought the celebration to his judicatory in Germany. And in 1264, Pope Urban IV – who as a young archdeacon named Jacques Pantaleon of Troyes served in Liege and experienced this growing feast – composed the papal bull, Transiturus de hoc mundo, and thus instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi to be celebrated the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Apparently, Urban IV’s successors didn’t much care for this feast, and so it fell into obsolescence until it was re-introduced in 1311 by Pope Clement V at the Council of Vienne.

Corpus Christi is a day set apart to honor and celebrate nothing more, nothing less than the mystery that is the Holy Eucharist. Many churches and, even today, many communities feature outdoor processions in which the Blessed Sacrament is placed in a monstrance and carried under a tent throughout the neighborhood. These are honorable celebrations, and yet it would make just as much sense, for me, to actually go out there and celebrate the Holy Eucharist in a public place. Perhaps Corpus Christi could become the lively (and theologically better!) counterpart to Ashes to Go – going out into our communities and neighborhoods, shopping centers and street corners and doing nothing more, nothing less than celebrating Holy Eucharist, making Christ really and truly present.

And yet it should be noted that there is unsteady Anglican precedent for the observance of this celebration, perhaps the very reason it is not found in our Book of Common Prayer. The Church of England does list it as an optional celebration, and Anglo-Catholics in our tradition carry on this feast with special solemnity and, to me, a genuine and exciting missional attitude to their neighborhoods.

As wonderful as this celebration is, however, it also makes sense to me why our tradition, as such, has (at best) a tenuous stance toward Corpus Christi. The late-medieval nature of the origin of the celebration and the fact that in many cases these local communities of eucharistic adoration carried about them some measure of local pseudo-magical understandings of the Holy Eucharist render this a Feast day that is rich in theology but rather poor in practice. Sacraments have about them a real power, literally, to change the substance of things so that this creation becomes ordered, once again, to the precepts of the Kingdom of God and no longer the base concepts we often settle for, flesh and blood, bread and wine, scarcity and anxiety. Sacraments are not museum pieces or precious tokens of a bygone era. Sacraments are powerful. Sacraments are a kind of power unto themselves, thus they need to be used, lived in, radiated out: not ‘gazed upon.’ For those Anglo-Catholic congregations, say, that process through their neighborhood on Sunday (or today) and then invite that entire congregation into the eucharistic worship which immediatley follows – and especially for those congregations who are always, already engaged in the transformation of their communities through works of justice – a Corpus Christi procession not only makes sense but is a great outreach. Otherwise, however, it borders on magic-making and the theological evil that is ‘preciousness.’

For this reason, Article XXV (Of the Sacraments) of the sixteenth century Articles of Religion, central to our tradition, say as much: “Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him. …The Sacraments are not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.” (Emphasis mine.)

The theological, missional thrust underlying Corpus Christi is perhaps best expressed in the poetry and musical compositions of Thomas Aquinas. Personally, I love the fact that St. Thomas – who comes down to us in the academic tradition as the author, literally, of theological tomes and treatises and is regarded as one of the brightest lights of the scholastic period – was also, himself, a poet and a musician. Pope Urban IV, in fact, commissioned St. Thomas to compose the pieces for a mass setting as well as vespers for Corpus Christi. Thomas apparently did so during his residency at Orvieto from 1259 to 1265. One such poem/hymn is Pange lingua (literally: “Sing my tongue…”), and it’s hymn number 165 in The Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1982. We sing it every Maundy Thursday at St. George’s, Valley Lee, during the time in which the altar is being stripped and the people are invited to remain for vigil all night. This congregation jokes with me, calling it “the dirge,” and the tune certainly sounds that way, although the text is rich, lasting, wonderful.

Make these words, then, your prayer on this Feast of Corpus Christi. And grant that, in so doing, you will not just receive, and certainly not ‘gaze upon,’ the bread and wine, the Body and Blood, but rather become what you receive: the Body of Christ.

 

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle; of the mighty conflict sing; tell the triumph of the victim, to his cross thy tribute bring. Jesus Christ, the world’s Redeemer from that cross now reigns as King.

 

Thirty years among us dwelling, his appointed time fulfilled, born for this, he meets his passion, this the Savior freely willed: on the cross the Lamb is lifted, where his precious blood is spilled.

 

He endures the nails, the spitting, vinegar, and spear, and reed; from that holy body broken blood and water forth proceed: earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean, by that flood from stain are freed.

 

Faithful cross! above all other, one and only noble tree! None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be: sweetest wood and sweetest iron! sweetest weight is hung on thee.

 

Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory! Thy relaxing sinews bend; for awhile the ancient rigor that thy birth bestowed, suspend; and the King of heavenly beauty gently on thine arms extend.

 

Praise and honor to the Father, praise and honor to the Son praise and honor to the Spirit, ever Three and ever One: one in might and one in glory while eternal ages run.

THE ORIGINAL MOTHER’S DAY, A DAY FOR JUSTICE & PEACE

The first official Mother’s Day was celebrated Sunday May 10, 1907 – the second Sunday in May – at Andrews Methodist Church in the little town of Grafton, West Virginia. The woman who held this first celebration was Anna Jarvis.  And she did it in honor of her mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis. The elder Mrs. Jarvis’ favorite flower was a white carnation, and so Anna, her daughter, requested that everyone who attended the services on May 10 wear a white carnation in her mother’s memory. This quickly became the tradition.  (Incidentally, it wasn’t supposed to be that the flowers were given to mothers, as is often the case today; it’s that you wore a white carnation if your mother was deceased, and a red one if she was living.)

Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis 1832 – 1905

Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis was a fascinating woman.  She died in 1905, just two years before that first celebration. She was born in Culpeper, Virginia in 1832, the daughter of a Methodist minister and his wife, who later moved to present-day West Virginia to take a new call. Mrs. Reeves (her maiden name) married the son of a nearby Baptist minister, named Jarvis, and they had twelve children.  Only four lived to adulthood.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the changing, growing, expansive world was bringing to these coal counties threats of civil war; battles over slavery; increasing productivity and technology, but also longer hours and dangerous working conditions – child labor laws were hardly a thing. So it was that Anna Jarvis, in the 1840s and 50s, organized a series of (what she called) “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” – designed to bring the wisdom and domestic eye of women into deplorable living and working conditions  to improve health conditions for many families. Jarvis’ first Mother’s Day Work Club raised money for medicines, deployed women to work for families in which the mothers suffered from tuberculosis, and inspected bottled milk and food. By 1860, local physicians and mothers had spread this work to at least 15 other towns.

While the civil war raged on, making their little West Virginia county a strategic stop along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Jarvis urged the Mother’s Day Work Clubs to provide relief and medical care for any and all – whether Union or Confederate. The clubs treated the wounded and fed and clothed soldiers stationed in the area. Jarvis helped preserve peace in a war-ravaged town by focusing on a common mission in which all could participate. In fact, after the war, she and her family moved to a larger nearby town only to find that tensions between North and South had escalated due to the political bickering surrounding Reconstruction. In the summer of 1865, Mrs. Jarvis organized a Mother’s Friendship Day on the courthouse steps in Pruntytown, WV, to bring together soldiers and neighbors regardless of their confederate or yankee leanings. Many feared that the day would erupt in violence, but it turned out to be a great success. That celebration continued for many years following the first one in 1865.

For the next forty years, Anna Jarvis led this Mother’s Day movement, a movement of mothers standing up against poverty, war, injustice, and bigotry. Alongside her husband and family, she was committed to the idea that in a violent time, with the ravages of warfare and industry, the voice of women – in particular, the wisdom of mothers – was the only deciding factor between death and life, between wellness and desolation. It would only seem reasonable that her daughter, Anna Jarvis, would want to celebrate her mother’s legacy on the second Sunday in May, 1907, just two years after her very influential mother died.

Fast forward seven years after that first Mother’s Day celebration: President Woodrow Wilson made the second Sunday in May – now called Mother’s Day – a national holiday. That year was, of course, 1914, and this nation was faced with a new threat: a world war that threatened to destroy any advances of human civilization, and nearly did.  This seemingly quiet and quaint second Sunday in May is nothing short of a call to peace, a call to stand up for justice, a call to embrace the values that this world so easily trumps down, underfoot, yet which Jesus called us to embody.

This is something the world laughs at, frankly. Peace? What does that have to do with the issues we confront today: war in our streets, blood-thirsty terrorists, racial strife and ongoing tension.  Peace? And how can you show us, Christians, what peace you have brought to this planet in the last two millennia? Peace?

But Jesus’ peace is given on a night, long ago, in the midst of great anguish, pain, anxiety and dread. Jesus’ peace does not wipe away any wars, neither civil wars nor world wars nor the wars inside which set people apart. Jesus’ peace doesn’t alleviate our anxiety, like taking a pill at night. The world, as such, will still feature and feed on violence and bigotry, hatred and destruction and – yes – it’s all caused by people just like you and me. We live, today, in deadly times.  We always have.

Jesus’ peace, however, is the gift that moves us to act toward justice.  Jesus’ peace is a reality that, deep down, we are already redeemed, that we are already given gifts. His peace is activated when we use it, not only to comfort the brokenhearted but to mend systems of oppression and exploitation, at least so we are no longer completely entangled in them unaware. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus told his followers long ago (John 14:1), for the peace he was giving them was none other than his own. (John 20:21-23)  Use it.

Someone we might remember this weekend, named Anna Jarvis, believed so much in the strangely counter-cultural values of justice, peace, womanhood, goodness, and compassion that she stuck out her neck in a deadly, blood-lusty time. She risked faith, and was redeemed. And you and I remember her, or at least remember her day for it.

Source: Washington Times

Or do we? Honestly, how many thought of the second Sunday in May as an invitation to justice? a call to be about peace-making?

For the longer ending of the story is that Anna Jarvis, who sought to lift up her mother’s memory in establishing this holiday, died in utter poverty, having spent everything she and her sister had to de-commercialize the holiday. As early as fifteen years after President Wilson established the Second Sunday in May as a holiday, Anna Jarvis was disgusted by how quickly it grew into a buying spectacle and how suddenly it lost its focus on what her mother worked so hard to claim – a focus on mercy for the downtrodden, compassion for the prisoners, justice for those broken by oppression, and peace for all humankind.

Perhaps that’s the Christian story in a nutshell:  future generations might not know us for our great deeds and monumental tales but we do them nevertheless. We stand against violence and war-mongering. We love the downtrodden. We clothe the naked. We feed the hungry. We tend the poor.

Not because it’s popular, but because it’s right.  And the right, the only way to peace.

…..

An earlier version of this post was published on The Episcopal Café on 8 May 2011.

NINE YEARS AGO, NINE YEARS FROM NOW

The list of nominees for Presiding Bishop (PB) of The Episcopal Church was just published.  (Or click here.)  The current person in the job is the Most Reverend – so, right there, being PB gives you a bump in adjectives – Katharine Jefferts Schori. She’s served for nine years and even though she’s young enough to have stood for election again she said, and I summarize, “No way!”

The Most Rev’d Katharine Jefferts Schori, the 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

A Presiding Bishop is the bishop who is elected by the other bishops for a nine year term as the presider, the President and convener of the assembly (House) of bishops.  She or he has to be nine years younger than the mandatory retirement age (72).  It used to be the bishop with the longest tenure, the senior-most bishop in the House of Bishops, and only in the last century did the Presiding Bishop have to relinquish his – it was all him’s back then – diocese and serve in a new job. During this summer’s General Convention in Salt Lake City, the bishops will go away to a nearby church; they will pray and sing and cast votes. The one with the majority is the winner.  The House of Deputies, meanwhile, has to and will in all likelihood consent to the election. Later this year, the newly elected PB will be seated at the Washington National Cathedral, the seat of the Presiding Bishop, and he or she will move into the penthouse apartment at The Episcopal Church Center in New York – a posh pad where, I imagine, the PB will probably only occasionally sleep and probably seldom, if ever, actually get to just ‘hang out’ because s/he will, very likely, become much more acquainted with airports and life on the move over the next nine years than his or her own home. And we wonder why Bishop Katharine is willing to let someone else take the job?

I’m not going to add to what, it seems, we all think the Presiding Bishop should do or be. That’s already been written, and we’re going to be talking a lot about the future of the PB’s role at this summer’s General Convention in the conversations about restructuring the church; just Google “Taskforce on Reimagining the Episcopal Church,” or TREC.  It’s obvious that the next PB needs to have a real knack at administration and preaching and motivation and change. The candidate needs to be strongly rooted in Christ and fearless and adaptive and you can add to this list any other quality that goes along with being a faithful disciple of Jesus and, for that matter, any other buzzword we like to toss about – entrepreneurial being one I hope will quickly come to see its end. Also, and let me vent for a moment, the job qualifications have already been published in a profile and via a search committee, the purpose and role of which, I’ll be honest, I have no clue as to why they even exist, let alone are funded to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars: the only people voting on this job are already bishops and they all pretty much know each other. End of rant.

What I want to share, however, is that I am going to pray for these nominees and, in so doing, pray for the ongoing renewal of this church. I ask you, too, to pray that our staid and steady institution will continue – and I mean continue – to become more and more like the Body of Christ, serving this world boldly because we have a bold message, and less and less like a fearful, former-Forbes 500 company.

Because nine years is a long time.

Nine years.

Just think of where you were, personally, professionally, vocationally, in your walk with Christ nine years ago. Nine years is a long time.

For me, I was in a different city, in a different place, a very different chapter in my life. I had darker glasses and darker hair. (I still see brown hair on top of my head; it’s just the person I see in pictures of me has a lot more gray!) Nine years ago, I was not married nor was I, yet, a father. I wasn’t on Facebook, and I’m not sure I knew anyone who was. Some of my friends had joined this new thing called Netflix but I still walked to my local video store. Nine years ago, I had only one email address. I hadn’t heard of Twitter, and a hashtag probably sounded like something I’d order for breakfast.

1970’s “Runaway Besteller”!

Nine years ago I thought of The Episcopal Church as an institution, something kind of like the company for which I work and if I worked hard enough and played the company game I would find my way on to a happy and successful career. I thought I could venture from job to job, from ministry to ministry, from curacy to rectorate, from smaller church to bigger church and onward. I hadn’t yet accepted a call to Valley Lee, to St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to the Diocese of Washington.  Nine years ago, I was serving in a very impactful and formational curacy in the Diocese of Chicago.

Nine years is also a long time in the life of an institution. In 2006, the year Presiding Bishop Katharine was elected, the Episcopal Church had 7,095 parishes and missions; in 2013 (the last numbers on record) that number dropped to 6,622, a 6% drop. Nearly 300,000 active baptized members dropped off in those seven years; from 2,154,572 (2006) to 1,866,758 (2013), a 13% loss. Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), the only number that actually means anything, plummeted 18%; from 2006’s 765,326 to 2013’s 623,691. (Just look at how the minimal decline in parishes compares with the significant decline in people. To me, it says we are much quicker to save institutions than focus on the people.) The percentage of congregations with an ASA of less than 100 increased from 63% in 2006 to 69% in 2013 whereas the percentage of congregations with ASA of 300 or more decreased from 6% to 4% in that same time period.

In nine years the world changed. Society has been shaped more significantly and at a faster pace than in the nine years prior to this past near-decade, and that trend will only continue. I don’t blame Bishop Katharine or the leadership of the Episcopal Church, even though I am unafraid to call out failures. It’s that a lot of changes have happened and will happen and only more rapidly continue to happen nine-years after nine-years after nine-years.

What matters, what makes the difference, I’d say, is who we are as we stand in the midst of these changes, and where our values lead us. Standby, because I’m getting to some good news.

The most transformative and abundant change in my life in the last nine years has been fatherhood. There’s something about fatherhood, parenthood, family that tethers you in a profound and lasting way to this world. Some months ago, I heard a father interviewed and he described the moment he saw his son as the moment in which he became, he said, “hostage to the world.” It’s a phrase that struck me, pierced my heart and not in a negative way. Fatherhood means that you’re in it, for life. What a gift to be all in.

Nine years ago I’m not so sure I was all in in my own personal and vocational life, and not completely in my professional life, either. Nine years ago, I’m not so sure The Episcopal Church was all in, either. We didn’t seem completely in on our message of healing a broken world, of being a voice for the voiceless and, quite literally, becoming the kind of body that lives and breathes reconciliation.

We’ve had some hard fights these past nine years, and they only appear to be about about property and money and who owns what. Those are just symptoms. The root issue is whether we, as an institution, are all in in becoming the Body of Christ – whether we are prepared to put our resources and our substance and our physical presence, including our legacies and our histories and our money, into becoming the kind of people and the kinds of communities in which all are welcome and where Christ, in so doing, is made known.

I’ve learned this message and, to some degree, I’ve had to learn it the hard way. I’ve learned the most important thing is that my life is always, already wrapped up in Christ’s, and that if I have anything I have integrity and wellness. I’ve learned how important it is to be a good father to my daughter and a broken-yet-redeemed person of God. I’ve learned that honesty and vulnerability are so much more important than keeping up appearances in the world. I’ve had to learn that it is better to remain rooted in a community than keep thinking – and worrying – about the future. I’ve had to learn that it is my integrity in the here and now that makes a difference, and that our lives preach greater sermons than our words. I’ve learned through practice and I’ve learned through trial that I am invited, daily, to plant myself deeply, firmly in Christ. And, in fact, I’ve learned how much God transforms my simple gifts, say, a few loaves and some fish — but that God in Christ only does so when I’ve made that first step to pay attention and be still, when I’ve come to know that nothing, nothing can shake me from expecting God to do what God has said God would.

Nine years ago, St. George’s, Valley Lee was fearful and broken and scattered and uncertain. Nine years ago, this church didn’t know it had much of a future, and they really weren’t all in, either. And God brought us together. God didn’t bring me, the rector, to change and grow this institution. God brought me to a place which needed to learn new things and become a new body, so that I, myself, could also learn new things and become a new body, and that both of us, together, would grow in Him.

The numbers don’t show this growth; not yet, at least. The numbers currently show the opposite of growth. But anecdotally, which I know is not data, and across social media, which I didn’t even have nine years ago, I sense that a tide is shifting, the church is turning, and the Gospel is picking up momentum. I sense that more Valley Lee’s are coming online, more risks are being taken, and Christ is being incarnated in even more special and remarkable ways, ways we haven’t yet seen. Ever. And I expect or, at least, hope that over the next nine years we will be even more all in.

DEAREST FRESHNESS DEEP DOWN

St. George's church on a foggy, Eastertide morning

St. George’s church and churchyard, morning, 10 April 2015

Even though it was early, and will be even earlier next year, Easter Day was at least bright and sunny this year.  It was almost a reprieve from the endless winter that was 2015 and, well, this current cold front which has come through this week and which is still hanging on, in the form of cold and fog, as I sit and write this morning.  Early Easter’s aren’t particularly welcome for kids and families — bundling up in thermal fleece for an egg hunt is never fun, and everyone wants a nice family picture outside.  Nor are early Easter’s lovely for altar guilds and flower guilds.  Just last night, in fact, the head of our altar guild told me that next year we’ll have to forego some of the prettier, flowering plants we normally get since it’ll be a late-March celebration. Bummer.

And yet there’s also something about an early Easter that, I think, tells the Christian story more profoundly than a Sunday in later April when everything is blooming and in full color.  Just this morning, driving back to the rectory from an early morning call, I noticed it, you know, in the way that fog kind of sets everything in highlight or contrast.

Outside, even now, there are these shoots of green, shots of color, somewhat daring, somewhat risky.  Patches of green grass set against, pretty much, a brown-ish field.  Daffodils and jonquils, of course, are the heartier (gardeners would say) or riskier (I might add) perennials, shooting out before it’s safe, before it’s warm, before it’s right and ready.  But all around it’s still brown and gray, cold and chilly.  Warmth is coming, for sure, even later today.  Spring is already here and, we trust, having been given a pretty good Easter-day foretaste, it won’t disappoint.  But, still, it’s gray, brown, chilly.

Gerard Manley Hopkins journal

A page from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ journal, 30 June 1864

I was recalling one of my favorites, the great Catholic, indeed Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, to whom I turned upon returning to the office because he says these things so much better than I could or anyone has, for that matter.  “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” he begins the poem of the same phrase.  “Charged,” he says; charged! For this reason, then, because the world is literally charged with God’s grandeur “…nature is never spent,” Hopkins affirms; “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”  But that freshness, that dearest freshness is underneath, not immediately or always perceptible.  Not to the naked eye nor, for that matter, to the trained eye.  Not only is it “down” there, it’s “deep down.”  Deep down, for we still live in a world that is, at times, shrouded as in a cloud, a fog, a kind of darkness.  Easter isn’t a declaration so much as it is a revelation.  It isn’t an awareness so much as it is an invitation.

Easter is its own kind of beginning, but it’s also its own kind of end.  It’s the central truth of Christianity, resurrection, and yet that’s the most remarkable thing about it – and one, I’m afraid, which too many Christians, themselves, overlook and get patently wrong: that the foundational tenet of our life in God has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with what we know or believe or feel or can see, readily and straightaway with our eyes, no matter how trained or gifted or skilled we may be in searching.  Our life in God, made new in Christ, has everything to do with what we hope in, what we place our faith in, what we cannot see but still trust, nevertheless.  Just like we trust that warmer days and more colorful landscapes are coming, even though we cannot see them and even though it feels, on mornings such as this, that this year’s eternal winter isn’t going away.Fog and daffodils, 2

What Easter brings to an end is a religion based on creedal comfort and doctrinal assurance.  Easter ends dogmatic certainty.  Easter ends the reign of belief statements, memorizing things in order to get right with God, doing certain things to ensure your place in heaven.  Easter ends all of that.  Because we’re talking, now, about the beginning of faith.  And one cannot enter into faith, a real and living faith in God through Christ, until one has put to end the desire to know, to believe, to understand.  As we’ll meet this Sunday in Thomas – unfortunately, throughout history, called ‘the Doubter’ —  one of the biggest things standing in the way of true, living faith in God through Christ is a fruitless obsession with belief.  What Thomas learned, leading him to echo the greatest affirmation of faith in all of scripture, is what we must also learn, day after day after day: that faith and doubt are not at all set against each other, but what is at tension with faith, ironically, is a constant obsession with belief, for faith’s opposite is nothing more than certainty.  I’ll say it again: the opposite of faith is certainty.

For only when you perceive without seeing, when you hope without knowing, when you trust without proof is faith begun, much like on a chilly April morning, even just a few days after we’ve proclaimed the truest thing, and yet the hardest thing, we know to say: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

GOD’S GRANDEUR

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;         5
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;         10
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD, AN ANNUNCIATION PRAYER

On this end of the parish hall, where my office sits, things are quiet once again. There’s some coming and going down the hall, in the kitchen; folks getting ready for the fish dinner Friday: bustling, cleaning, prepping. And I, for my part, am supposed to be working on any number of things connected to Holy Week and Easter, not to mention a few bits of diocesan work I’m wrapping up and, oh right, summer camp and General Convention, both of which will be here before I know it.

Late yesterday afternoon, I dumped in a box a bunch of loose papers which had becoming nothing more than an annoying pile of clutter; it’s now titled “Open & File after Easter.” I told myself I was going to focus on the people and projects and things which God was placing in front of me right now – not yesterday, not even tomorrow.  I said I’d be more present in these hectic days, more present to, well, being present. And I’ll let God fill in the spaces I might leave open, which I seldom do anyway.

I will get around to the paperwork and these other things. I will, I told myself.

And then I worked until 9:30pm.

I’m not such a good learner.

Earlier today, we gathered, as we regularly do, for mid-day healing prayers and Holy Communion in the church. Generally, it’s a quiet half-hour of contemplation and prayer, occasionally interrupted by someone coming forward to the altar rail.  I lay hands on them and ask God to heal them. Communion follows, a simple yet intimate and holy gathering. Joking, as per usual, JoAnn said I should put up a sign that read, “Handicapped ONLY on Wednesdays.” She was referring to the average age of those who show up, mid-day.

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day Gabriel announced to Mary news that would change the world; March 25 being nine months – the time it’d take a baby boy to grow in the womb – before Jesus’ birthday. The gospel reading for today is a scene from Luke’s first chapter, the story featuring that lively conversation between Gabriel and Mary, herself a young, confused but by no means unassuming girl.(Lk.1:26-38)  I love the back-and-forth, the give-and- take; it’s kind of like a bargaining session. For some reason, today, what stood out for me was Mary’s own “Huh?” when Gabriel shows up. What gets her going is not merely the fact that an angel is in her room; it’s not bafflement, but that she’s puzzled, perplexed at his strange greeting! (Lk.1:29) The conversation ensues: he has a promise, she has questions; he has wisdom, she has strength.

“Well and good,” she (kind of) says, “but how is this supposed to happen?” To which Gabriel says: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (v.37)

Nothing.

Will be impossible.

With God.

Nothing.

I said these words to Kitty, to Charlotte, to JoAnn. Kitty’s the oldest of those three, Charlotte and JoAnn are quick to point out; she’s 90. The other two aren’t far behind, though, and they’ve all lived fascinating, rich, full lives. They are also, one to another, dealing with their limitations and their struggles, confronting their own mortality in ways which are, somedays, difficult; other days marked by at least a hint of a smile; better: a smirk.

“’Nothing will be impossible with God’ scripture says. Do you believe it?” I asked. One shrugged a halfway answer; it seemed to sit heavily on all. No one gave me a straight-up “Yes!”  Good.  At this point in life, no one’s studying for the test. It’s time to get real. Time to take off the masks and be honest: “Lord, I don’t know what you’re doing and why I’m even here. I don’t know why I’ve outlived my own husband,” I could hear the prayers at night; “I know my life is filled with good things and that all is in your hand but …” These are real thoughts, real prayers, real lives. That’s why we pray, not because we have the answers or because we once had the answer but we’re afraid we’ve drifted too far from it. We pray because we know no other way to live. We pray life. We pray our lives, as rich and textured and, sometimes, bumpy and perplexing as they may be. We pray our lives.

“Nothing will be impossible with God” is precisely such a prayer, in and of itself. When you do believe it, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And when you don’t believe it, especially when you don’t believe it, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” When you don’t know the answer or what the plan is or what you might even hope to have God do, if ever God was going about doing what you were asking God to do, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Their lives, JoAnn’s, Kitty’s, Charlotte’s – yours and my life, too – are probably, more often than we care to admit, caught up in this prayer. Most likely, we’ve been praying this prayer, day in and day out, even though our lips may not utter the words and the thought may not even cross our mind.  “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  Our life is its own offering to God, and a constant journey toward the One who reveals Himself to us, just as with Mary, time and time again.

With Kitty back in the summer of 2012

With Kitty back in the summer of 2012

St. Augustine said as much, I reminded them, way back in his day, preaching to the people in northern Africa that “God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us.” (Sermon 169)  This may be one of those things we see a bit more clearly at the end of our life, when we are facing the limits of our mortality head on, but I, too, see glimpses of it, faintly and sometimes, at the end of a day.  I, too, see this mystery when I remember that I’m also a partner with God in this gift called creation; that I have a responsibility and a role to play; that I am asked to bless and heal and love and share; that I, too, have a role to play in my own salvation and that salvation is not mine, alone, but ours, only ours, a collective returning to God in Christ. “God did not will to save us without us,” the good Doctor preached, which is nothing more than yet one more invitation to make our lives a prayer – a richly textured, very real, heartfelt prayer, not only with our lips but with so much more.

Here we are, gathered for a simple lunch on Annunciation afternoon - March 25, 2015

Here we are, gathered for a simple lunch on Annunciation afternoon – March 25, 2015

THOSE WHO GET WISDOM OBTAIN FRIENDSHIP WITH GOD

“I prayed, and understanding was given me;

All good things came to me along with her.

I learned without guile and I impart without grudging.

It is an unfailing treasure for mortals;

those who get it obtain friendship with God,

commended for the gifts that come from instruction.”

Wisdom of Solomon 7:7,11,13-14

It was the early fall, no air conditioning in the room, and we were already wading through some pretty dense stuff not an hour into our first class session in that upstairs conference room.  “Philosophy and Religion” did seem, to my advisor at first, an odd way to kick-off my freshmen year in college, but I was all for it.  She couldn’t stop me, she said, and it’d at least knock off one of my two philosophy core requirements.  Plus, she reminded me, once I officially declared myself a Religious Studies studies, I wouldn’t be meeting with her.  (“They’ll clean up this mess,” she seemed to imply!)

The professor was an older man, ‘Crean’ was his name, I believe, and he meticulously opened and set on the conference room table in front of him a travel alarm clock.  I guess it was to make sure that his ramblings — brilliant, but rambling no less — didn’t carry us too far over the hour and a-half time allotted.

“We’ll begin with Thomas Aquinas,” the professor began after some very brief introductions.  He gave us a bit of biographical information on the 13th century Dominican philosopher and theologian and introduced us to the term Summa Theologica — or the various competing ways to transliterate the Latin.  I was wowed by the idea that one could, literally, summarize theology.

To be fair, I was already awed that one could, well, do theology.  I had a long way to come.

In my evangelical high school, mere months prior to this seminar, I had a wonderful time.  I pretty much majored in goofing off and playing football and dreaming about girls — sometimes, actually dating one.  It was a lovely high school experience: the Chicago Christian High School, though not actually in the City of Chicago itself, was connected to the Dutch-immigrant Christian Reformed (CRC) and Reformed (RCA) churches in America.  I learned about Calvin and I learned the bible.  And, right, I learned about girls and football and having fun.  I really had a great time, and I’m especially grateful to the ways in which my parents really stretched their household budget and raised me and my brother and sister with the Christian values of education.  In our close-knit home church and community and family and, add to that, our high school, it was expected that you would be a Christian, that you would love God, and you would feel loved by God.  It was the days of late-80’s and early 90’s evangelical pop Christianity, carried through by an appealing soundtrack of rock ballads that sounded a lot like singing love songs to your high school sweetheart — only, this time, the Son of God.  It was an awesome, heart-warming, emotional experience.

The problem was that if you didn’t feel loved or if you were having a bad day or if you didn’t feel the capacity to love there wasn’t much more there.  It was a pretty thin veneer of formation, and looking back I’m not so sure I’d call it ‘faith’ formation. Maybe indoctrination.  Maybe belief inculturation.  I suspected, even at the time, that faith meant something far deeper, something much bigger, something more profound than simply loving and being loved.  Under their pretty basic platform was an even more basic idea — God gave us the bible, you see, so we should learn it, and know it, and believe it.  That’s that.

But Thomas, Thomas Aquinas was different.  Sure, it was pretty dense and hard to slog through, but Thomas didn’t talk about feeling or even a whole lot about love, and there was no rock ballad accompanying the pages.  They were Aristotelian logical equations; honestly, I didn’t know what that even meant, let alone who Aristotle was.  Reading Thomas was an exercise of the mind and it was deep, provocative, probing, profound.

According to St. Thomas, I learned, one could prove, yes, prove that God exists, using five fairly self-explanatory proofs.  They made sense to me but, more than that, the entire way he went about thinking, yes, thinking about God connected the dots between science and the more ethereal matters running through my mind; between math and belief; between what I felt was lacking in my own relationship with Jesus and what I never knew I could ask or wonder or imagine.  Thomas’ way of thinking helped pull together in me things I once thought entirely disparate and disconnected — the love of God being more important, I was taught, than venturing outside of the predictable patterns of my Truman Show-esque faith community.

But here was a way to think, to truly think.  Here, in Thomas, was a way to understand that this world — my own brain and my body no less — are not (completely) marked by sin, not entirely cut off from grace.  No, the whole created order of which I am a part is not only a gift but also a signal, indeed a symbol that points to a gracious God who wants to be in relationship with us.  Yes, a God who loves us and who wants us to love Him but, even more, a God who wants the fullness of our lives and hopes and struggles and dreams and thoughts.  The God who knows me more intimately than I, even, know myself.  And the God who, knowing me, still wants me.  All of me.

Sometimes, I’m afraid, we tend to forget what we’re really practicing, and what the content of this faith really means.  I know I forget it from time to time.  Just the other day, a wonderful leader in our congregation said we need to have a conversation with the Sunday School teachers and other interested parents and grandparents and folks about Christian formation.  She and others hope to stem this creativity into a youth group.  “She doesn’t want to come to Sunday School any longer,” this leader said referring to her granddaughter; “We need to find a way not to lose her.”

I’m not faulting this idea; in fact, it’s a great idea and I’m especially glad to be part of a Christian community, such as ours, that’s strengthened by such dynamic leaders.  We will have that meeting, and it’s going to happen after worship this coming Sunday, Feb. 1.  (You should come if you’re so inclined or interested!) We are going to create a youth group and build upon the successes and growth we’ve had with Sunday School / Christian formation at St. George’s.  No, we’re not going to rest on our laurels and think we’ve perfected the enterprise of forming people, let alone our children and youth, into what it means to “grow into the full stature of Christ.”

But the one caution we also need to have, if only in the back of our minds, is that this isn’t about ‘keeping them’ or letting them have fun or have a good experience of church.  Whether faith in the living Christ will be formed in one’s inner being is not at all contingent on whether they, the kids or, for that matter, a given adult, wants to come to church, wants to participate, wants to learn.  Those simple desires and surface matters-of-the-heart will come and go and, frankly, they go all too quickly.  They go when times get hard or when someone doesn’t feel loved or, because we all have bad days, they’re not able to love, not that day at least.  Those are the moments when that ethereal and life-altering truth, no less than faith in the living Christ, can slip away and go, and go all too quickly.

Because we are really talking about knowing God in one’s inner being, and being known — and loved — by that same God.  We are talking about intimacy, which requires vulnerability and which requires knowledge and, yes, which also requires that strange warming of the heart, to borrow Wesley’s phrase.  We are talking, through and through, about friendship with God, which is the fruit of wisdom, and that is what gives birth to a lively faith.

CHURCH CAMP – FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD

As I sit down to write, the rectory’s washing machine is running, various boxes with camp gear and Prayer Books and other religious programming stuff are laid out in the dining room and, upstairs, my packing list is sitting atop my open suitcase. (And the cat’s probably sitting inside.)  It’s the day before staff training begins for Camp EDOW, our diocesan summer camp.  This, the day before camp is always an exciting, nervous, anxious, and anticipatory day.

Before I head off to the woods of western Charles County, pretty much leaving behind my other life for two weeks, I want to share my thinking about church camp: why it’s important, what it’s about, and for what purpose.  Maybe I’m doing this merely for myself, just as well, for in spite of the fact that some people think camp is all just fun and games (and it is mostly that), camp’s also a lot of work, a lot of coordination and planning.  The reason why we do this — for whom, that is — is what makes the difference.  It makes a difference not only for the kids, not only for St. George’s, Valley Lee, not only for the Episcopal Church in southern Maryland, and not only for the Diocese of Washington.  The reason we do all this is about the Body of Christ, the constant and patient work of making disciples and sending them forth.

Church camp is about the future of the church. Camp is the one week in a kid’s life that, most likely, makes the other 51 weekends at church meaningful and important. It was for me, at least. I would not have remained in the Christian church if it wasn’t for church camp. I definitely wouldn’t have gone in search of a campus ministry in college if my only memory and experience of church was attending my Sunday morning congregation. I’m not knocking my home church, mind you, but if my brother and sister and me – and our church friends – didn’t have the experience every summer of going to the Rock River Bible Camp, I wouldn’t have known that there’s so much more to Christ than Sunday mornings.

It’s just as much about the present of the church, even (especially?!) for the adults. Pastoral care and worship and prayer and exercising a public, prophetic role for Christ in our southern Maryland community are a big part of my job. They’re, in fact, the most important parts of my job. But in order to get there, along the way toward making an impact, there are a lot of phone calls, meetings, emails, social media activity and paperwork, too. Camp, on the other hand, is pure church. Camp is spending time in community, having fun, learning about God and ourselves, worshipping every day, and practicing what it means to be the Body of Christ. Anything and everything is an altar at camp, from a picnic table to an overturned canoe to a conversation at lunch to late-night bible study with Compline to the “see you next summer” as we part ways on Friday afternoon.

It’s about celebrating, indeed growing the Episcopal Church in southern Maryland. St. George’s, Valley Lee – that’s right, little St. George’s in hidden St. Mary’s County, a place that folks in our diocese tend to think of as “sooooo far away” – started Camp EDOW, our diocesan summer camp. In the late summer of 2011, Katherine Humphries from St. George’s asked a simple question: “Why doesn’t the Diocese of Washington have a summer camp?” This led to conversations and more conversations and, ultimately, a gathering of leaders from our diocesan community who, themselves, had a heart for summer camp and also knew the potentially transformative power camp could have on our entire diocesan structure and sense of ministry.

The Diocese of Washington is, at times, very, um, ‘Washington’. We pride ourselves in having The National Cathedral; in fact, the Cathedral pre-dates the diocese itself and is very much the reason there is a Diocese of Washington in the first place. (That’s also why we, in this part of southern Maryland, were gerrymandered into this diocese!) [See, for more, Richard G. Hewlett, “The Creation of the Diocese of Washington and Washington National Cathedral” in The Journal of Anglican and Episcopal History, 2002, vol. 71, No. 3]  The Diocese of Washington is a prophetic voice and leader in social justice causes, which is an important and holy role. And the Diocese of Washington, at least historically, tends to think of itself as the religious compliment to everything Washington.

Where, then, does summer camp fit in? And not a fancy, summer-long camp in New Hampshire, say. Where does one week of simple, straightforward church camp in rustic and rural southern Maryland fit in? It didn’t in our diocese.  Not for a long time.

But now it does, and it’s increasingly growing. Part of it’s success is in the celebration of place.  Equally so, a big part is letting change seep in from the margins; that is, from southern Maryland up-river.  You see, I accepted a call, now, seven years ago to St. George’s, Valley Lee, having already developed a fondness for St. Mary’s County in my year as seminarian in nearby St. Mary’s City. I knew I was coming to the Diocese of Washington, a forward thinking and progressive community, and that was icing on the cake. But my primary call was to the people and families, the woods and waters of southern Maryland; in particular, this peninsula from Callaway, Maryland to St. George Island (though, of course, we welcome people from as far away as Lexington Park and Leonardtown!), this place where people make their homes and pattern their lives on relationships, these communities where people find meaning in the play and joy and work of St. Mary’s County.

We are not the National Cathedral. We are not the fancy establishment and, in fact, even when those folks come down here, to St. Mary’s, to spend time in their summer/weekend homes they take off their suits and hang out in their blue jeans and swimsuits. So you don’t know them, anyway!

For too long, in my estimation, the Episcopal Church in St. Mary’s County tried to play the Washington game, tried to come up to that level and join them on their terms.  But they didn’t realize or else they forgot that that game, itself, was falling apart, many having come to realize that there’s no gain in winning. My initiative behind helping start summer camp was, then, very much a congregational development cause for St. George’s, Valley Lee – and all the other southern Maryland congregations. My hope was that we would be able to share with our Diocese of Washington what we have, where we are, and who we are. We don’t have soaring cathedrals, we don’t have (too much) power obsessions, we don’t have prestige and fancy-ness.  We do, however, have honest-to-God folks who know who to build community and practice relationships; we do have expansive waterways, and scenic vistas, and lots of land to play and make community within.

 

And that brings me back to the really big “why?,” the ultimate reason for Camp EDOW: it’s because the world needs Christ — needs, indeed craves the reconciling work that God is doing through the Body of his Son, Jesus.  Doing my laundry, packing my bag, getting my stuff ready so I can go and spend a few weeks in the woods and on the water with the awesome kids and adults of the Diocese of Washington is for nothing less than the life of the world.

Speaking of packing, I’d better get back to it…

BLESSING WHAT GOD IS HAVING US WITNESS

The other big news to come out of Episcopal-world / South Carolina-edition this week is that the Rt. Rev’d Charles vonRosenberg, bishop of The Episcopal Church in SC (that is, those who’ve remained faithful to The Episcopal Church), “on July 8 granted permission for priests to bless the committed relationships of same-sex couples in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” according to an Episcopal News Service (ENS) report. “In authorizing the use of [The Episcopal Church’s 2012 authorized liturgy,] ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,’ vonRosenberg gave permission for priests to respond pastorally to couples who are in committed relationships, including those who have been married in states where same-sex marriage is allowed.”

CHARLES vonROSENBERG Bishop Provisional of South Carolina

This is big news, indeed. It represents not only a wider movement toward greater inclusivity but also, and chiefly, a process which has been grounded in substantial theological reflection over many, many years.  And that long and significant process has everything to do with the Holy Spirit’s apparent progress. As ENS reports, “Since [2012], more than 60 of the 110 dioceses of The Episcopal Church have allowed some form of liturgy for blessings of same-sex relationships. Regionally, 15 out of the 20 dioceses of Province IV – an area covering nine southeastern states – now permit the blessings. In the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, Bishop Andrew Waldo announced May 8 that he would permit the blessings.”

Then again, life-long covenants and the theology of human relationships is much more clearly a gospel issue than, say, property disputes – that being the other matter going on currently in South Carolina.

Some responded to my previous post about that other matter in SC – in which I called out the knee-jerk reaction of the anti-liberal conservatives as well as, in turn, the foolhardy anti-conservative liberalism – saying that, in doing so, I was choosing sides against justice. Sadly, they only prove my point that theological liberalism – which has been a genuinely orthodox Christian movement, yet hardly practiced in our church, or any church, today – is profaned nowadays, made into little more than an issue-determined litmus test for membership. That’s just sad.

But this isn’t that. This is a story worth telling.

That the majority of Episcopal dioceses have already approved this rite for blessing same-sex relationships, including most of the dioceses in the American southeast, and that ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant’ is meeting with such support is truly good news. On one level, it says that we are better able to move forward toward justice and inclusivity when we deal with more straightforwardly theological matters (not property, that is, even though the latter’s part of our mission, too). Accordingly, there will be deep conversation and prayer at 2015’s General Convention when the issue of marriage, itself, comes up, but let no one say this is the first time they’re hearing about it, nor let anyone say that the church hasn’t done sufficient and prolonged theological work around it.

I am reminded, on yet another level, that a huge part of the way the Holy Spirit’s helping usher forth this wider move toward justice is by bringing up such a topic not as an issue but an invitation, not as a political litmus test but, rather, a bright and open space in which we, God’s people, may ask how and in what ways God is blessing the lives of all God’s people: straight and gay couples alike; those who desire to have children, say, and those who wish to have no children, all the same.

Here’s a case in point:

I’m preparing to celebrate a wedding this weekend, and have been working with this couple for a long time. They are a wonderful couple. They know who they are and they know who God is calling them to become through their marriage. Specifically this weekend, they also know why and for what greater purpose they’re gathering friends and family. Like every other couple whose marriage I’ve celebrated, they live together; in fact, they have for 14 years! Like every other couple I’ve worked with (since 2013), when it came time to start planning the wedding liturgy, I showed them ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.’ And like every other couple since, they, too, adore and resonate with this newer language. They happen to be a man and a woman.  But this new liturgy, yes, for blessing same-sex relationships, is just as relevant to opposite-sex couples who are preparing to pray themselves into a life-long covenant as it for same-sex partners.

The language is more justice oriented, echoing profound themes of partnership and covenant. Compare the opening words of ‘The Witnessing & Blessing’ (scroll down to page 5), with those of the marriage service from the Book of Common Prayer .

See it? “A relationship of mutual fidelity and steadfast love,” instead of “the bond and covenant of marriage.” Or: “Christ stands among us today, calling these two people always to witness in their life together to the generosity of his life for the sake of the world,” strikes a different tone than “marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” Here, now, there is language of mutuality, partnership, balance, equal support, and, of course, love. Meanwhile, we’re still talking about a life-long, monogamous commitment.

I want to scream whenever I hear someone say “gay unions ruin the institution of marriage,” for, in fact, what I’m finding is precisely the opposite. I’m finding that, finally, all God’s people now have adequate language, fresh language to name eternal, holy truths.  We’re in a unique and rich moment as a church today. In the wake of a prolonged theological and prayerful conversation about human relationships and sexuality, following decades of discerning whether and how we are called to experience God in this work and these commitments, we are now able to utter new words which are truly new life for all couples — whether young or old, gay or straight, even those who are single and discerning or graying near the ears and married for 50+ years.

As we pray in that wonderful collect, “In the Morning” (BCP p.461), we have been given “the Spirit of Jesus” and, as such, our “words [are made] more than words.”  They are being made into new life.

PRAYING SOUTH CAROLINA

This morning in St. George, South Carolina, a very unfortunate trial begins, pitting the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina against The Episcopal Church (calling themselves in this case The Episcopal Church in South Carolina).  Those who’ve been even mildly following this tale will recall that in November 2012 a majority of the parishes of South Carolina, under the leadership of their bishop, the Rt. Rev’d Mark Lawrence, voted to leave The Episcopal Church.  Under the oversight of judge Diane Goodstein, the trial to determine, pretty much, who is the rightful overseer of The Episcopal Church in the Palmetto State is slated to last through next Friday, July 18.

It’s hard to know what to pray for today.  Peace?  Justice?  I suppose praying, as Jesus taught us, for “thy will” is a pretty good start. 

As it is, the whole affair seems unfortunate.  There is, on the one side of this fight, that egoistic vitriol and vaulted self-righteousness of those who cannot abide in participatory, representative movements of the Body of Christ; the very definition of what it means — or at least what it has meant since the 18th century — to be a practicing Anglican in this country.  And, on the other side, just think of all those (probably) millions of dollars being spent by The Episcopal Church on drawn-out legal affairs.  We should also admit that there has been such an emerging liberal orthodoxy in The Episcopal Church — the fundamental basis of which should shock no one — but which, unfortunately, nowadays, seems more aligned with secular progressive politics and less with sustainable, theological diversity in the Body of Christ.

It’s hard to know what to pray for today. 

In the meantime, then, while we’re being honest and holding at bay the agendas of both sides, don’t quote to me Paul’s injunction against taking a fellow Christian to court (1 Corinthians 6).  Neither, for that matter, do I want to hear how this process clearly goes against Jesus’ conflict resolution plan, as given in Matthew 18 (vv.15-20).  Jesus and Paul are right.  We are wrong.  Yet while those injunctions in the New Testament are clearly the stated goal of those who practice life in the kingdom of heaven — and for a while at least Jesus’ followers were more akin to bringing the kingdom of heaven a bit closer to earth — we, the followers’ followers, have created an institution of this world with power and prestige and, yes, property.  That’s why it’s in the secular courts; that’s why a secular judge is dealing with this matter, starting today, in St. George, South Carolina.  If you want to cast stones, throw them both ways.

Instead, though, I’d suggest prayer.  But it really is hard to know what to pray today.

MARK LAWRENCE Bishop of South Carolina

I’ll suggest, for starters, that Bishop Lawrence, himself, should re-learn how to compose a Collect.  Writing a Pastoral Letter to the Diocese of South Carolina yesterday, July 7, Lawrence offered “a prayer crafted earlier by the Very Rev. John Barr, soon to be retired rector of Holy Comforter, Sumter, which I have slightly adapted for this present trial:

Gracious and Sovereign Lord, we pray that your will be done during July 7—18th. May we want what you desire. Guide and be mightily present with Alan Runyan and the other attorneys who represent us and with those who testify on our behalf. May the courtroom be filled with the pleasant aroma of Christ, and at the end of the day, protect this diocese and its parishes that we might bring the redemptive power of the biblical gospel to the South Carolina Low Country, the Pee Dee and beyond. Let not our fear of outcomes tarnish our joy or deter us from the mission you have given us. Enable us to bless and not to curse those on the other side of this conflict. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And in the power of the Holy Spirit make us victorious over-comers wherever this road leads us. For we ask all in the name above all names, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

It starts well: praying for “your will,” and that we may “want what you desire.”  That the courtroom be filled with the “pleasant aroma of Christ” is a nice touch, although I don’t know what that would smell like, but then to pray that God “protect this diocese and its parishes,” those parties who, apparently, are preaching the “biblical gospel” is a bit heavy-handed.  That presumes your opponents really are something stinky!  I also have no problem with praying for your attorneys, but I’d also suggest that you may then want to pray for the attorneys who represent the other opinion.  “Enable us to bless and not to curse” is also a nice offering but, as you’ve stated, it’s for those “on the other side” and it’s hard to balance fighting language and peacefulness in the same line in the same prayer.

The gift of the Anglican tradition is that we’ve learned and, with the exception of Bishop Lawrence’s prayer, above, taught others how to write prayers that do not serve as a political rallying cries, issuing forth their own heavy-handed agendas.  Rather, we’ve developed the patient craft of praying Collects that enable God’s people to say, time and again, “thy will be done.”  This principle goes both ways: resisting those who are conservative just as much as those who preach liberal messages.  This principle is not only important but holy and good.  This principle which creates, in effect, a church constituted solely as a praying body, gathered under one Lord, Jesus Christ, is perhaps the only thing that will, in the end, save North American Anglicanism — positioning our Christian movement to be represented as the one, trustworthy place in our communities that’s authentically working on building true diversity and real community, grounded not in our moment but for eternity.

I’d say the Collect from last Sunday (Proper 9) is the perfect one to pray:

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

WHERE’S THE SACRIFICE IN THE “SACRIFICE OF PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING”?

I’m struggling or, I’ll be honest, I’m continuing to struggle with the self-centered, fairly vapid ideas on the marketplace today about how people go about growing congregations or doing Christian ministry.

My particular lens, these days, involves the work we’re currently engaged in at St. George’s, Valley Lee: expanding our music program and helping take our worship life in new directions.  I’m finding a rich world of music and worship thought-leaders, both within and beyond The Episcopal Church, but most often there’s this underlying implication, this nagging insistence connecting growing music and growing churches.

Sure, those connections are there.  But they may not be related causally.  And I suspect they’re not linked as much as we might think.

Life-giving worship has everything to do with what the Prayer Book calls “the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” that very phrase which is grounded in scripture (Hebrews 13:15, Psalm 100:4) and which Archbishop Cranmer himself inserted in the original text.  That worship is a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” reminds us that the church is not about us — not about re-sacrificing Christ on the altar, not about a priest standing in persona Christi.  Worship is for the purpose of proclaiming, once again, the work that God in Christ has already done, namely, reconciling the whole of creation to its Source and Creator.  Worship is about God, adoring God just like the Angels and Archangels apparently do without ceasing for no other reason than that is “right and a good and joyful thing” to tie our story to the divine.

The problem, however, is that current thinking about dynamic congregations has more to do with technical, mechanistic, directorial, astonishingly secular business models of ‘leadership,’ models we’ve been fed as clergy and lay leaders in mainline (old-line?) American Protestantism.  Even more astonishing is that in spite of the obvious crumbling of those cathedrals of thought — consider, for instance, the effective shuttering of The Alban Institute — they’re the very same models we keep feeding ourselves, time and time again.

We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of cultural criticism and post-modern analysis.  I read this stuff, too, and I know it has, potentially, positive gifts, but I’m afraid too many of us mainliners are better able to quote cultural trends and talk about the end of Christendom than we’re able to re-tweet the words of Jesus in the gospels.

We’ve borrowed the language of post-modernity, whose self-critical apparatus was actually supposed to lead to some series of profound change, in order to prop up our decidedly modern, self-obsessed institution.  We steer close to and then quickly run away from the fact that that death, that seed which needs to die so it can grow into something new (John 12:24), also involves us, involves The Episcopal Church, and involves getting over the fact that we may not appear or even act as competently and be as effective as this secular world needs its so-called ‘leaders’ to be.  “‘Effectiveness’ is not a Scriptural concept,” writes the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony, “and neither is it one affirmed in traditions of Christian theological reflection.  The foundational model of the Christian Church, that of Jesus and his disciples, was expressed in a radical powerlessness.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah and I should know, p.33)

At St. George’s, we’re exploring a new model of music and worship.  I’ve promised I’ll more intentionally blog about this and share, at least, my own thinking.  Just last week, I already started doing so on the Episcopal Church Foundation’s ‘Vital Practices’ series (click here).  Similar pieces will come, both on this blog and at ECF Vital Practices.

Before we begin, though, we also need to be exceedingly clear about our purpose.  Ever since I arrived in Valley Lee, now, seven summers ago, we’ve been at work on a huge goal, and we’ve been pulling this thread through every other aspect of our life together at St. George’s.  We’ve revised our By-Laws and our approach to financing and budget-making.  We’ve effectively changed how we share ministries and authority and power.  Fundamentally, the goal is to make this institution, this organization in St. Mary’s County, Maryland vastly more like an unmistakably Christ-centered organism and less like a self-obsessed consumer of people’s time and energy, much more like the early apostolic fellowship of believers, a gathering that also drove them to serve and live more boldly in the world, and less like an institution that appears to take more it gives.

We haven’t yet touched Sunday mornings.  That is where we are right now, and it’s going to require the same level of clarity, self-critical reflection, strictly theological discernment and, perhaps, sacrifice as those processes which led to the other changes in the ways we function and relate to one another.  It’s going to require us to be honest about the purpose of worship and the role of music and, above all, to be exceedingly cautious whenever we stray near the dangerous, solipsistic thinking that growth in music will bring about growth in the church for the purposes of growing the institution called ‘church’.  To be fair, these pitfalls are already there in the dominant literature’s careless assumptions, forgetting at its core that there’s sacrifice involved in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

Some weeks ago, I invited the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony to join us at our southern Maryland Episcopal clergy gathering.  The Associate Dean of Students at the Virginia Theological Seminary, Lewis-Anthony is also the author of the wonderfully challenging book, If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him (subtitle: “Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry”) and has recently published an equally excellent book, You are the Messiah and I should know (subtitle: “Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a heresy)”).  His talk that afternoon was as thorough and challenging as his corpus of work — and, yes, as witty as is his clear knack at titles.  He’s helped deepen and challenge, for me, dominant strands of thinking about music and worship and the life and work of the Christian church today.

Take our southern Maryland Clericus as an example, you see.  A group that averages fifteen or so come out once a month from September through June for lunch and prayer and conversation.  From time to time, mostly when I get around to it, our afternoon is enriched by a guest conversation partner, someone to pick our brains or stimulate our thinking or, too often, someone who’s part of the institution called The Episcopal Church / The Episcopal Diocese of Washington and who may have a great idea or who has to suffer through listening to what we think is a great idea.  Mostly, however, our purpose is fellowship because, frankly, when we do get some brilliant idea — or when someone else’s brilliant idea is imported to our lunch table — it generally goes nowhere.  People on the bishop’s staff are busy taking care of what the bishop wants taken care of and when those rectors leave that lunch table they, too, are overtaken by the matter their senior warden needs them to think about or what the altar guild chairperson is busy fussing about this week.  The Christian church has figured out a remarkable way to serve itself — dioceses serve the goal of dioceses and congregations serve their own purposes.  Even more frightening, we’ve developed a whole language of management and ‘leadership’ to justify doing what we do and why we do it.

Because it’s about us.

But it’s not, is it?  It’s not about us, nor has the purpose and mission of the Christian church ever been. If we really are Christ’s body, we’d better start acting like that self-sacrificial organism and learn, in turn, what “glory” really means.  And if our primary gathering is worship, that work which we’re now focusing on at St. George’s, we’d do well to re-discover the particular role of sacrifice in that “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”.

For my own part, I’m considering Justin Lewis-Anthony’s words of caution:

“We do not know what we are talking about when we attempt to talk about leadership.  When we do talk about leadership, we are, unknowingly, not being theological, in the sense of speaking coherently about the God who revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures, in the traditions of the Christian church, and, pre-eminently, in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.  There is a savage disconnect, between attempts to treat leadership in a pseudo-theological manner and the real nature of leadership, which should become apparent in the remainder of this book.  We are, dangerously, attempting to yoke ourselves with unbelievers.  We are pretending that heresy can be put in the service of the church.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah, p.34)