Calling All Angels

I haven’t thought much about angels.  Maybe I did when I was younger.  I remember a book my mother gave me sometime during junior high school, something about an angel in my backpack.  It gave me a lot of comfort in those awkward adolescent years, but that’s part of the problem now, I suspect – I’ve probably associated ‘angel’ with ‘adolescence’, as if these are kinds of beliefs someone grows out of. 

But ask me about moments in the bible, or in our worship life as a Christian community which continue, year after year, to reveal God’s truth to me, and generally there’s an angel somewhere in that story.  Christmas? A whole host of them.  Easter? “He is risen.”

host-of-angels
“Host of Angels,” by Joanna Morgan

 

One of my favorite biblical characters is Jacob.  I could go on and on about Jacob, himself, and there’s so much liveliness in Genesis chapters 26 through 36.  Within that cycle of stories, I’ve always returned to the famous tale of Jacob’s ladder, Genesis 28:10-22.  The heart of the story is a dream in which Jacob sees “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (v.12)  The astonishing thing, however, is that this is a dream, a moment of rest in the midst of real anxiety for Jacob.  He’s on the run from his brother, Esau, whom he cheated out of his birthright and inheritance.  Plus, he’s lying on a stone as a pillow – which I’ve always thought would be the least restful thing!  Jacob is at a turning point in his life, but he doesn’t really recognize it as much of a turning point because, frankly, he’s running for his life, fearful and probably despondent about any hope of a future.  If he can just make it through the night, Jacob thinks, he can wake up tomorrow and run again.  Maybe he’ll do the same thing the next day and the day after, the literal definition of a rat race.

In that moment, he receives not only rest but a promise: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac,” God says, “…Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (vv.13-17)  When Jacob wakes up, his life’s direction is fundamentally changed.  No longer is he a nervous fugitive, a criminal on the run, but a man who is relatively confident that whatever happens he is, nevertheless, kept in the love of God.  “If God will be with me,” Jacob says that next morning, “and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.” (vv.20-22)  The very next day what does he find?  Water, a well, which leads him to family and the creation of a new, abundant chapter in his life.

I heard an echo of Jacob’s ladder while we read in church the story of Jesus’ call to Nathanael (John 1:47-51), the gospel lesson appointed for today.  Nathanael is shocked that Jesus knows about him, even more so because Jesus got all that from noticing him under a fig tree.  So Jesus says, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. …You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (vv.50-51) 

We don’t know all that much about Nathanael, except that he has “no deceit,” as Jesus says (v.47), and that’s obviously the antithesis of Jacob who goes on to wrestle with God, getting re-named Israel.  But Nathanael, like Jacob, is at some kind of a turning point in his life, even though, also like Jacob, he probably doesn’t recognize it as such.  His friend Philip finds him and points him to Jesus.  Nathanael doesn’t seem to jump at the chance to ditch his old life and follow this itinerant teacher but, still, he is drawn closer and closer to Christ.  Maybe he was starting to question his old life; he and Philip seem awfully inquisitive, searching.  But maybe he wasn’t entirely sure what he was supposed to be doing in the future.

Let’s face it: we are always, at all times at a turning point in our life.  Every decision we make in the course of a day can and does impact our future.  Sometimes it’s a simple thing.  What should we have for dinner tonight?  Where will we celebrate Thanksgiving this year?  Sometimes it’s a big thing.  Where should I go to college?  What should I do after retirement?  And most of the time we don’t really know how something that seems so simple might turn out so big, though we often know in retrospect that our most impactful decision started with a small seed – a conversation, an article, a thought, a wrong turn into a new town.

The truth is that God’s preferred future doesn’t require a grand vision on my part.  God’s future doesn’t require much except my willingness to go into it, sometimes boldly, sometimes anxiously, sometimes with calculated steps, but to go nevertheless.

 angels-and-archangelsAnd because we are, at times, fearful and anxious, not always so bold and courageous, we get reminded, looking back, that in those moments there was what we might call this ‘angelic host’ – this ladder of messengers, going up to heaven from earth, and touching earth from heaven.  There are always messengers and messages from God, all around us, every moment of every day.  These messengers are what the bible calls ‘angels’ and God surrounds us with the economy of salvation at every moment, waking and sleeping.  This is what we celebrate today, Sept. 29, which in the life of the church is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, the prayer which reminds us that “…as [God’s] holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth.” 

No, we don’t ‘grow up’ so much that angels no longer matter, becoming a theological holdover from our Sunday School past.  But it’s also true we probably don’t notice until we look back on those big moments, seeing later, sometimes much later that that small thing became a life transition, or a conversation turned into a new vocation, or a seemingly insignificant seed transformed in the ground of our life to become a great abundant tree.

 

I lift up my eyes to the hills

I like to know where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m supposed to be working on, and how long it’ll take – maybe what it’ll take to get there. Driving out to western North Carolina, we took our time, Iman and Carter and me. We drove by exit signs announcing little towns, miles or so off the interstate. I wondered, as I often do, what it’d be like to live there, what it’d feel like to start over, maybe slow down. Then I remembered that I’ve already stepped off the urban grid – I left a metropolitan lifestyle so many years ago that I can’t call myself a “Chicagoan” any longer. Carter herself only knows that city as the place where her grandparents and uncle, aunt and cousin live. 

I suppose I should say “I don’t like to get lost,” but I’ve never really been lost, not that I can remember. Maybe that’s my own selective memory.

Hiking in mountains I’ve never been, following trails that seem to make some sense on a map, well, this is about as close as I’ll get to getting lost. There’s something freeing in walking, wondering, looking around, not exactly knowing where I’m going (and, yes, for safety’s sake, knowing that Kanuga is only down the other side of this mountain, somewhere down there). The trail goes up and turns, off in a direction I can’t see. So I follow it, and go. It bends down along a dried riverbank. I follow it. I’ve gotten lost plenty of times, too, and even found other trails that loop back to more familar terrain.
The Psalmist begins his question, “From where is my help to come?” with the statement, maybe the literal posture: “I lift up my eyes to the hills…” (Psalm 121, Levavi oculos)  The question could’ve been one of doubt, confusion, fear, anger. Maybe it was, at first, and for any number of good reasons. “From where is my help to come?” I’ve probably asked, wondered, puzzled this question – or some such like it – in my head countless times.

But the question’s changed when, at first, “I lift up my eyes to the hills…” It doesn’t go away, that initial question. Nor is it solved. Nor am I entirely certain of where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m supposed to be working on, and how long it’ll take – maybe what it’ll take to get there.

To lift up my eyes, I suppose, is a first step to lift up my heart, lift up my life, know in my core what the Psalmist then proclaims: “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Because it’s not really about the direction of the particular trail – which, to me, is good news, given the amount of times I’ve gotten lost up here. Time and again, the trail goes up and turns, off in a direction I can’t see. I follow it, or at least try to. It bends down along a dried riverbank. I follow it. Or I think I’m following it. Whatever I’m doing, I’m going somewhere.

But that’s not the same as “the life that truly is life,” as Paul writes to Timothy (1 Tim. 6:19). Following a map or a path or a compass heading isn’t the best metaphor for that kind of life. For a relationship with the Lord – literally “the maker of heaven and earth” – is a deep, a fixed, a rooted thing, not so subject to whims and wishes, twists of the trail or bends further out, at least not in God’s part. That’s precisely the mystery. That’s why  the Psalmist echoes such stationary tones in what seems to be a traveling poem. For the Lord will “not let my foot be moved,” watches over my “going out and my coming in,” preserving me from all evil, keeping me safe.

Where am I going, then? I’m going lots of places, and it’ll continue to be an exciting journey. But perhaps life in Christ is not so much a new destination, but simply the freedom to wander far because I’ve already been found.

Back to the Rectory Porch

When I first interviewed with the St. George’s search committee – now, wow!, nearly nine years ago – they took me on a tour of this campus, a tour which of course included the rectory.  The rectory is a beautiful, stately, Cape Code-style home – grand and simple, while, at once, elegant without being too big.  Simply put, I love the house.

“What a beautiful front porch,” I mentioned, pointing to the broad covered porch that overlooks the church and churchyard, the belltower and parish hall.

“Indeed,” said one of the committee members, “many wonderful prayers have been offered here, and many sermons developed, too, I’m sure.”

When it came time to kickoff my own digital ministry, via this blog, the title instantly came to me: From the Rectory Porch.  (I seem to remember a Milton quote, somewhere in Paradise Lost about a porch, and try as I might — though I haven’t gone so far as re-reading it! — I haven’t come up with anything.)  But for those who might’ve been checking this site, here and there, for any new news or good gossip or, well, anything you’ve no doubt noticed a lull.  It’s not that little is happening in my life and at St. George’s.  Quite the opposite!  Little time has been spent, however, writing about my more situated ministry, pondering Milton, like I just tried to, above, or Herbert or any of those more quaint aspects of ministry in this place.  For one, I’ve been blogging – and blogging regularly for the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vital Practices series. I submit a blog for them every other week, and you can read behind most of those blogs to figure out what’s on my mind and what might be going on at St. George’s.front porch rocking chair

For another, St. George’s is in the midst of some very significant and holy conversations about who we are and what God’s future for this congregation might be.  You probably think I should’ve written “what our future is” – that being the obvious corollary to who we are – but I think identity and calling are not always the very same thing; connected, just not one and the same.  St. George’s is at a moment, right now, where we’re asking fundamental questions of our current operating model – namely, why does this one congregation, which has been and continues to grow, year after year, still operate with the assumption that we need to have one (full-time) priest, and should we, can we come up with a different, broader, more mission-focused model?  All the while, we’re also trying to invite God into this conversation so that our answer is not a dollars-and-cents fix, but a Gospel-based call.  Creating that space to discern, to wonder, to talk, to remain open to what God is calling me and us to become has taken a lot of focus and energy on my end.  It’s made me to set aside the writing and strategizing (which I confess is my go-to, maybe sometimes my ‘get-away’) and spend time in prayer and conversation with God’s people, one on one.

So that’s where I’ve been, in a nutshell.  Feeling excited and hopeful and, honestly, really optimistic about who we might become, if we lean into God’s future.  And, at the same time, still crazy busy trying to keep up all of these structures we’ve inherited and which I, personally, have also created.

By way of illustration, I’ll close with a slightly more amusing tale.

Yesterday, something came over me to write again for the Rectory Porch.  Maybe it was the rain and the chill; maybe that it was Ascension Day, after all, and I wanted to say something about the Ascension.  (That blog is halfway done, and still sitting on my desktop.)

I was deep into a fun little post – fun to me, mind you; not everyone thinks the history of liturgical observances of the Ascension in western Christianity is ‘fun.’  Like I said, I was about halfway through when the call came.  Iman had come down the night before and we made tentative plans to go out to lunch.  “A half hour,” I said to her, just after I said hello to the pest control guy who was out for his quarterly check on this campus. “Just a half hour, and I’ll be done.  Oh, by the way, the pest control guy is coming over to spray in and around the rectory.  Just let him in.  He knows what to do.”

Shortly thereafter, the phone rang.  It was Iman.  Looking up, across the churchyard, I could see Iman on the phone, her red rain jacket, outside, walking around with the dog, Phoebe.  “Greg, you need to come home right now,” she said.  “Phoebe got into something in the guy’s truck, and ate it.”  (If it were me talking, I’d have added lots and lots of exclamation points, but Iman is great under pressure and she’s not an exclamation-point kind of speaker.  If I could’ve better emphasized the periods in that statement, I’d have done so.  Come. Home. Now.)

Here’s how the rest of the afternoon felt:

Phoebe to the vet.  Iman back to the house so she could get her car (which we left there, not checking the time) so she can get to her afternoon appointment. Me back to the vet: pacing, worry .  “She should be fine,” the vet tech says. “Give her some of these pills…”   Something about blood work.  Something about rat poison inhibiting Vitamin K.  Note to self: Google ‘Vitamin K.’

“Oh, and continue to monitor her for any loose blood or vomit.”

Back at the rectory, Phoebe and me.  On vomit / loose blood watch.  Call from the lady who lives down the lane.  Something about her grandson, a tie, a presentation.  “I’m over at the rectory,” I say.  Moments later, a white truck pulls up.  Grandson gets out, on his way to make a final presentation for a business class he’s taking in college.  He forgot to how tie a tie.  (I’m afraid after all these years of wearing a backwards collar, I might’ve forgotten, too).  Necktie instruction in the rectory living room.  The dog is asleep, exhausted.

Neighbor lady, the grandmother, shows up in her golf cart.  We chat, something about gravestones.  Another truck pulls up.  “This the rectory?”  “Yes.”  “Need to mark phone lines before the perc test.”  Rectory septic went out, or is going out, or at any rate is going to be investigated for what’s wrong when the health department perc test happens Thursday of next week.

Iman and Carter back home; Iman picked her up from school, and they went to the grocery store.  Carter’s working on a mother’s day gift for Iman, who is not (yet, officially) her mom, of course, but whom Carter has come to adore and truly love, and for whom Carter is looking forward to the day, which is soon coming, when she is, officially, ‘Mommy.’

Carter and Iman
The finished project at this morning’s breakfast, Carter’s painting for Iman.

 

Friends come over for dinner.  It was going to be a 6 o’clock conversation at the parish hall about youth group, and the great work they’ve done and how we can work together to build it stronger next year and in coming years, but with Carter’s project and her shower and our dinner – you get it, I’m sure – the ‘meeting’ is moved to the rectory, and to the rectory dining room table, and to dinner.  It’s a much better meeting than it would’ve been, anyway, and even more wonderful to spend time together with friends, fellowshipping, praying, playing, eating, talking.

Even Carter got to stay up a little later than usual and play the second hand of a fun board game.

We all said goodnight.  Carter upstairs, saying our prayers, kisses and off to sleep.  I sat down in the living room chair.

I never even made it to the rectory porch.  It was too dark and cold last night, but also some kind of birds, back in March, made a nest in the one front porch light that’s missing a glass pane, so I left them alone for the past five or six weeks. Their bird babies are all grown and they flew away, just this week, so I went up there two nights ago and cleaned out the light fixture and removed the old nest — now ready to take the rocking chairs up from the basement, wash them, maybe paint a fresh coat, and set them up in prime porch position.

Just this morning, however, I saw a few more twigs and branches back in that same porch light, the one missing a pane.  I reached up and took them out.  This time, I’ll get ahead of those birds.  One round is enough.  I’m about to reclaim that porch.

 

And many a new, fresh prayer will be offered.  And the beginning of, I hope, many good sermons and stories will emerge.  And I know that God will continue to reveal His grace and goodness, His will and His hope for me and for us.  Right there, among so many other holy places, from the rectory porch.

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 Grafton, West Virginia. A woman named Anna Jarvis organized the celebration in honor of her mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis. The elder Mrs. Jarvis’ favorite flower was a white carnation, 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
Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, 1832 – 1905

Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis was a fascinating woman.  Born in Culpepper, Virginia, the daughter of a Methodist minister, in 1832, she died in 1905 — just two years before that first celebration. In her childhood, the Reeves (her maiden name) family moved to present-day West Virginia when her father took a new call. Anna Maria Reeves 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 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. Thus, Anna Jarvis in the 1840s and 50s organized a series of (what she called) “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” – designed to bring the wise 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.

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 a deciding factor between death and life. Two years after her death in 1905, then, it’s easy to understand why her daughter, Anna Jarvis, would want to celebrate her mother’s legacy — organizing a “Mother’s Day” on the second Sunday in May, 1907.

Fast forward seven years: 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 many 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, threats of terrorism, 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 his own anguish, pain, anxiety and dread. Jesus’ peace does not wipe away war, neither those outside nor those inside which set people apart. Jesus’ peace doesn’t alleviate our anxiety, like taking a pill at night. The world still feeds 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 a gift that moves us to act toward justice.  Jesus’ peace is a reality that, deep down, we are already redeemed. 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.

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.