Forever pilgrims

Last week our parish celebrated the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul was a pilgrim of sorts: anyone whose life is about pressing on toward a goal, and forgetting what lies behind, is someone on the move. Paul’s life and witness tells me that he knew that God, too, is always on the move. Here’s a bit of what I had to say last Sunday:

For most of us, conversion is slow and subtle. This is as much true for whole communities as for individuals. Maybe more so. One of my favorite ways of talking about conversion in our Anglican tradition is the distinction between pickles and pop tarts.[1] More than a blinding flash of heat, light, or sweetness, we are converted and formed by swimming in holy brine, if you will, by showing up and engaging in weekly mass, daily office, and life shared in community over a long period of time. It is in this context that we might have glimpses of the reign of God, and discern our own calling as individual disciples and as a community.

(Paul’s furrowed brow is my favorite.)

Saint John Chrysostom reminds us that Paul’s philosophy can be summed up in the words “I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead.” This reminds me of Norman Lear, who said that the two words most important to his life and work were “over” and “next.”

One way to be faithful is to keep moving.

For years, the instruction to Paul to “Go into the city and there you will be told what to do” was on St. Paul’s parish letterhead, as an affirmation of our identity as an urban parish. It is good to remember, though, that once Paul got to the city, he sat there, blind, for days, with no idea what awaited him. Paul’s conversion includes waiting around for the Holy Spirit to reveal what’s next. It didn’t happen the moment he fell off his horse.

Anyone who has been on a pilgrimage knows that it is this combination of forward movement and waiting, clarity about God’s call and confusion about what to do and where to go next, that is part of the journey. May we all find eager and gracious companions along the way.

[1] This metaphor came from Ellen Charry at a 2003 Affirming Catholicism conference.

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Day Three: Arrival and Transfiguration

Our tired, happy group arrived in Tel Aviv at 9:30am, Israel time, collected ourselves and our luggage, found our guide, Ghassan, and boarded the bus that will be our home away from our various homes away from home for the next 9 days.

“”We drove past small towns and rich farmland to meet up for lunch with our group members who had arrived from other places the previous day. Those people had the benefit of this lovely sunrise over the Sea of Galilee on Tuesday morning; it rained most of the day but we hope for a similar sunrise Wednesday or Thursday!

Joe McDermott contributed the rest of today’s post:

Today at the beginning of our Pilgrimage here in Israel and Palestine, we went to the top of Mount Tabor, where believers hold that the Transfiguration took place. (See: Matthew, Chapter 17)  We’d had many paths to gather here in the Holy Land (I’ll take my pre-pilgrimage holiday over the diversion to Newark and 9 hour layover many shared any day!), and this was a fitting place to begin.

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There are two churches at the top of a striking mount rising up out of the plains, one Franciscan and Greek Orthodox (which seems to be closed). The pictures are of the Franciscan church exterior, the nave, detail of the mosaic above the main altar, Rev Rob Rhodes (Associate Rector at St Paul’s) celebrating Mass in the Elijah side chapel, the detail of Moses above the altar in the other side chapel, and a view from the church to the valley below. 
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 It became clear I wasn’t alone finding myself in awe to be standing for the first time in a place Jesus walked.  Through our shared liturgy, we became a transformed gathering of pilgrims, shedding any tourist-identity we still had tagging along.  Jesus reveals himself to us – sometimes in dazzling white – and sometimes asks us to hold that in our hearts until the time is right.  I hold this experience in my heart and know that I will have the skill and insight to share it in the right way when the time is right.  We as a group see ourselves differently as well, transformed by the experience.  We went up the mount perhaps a group of tourists and came down a community of pilgrims.  This is a fitting beginning.

 Growing up Camp Filed, the former Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) summer camp and retreat where Sleeping Lady Conference Center is now outside Leavenworth, Washington, was very important to me and my family.  Thus beginning at Mount Tabor was particularly poignant for me as the Chapel at Camp Field was the Chapel of the Transfiguration and I had occasion to remember dear friends in my prayers there this afternoon.

Remembering where we come from and entering into a spirit of pilgrimage, its been a good day.

 

The subversive power of resurrection

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Part of my Lenten journey included the Stations of the Cross most Wednesdays. It was a blessing to make that journey-within-a-journey week after week. If you’ve ever participated in this service you are familiar with the verse and response: “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” Saying those words on my knees, over and over in the darkness of the Wednesday evening liturgy got them into my gut in a new way. O Christ, by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

So here we are, on the first day of the week, on the other side of the cross. Do we feel redeemed? What about the world? What would a redeemed world look like? I think most of us would agree that it would look different from our world.

I could tell stories of terror and violence on the other side of the planet, in Brussels, Istanbul, or Jakarta, but I don’t have to; it’s all around us. We could look at poverty and desperation in another hemisphere, but we need only walk around our block. We can read about broken hearts in the daily news, or we can find them in our neighbors, our friends, and sometimes, in ourselves. We could look toward another era, an earlier time, for fear and civic unrest, but it’s here, in our time. More and more people I speak with talk about their fears for our own nation, our place in the world. You don’t need me to tell you stories of bad news.

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We live in a time not unlike the time and place where Jesus’ first disciples encountered the empty tomb, a time deeply entrenched in a system of racial and religious prejudice and economic inequity that made everyone powerless to effect change.

What do we do about this? What do we have to say about this on Easter morning? If you get together with friends or family later today and talk to them about your morning, and if they say—as my friends often say—“Oh, yeah, it’s Easter….I forgot,” is there anything to say to them about this day that connects with the rest of life?

Yes. Tell them about the “subversive power of the resurrection.” I’m borrowing the phrase from New Testament theologian Nancy Claire Pittman, who has written that resurrection is “an invitation to live as Jesus lived, a doorway to a life in which meals are shared with enemies, healing is offered to the hopeless, prophetic challenges are issued to the powerful. Only now it is not Jesus who does these things, it is we ourselves who see … the subversive power of the resurrection in order to live it now.”

Tell them about the subversive power of baptism.

Years ago, I had the privilege of participating in the baptism of my two-year-old niece. It was a complicated situation. My niece and her big brother were not churchgoers; my sister-in-law was having them baptized to please her father, who was dying three thousand miles away. My niece was having none of this. She screamed and cried all the way through the procession to the font. She hadn’t had her nails trimmed in a while and her mother, who was carrying her, had scratches on her neck.

The priest used a line I’ve borrowed whenever I’ve baptized a fussy baby. He said: “We all respond to God this way sometimes…” When it came time for the actual baptism, she struggled even more. The priest turned toward the congregation with a big smile and said: “I think we’re all going to get a little wet.”

In a few minutes, we’re all going to get a little wet. There are cathedrals that do asperges with giant branches of water from a swimming-pool sized font, and everyone gets soaked. This water is a tangible reminder of who we are, why we are here, and who we belong to.

When we blessed the water earlier this morning, we remembered the water of creation, the water through which God delivered God’s people into the land of promise, the water in which Jesus himself was baptized. This is the same water that fills our font, the water with which we washed each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday, the water we used to wash this altar.

The water is the same water drunk by our enemies and those who wish us harm, the water that bathes the person with whom we are angry, the person who has hurt us, the person who doesn’t know we exist.

Remembering these connections across time and borders has never been more important than at this moment in our common life. Through the call-and-response of the baptismal covenant, we become active participants, stakeholders in the life of the one who rose from the dead and who goes before us in the transformation of the world.

LS20120612_stpaul_005-smallWe adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. The cross itself is redeemed: God turns a shameful death into triumph over death. Hence the crucifix hangs right here where we feast and celebrate. God redeems our sin and alienation, exchanging them for love and hope.

Easter does not erase suffering. Easter says that God never stops being present in suffering and that we, too, as followers of the risen Jesus, can be present for those who suffer, can be present in vulnerability, in love, in the mighty, subversive power poured onto us in the waters of baptism.

Before dawn, we heard the Exsultet, an ancient hymn of praise that proclaims our Easter faith: This is the night when you brought our ancestors out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land….this is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and rose victorious from the grave.

We don’t say “that was the night,” but this is the night. Every time we proclaim resurrection we proclaim liberation of the oppressed, food for the hungry, good news for the downtrodden. The resurrection is now. The life we covenant to live in baptism is now. Like the prophets and storytellers whose words fill this day, we bring into this moment all the suffering and fear around us and we take from this moment the life that cannot die, the life that, as George Herbert says, killeth death.

The angels of the Lord ask: why do you look for the living among the dead? Witnessing and experiencing the subversive power of the resurrection, the subversive power of baptism, is as important now as it has ever been. Unless we’re going to live out our lives inside the empty tomb, we must find ways to wield our baptismal identity for good.

Maybe redeeming the world is redeeming fear and turning it into courage. Perhaps redeeming the world is about redeeming doubt and turning them into good news. What if it’s redeeming complacency and resignation, to turn it into outrage and action? What if redeeming the world is about finding stories of love winning, and telling those stories. Maybe redeeming the world is about being those stories, living those stories. Let’s find out.

 

 

Stage directions from the Bible

I am a huge fan of the works of William Shakespeare. Like a lot of people in strange lines of work, I was an English major, and so I was exposed to a lot of Shakespeare, not just the obligatory eighth-grade reading of MacBeth and tenth-grade reading of Romeo and Juliet, but throughout college. Last fall I had an ongoing discussion with my son about why it would behoove him, as a possible college English major himself, to take a Shakespeare elective in his last semester of high school. (He is having none of it.)

randjAs I’ve reflected these past few weeks on the Gospel of Mark, the thing that has me thinking about Shakespeare is not any particular play, but stage directions. Shakespeare’s stage directions were always very spare, essential three- or four-word instructions that Shakespeare left, instructions that always included a verb and only more if absolutely necessary. The most famous of these comes from “The Winter’s Tale”: Exit, pursued by a bear. Somewhere in the development of playwriting—and if your studies took you out of the 17th century you will know more than I do about this—stage directions became far more than the bare essentials. Some playwrights seem to need to spell out every minute detail of a scene, leaving nothing to individual directors, producers or, heaven forbid, the actors.

Mark’s gospel is like Shakespeare’s stage directions. Especially this Epiphany season. Our gospels resound with Epiphany verbs. These are the verbs that reflect what Jesus did. They also are our one-word stage directions for being followers: Come, proclaim, repent, believe, call, leave, go, follow, teach, heal. 

Much is left to the imagination. And, we hope, to the Spirit. As we strive to follow, believe, go, or teach, no one is going to tell us where to stand or what to wear or what to do with our hands. That’s up to us. Gloriously challenging and freeing. What Epiphany verbs are going to direct you in the coming weeks?

The Curses of Psalm 69

Psalm 69 always comes around on a Friday in the Daily Office in the Episcopal tradition. It’s fitting, if you think of every Sunday is a “little Easter” and every Friday as a “little Good Friday.” Why not include the Psalm that includes these Good Friday words?

They gave me gall to eat, *
and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.

Psalm-69-29-web-nltThis morning, Psalm 69 came around again and I had a vivid memory of being in the chapel of the first church I joined in Portland in a dark, rainy Friday morning in 1987. The priest, deacon, and I were about to say morning prayer. The deacon would write the psalms for each day on a clipboard he’d attached to the chapel wall. Marker held aloft, he paused and turned to the priest to ask: “Shall we leave out the curses in Psalm 69?”

Psalm 69 is one of those psalms that gives the Bible a bad name, gives God a bad name,  section is marked as optional in our collection of daily readings.

Psalm 69 is in a special category of psalm called an “imprecatory” or “cursing” psalm. It begins familiarly enough:

Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen up to my neck.

I am sinking in deep mire,
and there is no firm ground for my feet.

The psalmist is surrounded by enemies, and God is his or her only hope. Familiar enough, right? The psalmist prays fro God’s unfailing help. But then, two dozen verses in, the psalm takes a twist:

 Let the table before them be a trap
and their sacred feasts a snare.

Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see,
and give them continual trembling in their loins.
Pour out your indignation upon them,
and let the fierceness of your anger overtake them.

Let them be wiped out of the book of the living
and not be written among the righteous.

Really? Of course we want to leave out the curses. Most people do. And yet. The curses remind us that the people who wrote the psalms believed in a God who could handle all of their hateful, vengeful feelings of which, I imagine, in their collective heart of hearts, they must have been just a little bit ashamed. The angry, cursing psalms are not an indictment against an angry, vindictive God, but rather a confession of an angry, vindictive people. The God whom they try to co-opt into their pain is a God who can handle the whole infinite range of human emotion–that’s the blessing of the cursing psalms.

Yes, we can leave out the curses of Psalm 69. But isn’t it good to know that we can leave them in?

The thing we rarely talk about

In which Sara explores a Dirty Little Secret, with apologies to her areligious readers.

One morning during our Coast-to-Coast walk, we found ourselves sharing breakfast at our B&B with a couple we’d seen a few times over the past few days. We had a lively breakfast conversation, early on in which the woman and I discovered that we were both priests, I in a church in Portland, Oregon, and she in a parish in North Yorkshire. We talked of many things, although I’m sorry we didn’t exchange names throughout our conversation. She and her husband were ending their walk at the next village, which was a half-way point for most walkers and an ending point for some. As we passed each other in the hall during the time between breakfast and setting off, she said: “It’s too bad we didn’t meet each other earlier; we could have been saying Morning Prayer together all this while.”

Ah, yes. Morning Prayer. The Daily Office. The Prayer of the Church. The Office to which English clergy are bound by their ordination vows, in a way that Episcopal clergy ordained in the United States are not. We are bound to pray, and I many priests I know are indeed faithful to the traditional Office, but more are not. I have always envied those from branches of our Anglican Communion who do, in fact, manage to say the Office twice a day as a matter of course. Ken Leech once wrote: “the moment the Office is a place you go, rather than something you pray, you need to reorder your priorities” (or words to that effect).

I have often described clergy prayer life as a “dirty little secret.” The secret being that most of us who are ordained, if we were to reflect with complete honesty, on our prayer life, would say we didn’t have much of one. (And I would venture to say this applies across denominational lines; I don’t think Episcopal clergy have a monopoly on spotty prayer.) As St. Paul says, we, whose work is so often to encourage others in prayer, “do not pray as we ought.” Speaking only for myself, of course.

My prayer life is almost always its most regular and fruitful while I’m on vacation. Sabbatical has proven no different, although the shape of my prayer has changed from stage to stage. For some time leading up to sabbatical and including the first few weeks, I read through the whole Office faithfully each morning using the wonderful resource of Mission St. Clare. I have especially enjoyed knowing that a growing handful of folk from St. David’s use it each day. And yet, I have missed the Prayer Book with its beribboned heft, and found myself packing it, rather than the iPad, for my trips in May to Alaska and then to Ashland.

IMG_0213The Mission St. Clare app depends on good wifi, which has often not been present over much of the past several months. In mid-June, after some rich conversations with colleagues about such matters, I began experimenting with a pared-down version of the Office which allowed me to focus more on the gospel narrative and on prayer. Then, at the last minute while packing in London for the Coast to Coast walk, I jettisoned the Prayer Book, having no room for it in my backpack. Instead, I took with me a leaflet which is always tucked into my journal, of the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families. In Edinburgh, post-Walk, I have been re-united with my Prayer Book and have the sublime luxury of staying in a community which gathers for morning and evening prayer. So for these two weeks, my prayer life runneth over. I wake up and make myself tea and pray the BCP morning office in bed around 6:30 or 7. Then at 9:15, most mornings, I gather with community members for morning prayer from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A liturgy for ordinary radicals. At the end of the day, the community prays evening prayer from the Society of St. Francis, and at bedtime I return to my beloved Daily Devotion for the Close of Day. (“Lord, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name. Do not forsake us, O Lord our God” is one of my favorite scripture passages of all time. Why would anyone end the day with anything else?)

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I mention all of this because this summer I have dined at the smorgasbord of the generous variety of practices and prayer resources within our Anglican tradition. I know some who would say that the Benedictine principle of stability calls us to stick to one form of prayer whether we like it or not. However, it has been both refreshing and important to allow myself–at times of necessity–to avail myself of different practices. (Call it the Ignatian principle of God’s presence in desire, if it’s possible to so drastically mix monastics, mid-blog.)  It will be interesting to see which of these practices continue when I am home, left to my own devices, and returning to that other “office” where I go each day, and where I am relied upon by others as a Woman of Prayer.

I know that many people pray without ceasing, without aid of any written text. You may be one of those people. For me, written, structured prayer…it’s how I roll. I am both grateful for and dependent upon our rich tradition of psalms, lectionary, and prayers handed down through the ages. I appreciate the freedom to dip into it, in all of its fullness, and to acknowledge–if not always respond to–the invitation to go ever deeper.

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Disciples of the Desert Monastic Abba Agathon are said to have asked him: “Among all good works, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort? Abba Agathon answered: “I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey. Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.”

I assume, naively perhaps, that laypeople have a better time of faithful prayer because their consciousness is less cluttered with Episcopocultural “shoulds” about such things.  And yet I have no reason to think that Abba Agathon was talking only about clergy when he described the struggle of prayer. So this question is for anyone reading this post: How goes the battle for you?