God is here

One of the things that I love the most about being an Episcopalian is the rhythm of our liturgical life.  People often ask me how I don’t get bored doing the same thing day after day, week after week, but to be honest, I love the repetition.  Saying the Lord’s Prayer again and again is calming to me.  Hearing the familiar words of the Eucharistic Prayers makes me feel at home.  I can’t wait until the day we get to say them together again.  I am certain I’m not the only one who feels this way.  Over years and decades and the course of a lifetime, these ritual actions, repeated again and again, eventually write themselves in our minds and on our hearts – they become imprinted on our bones.

I learned this truth during my first summer of seminary.  One of my responsibilities during that summer of Clinical Pastoral Education was a rotation with the hospice program at a large tiered-care retirement facility.  My hospice patient was a woman who lived in the memory care wing.  The first time I went to visit her, I found her sitting on one of the couches, dressed to the nines, ready to welcome a guest into her home.  To her, the year wasn’t 2005, but 1945.  I wasn’t a chaplaincy student coming by to pray with her, but a gentlemen suitor there to take her out on a date.  We talked and laughed, and I enjoyed our time together.  As the summer went on, her condition deteriorated rapidly.  Eventually, my visits took place in her room, where she rested in a hospital bed.  As the end drew near, my colleague Peter and I took to praying and reading the Bible out loud to her.  I can still remember the moment, as I began to read the King James version of Psalm 23, when I saw her lips move.  I couldn’t hear anything, her voice was too weak, but I watched as she recited every word of the Psalm right alongside me.  She couldn’t remember her family, her own name, or even how to eat, but these ancient words of praise in the midst of anxiety and hardship were written down deep within her.

The 23rd Psalm seems to know when we need it.  It was the Psalm appointed for the Sunday after the Boston Marathon bombing and the chaotic week that followed.  It has appeared in the Lectionary during particularly trying weeks in my personal faith journey.  It is always there at the time of death.  The 23rd Psalm shows up in moments of hope and joy as well.  It was the Psalm appointed for the feast day of Mother Becca’s ordination to the priesthood, a day we weren’t quite sure would happen in the midst of what she now calls “Not Cancer.”  The 23rd Psalm is versatile.  It is able to carry some heavy burdens, and I am particularly grateful that it was assigned for us to pray through today.

On this our second of what will be quite a few Sundays of “Church at Home,” after ten straight days of new guidance, new rules, and short-lived new normals, I needed the comfort of “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  As the news continues to remind us that no one is exempt from the “valley of the shadow of death,” I’m finding a new and deep appreciation for the “still waters.”  As the need to come up with answers to questions I never dreamed of asking has threatened to overwhelm me, I am comforted by the promise of God’s cup that overflows.

The most profound lesson that Psalm 23 has taught me this week came as I scrambled to find some words to say to you on Thursday afternoon.  Sitting next the water heater in my basement tool-room-slash-office, with the washing machine rumbling nearby, I pulled up my go-to preaching resources.  There, on WorkingPracher.org was a post on Psalm 23 that cited James Limberg, Old Testament Professor Emeritus at Luther Seminary.  Professor Limberg noted that in the Hebrew version of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty-six words before and after the phrase translated as “thou art with me.”[1]  Smack dab in the middle of this Psalm of comfort, the poet embedded our deepest truth, God is here.  In the midst of anxiety, disruption, pain, and fear – God is there.  In the midst of joy, laughter, excitement, and ease – God is there. God is always in the very middle of it all.

We hear the same message in our Gospel lesson for this morning.  In the middle of the mess, God, in the person of Jesus, is there.  In the middle of a debate over whether someone’s infirmity was the result of sin, Jesus was there, not to settle the argument, but to show how misguided it was.  The man born blind’s problem wasn’t that he was blind.  His most immediate problem was the bigotry and toxic theology that kept people from reaching out to him in love.  So, Jesus stepped into the middle, got his hands literally dirty and figuratively unclean, and violated the laws of the Sabbath to heal the man.  When the debate shifted and the man, momentarily restored to community, was once more exiled from his family and Synagogue, Jesus showed up again, this time to welcome him into relationship with the Savior of the world.  No form of disconnection is beyond God’s capacity to show up and be present to us in our need.

In a Pastoral Directive issued on Friday, Bishop White called for the suspension of all in-person gatherings until further notice.  The Bishop went on to say that we should be prepared for this to be our reality through the end of May.  That’s a really long time to be apart from one another.  For those of us who aren’t tech savvy and can’t livestream a worship service, who can’t feel connected when they see the likes, hearts, and comments coming up in real time, the distance and isolation from your church family can feel overwhelming.  Even at home, surrounded by my own family, there have been moments this week when I have felt like the man born blind, all alone as the world swirls around me.  Thankfully, those moments haven’t lasted too long, and I’ve been able to remember, with regularity, that God is here, right smack dab in the middle of it all.

Isolation is hard, even if it is what we need in this moment, but isolation doesn’t mean you are all alone.  God is here.  God is right there in your living room, and in this moment, the Church has a unique opportunity to be there as well.  I believe that we are being called to take our role as the Body of Christ more seriously than ever, and to be right in the middle of the messiness.  Committed to fulfilling our mission in new and different ways, Christ Church will be present with you, even in our isolation.  The Staff and Vestry have divvied up a call list, and will be checking in with every member of the congregation weekly to make sure we stay connected.  We will continue to offer worship online for those who can connect, and we are developing ways for all of us to worship God, to learn and grow, and to radiate God’s love, even as we are stuck in our houses, especially during the Holy Week to come.

Thankfully, our liturgical tradition means many of you have some go-to prayers already written on your hearts and in your bones.  You can connect with the ever-present God anywhere and anytime, but in this time of isolation, as the Body of Christ in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Christ Episcopal Church is with you.  The waters won’t always be still.  The pastures won’t always be green.  But the Lord, the Good Shepherd, the Comforter, and Christ’s Church will continue to be with you this day and always.  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4385

A comfort in perplexity

the-annunciation-contemporary-religious-art-1-1

The Annunciation by Liviu Dumitrescu

Among the many prayers that are said during The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage in the Episcopal tradition, this one came to mind as I read the familiar story of the Annunciation: “Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.”  The word “perplex” is not one that gets a lot of use these days, and it is a word for which very few of us have a working definition.  It means something deeper than confusion.  To be perplexed is to be totally knocked off kilter by something; to be completely baffled, mystified, and thrown off balance.

In the marriage rite, this word makes sense because life will inevitably throw us off balance.  When entering into a covenant to share life with another human being, it must be assumed that there will be moments when one or the other or both of you will find yourself in a state of perplexity, needing desperately someone to come alongside and help you find your footing.  It might come in the doctor’s office, the boardroom, or by way of a phone call in the middle of the night, but it seems likely that for everyone, a moment of perplexity will come.  So, we pray that the couple might serve the other in those moments as a counselor, one who will offer wisdom beyond the immediate circumstances of life, in order to rebuild the foundations that are crumbling.

While I think that role of counselor is important, and I get that the author of this prayer needed comfort for the antithesis of sorrow, I really think the best role any of us can take on during someone else’s perplexing time is that of comforter, and I think the angel Gabriel is the archetype of a comforter in perplexity.  The Greek word translated as “perplexed” carries within it even deeper meanings of fear and upset.  Mary wasn’t just confused by the reality of an angel standing in her room telling her that she is favored and that the Lord is with her, but she is downright scared, anxious, confused, and totally taken aback.

Rather than working to counsel Mary by offering her suggestions as to how she might overcome her state of perplexity, Gabriel takes on the mantel of comforter with the words that angels always bring to those to whom they are made manifest, “Don’t be afraid.”  He then calls her by name, an uncommon occurrence for women in the Scriptures.  There is something reassuring about hearing one’s name be said aloud.  In calling her Mary, Gabriel assures this young bride-to-be that she is seen and valued.  Even as she feels the ground crumbling around her, Gabriel assured Mary that her core identity is secure.  She is, and will always be, even as she will soon become the Theotokos.  Gabriel then reiterates her state of blessedness, being favored by God. Literally, Gabriel says that she has been found in the grace of God.

Life can be perplexing at times.  It is good to have close companions who can serve as a source of God’s comfort in those moments, and it is a holy assignment to be asked to be a comforter in perplexity.

Words of Comfort

We have done a lot of damage to the words of the Church.  Evangelism now conjures up images of firey preachers with megaphones, yelling about the damnation of all who disagree with them.  Grace is this cloyingly sweet concept that God’s love for creation means we can do whatever we want, with impunity.  Come to think of it, we’ve done similar damage to the first amendment to the United States Constitution, but I digress.  Perhaps the most violence beset upon a churchy word in 21st century America has been inflicted upon the word prophet.  Both sides, if there is such a thing, have used this word to assert their authority over the other.  On the left, there are plenty of self-proclaimed prophets willing to decry everything the Republican Party says and does.  On the right, similarly self-proclaimed prophets are quick to get up in arms about whatever bleeding heart liberals might be fighting for.  Neither, it would seem, quite have it.

A prophet is never, and can never, be self-proclaimed.  God always appoints the prophets because what makes a prophet isn’t opinions or motives or prognostactive ability.  What makes a prophet a prophet is that they serve as the mouth piece of God.  Sometimes, those words can be harsh.  In today’s Daily Office lesson from Amos, we hear God’s word of judgment and subsequent punishment.  Other times, the word a prophet is called to bring is a word of comfort and hope.  This is the case in the Old Testament Lesson for Advent 2B.  After a period of punishment and exile, the time has come for the fortunes of Israel to be restored.  God, speaking to the angelic council, allows the prophet to overhear this word of salvation and restoration.

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
double for all her sins.

Maybe it is the forty-three weeks of apocalyptic parables we’ve heard of late, but I feel ready for a word of hope; a message of comfort.  Perhaps I’m projecting, but I feel like we might all be in need of a prophetic word of consolation.

Every three years, when Isaiah 40 comes around on Advent 2, I’m grateful for its words of comfort and for my friend John Talbert, who took these words, paraphrased in Hymn 67 of our Hymnal, and performed them beautifully.  As the week begins, with two funerals headed our way, you’ll find me listening to John’s version of “Comfort, comfort ye my people” on repeat, giving thanks for a prophetic oracle of consolation and hope.

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People from John Talbert on Vimeo.

 

Comfort, Comfort ye my people

The Advent/Christmas season is always a tumultuous time.  There are seemingly never ending demands on our time.  There is the grief that comes as we remember those who are no longer with us.  There is the stress of buying the perfect gift and the right price on the right credit card for maximum point accumulation.  There is the December cold and flu season staring down each of us.  And there is, of course, the slow and steady plummet toward the darkest night on December 21st.  What was once a season of hope and joy, has, thanks to our 21st century appetites for consumption, become a season of anxiety and stress.

The readings for the season of Advent could be seen as adding to the problem, and God knows I’ve been critical of them over the years, but this particular year, on this particular day, I’m thankful for the inclusion of Isaiah 40 in the Propers for Advent 2, Year B.  Those opening words of God to the prophet, his command that Isaiah be about the work of comfort is working to ease my discomfort this morning.  I can sense God inviting me into his presence and the peace which surpasses all understanding.  Even the voice crying out in the wilderness is not a voice of judgement to me this year, but a voice of calm.  “Prepare the way of the Lord” in the context of Isaiah 40 is preparation to be enveloped in God’s loving embrace, an invitation to be loved by God whose very nature is love.

I’m thankful for this invitation this year.  And I’m thankful to my friend, John Talbert, for his beautiful take on one of only two Advent hymns I consider worth singing, “Comfort, comfort ye my people.”

Comfort, Comfort Ye My People from John Talbert on Vimeo.