The Power of the Psalms

Despite the fact that you will rarely hear a sermon on them, the Psalms are by far the most read book of the Bible within my denomination.  With a few exceptions, in the Daily Office, we read the Psalter through every seven weeks.  In the Book of Common Prayer, the Psalter is still marked for reading them in a thirty day cycle.  Almost every Sunday, a portion of the Psalter is appointed in the Lectionary.  It is a gift that we are able to borrow from our Jewish sisters and brothers their ancient songs of praise, lament, thanksgiving, and wisdom sharing.

As with any set of texts, some speak more to me than others.  I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  Psalm 121 is a go-to for me in challenging times.  Psalms 1, 122, 133, and even the weighty Psalm 22 have all been important to me at times in my life.  Of course, there is Psalm 23, which has almost universally been used at the funerals over which I have presided in my decade plus of ordained ministry.   Psalm 23 has a tendency to show up just when I need it to.  It was there on the week of the Boston Marathon bombing.  There have been several experiencing where I was ministering to someone who was deep in the symptoms of Alzheimers and watched as they mouthed the words of the King James Version of the 23rd Psalm along with me.

This week, as we had to make the Closing the Porch to close our porches to overnight sleeping.  Through tears and hugs, last night we announced to the Cloister Community that it would be the final night they could find shelter in our shelter.  Our ministry with this community isn’t ending, but it is drastically changing, and as I grieve all that is lost in this transition – seeing folks daily, praying for them, sharing coffee and a breakfast – I’m holding on to these words of lament that are also words of hope.  In minutes that seem to last for days where I feel acutely the shadow of death, stuck as I am on Holy Saturday, but I know that in due time, blessings and mercy will find me, and that grace abounds.

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Take your cute lamb and stuff it.

Of course, the reality of grief is that if anyone says that to me right now, I will be hard-pressed not to throat-punch them theologically, but just as those souls wracked with dementia had the 23rd Psalm hard-wired into their bones, it is there, deep within me, sustaining me through what are some pretty painful days.

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Caught Unexpectedly

I’ve long since decided that social media is bad for your health.  Yet, like my love for potato chips, I keep at it.  Day after day.  I scroll through my newsfeeds, filled with anger, arrogance, and vitriol.  It certainly doesn’t bring as much satisfaction as the crisp of a kettle cooked and salted to perfection chip, but addicted as I am, my thumb slides, almost as if uncontrolled by my brain, up, and up, and up.

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At some point, it seemed like I had seen it all.  Obama didn’t do this.  Trump did that.  Hilary and Mitch did this or that.  If I wasn’t addicted to the swipe, I’d certainly be hooked on the anger.  The rage cycle is designed to keep us coming back so that the advertisers can get eyeballs on their links.  I’d probably gotten to the point of ennui, If I’m honest.  I couldn’t get angry one more time.  I couldn’t be sad again.  It was all, in the great biblical euphemism, vanity.  Yet, like a dog to its own vomit, I keep going back.

And then it happened.  I was caught unexpectedly by the image of a mother and who two young children, running away from a grenade of billowing smoke designed to sear the eyes and lungs.  What do I do with this information?  How do I react?  What do I feel?  I had nothing.  I was angry, sad, horrified, and embarrassed all at the same time.  I knew as a leader of a faith community that I was being called to say something, but I had no idea what.  So I posted this:

When words fail, I’m grateful for the wisdom contained in our BCP:‬
‪“Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us…”‬
‪And if you could take away tear gas, that’d be good too.‬
‪Amen.‬

Then, I opened the readings for Sunday and I saw this warning from Jesus, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.”  He is talking about the eschaton here, but I think maybe he’s talking generically as well.  Don’t let that day, or any day, catch you unexpectedly.  There will come times when your faith will lead to you question the world in which you live.  Don’t be weighed down by worry, frivolity, or the swipe of your right thumb.  Don’t be so used to the noise that you miss the cries of the oppressed.  I still don’t know what to do or what to say, but I know that I can still pray.

Almighty God, tear down the walls that separate us, human beings divided and enslaved by sin, and gather us up on the banner of your Son, the Prince of Peace, the King of kings, and the hope of all humanity.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer – Good Book Club Week 3

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In partnership with the Good Book Club, this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question deals with the lesson that we will read on Saturday (Luke 11:1-13): What do we learn from the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples?

Based on the request of Jesus’ disciples, it was not uncommon for a Rabbi to teach his disciples how to pray.  This makes sense, given that each Rabbi, steeped in the tradition of his school, would have different areas of focus.  The same is true, one might say, of Episcopal priests.  If it is true, and I think it is, that each of us only really has three sermons that we say in different ways, over and over again, then it would follow that our prayers and those we invite from our congregations, would fall in line with those areas of interest.

What do we learn from the prayer that Jesus teaches?  We learn his priorities.  By addressing God as Father, Jesus invites us to pray to one whom we know and who knows us deeply.  We hear echos of his first sermon from the scroll of Isaiah.  The Kingdom of God, that place where the blind see and those who are oppressed are set free, is at hand.  We are reminded that throughout history, God has been faithful, offering the sustenance needed for today, with the call to faith that comes with the promise that tomorrow will be the same.  In asking God that we might be forgiven, we are called to repentance, and by suggesting that we might forgive others, we are being called to follow the example of God’s steadfast love (hesed) and peace (shalom).

Finally, by asking God to save us from the time of trial, as my friend Scott Gunn noted in a piece on the Pope’s suggested edit to the Lord’s Prayer, we are naming our dependence upon God, asking that God might be at work in our lives, steering us clear of those things that would lead us from the path of righteousness.  We are, in effect, asking God for the road map to the Kingdom.

I am often asked why Episcopalians say the same things all the time.  Doesn’t it eventually just get said by rote?  Well, unfortunately, it does, but the same temptation exists in the “Father WeJus” model of prayer.  Rather than getting lost in the saying, the Lord’s Prayer, and others like it, that we say with regularity, invites us to dig deep into its meaning, to understand the words we are saying, and to live into the ramifications of our prayer.  In the Lord’s Prayer, we learn that Kingdom Living is a two way street, God provides us plenty of opportunity and grace, but ultimately, we have a part to play in the work of re-creation.


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He Healed Many?

One of the more challenging components of Sunday’s Gospel lesson is how a preacher chooses to handle Jesus’ ministry of healing.  This issue comes up quite often, especially as it pertains to the mass healings that Jesus took part in during his earthly ministry.  These events raise real concerns for those of us who are engaged in pastoral care and believe in the power of prayer.  “Why did Jesus heal so-and-so, but let my child suffer?” is a real and honest question.  One for which there is no answer.

This is made all the more difficult as Biblical scholars make new advancements in understanding the Greek language and its idioms.  The King James Version, Young’s Literal Translation, NRSV, NIV, and even NLT all translate Mark 1:34 with the English word “many.”  “He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…”  This translation is helpful because many doesn’t mean all.  Ergo, we see that even in these mass healing events, Jesus didn’t heal everyone.  There were, presumably, reasons for that.  We have no idea what they are, but we do know that even Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, died again, one day.  Death is batting 1.000.  Always has.  Always will.  (Yes, I’m aware of the mythology surrounding Enoch, Elijah, and Mary.)

What happens when many doesn’t mean many?  There is a shift afoot amongst liturgical scholars to shift the language of the words of institution in the Eucharist away from many and toward all.  Unlike the soft theology around Communion without Baptism, this isn’t being done under the safe blanket of “inclusion” or “hospitality,” but rather, with Biblical scholarship in hand.  In their notes on the changes in Eucharistic Prayers in Enriching our Worship 1, the SCLM elaborates on this shift from “many” to “all.”

The use of “all”… in the institution narrative emphasize that forgives of sins is made available to all through Christ’s sacrifice.  While the Greek word is literally translated “many,” biblical scholars have pointed out that in the context of the passage it means that the sacrifice is made not just for a large number of persons, but for all humanity. (77)

This may not be true in every usage of the word, but it seems reasonable to think it might apply in this case.  Or, if not, it at least raises the question.  If Jesus healed many, couldn’t he have healed all?  There are ways to talk about this that don’t fall into cheap platitudes like “God has a plan.”  Sometimes, it comes down to the difficult discussion of what healing actually looks like.  Isn’t death the ultimate healing?

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I don’t have the answers, but I’m happy to raise the questions.  If you are preaching about Jesus’ healing ministry, how do you plan to handle the challenges it raises?  Will you talk about the differences between many and all?  Are you prepared to engage those whom you will lose in your sermon before the Gospel is done being read?  It is a difficult Sunday to preach, dear reader, and you are in my prayers.

Our Unending Prayer

As I write this post, police are on the scene at yet another school shooting.  This one happens to have occurred in the geographical confines of the Diocese of Kentucky, where I am canonically resident.  I have a friend who graduated from Marshall County High School.  Because of these things, in spite of living in a world that has made me numb to such tragedy, this one feels different.

It won’t take but but few hours before the lives turned upside-down by this act of violence will be traded for political capital.  The sides will line up as they always do, wagging their fingers at the other.  Religious leaders will follow suit.  People will offer thoughts and prayers.  Others will respond by lambasting their thoughts and prayers as hollow.  I fear that we are on the verge of an era in which things are so politicized that as Christians, we forget what a powerful force prayer is.

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I received word of the Marshall County High School shooting while reading the Collect for Epiphany 4.  According to Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, this prayer was originally found in the Gregorian Sacramentary, which means that it is roughly 900 years old.  For 900 years, the people of God have prayed this prayer.  For eleven hundred years of Christian history before that, it can be assured that people prayed that God might grant peace.  Even before the advent of Christ, the Jewish word of greeting to stranger and friend alike was Shalom, a wish for peace and wholeness.  It is our unending prayer.

I agree with Pope Francis who said, “You pray for the hungry and then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”  When we pray for peace, it requires that we are ready to work for it.  This doesn’t mean that we work only so our political agenda can win the day, but rather, we work toward the restoration of all of humanity to right relationship with God and with each other.  It means praying for and working toward a spirit of cooperation, in which our government can make sensible choices around gun control, mental health spending, and law enforcement policy.  It means praying and caring for those who are ostracized and marginalized.  It means sacrifices on our part in order to make the world a safer, healthier, and holier place than it is right now.

Prayer works.  And so, today, I invite us all to add our voices to the unending prayers of the saints who have asked God to bring peace to our world.

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Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Thankfulness Doublecheck

When State Farm signed Aaron Rodgers to be a celebrity endorser, they brought along his touchdown celebration as well.  Rodgers was known to do a championship-belt-wrestler-type move which is now better known for the Discount Doublecheck than it is for the star quarterback’s touchdown dance.  They even did a humorous spoof on his confusion for one of their 30 second ads.

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While I am not a State Farm customer, I do appreciate the doublecheck idea as the downhill slide toward Christmas begins.  With mere hours between Advent 4 and Christmas Eve, Advent 2 means you best be on the ball when it comes to Christmas preparations.  In the world, that means gifts should be purchased, cards mailed, parties planned, and above all, money must be spent.  In the church it means bulletins should be prepared, special music practiced, pageants rehearsed, and above all, money must be spent.  Unfortunately, the differences between how the world and the church celebrate Christmas can be difficult to discern.  The number of faithful Christians who flock to Black Friday sales on the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day are a clear indicator of that.

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Must spend money!!!!

This is why I’m digging the idea of a thankfulness doublecheck as we begin preparations for Advent 3.  In what seems like an oddly timed lesson from 1 Thessalonians, Paul admonishes his readers, and, by extension, us, to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  In the midst of a season predicated on spending money to buy stuff that people don’t need and likely don’t even want, this advice should catch us short.  Advent 3 is a time for a thankfulness doublecheck.

Am I so caught up in the Christmas Industrial Complex that I have forgotten to find joy in the gifts that God has given me?  Am I so busy running around like a chicken with my head cut off getting all my secular plans in place that I’ve forgotten to pray today?  Am I so obsessed with more that I am incapable of being thankful for what I already have?

I’m not trying to be a Scrooge about Christmas, just inviting us to gain some perspective on what this season has become for many.  Rather than it being about stress and debt, Paul invites us to make this Christmas about joy, prayer, and thanksgiving.  Today seems like as good a day as any for a Thanksgiving Doublecheck.  Won’t you join me?

Staying Awake is Prayer and Action

I’ve written so many of these posts over the years that I’m tired.  So tired, in fact, that I contemplated not doing it.  You no doubt noticed that I skipped it yesterday.  I just couldn’t bring myself to write another post about another mass shooting.  I was on vacation the week that Las Vegas happened.  I posted on Facebook, but didn’t have a chance to write anything here.

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But honestly, after Sandy Hook and the Pulse Nightclub, I really thought I had written my last post about people being slaughtered in a place where they should have been safe from the evils of anger, mental illness, domestic violence, and semi-automatic machine guns.  And then Sunday happened, and while the people of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs were saying their prayers, at least 27 of them were killed by an angry white man hellbent on destroying the world as he had come to understand it.

The doors of FBC Sutherland Springs are red, just like the doors of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green and thousands of others around the world.  The red doors can symbolize many things, from a mortgage free church to a welcoming congregation, but if you ask around, you are most likely to hear that it means a place of sanctuary.  Soldiers and law enforcement, it is said, are unable to pursue someone inside the red doors of a church.  It is supposed to be a place of safety.  While harm has come to worshipers inside the safety of the red doors before, this time, we have a 24 hour news cycle and social media to ensure that every person on the planet knows that it happened.  And, as if like clockwork, the various sides began to circle their wagons.

As has been a growing trend of late, the zero sum game between those who would offer prayer and those who would work for change has come to the forefront in the aftermath of Sunday’s tragedy.  It has become as if praying for the victims of such events is now offensive while only those who are actively working for reasonable gun control are real disciples of Jesus.  This is, of course, absurd.  The zero sum game between prayer and work is a falsehood, most likely handed to us by the devil himself, to make sure Christians continue to present in the wider culture as angry, ill mannered, and hypocritical.

Sunday’s Gospel lesson invites us to consider that famous seminary phrase, “both/and.”  In the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven.  In it, Jesus seemingly admonishes his disciples to not be like either set of bridesmaids, since they all fell asleep, but rather, we are called to keep awake for the return of the bridegroom.  For those who know the larger story, this will immediately bring to mind the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night Jesus was arrested.  Despite Jesus imploring them to keep awake and pray with him, they fell asleep.  Three times, they failed to stay awake.

In times like these, disciples of Jesus are certainly called to stay awake and pray, but I think we are also called to the obvious meaning of the parable as well.  In order to be like the wise bridesmaids, we are called to do the work required to be ready when Jesus comes.  That work of preparation means working toward just solutions on topics like common sense gun control, funding for mental health, social safety nets, and quality public education.  Can we just pray?  Probably not.  Can we just call our Senators?  No, that won’t work either.  It is only through both prayer and work that we will be able to join with God in building the Kingdom Jesus describes in his parables.