What is your Reward?

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Every school day at 6:30 AM, I trudge up the stairs to make sure Eliza and Lainey are starting to wake up.  Yesterday, I had more of a lilt in my step as I came through the bedroom door smiling and saying, “Happy Pancake Day!”  They were a bit confused by my excitement, and weren’t quite sure what to make of Pancake Day.  We chatted for a moment about Shrove Tuesday and the practice, at least in the Episcopal Church, of eating pancakes before the beginning of Lent.  I realized in the course of that conversation that I’ve probably eaten pancakes on Shrove Tuesday for each of the last 36 years.  While our girls have been doing it since birth, for them, these habits are still rather new, and in a lot of ways, foreign.

I had a similar experience about two weeks ago when I invited Vonda, our Parish Administrator, to join me for the burning of the palms.  Vonda didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, and so, much of what we do around here – from albs, cinctures, stoles, and chasubles, to Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the Easter Triduum – are brand new to her.  We talked a bit about the ways in which the liturgical actions of Palm Sunday help us remember Jesus’ last week, from marching up 12th Avenue waving palm fronds shouting “Hosanna!” to hearing the Passion and crying out “Crucify him!”  I shared with her how we save those palms each year to be burned and ground into ashes that, on Ash Wednesday, get smeared across our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and a symbol of our penitence – an outward and visible sign of our need for forgiveness and God’s deep desire to forgive.

It is easy, especially for me as a clergy person, to get so used to these symbols and events that I forget what they are really meant to be about.  I can get so caught up in the details of a printer that is acting up, palms that need to be burned, and new fronds that need to be ordered, that the whole season of Lent can turn into one long to-do list.  Before I know it, a season that is meant to be set aside for the intentional work of holiness can just become another season of busy work.  I imagine that clergy aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to this condition.  Cultural LentÔ, with its 2 for six-dollar fast food fish sandwiches and giving-up-chocolate, can become so routine that it loses all of its depth of meaning.

I think this might be what Jesus was on to when he admonished his disciples to beware of practicing their personal piety before others.  To Jesus’ mind, the regular practices of the faithful had become so monotonous as to have lost all real meaning.  Giving alms, prayer, and fasting, the three-legged stool of spirituality for the faithful Jew had become, for some, nothing more than a chance to show off.  Going to the Synagogue was, for some, merely a chance to get their ticket punched, to go through the motions required by the law, and then to go back out into the world as if nothing had really changed.  “When you approach the throne of God just so others will see you, being seen is all the reward you will get,” Jesus says, “But, if you approach the throne of God with humility, penitence, and the desire to be changed, then God, who sees in secret, will reward you with a depth of relationship that is beyond even your wildest imagination.”

In just a minute, Mother Becca will invite us, on behalf of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  She will ask us all to take on intentional practices of self-examination, self-denial, and prayer.  As a symbol of our accepting that invitation, an ashen cross will be marked upon our foreheads, not so that everyone can see that we got our Ash Wednesday merit badges, but so that, when you see yourself in the mirror later today, you might remember that the season of Lent is meant to change you.  The practices you take on this season, those done in public and those done in secret, are meant to bring you into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship with God who, Lent also reminds us, sent God the Son into the world, who taught and lived a life of love, compassion, and grace, who was betrayed by one of his closest friends, condemned to death in a sham trial, crucified on a trash heap, died an excruciating death, and was hastily buried in shame on the eve of the sabbath.

The work of a holy Lent is not easy work, but it is of great reward to those who engage it with integrity.  Whether this is your first or your ninety-first Ash Wednesday, I hope you will heed the invitation and spend these next forty days engaging in the practices of holiness and preparing yourself, your body and soul, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for the indwelling of the Kingdom of God, and for the resurrection life to which God invites us all.  May your Father who sees in secret reward you richly with grace and mercy this Lent.  Amen.

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A collect for our times

On Sunday morning in Episcopal Churches around the world, celebrants, on behalf of their congregations, will ask God “the author and giver of all good things” to, of all things, “increase in us true religion.”

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Religion is a rather unpopular word these days.  According to the good folks at Pew Research, “The phrase “spiritual but not religious” [SBNR] has become widely used in recent years by some Americans who are trying to describe their religious identity. While Pew Research Center does not categorize survey respondents in such a way, our surveys do find that the U.S. public overall appears to be growing a bit less religious – but also somewhat more spiritual.”  If this really is the case, then why would we pray such an outdated prayer?

Marion Hatchett tells us that this Collect is first found in the Gelasian sacramentary from roughly 750.  During the English Reformation, it took on new life when Thomas Cranmer edited it to ask God not merely for an increase in religion, but an increase in true religion (Commentary, 191). This made all sorts of sense in the 1540s and 50s as the English Continent was at war because of the perceived flaws in the religious practices of the Bishop of Rome as opposed to the true religion of the Reformers.  As years went by, however, the tendency to associate religion with action waned, and as Diana Butler Bass notes in her Christianity After Religion, by the 17th century, religion was more about a system of ideas and beliefs about God, such that by “modern times, religion became indistinguishable from systematizing ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorized, organized, objectified, and divided people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, “us” versus “them” (97).  If this really is the case, then why would we pray such an outdated prayer?

Continuing with Butler Bass, I would like to suggest that this prayer is, in fact, not outdated, but rather a perfect collect for our times as we redefine what it means to be religious away from a  system of beliefs, but a way of living one’s life in devotion to God.  Drawing on the work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith in his 1962 Book The Meaning and End of Relgion, Butler Bass suggests that in contrast to the modern understanding of religion, the Latin root, religio, actually refers to “faith – living, subjective experience including love, veneration, devotion, awe, worship, transcendence, trust, a way of life, an attitude toward the divine or nature, or… a particular way of seeing and feeling the world.”  If, on Sunday morning, we are praying not for our particular set of ideas to be better than the ideas of the Baptists or the Lutherans, but instead for an increase in awe, worship, and trust in God who calls us to a particular way of seeing and feeling the world, then sign me up.  In fact, I’d bet we could get a lot of SBNRs to join us in that prayer.  It is, I would argue, the perfect collect for our times.

Thin Places

Modern day mystics, as well as plenty who wish they were, are fond of using the term “Thin Places” to speak about places on earth where it feels like the boundary between earth and heaven has faded away.  The term is often used to describe retreat experiences like those available on the Island of Iona, at Taize, or even at our own Beckwith Camp and Retreat Center.  I’m not a fan of the term, per se, but I understand its meaning.  There have been several places in my life where I’ve been aware of the boundary between heaven and earth has faded away: in the 1881 Immanuel Chapel at VTS, at my ordination at Saint Thomas’ Church in Lancaster, and standing behind the altar at Saint Paul’s in Foley; to name but a few examples.  The truth of the matter is that one need not travel to a far away place to experience a thin place, but rather, one simply needs to be open and receptive to the Spirit of God at work in the world.

This term, “Thin Places” came to mind this morning for a very different reason, however.  It came as I read the Propers for the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord in Year B.  Talk about a thin place, there seems to be little, if any, real meat in these lessons.  They beg for the preacher to thrown caution to the wind and dive headlong into a dense theological treatise on the Trinity (Gen 1:1-5), Baptism by the Spirit (Acts 19:1-7), or the role of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4-11).  I beg you, dear reader, please don’t try to make a Thin Place thick this week.  Instead, maybe you could engage the thin place, be open and receptive to the Spirit of God at work in you, and preach about that.

Sometimes the process of writing the sermon is the sermon itself.  Sometimes the prayerful study, the wrestling with the words, the agonized listening for God is the word our people need to hear the most.  The Collect for the First Sunday after the Epiphany has us asking for God’s help to “boldly confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”  Maybe more than any theological ruminations on the nature of baptism, our people need to hear what that looks like in real life: how confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior is about more than paying him lip service, but about every thing we do; how when we live our lives for Christ, everywhere we go becomes a Thin Place, an opportunity to bring heaven to earth; and most especially, about how unbelievably hard it is to live that way, unless we’re tapped into the Spirit and open to God’s grace and favor.

It is a tough preaching week, and thankfully I won’t have to do it, but I am praying for you, dear reader.  May your find your sermon prep to be a Thin Place, where the boundary between heaven and earth simply slips away.

Hildegard of Bingen – a homily

Today the Church remembers Hildegard of Bingen, a nun, a theologian, a composer, a playwright, a healer, and one of the preeminent mystics in Christian history.  Conveniently for me, we will also be discussing Hildegard at Draughting Theology this evening, so I only have to study one saint this week, and I’m glad for that because Hildegard’s life would take a lifetime comprehend.  Faithful to her homework, Barbara G. asked me on Monday night about this term, mystic.  She said she had tried to look up its meaning, but was left more confused than when she started.  She’s not alone.  Evelyn Underhill, arguably the greatest scholar of mysticism ever, wrote in her book Practical Mysticism that when she is asked “What is mysticism?” she’ll often point people to “the writings of the mystics themselves, and to other works in which this question appears to be answered and they reply that such books are wholly incomprehensible to them.”[1]  She also notes that there are plenty of “self-appointed apostles who are eager to answer this question in many strange and inconsistent ways, calculated to increase rather than resolve the obscurity… The asker will learn that mysticism is a philosophy, an illusion, a kind of religion, a disease; that it means having vision, performing conjuring tricks, leading idle, dreamy, and selfish life, neglecting one’s business, wallowing in vague spiritual emotions, and being ‘in tune with the infinite.’  He will discover that it emancipates him from all dogmas –sometimes from all morality – and at the same time that it is very superstitious.”[2]  Finally, she does her best to define mysticism as “the art of union with Reality [capital R].”[3]  I was pretty unsatisfied with that definition until I went back to the lessons appointed for the Feast of Hildegard and realized that perhaps John 3:16 and 17 makes it all make sense.

At first blush, “union with Reality [capital R]” is about as ethereal a definition there is, but it is, in some way like the fascination with John 3:16.  “For God so love the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  Microsoft Word tells me that that’s not even a sentence.  This fragment starts with a conjunction and ends with eternal life, and spends all of its time up in the clouds.  We love the idea of God sending his Son.  We think eternal life is pretty great.   But we honestly have no idea what it means.  Kind of like seeking “union with Reality [capital R].”

And yet, as we learn more about the life of Hildegard of Bingen, we realize that while she was prone to visions and spent almost all of her 81 years living in a Monastery, she was, in reality [lowercase r] not a head in the clouds sort of person.  Hildegard was very much interested in the nitty gritty of everyday life.  She wrote two books on the pharmacology of plants.  She studied natural science.  She wrote music and plays and helped women deal with women’s health issues.  She was as interested in the dirt of the earth as she was with the clouds of heaven.  For all the whispyness of John 3:16, true mysticism always couples it with verse 17.  After all, Reality (capital R) is about those things that are really real.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Mysticism isn’t about removal from the earth, but about Reality [capital R] that is the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Some of you may be mystics.  I know that I am not, but I’m thankful for the witness of Hildegard of Bingen who reminds me that faith in Jesus Christ isn’t just about the great beyond, but it calls us to live abundant lives here in the nitty gritty of the everyday.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] P. 5

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Post No. 1,500!

According to the good people at WordPress, this post is number 1,500 in the life of Draughting Theology.  Somehow, over the course of the last seven years and four months, I’ve found 1,500 things to write about.  Thanks be to God that the Scriptures are living and active so that there is always something new to say about God’s ongoing self-revelation in and with and through each of us.

I realized this feat late yesterday afternoon and asked my Facebook friends if they had any suggestions for the big post.  Mostly, they were smart alecks, suggesting topics they knew would get me riled up, but I’ve decided to address all of their challenges quickly today before moving on to a more serious post.

  • Thoughts on the Oxford Movement? – In its original intent as a holiness revival with the Church of England, I can find not fault with the Oxford Movement, but as is always the case, the second and third generation took it to an extreme that its founders probably never imagined.  So Oxford Movement – generally good.  2nd Generation Ritualism – bad.
  • Low Churchman’s Guide to Anglicanism – Read the 1549 Prayer Book and notice what Cranmer was trying to do before the influences of the mainland ruined the 1552 iteration.
  • 1,500 more – I will with God’s help.
  • Free Will or whether pets go to heaven – nope, not gonna get sucked in.
  • Video Blog – I don’t like the sound of my own voice on our sermon podcasts, ain’t no way I’m gonna video tape myself.
  • A Satirical High Churchman’s guide to the low church celebration of communion – that would be fun, but the target market is quite small.
  • Scrabble – it goes with the header – A little known fact about me is that I was a member of the Scrabble Club in High School.  I was terrible at it then and still am now, but it was as silly a club as any for all of my friends to sign up for en masse.
  • 24 hours of glory and praise in the middle of the muck – leave it to my Rector to offer a serious challenge, I’ll come back to this in a moment.
  • When are you going to write your *expletive* book – I’m guessing never, I just don’t see anyone paying to read what I have to say.  The truth of the matter is that I would write this blog even if nobody read it.  It has become a part of my spiritual discipline.  When I miss my four posts a week, as I’ve done often recently, I notice it.  Life isn’t the same if I’m not engaged in reading and writing on the Scriptures.  I’m doubly blessed that a handful of you read this thing each day, that you keep me accountable to write, and that you pray for me when I’m absent.  Thank you.

Now, back to TKT’s challenge: 24 hours of glory and praise in the middle of the muck.  I feel like maybe this is how I can begin to understand how Jesus would be so bold as to leave the 99 behind in order to find one lost sheep.  Every time my phone has rung recently it has been either bad news or an expensive fix or both.  Moving in to a brand new house should have been a joyful experience, but instead it has been one headache after another.  So today, thanks to Keith’s challenge, I’m leaving the 99 problems behind to seek after that one bit of good news: God loves me and cares for me and is walking with me.  Who knows, by the end of today, maybe heaven will rejoice as I once again turn from my sin of worry and stress and frustration and self-centeredness and return to the fold of God’s presence.  It all starts with thanksgiving.

So thank you dear reader for being a part of my life.

Proverbial Jesus

Given the choice, I’d probably preach one of Jesus’ parables nine times out of ten.  I find trying to cobble a sermon together using narrative and duct tape to be the bane of my homilectal life.  Worse yet, a story like we find for Proper 17, year C, when Jesus gets all… proverbial.  It’d be so much better if the story of banquet seating is a parable of the Kingdom, but alas, it is just Jesus playing the role of Emily Post.

As Luke tells the story, Jesus has been invited to a fancy dinner at the home of a Synagogue leader.  As one does, Jesus begins his evening by people watching: he takes note of who people talk to and who they avoid; he noticed who opted for top shelf drinks and who is more a beer-in-a-napkin sort of person; he watched the awkward middle-school-lunch-room-esque search for the perfect place to sit.  And then he just opened his mouth and spoke.  Plainly.  Mater of factly.  Almost in a pithy way, Jesus took the crowd to school by way of what almost feels like a proverb.

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

What strikes me most in this lesson is the motivation Jesus gives.  Don’t take the best seat, he says, because you might be disgraced when you are asked to move.  Conversely, he suggests that one should take the lowest seat so that you might be honored by being invited to a better spot.  Really?  Is this the motivation Jesus wants us to have?

I really struggle with this lesson.  I’m hoping that maybe somebody out there can help me with this one.

The Posture of Worship

New in the Pew (c) 2007 The Church Pension Group

This cartoon hangs behind me in my office, and it came to mind every time I read through the Gospel lesson for Sunday.  I can’t get out of my mind how the change in posture of the woman bent double changed everything about how she saw the world, but most especially, how she approached the Lord her God in worship.

Luke tells us that when she finally stood straight, for the first time in 18 years, her reaction was to praise God.  Liturgically, this makes sense since standing is the traditional posture of praise.  For 18 years, the woman was bound to a posture of reverence and penitence, but on this day, she was able to stand up straight and claim the fullness of who God made her to be.

In The Episcopal Church, we do all sorts of stuff with posture: Episcopal calisthenics, we call it; but do we give any real thought to how our  posture affects our relationship with God?