Monday, November 30, 2015

"Good Lord Deliver Us:" The Blessings of the Great Litany

Originally published in The Living Church, 22 Mar. 2015.

Just after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, the students and faculty at General Seminary in Manhattan gathered in the chapel. The seminary is less than a ten-minute drive north of Ground Zero, and for the students and faculty it was a moment of great confusion, anxiety, and fear. The Rev. Teresa Daniely, now an Episcopal priest, was in her first week of studies at General that day. “I did not know if I would live through that day; I assumed that I would not,” she wrote in 2010 for the Grace Prayer Network’s weblog ( “We got on our knees and prayed the Great Litany, a series of prayers that includes prayers of confession and prayers in preparation for death.

On that day, when the world seemed to be falling apart, the people of General Seminary found in the Litany the only fitting words for their deepest anxiety and hope. They were in good company. The Litany is a text forged out of tragedy. The eruptions of fourth-century volcanoes, the perils of the Black Death, and wars of the 16th century all left a mark on its historical development. It is a text that speaks to pastoral need, the Church’s gift for times of crisis. When you do not know how else to pray, there is always the Litany.

Drugs or 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.”  St. Luke 21:34

I’d been asked to give the prayer for the Law Day ceremony.  This was an annual event in the little town where I last served, a gathering of the County Bar Association in the chamber of our handsome Victorian Courthouse.  They’d recognize new lawyers, remember those who had died.  There was a prayer and then an address, presented this year by Judge Burns, long respected on the bench, looking the quintessence of judicial dignity in his long black robes.

I was expecting something suitably grand and rhetorical on the meaning of law, liberally sprinkled with quotations from the Constitution and Blackstone’s Commentaries.  But Judge Burns told us instead about a pending crisis.  Cheap heroin was beginning to flood into our rural community.  The police aren’t equipped to handle it, he said.  We don’t have nearly enough treatment facilities.  Petty crime is going to go through the roof.  We’re going to see overdoses among the young, a whole new class of people incapable of holding jobs and participating in civic life. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Are we done with the '79 Prayer Book?

Reblogged from Covenant.

After twenty years of pastoral use, we have discovered that, like all its predecessors, it is not a perfect book and could stand some general improvement in some fairly critical places. But I believe the Church has other mission imperatives that require its energy and attention at the present time …. We are nowhere near being finished with what this book is calling us to do. For a variety of reasons, I suspect that most of the Episcopal Church is neither ready to abandon the 1979 prayer book nor willing to commit the time and resources required to replace it. — Neil Alexander, Leaps and Boundaries, pp. 183-184

The Episcopal Church was different in 1997, when these words were penned by Neil Alexander, then a professor of liturgics and preaching at General Theological Seminary. Average Sunday attendance across the church was over a third higher. We had more dioceses, seminaries, and central boards and agencies. There were no Millennium Development Goals. There was a great deal less anxiety about the future. And the cross-marked volume in the pews was still known, fairly universally, as “the new prayer book.”

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ecclesiastes 9:11

"Which leads to a chance exchange of text messages with Yuval Levin, the conservative editor, writer and political theorist, that I realized was the best possible preparation for Thanksgiving.
I was fact checking his age for a book I've written on American conservatism in which he plays a key role.  When Levin told me he was 38, I noted that he had enjoyed a lot of early success.  He replied that "luck and chance go a long way," and then he offered this: "Ecclesiastes 9:11 should be stamped on luxury cars and Harvard degrees."..
The passage Levin cited reads as follows in the New International Version of the Bible: "I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all."...
Gratitude requires the swift, the strong, the wise, the wealthy, the brilliant and the learned (or those whom the world recognizes as such) to beware of their temptation to arrogance.
No matter how hard we might have toiled or how much we might have struggled, the bounty we enjoy is inescapably linked to unearned blessings."
E. J. Dionne, The Discipline of Gratitude.  The Washington Post. 26 Nov. 2015, A27

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

For Meditation: Anger born of love

“Anger does not characterize the Father in any essential way. His anger, like any human parent’s anger, is born of love. It is frustrating in the extreme to see your children hurt themselves and others. Moreover, kindly Jesus displays this anger too. ..Among other examples we might select, the most famous instance of Jesus’ anger is the overturning of the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple (Matt. 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, John 2). The moneychangers may be doing essential work, but they are sitting in the Court of the Gentiles and impeding the power of Temple worship to draw in the outsider. They are sitting in the way of God’s love. But the Father doesn’t give up his Son because he is angry with the world. Jesus doesn’t go the Cross full of rage.  God’s anger (in the Old Testament and New Testament alike) is never the byproduct of fear and loneliness. But mine usually is.”

Andrew Petiprin, “I’m Mad as Hell.”  Covenant 25 Nov. 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

For Meditation: Feelings for holy men in winter

“Such is the frame of mind which befits the end of the year; and such the frame of mind which comes alike on good and bad at the end of life. The days have come in which they have no pleasure; yet they would hardly be young again, could they be so by wishing it. Life is well enough in its way; but it does not satisfy. Thus the soul is cast forward upon the future, and in proportion as its conscience is clear and its perception keen and true, does it rejoice solemnly that “the night is far spent, the day is at hand,” that there are “new heavens and a new earth” to come, though the former are failing; nay, rather that, because they are failing, it will “soon see the King in His beauty,” and “behold the land which is very far off.” These are feelings for holy men in winter and in age, waiting, in some dejection perhaps, but with comfort on the whole, and calmly though earnestly, for the Advent of Christ.”

J. H. Newman, quoted in Will Brown’s “The Deterioration ofNature: On the Running Out of Time.”  Covenant.  24 Nov. 2015

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ponder: What will they hear?

"We cannot forget our brothers and sisters in peril.  And we cannot seal ourselves off from our mission field.  An entire generation of those fleeing genocide will be asking whether there is an alternative to the toxic religion they've seen,  Will they hear from evangelicals, "Jesus loves you," or will they hear from us, "Who then is my neighbor?"  There are massive implications to both answers.
Russell Moore, "We Need to Improve Security and Show Compassion."  The Washington Post.  21 Nov. 2015, B2

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Ponder: A Half-Life for Grief?

"For four hours, then five, then six, they trended Twitter hashtags like #Porte-Ouverte and #PrayforParish.  They laid French flags over their Facebook photos and shared images by artists like Jean Jullien.  And just as quickly, their posts reverted: back to quips about sports teams, viral videos, pictures with friends--now posted by little avatars striped in the French blue, white and red.

These posts feel somehow inappropriate--indecorous, somehow.  As if their very posters were telling jokes at a very somber funeral.  The world must move on, of course; no one's saying it shouldn't...Still it makes one wonder; Is there a half-life to grief?  And has the Internet shortened it, as it has all other things...

Maybe this "works," quote-unquote, in daily life: There's nothing inherently life-or-death in the Internet's weird time compressions, nothing wrong with 15 minutes of fame shrinking to something much smaller.  But after a tragedy like the one in Paris, we need time for sustained, contemplative thought.  And there is no time for anything, ever - the Internet moves on."

Caitlin Dewey, "Is Our Passage Through Grief Just One More Thing the Internet has Shortened?"  The Washington Post 21 Nov. 2015, E2

Friday, November 20, 2015

For Meditation: No such thing as love without risk

Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. When a legal scholar asked him who counts as a “neighbor,” Jesus did not answer but instead told a story about senseless attackers, a helpless victim, callous leaders, and a good Samaritan. Then he asked, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Basically, when the man asked, “Which people do I have to love?” Jesus rejected the question. It is not up to us to discern who to love. We are to love indiscriminately, not asking whether our beloved deserves our attention and assistance. We are to love universally, not allowing differences in ethnicity or religion to become barriers to compassion. We are to love dangerously, making ourselves vulnerable to betrayal, misunderstanding, and perhaps even death. Don’t forget that the Samaritan offered to pay the wounded man’s hospital bills, not knowing in advance what kind of commitment that would be. He did not interrogate the victim to make sure he was trustworthy, nor did he stop to calculate the cost of mercy. He loved, knowing full well that there is no such thing as love without risk.
Russell Johnson, from Facebook, 20 Nov. 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

For Meditation: We are in the golden age

Don’t look to the 1st century church or some other age as the golden age of Christianity which is lost and shall never be found again.  We are in the golden age of Christianity because Jesus Christ is with us, if we are with Him.  And Jesus Christ has offered to us all of His things which He offered to Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus, and the Philippians: joy in Christ, a serious sense of the high calling in Christ, bowels of compassion, a life of sacrifice, a love that spontaneously and zealously seeks out the good of others, and an intimate sense of Jesus Christ dwelling in us as we see Him working in His body.
Charles Erlandson, "Thursday of Trinity 24."  Give Us This Day

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

For Meditation: Unity is Not Achieved Without Mutual Sacrifice

"The agreement forged required mutual submission to the conscience of the other within the mixed-economy of the Jewish-Gentile church. Jewish Christians had to trust that the Gentiles were living according to the standards of the community in which they were inaugurated by baptism, and they had to forego their strict standards of absolute assurance regarding kosher purity. Gentiles, on the other hand, had to forego a freedom that was available in Christ, but was not conducive to united fellowship. Paul’s command that Spirit-filled members of a mixed-economy church would “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21) served as an ongoing reminder that ecclesial unity is not achieved without mutual sacrifice.
Paul Wheatley, Boundaries, Blessings and Hope for the Future.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Ponder: Being Part of Someone's Memory

"Snap a photo or video anywhere close to big Christmas trees in New York, Dallas, or a dozen other downtowns, for instance, and you'll be able to add a digital sticker of Hallmark's latest ad campaign--perfect for saving, sharing, and cheering on their corporate brand...The real genius [company representatives] say, is that they intertwine the brand with good emotions--a high school Friday afternoon, the thrill of vacation--so the marketing will stick around even after the Snap has disappeared.  "This is more about principle than return on investment," said Katherine Cartwright, a Hallmark spokeswoman.  "It's about being part of someone's memory."
Drew Harwell, "Snapchat Wants to Turn Your Life into an Ad." The Washington Post, 17 Nov. 2015, A11.

For Meditation: A Second Plot

"In the story of salvation there is a second plot at work, running through the cold and hard one, inside of it, on top of it. The father has shocked us all by running toward us, his prodigal sons and daughters, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That same son died a lonely and defeated death in the holy city towards which he had run, but now he is raised. God has given to the history of humankind another end, all of his own making. Now, through and beyond doom, there is the new Jerusalem, the city of God, his kingdom. Through no power of our own, we are also journeying toward the day of the Lord and his victory."
Bishop George Sumner, "The Resurrection of the Dead."

Monday, November 16, 2015

Life for Paris

The front page of today’s Washington Post showed a crowd of thousands packed into the plaza in front of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, the congregation for a requiem mass offered for the victims of Friday night’s terrorist attacks.  The Eiffel Tower, notably darkened these days, is surely the structure most deeply associated with the City of Light today. 

But the Cathedral, on the Ile de France, has a much more central and iconic role in the city’s history.  The Kilometre Stone, from which all French roads are measured, is etched in its plaza.  It is probably the world’s most famous example of Gothic architecture, which originated at the nearby Abbey of San Denis and reached its highest point in the Northern French cathedrals of the high Middle Ages.  Notre Dame speaks of an era when France was truly the center of Europe, an age of great monasteries, the world’s finest university, and the home of chivalry’s fairest flower, the saintly King Louis.  The French kings took the Virgin’s emblem, the fleur-de-lys as their standard, and the Cathedral is dedicated to their beloved patroness. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

We Have Failed, But He Has Triumphed

“He has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.”
Hebrews 9:26

Yesterday, the government of Singapore hosted a historic meeting between Xi Jinping, the president of Mainland China and Ma Ying-jeo, the president of Taiwan.  Technically, China and Taiwan are still engaged in a civil war, and it was the first meeting between the leaders of the countries in sixty years.  Many people are hoping for reconciliation.  China and Taiwan share a common language, history and culture.  Both are important economic powers, and there would be advantages in trade and security cooperation.

But with a bloody war and decades of hostile rhetoric behind them, it’s almost impossible for the leaders to know how to speak with each other.  They agreed not to call one another president, because that would suggest that both lead legitimate governments.  No flags can be displayed.  Neither president has the freedom to promise another meeting or to make substantial proposals for common action.  The words they do use must be chosen with extreme delicacy, because anything either leader says could call up old associations and deeply offend the other, perhaps touching off internal scandals that would only make things worse.  In its impotency, its nervous gesturing, what it most reveals is just how far off the goal of normalized relations really lies. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Rejoicing and Responding: Thoughts on the Sunday Collection

From The WORD of St. Timothy's, Herndon, November 2015.

“Then the people rejoiced because they had given willingly, for with a whole heart they had offered freely to the Lord.” I Chron. 29:9.

I’m so grateful to Bob Kimmel, Sean Kenis and Elaine Horsfield for reflecting on Christian stewardship in such thoughtful and compelling way in the lead up to our Consecration Sunday celebration.  Though as I write the big event hasn’t yet arrived, there really seems to be excitement throughout the congregation about focusing on this part of our spiritual life.  A number of you have come to thank me for talking directly about the importance of giving.  Others have stopped by my office to share why financial support of the church is such an important part of how you practice your faith. 

Opening up the topic in this way has also led to some helpful questions.  One of our head ushers, Jim Wallis, mentioned a concern to me about the fact that people who make their donations electronically don’t have anything to put in the plate on Sunday mornings.  Their gifts, also, he noted aren’t blessed as part of our worship service.  Should we do something about this, he wondered.