Friday, February 24, 2017

Ponder: "if you limit your options"

Freedom is largely squandered if exercised as a series of provisional commitments. In such a case, the mind, heart, and soul and the body’s work in the world are never constrained or fixed to some point of irrevocable commitment. No work is deeply engaged, no love profoundly embraced. This is a gospel example of freedom: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). A declaration of consent confirms this is done freely and without compulsion. A decision is made and other options summarily cut off. If faith, hope, and love remain, this can be a freedom of decades, a holy vow loosed by death alone. This too is an example of gospel freedom: A legendary Latin teacher speaks of his early dreams. “When I was seven I decided to become a priest. In my teens I decided to join the Carmelites and hoped to become a Latinist and Latin teacher.” More than 50 years later, these three remain: priesthood, monasticism, Latin brilliance. “It’s amazing,” the Rev. Reginald Foster opines, “what you can do if you limit your options.”

Sunday's Readings, The Living Church, 12 Feb. 2017

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Forty Days Apart

From the Sounds of St. Francis, 23 Feb.

The Christian life is always a struggle across time.  To quicken the heart, to still the spirit, to tame the passions—these are the work of a lifetime, assisted by the grace the Holy Spirit supplies.  But the Scriptures consistently testify that the period of forty days opens us to God in a special way.  

Especially when focused by prayer and fasting and carried out in a withdrawal from the world’s haste and distraction, a period of forty days gives space for deepened communion with God.  Moses fasted for forty days before God revealed the commandments to him at Mount Sinai. Elijah fasted for forty days before receiving a vocation that would define the closing days of his ministry.  Jonah warned the Ninevites that they had only forty days to repent of their sins and to seek God’s forgiveness.  And of course, as we recall each year on the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus was sent forth by the Spirit into the wilderness to face the Devil’s temptations, fasting for forty days and discovering His saving mission. 

When the leaders of the early church were aiming to fix a period of public penance before notorious sinners could be readmitted to communion at Easter, forty days was the natural choice.  And when, a few centuries later, penance became privatized, it was only natural that all the faithful should be urged to a similar forty-day period to repent of their own sins in fasting and prayer, the period we still keep as the season of Lent. 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Christ at the Center: Exploring the Liturgy of the Word

“For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
I Corinthians 3:11

If you are joining us today for the first time, I should explain that in the Episcopal Church it’s our practice to have one, not three sermons, and that after rather than before the Scripture readings.  But today, my purpose is to provide an instruction about this service we celebrate week by week, the Holy Eucharist, which is the highest and most ancient form of Christian worship.  Today we explore the first part of the worship service, the Liturgy of the Word.  As Saint Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle, Christ is the foundation on which all His Church’s work depends.   The Liturgy of the Word, above all, testifies to Him, and places Him at the center of the life we share as His people.

Our worship begins with a hymn, hopefully one that announces a theme appropriate to the season or the particular readings that will be presented later in the service.  Hymns are a relatively new addition to the Eucharistic liturgy, only becoming popular with Episcopalians about a hundred and fifty years ago.  Their practical function is to cover the time those leading the service need to get from place to place.  But many of our hymns teach the faith with power or, like the one we have just sung, are moving personal prayers.  Many of our hymns have stirring tunes, but the texts are deeply important, and serve as a kind of supplementary prayer book.  We pray that in all things, we may live as we sing. 

Then follows an acclamation of the One who has brought us together, God whom we praise.  In this season, we especially recall that He is merciful, the forgiver of our sins.  To praise God requires our very best, an uplifted mind, a pure heart—an answer in kind to His abundant love for us.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

From the Field into the Choir: Remembering Grandpap

“Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.”  Psalm 104:23

I have an image of my grandfather fixed in my mind.  If I also live to be 88, I expect it is how I will remember him.  He is headed out to a day’s work, dressed in a tattered red hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans streaked with brown, clothes that even after careful washing smell partly sweet like silage and partly pungent like something else.  He walks with a determined stride and a broad grin, and he’s whistling, “Buffalo gals, won’t you come out tonight and dance by the light of the moon.”

Why wouldn’t he be whistling and smiling?  He was going to work.  And Grandpap loved to work, found it deeply satisfying.  He pursued his work with the intensity that some men reserve for pleasures that are far less healthy and useful. 

He was able to work each day in a place that he had always known and loved.  My grandfather was born in the house where he would eventually die, even in the same room.  He learned about crops and cattle from his father, and spent decades tilling the fields he had wandered as a boy.  He loved these pastures and crop fields, because they contained the story of his life. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Members of Christ and One Another

From the Sounds of Saint Francis (16 Feb. 2017)

“For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”  Rom. 12:4-5

About a month ago, we took the plunge and became members—of Costco, that is.  As our boys are growing, we’re seeing skyrocketing cereal and soap consumption.  There happens to be one of those behemoths of a store not far off Allison’s route from the rectory to Catholic University.  I’ll admit to being at least moderately enthusiastic about the project.  That night we were having a dozen churchwardens over for Friday dinner, those half-salmons were excellent for the money.  I do like the samples on the ends of the aisles.  And when you need a bale of paper towels…

But it still seems strange to think of myself as a Costco member. I’m happy to be a customer, maybe even, in time, a loyal customer.  But for me, membership should suggest something more existential or transcendent.  My association with Costco is purely transactional.  I don’t feel that I belong to Costco, that the institution somehow depends on my loyalty.  It’s silly to imagine that the institution would be diminished should I forget to repay my annual fee at the proper time (though I’m sure they will be much more insistent about tracking down that sum than any church stewardship committee I’ve ever known).

Monday, February 13, 2017

Public Service Announcement for the Public Service

“Be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”  St. Matthew 5:24

When we gather together as God’s people, our common act is called liturgy.  The word liturgy is taken from the Greek, and like many of the terms we think of as exclusively religious, it originally had a secular meaning.  It means “public service,” and in ancient times, when a ruler or a prominent person would build a bridge or sponsor a series of athletic contests, he might describe it as his liturgy—as an act he had done for the benefit of all. 

Much of our practice of the Christian life is conducted in private.  In our homes, hidden from the world, we pray for the world’s needs and the good of our souls.  At our desks, we read the Bible and decide how we will use our wealth to care for the poor and support the work of the Gospel.  Our faith comes to life when we insist on honesty in the staff meeting at work, or tell our children Bible stories at the bedside, or talk to a friend in distress about how God has helped us through a hard time.

But this work, our common service, is public, for the benefit of all.  The doors are open to everyone.  It is conducted in a large and prominent building, and we fill it with sound, color and movement.  Pastors sometimes call what happens on Sunday morning our “shop window,” the place where our deepest convictions are on display to those who won’t know anything else about our faith and our particular community.  As Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel, it should flow from our love and care for each other, as people reconciled to God and to one another.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Light in Midwinter

Introduction at "Light in Midwinter," St. Francis Church, 12 Feb. 2017

We welcome you to this evening’s presentation, Light in Midwinter.  We gather in the cold, as the sun has nearly run its course, to explore and perhaps to meditate a bit on the design of this space where the people of Saint Francis gather to praise God.  Thanks to the generosity of many of you and the skill and hard work of others of you, this church was renovated during the course of last year. 

Our architect and designer, David Tozer, is also among those who gather here to pray week by week.  He will discuss some of the alterations that were made: their inspirations, purposes, and unified effect in filling this space even more completely with light, color and harmony.

It might be helpful, though, to begin our story many centuries before anyone ever broke ground at this place to build a house of God.  Church architecture, more than most crafts, bears the weight of centuries of tradition and symbolic intention.  David is creative, to be sure, but his is a creativity normed by a deep and respectful awareness of what has come before. 

Many of the world’s oldest and most beloved buildings were designed for religious worship.  Part of their enduring power lies in the message behind their use of balance and proportion, light and shadow. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Bringing Back the 'Gesimas: A Liturgical Proposal

From Covenant, 10 Feb. 2017

My mother is a church organist, and my brothers and I spent many Saturday afternoons roaming freely around the church’s dusty corners while she worked out her footpedals and chose her stops for the next morning’s selections. Sometimes, when rehearsal was finished, we would help her find the numbers for the hymnboard that hung over the pastor’s chair.

The wooden box that held the hymn numbers also had a section for the words that made up the Sundays and festivals of the Church Year. We were Reformed, but the liturgy’s patterns were still important for us, and I knew most of the words on the black cards well enough: Advent and Lent, Christmas and Pentecost, New Year and Harvest Home.

The longest cards, though, at the back of the stack, were always a bit of a puzzle. They were shinier and less crinkled than the others, and obviously hadn’t been used in a long time. The names were certainly unusual: Quinquagesima, Septuagesima, Sexagesima. Young boys have rather vivid imaginations; I wondered just what kind of religious undertakings were intended for such occasions. Exotic ones, to be sure. Mother didn’t really know. The names sounded Latin, she thought, and maybe someone had sent our little church the Church Year cards intended for the Catholics or Episcopalians.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

And with thy Spirit

The substitute priest, so the story goes, was leading the service in an unfamiliar church.  The microphone didn’t seem to be working right, so he paused, looked down toward the contraption and asked, "Is this thing on?"

Hearing no response, he fiddled with the buttons, finally shouting, "Something is wrong with this mic!" In unison, the congregation replies: "And also with you!"

The joke, of course, is based on a truism that regular Sunday worshipers will know well.  If the priest turns to say something to you and you’re not quite sure how to answer, the right response is usually “and also with you”--or maybe, at Saint Francis, “and with thy spirit.”

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Risk and Character Along the Billy Goat Trail

In the Sound of the Bells column, from the Potomac Almanac, 26 Jan., 2017.

New Year’s Day was bright and sunny, and my sons and I decided to start things off right with a hike along the C & O Canal towpath.  We weren’t the only ones with the idea, and after finally finding a place to park, we ambled down a hill to find the towpath packed with bikers and dogs.  After about a quarter mile of steering my five-year old out of the way of potential collisions, we were pleased to see a dirt path leading into the woods toward the river.

A few paces in we discovered ourselves on the Billy Goat Trail.  I’d been told about this trail before, the haunt of thrill-seeking ramblers for over a century.  But this was our first encounter, and after about an hour’s journey, my sons and I are definite fans. 

We loved the views of the river, of course, and climbing and descending the hills.  The boys are still talking about walking along the face of the cliff, and climbing from rock to rock (the spaces between much better suited for a goat’s hoof or a kid’s shoe than my floppy boots).  They clambered over some rock outcroppings, shimmied up a log, found a rock slide, even dipped their toes in the river.  Such a trail demands a walking stick, my seven-year-old insisted.  His brother claimed to spot a short cut, which landed us, laughing, in a clump of briers.