Monthly Archives: February 2013

That which God has purposed

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? (Romans 2:17-21)

There is a serious vein running through today’s lessons from Jeremiah and Isaiah through to Paul and Christ.

Jeremiah recounts God’s judgment on God’s people and on Jerusalem. “The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor have I turned back” (Jer. 4:27-28).

God’s judgment is terrible, and he is unrelenting.

Except then comes the Canticle, the Second Song of Isaiah (Isa. 55:6-11), with its familiar words of reassurance:

For as rain and snow fall from the heavens
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth,
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word which goes forth from my mouth;
it will not return to me empty,
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed,
and prosper in that for which I sent it.

Christians, of course, read these words in the light of Christ the Word who “goes forth from God,” so to speak, and who accomplishes what God purposes.

What God purposes, we know from our vantage point post-Easter, is not desolation but restoration. God has “relented” once for all in Christ and continues to be present to us through the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide. How can we forget what God has done for us, has won for us, in Christ?

This is what frustrates Paul so much in his letter to the Romans. He basically asks, “Are you turning away from grace and back to the judgment under the law which cannot save?”

His question resonates with the prophets’ words. Are we turning away from restoration and teaching desolation? Are we preaching grace or sin?

Of course, it’s not an either/or thing. Grace freely given comes with a consciousness of sin. When I have been forgiven, I am acutely aware of exactly what I have done wrong. But the message from my forgiver — whether it’s my wife or the priest pronouncing God’s absolution on Sunday — is restoration, not condemnation.

Where in our lives do we still reflect a spirit of judgment, faces set in a disapproving frown? Where do we still dwell on faults more than freedom, quick to relay dirt and to dismiss others’ pain? Where do we still fail to preach the message of good news that animated Jesus and Paul and our forebears in this life in Christ?

Even worse, where does our judgmentalism and obsession with rectitude cause “the Name of God to be blasphemed” because of us (Rom. 2:24)? It’s happening all around us as people turn away from angry so-called “Christianity.” God forbid!

Like rain falling from the heavens is God’s grace falling on us, on all of us who “have no power in ourselves to help ourselves,” in the words of next Sunday’s Collect. What God has purposed is our restoration, our reconciliation with God, and our reaching out in love to the people around us.

What we can be sure of is that God’s word will prosper in us, will teach us, as we live out God’s restoring mission.

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Seven whole days

Praise (II)Tres Riches Heures - July - Limbourg Bros
George Herbert
From The Temple (1633)

King of Glorie, King of Peace,
I will love thee:
And that love may never cease,
I will move thee.

Thou hast granted my request,
Thou hast heard me:
Thou didst note my working breast,
Thou hast spar’d me.

Wherefore with my utmost art
I will sing thee,
And the cream of all my heart
I will bring thee.

Though my sinnes against me cried,
Thou didst cleare me;
And alone, when they replied,
Thou didst heare me.

Sev’n whole dayes, not one in seven,
I will praise thee.
In my heart, though not in heaven,
I can raise thee.

Thou grew’st soft and moist with tears,
Thou relentedst:
And when Justice call’d for fears,
Thou disentedst.

Small it is, in this poore sort
To enroll thee:
Ev’n eternitie is to short
To extoll thee.

Can anybody play the drums?

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In 1973, during The Who’s concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, drummer Keith Moon collapsed twice after overdosing on tranquilizers and brandy. Guitarist Pete Townshend finally stepped to the mike and asked the crowd, “Can anybody play the drums?”

In fact, someone could. Who fan Scot Halpin, 19 years old, was right in the front row, and his friend’s frantic yelling caught the eye of the concert promoter, who had him brought up on stage.

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Go back about 1,940 years. The apostles are in Jerusalem, having just witnessed Jesus’ ascension. They realize they need to regroup and move forward, and in order to do so they need to replace Judas.

Matthias is the one who gets called up to the big stage. He’s been a follower all along, says Peter, “one of the men who has accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21).

What happened next was the rush of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Surely Matthias was as unprepared as all of the apostles for the power of that moment and the change it brought to his life.

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St. Matthias has a day on the Church’s calendar, which is cool, but Rolling Stone magazine named Scot Halpin “Best Pick-Up Player of the Year” in 1973.

What practice do you need so that you’ll be ready to step onstage when your time comes?

Keep praying and reading anyway

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The great saints and ancient prophets frequently experienced the alternation of up and down, joy and sorrow … If the great saints are exposed to such variations, we who are poor and weak should not be discouraged if our spiritual life fails to be uniformly ecstatic. The Holy Spirit gives and takes according to his own divine purpose. I have never met anyone so religious and devout that he has not felt occasionally some withdrawing of grace. (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ)

I talked with two of my parishioners last week about Bible reading and the Daily Office.

Both confessed that they had recently struggled because it “doesn’t seem like I’m getting anything out of it.” One added, “I should feel something each time I read the Bible, right?”

I think this is one of the hardest issues facing people who want to observe a discipline like the Daily Office.

We have been led to believe in the ecstatic experience. Our Sunday worship is often geared to a fever pitch, and in our urgency to promote Bible reading, we are breathless about the benefits.

Truth is, though, the benefits of daily Bible reading and a practice like the Daily Office are cumulative benefits. It takes time to let the prayers of the Church and the words of Scripture soak into your mind and heart.

It takes time to understand the shape of the Biblical story, the grand sweep of salvation history and the details of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Some days, you just won’t feel like praying. You’ll be too busy, too tired, too distracted. Keep praying anyway.

Some days, the Bible passage you read will leave you thinking, “Is that all there is?” Keep reading anyway.

Other days, you will find yourself lingering over a canticle or collect, touched by its beauty and by God’s grace. Pause and savor your connection to God and to Christians around the world, then keep praying.

Other days, you’ll find yourself caught up in the drama of the prophets or the story of the apostles, swept up in their passion for the kingdom of God. Enjoy it, and keep reading.

Our spiritual lives may not be “uniformly ecstatic,” but we can rest assured that God’s purposes will be at work in us as we spend time praying with the Church and reading Scripture with the Holy Spirit.

All who stand by night in the house of the Lord

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Therefore, if you would not fall, cease never in your intent, but beat evermore on this cloud of unknowing that is betwixt you and your God with a sharp dart of longing love, and be loathe to think on anything less than God. (The Cloud of Unknowing, 14th c.)

I am attending the Annual Lenten Retreat at the DeKoven Center in Racine, Wisconsin, led this year by Phyllis Tickle.

The topic of the retreat is “the Observant Christian: Pilgrims of the Emergence.”

While the content of Phyllis’ talks will be primarily on Emergence Christianity, the weekend is shaped by the practice of “fixed-hour prayer” using the offices she compiled in a series of volumes titled The Divine Hours. She organizes the prayers appointed for each season and day of the week so that you do not have to flip back and forth in a breviary but can more easily pray the offices.

The brief passage above from the Cloud of Unknowing is contained in the office of the Night Watch for today.

Whether you are awake before dawn on purpose or restless from being in an unfamiliar place, when you pray the Night Watch you join with all “who stand by night in the house of the Lord” (Ps. 134).

It is good to be back in this particular “house of the Lord,” a place that figures heavily in my own spiritual geography. I look forward to the next couple of days spent with Phyllis and my fellow-pilgrims.

Fit persons for the ministry

JRM+ DeKoven Center

For the choice of fit persons for the ministry

O God, you led your holy apostles to ordain ministers in every place: Grant that your Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, may choose suitable persons for the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and may uphold them in their work for the extension of your kingdom; through him who is the Shepherd and Bishop of our Souls, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 256)

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Today is one of the Spring Ember Days, which fall on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the First Sunday in Lent. If you look on BCP 256, you’ll see there are three Collects appointed For the Ministry (Ember Days).

On Wednesday, you might pray the first Collect, for “all who are now called to any ministry.” Today you might pray, as above, that the Church may choose “suitable persons for the ministry of Word and Sacrament.” And tomorrow, Saturday, the Collect bids us pray “for all members of [God’s] holy Church.”

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My grandfather, J. Rodger McColl, is pictured above. He grew up at St. Martin’s Church on the west side of Chicago, attended Western Theological Seminary (later Seabury-Western) in the 1930s, was the chaplain at the Chapel of St. John the Divine in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in the 1940s, and served as rector of St. Augustine’s in Wilmette, Illinois in the early 1950s.

He was a fit person for the ministry of Word and Sacrament, even though that ministry ended in heartbreak for my family. He was deposed from the priesthood after having an affair with a woman in his parish, and sent to New York City — ostensibly to work for the National Church, but really to avoid scandal. He died in 1954, very shortly after arriving in New York, and it was discovered that he had a massive brain tumor. My grandmother (and later, my aunt) tried in vain to have him reinstated, but the Church denied their pleas. My grandmother was cut off from his pension, and I believe she never darkened the door of a church again. In the files of the Episcopal Church, there is only one piece of paper about him — it is as if he never existed.

There is no doubt that he should have been removed from his ministry; I taught for nearly 15 years on preventing sexual misconduct in church settings, and I believe that we must be clear and firm about protecting people from harm.

But people are never just one thing, never one-dimensional cardboard characters.

The day after he died, my grandmother received a postcard from one of his former parishioners with the following poem:

Prayer for Rodger – Remembering my First Confession

O flawless Christ,
redeem this man
whose gentle hand
briefly held the bleak world back;
whose cool clasp steadied, encouraged,
and retrieved me
from the beaten edge
of oft-repeated sins;
whose constant gaze
upon Thy face
gave forth such a light,
Earth’s curtain lifted,
and there, all-bright,
was heaven.
Find him
the peace he found for me. Amen.

Pray during these Ember Days that the Church may find persons fit for the ministry because of their constant gaze on Christ and suitable because of their steady, encouraging gentleness. Pray, too, that we may uphold them, sinners just like we are, in the redeeming work God calls them to.

Hasten the coming of your kingdom

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O God, you have made of one blood all the peoples of the earth, and sent your blessed Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Grant that people everywhere may seek after you and find you; bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh; and hasten the coming of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 100)

Morning Prayer on Thursdays has a baptismal flavor.

After the Old Testament reading on Thursdays, we say or sing Canticle 8: The Song of Moses, in which we praise God for saving the people of Israel at the Red Sea. For Christians, the Exodus story is especially linked with the Easter Vigil and baptism.

At the Vigil, we retell the Exodus story and make it our own, singing in the Exsultet that “this is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell.” The Easter Vigil has been, since the earliest days of the church, the time when new Christians are baptized.

The Prayer for Mission above reflects that same baptismal emphasis. It is our prayer that everyone will come through the waters of salvation, that everyone will enjoy new life, that everyone will be filled with God’s spirit, that God’s kingdom, already here in part, will become fully realized.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews describes the kingdom as “sabbath rest” in the passage appointed for today. He suggests that the way is still open for us to enter into God’s rest, to enjoy life and peace in the kingdom of God.

He writes, quoting Psalm 95, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb. 4:7). Every day we begin Morning Prayer with that same sense of urgency.

Come on in, the water is fine! Bring your friends, too! Don’t wait — jump on in!