Monthly Archives: February 2016

Undefended, powerless, but kept in God’s love

Today’s collect for the Third Sunday in Lent is pretty serious.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It lays out the fear that paralyzes our bodies and neutralizes our souls and in it we pray that we may be not just defended, but kept in God’s love.

We get one thing right in this prayer. We ask for two things that we’re never going to get. And we get from God something “more than we can ask or imagine.”

So, the first thing we get wrong …

 

That we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body

Then the LORD said [to Moses], “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-10)

Moses’ first efforts, unfortunately, made Pharaoh angry and he punished the Israelites by cutting off their supply of straw but requiring they make the same number of bricks each day. So their work was doubled and their bodies further harmed.

Ultimately, however, the LORD redeemed their bodies from slavery and the whip but immediately subjected their bodies to the harsh conditions of the wilderness.

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ (Exodus 16:2-3)

Reminds me of the “ex-leper” in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, who complains that Jesus has healed him: “One minute I’m a leper with a trade; the next minute, my livelihood’s gone! Bloody do-gooder!”

“There’s no pleasing some people,” Brian replies.

“That’s just what Jesus said, sir!”

Ex-leper

We’re wrong to believe that we will be defended from bodily harm, just as we’re wrong to think that we’ll be freed from “evil thoughts.”

 

That we may be defended from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul

Jesus is being cross-examined by the Pharisees and lawyers in front of a growing crowd when someone asks him: “Oh yeah, what about those Galileans who were killed in church?”

He retorts, “Do you think you’re better than they were?”

The Galileans killed in the Temple by Pilate’s soldiers, their blood mingling with their sacrifices … or how about the eighteen people killed in the Siloam tower collapse?

Jesus asks, “Do you think you’re better than they were?”

Or how about the nine people who died during the tornadoes this week?

Do you think you’re better than they were?

Or how about the 41 people injured and 25 people killed by gun violence this week in Iuka MS, Orlando, Kalamazoo, Houston, Hazelwood MO, Daytona Beach, Glendale AZ, Hesston KS, and Belfair WA? (I had to Google to be sure I didn’t miss any.)

Do you think you’re better than they were?

Or how about people on food stamps or unemployment?

Do you think you’re better than they are?

Or how about Bernie supporters? Trump supporters?

Do you think you’re better than they are?

These are perfect examples of what recovery programs call “stinking thinking,” the thought that this time (for me) it’ll be different. This time (for me) the rules don’t apply. This time (for me) the consequences won’t be so severe.

What a crock! And we know it, but we’re afraid to admit it. We’re no better than anyone else, and in our blindness we may in fact be worse.

But we do get one essential thing right in our prayer.

God knows we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves

Moses gets it right.

“Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God …. and Moses asked “Who am I that I should go?” (Exodus 3:6, 11)

christ-in-gethsemane-p

Paul continues in the same vein, using the Israelites in the wilderness as an example to the Christians in Corinth:

Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. (1 Cor. 10)

Who are we to say we’re any better than our ancestors in the faith, any less likely to stray into temptation, any less likely to complain, any less likely to put Christ to the test?

“There’s no pleasing some people,” Jesus says.

“These things happened to them to serve as an example,” Paul writes, “and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”

 

Almighty God, keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls

We are not defended from bodily adversity; we are not defended from “stinking thinking,” and we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.

Even knowing God’s name doesn’t work like a magic spell or give us special powers.

Richard Rohr suggests that even God’s name, I AM WHO I AM – or YAHWEH – is not a real name at all, but the sound of one’s breathing. (Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality)

No wonder Moses doesn’t seem convinced. Instead of a name to convince the Israelites and Pharaoh, all he gets is the sound of his own breathing.

[IN] YAH

[OUT] WEH

Our chests tighten in fear [IN], and we exhale in relief [OUT].

We suffer and die [IN] just like anyone does, but we are given a name and a promise [OUT] to sustain us.

We struggle against oppression and violence [IN], even as we recognize it in ourselves [OUT].

I think I’m standing [IN], but I’ve got to watch out that I don’t fall [OUT].

We are not magically defended from bodily harm; we are not righteously defended from “stinking thinking,” and if we’re honest we’ll admit we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves – at least not any better than anyone else does.

But “in falling and in rising, we are kept ever precious in one love,” as Julian of Norwich reminds us.

Falling rising Julian

And that’s what we get right in this morning’s Collect. We are kept ever precious in God’s one love.

We are undefended, like all of God’s followers have been,
but our bodies are kept in one love.

We are undefended, like all of God’s followers have been,
but our souls are kept in one love.

We are powerless to save ourselves,
but we ourselves are kept in one love.

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[IN] Keep us, [OUT] Almighty God.

[IN] Keep me, [OUT] O God.

[IN] O God. [OUT]

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From envy, hatred, and malice

Again [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 3:1-6)

Green-eyed envy

“They watched him … so that they might accuse him.”

Each year, as Lent approaches, many acquaintances and friends announce that they will leave Facebook and Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. They plan to take a social media fast.

Though I do not choose to do that myself, I can certainly understand the appeal.

Too often, and especially (it seems to me) among religious types, social media turns into a platform from which to pounce on people’s “mistakes” and “errors” — the things others believe or do that go against the grain.

The Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of Forward Movement and cofounder of Lent Madness, wrote a poignant post this week titled Practicing Our Faith Online, in the wake of many toxic responses to the news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

He muses, “Maybe we Christians can, and must, do a better job of practicing our faith online. Sometimes I’m the one who needs the reminder that Jesus calls me to practice a love that is not always easy.”

How easy it was for the Pharisees to “watch Jesus … so that they might accuse him,” rather than looking for ways to help their neighbor who suffered.

How easy for us to do the same, unless we soften our gaze (and our hearts).

Hardness of heart

“They were silent.”

Even (perhaps especially) when Jesus draws their attention to the man with the withered hand, the Pharisees refuse to see anything but Jesus’ error.

They won’t even entertain the spiritual question he poses — “is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” — because they are sure he is wrong.

“The opposite of faith,” says former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway, “is not doubt, it is certainty.”

What are you so certain about that you refuse to see another point of view?

What or who are you certain God hates?

Malice in the palace

“The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him,
how to destroy him.”

What are you willing to do when you are secure in the knowledge that you’re right?

The Pharisees, who taught religious purity and scrupulous adherence to the Law, went out and made common cause with the supporters of the puppet king Herod (and by extension, the Roman colonizers who kept him in political power).

This week, we saw another spectacle unfolding online — Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. taking the side of a political candidate and speaking out against the very simple statement of Pope Francis in response to a reporter’s question:

A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.

As James Martin, SJ writes in the Washington Post, the Pope’s remarks were quickly misinterpreted, not least by the chattering hordes on social media but by Christian leaders like Falwell.

The New York Times reported that:

Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and a supporter of Mr. Trump, said that the pope had crossed a line.

“Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country,” Mr. Falwell told CNN.

Jesus did not give instructions to political leaders; that’s certainly true.

What he did was announce the kingdom of God, heal on the sabbath, and turn religious people’s certainty upside down. He made them so angry that they couldn’t see straight.

And that’s what we Christians are called to do, too, if we are to be Jesus’ followers.

We shouldn’t be surprised, though, if we get into trouble, first with the religious people around us and then with others who are certain that we are wrong to do good, to save life, to heal.

Good Lord, deliver us

Was it only a week ago — the First Sunday in Lent — that we chanted the Great Litany before the Eucharist?

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all inordinate and sinful affections; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all false doctrine, heresy, and schism; from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word and commandment,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Jesus stands before us in the assembly, about to do something inappropriate and upsetting.

How soft is our gaze? How hard is our heart?

Are we reaching toward his healing power — actually doing something to help the hurting people around us — or turning our backs, putting up a wall between us and Jesus’ obvious error?

From envy, hatred, and malice … Good Lord, deliver us.

 

Daily Office Basics – The Prayers

In the final video in the series, we look at the various prayers which conclude the offices of Morning or Evening Prayer. (If you’re like Fr. Ralph Osborne, the rector of my parish, you’ll also be glad to know you can now binge-watch the whole series.)

For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer holds pride of place as the prayer that Jesus himself taught his disciples, so the third section of the office starts there.

Suffrages, which are sort of like miniature Prayers of the People, remind us to pray for “the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.”

Then a series of three collects forms the most distinctive part of this section — a Collect of the Day (the Sunday or feast day we celebrate), a Collect of the Day of the Week, and a Prayer for Mission.

The collects, like the sentences at the beginning of the office and the antiphons for the Invitatory Psalm, also serve to give a seasonal flavor to the office, which is otherwise very much the same every day.

The Daily Office is the public prayer of the Church, so the suffrages and collects are a bit formal, but they give us language to speak to God day by day, week by week, season by season.

Finally, we give voice to our own personal intercessions and thanksgivings, and we can choose from a number of lovely prayers and closing sentences to use at the end of the office.

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I hope this series of Daily Office Basics videos has been helpful to you, and I welcome your comments and suggestions if there are things you’d like to learn more about in future offerings.

The series will reside at dailyofficebasics.graceabounds.online, where you will also find the downloadable resources mentioned in the second video.

I am grateful to the Ven. Michele Whitford, content manager of Grace Abounds, and to Zachary and Nicholas Whitford, who filmed and edited the videos. I also commend the Theodicy Jazz Collective for their lovely album Vespers; their music is a prayer in itself.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be wth us all evermore. Amen.

 

Daily Office Basics – Lessons and Canticles

Today’s video is number four in the Daily Office Basics series.

We have looked at the origins of daily prayer in the Christian church, spent a few minutes finding our place, and begun praying the office by reciting Psalms.

Here we turn to the second part of the office, the Lessons and Canticles.

In the Episcopal Church, the schedule of readings for the Daily Office has you do a lot of course reading. That is, you will often read a “chapter” (a short selection) of the same book in the Bible day after day until you’re through with that book.

Over the two-year lectionary cycle, you basically read the majority of the Old Testament once, the whole New Testament twice, and the Psalms every seven weeks.

Separate from any other studying I’ve done, that means that by praying the Daily Office for just over 23 years now I have read the Old Testament about 23 times, the New Testament 46 times, and each of the Psalms about 171 times.

Today we try to demystify the Daily Office lectionary and this middle portion of the office so that you feel more comfortable soaking yourself in Scripture in the context of daily prayer.

The last video in this series will look at the specific Prayers that conclude the office.

All of the videos, as well as the downloadable resources, will make their home at dailyofficebasics.graceabounds.online.

 

Daily Office Basics – The Psalms

Today’s installment of Daily Office Basics could also be called “Beginning the Office,” as we consider the various ways to begin Morning or Evening Prayer.

The Daily Office is the public prayer of the Church, not just prayers for us to say at home, so the opening sentences are options to give a seasonal flavor to the service.

The Confession of Sin is optional, too. Some people choose to say it only occasionally, others once a day at Evening Prayer. For me, the Confession is not optional but critical, so I say it every time I pray the office.

The introduction to the Confession in Morning Prayer contains a perfect little statement about what we are doing when we pray the Daily Office:

Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to set forth his praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation. (BCP 79)

Once we’ve looked at the opening sentences and the Confession of Sin in this video, we get to the proper start of the office, the Psalms with which we “set forth God’s praise.”

In the next two installments, we’ll look at the Lessons and Canticles in which we “hear God’s holy Word,” and then we’ll talk about the Prayers in which we “ask, for ourselves, and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and salvation.”

 

Daily Office Basics – Finding Your Place

In this installment of Daily Office Basics, we get down to specifics:

How do I know what page I’m supposed to be on in the Book of Common Prayer?

What Bible lesson am I supposed to read this morning? This evening?

How do I remember where I am when I keep flipping back and forth in the book?

All of these questions (and more) will be answered here.

As you watch the video, you’ll see that we are preparing you to start praying the offices next week, starting on the Monday after the First Sunday in Lent.

Also, we have provided nifty bookmarks for your prayer book and Bible, as well as a guide called “Praying the Daily Offices.”

All of them are free to download at dailyofficebasics.graceabounds.online.

Praying the Daily Office is simple, but it’s not self-explanatory. I hope this video will help you find your place and feel more ready to begin.

 

Daily Office Basics – Daily Prayer Origins

I’m delighted to announce that my series of posts called Daily Office Basics is now available in video form!

This first video introduces you to the origins of daily prayer in the Christian church, tracing how daily prayer has changed over time and how we came to have the form of Morning and Evening Prayer that we use in the Episcopal Church today.

Over the next four days, videos will cover finding your place in the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible and then will look at the three parts of the Daily Office — Psalms, Lessons and Canticles, and Prayers — in turn.

I am particularly grateful to Grace Abounds, the online ministry of Grace Episcopal Church in Sheboygan, for filming and producing these videos. The Ven. MIchele Whitford is content manager, and Zachary and Nicholas Whitford filmed and edited the videos.

The series will reside at dailyofficebasics.graceabounds.online — in addition to the videos, that landing page includes some resources for you to download and use as you prepare to pray the Daily Office.

Thanks also to Andy Barnett and the Theodicy Jazz Collective for permission to use music from their album Vespers. You can listen and buy online from their website.