Tag Archives: AA

12 Steps of Christmas | Christmas Day

Step One – “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Today’s service of Morning Prayer for Christmas Day can be found here.

Humility

“Who cares to admit complete defeat? Practically no one, of course.”

So begins the explanation of Step One of Alcoholics Anonymous in the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (21).

In my own case, the fall was both abrupt and literal — from a successful performance at a client event in the morning to a bruising, drunken fall in front of clients and colleagues on the marble floor of the hotel lobby that evening.

The next day I flew home knowing I would be fired, then waited, head in my hands, to tell my wife the news.

I had, through my drinking, lost a job I loved and any self-respect and self-confidence I had clung to in the face of growing concerns about my alcohol use.

“Once this stark fact is accepted,” says Step One, “our bankruptcy as going human concerns is complete” (21).

Imitating God in his lowliness

According to the Christian tradition, humanity generally was pretty much bankrupt and definitely in need of God when God decided to send his Son to live as one of us. That’s the background to the Christmas feast that we celebrate today.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, answers his own question: “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly?”

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Humility, to Bonhoeffer, means “laying down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger.” It means imitating God by remaining lowly.

This resonates with the way early Christians like Paul described Jesus:

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited, 
   but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 
    he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

“The glory of God precisely in his lowliness” is what we see in the manger at Christmas.

At Christmas God laid down all power, all honor, all reputation and became a human being, vulnerable just like us. Who are we to be anything but vulnerable like him?

Following Jesus in the way of the cross

This morning we have in Morning Prayer one of the juxtapositions that make the Daily Office such a rich source for reflection.

It is Christmas Day, and so in the first of the collects we speak of our gladness and joy and confidence in God.

Because it is also Friday, however, we immediately pray “that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

Collect of the Day

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A Collect for Fridays

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Humility is not a one-time admission that we get over and done with. Rather, it is an acceptance of our proper place in relationship to God and to other people, who may also be powerless, whose lives may also be unmanageable.

We do not remain bankrupt, however. The explanation of Step One continues: “Our admissions of personal powerlessness finally turn out to be the firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built” (21).

While we do begin to build purposeful lives again, we must also recognize that our daily experience will continue to involve suffering and frustration.

But that is the pattern of falling and rising that Jesus laid down throughout his whole life, from the most humble beginnings as a baby born in poverty, to his preaching and teaching, and to his trial and execution for a crime he did not commit. As Christians we are called to follow him in that pattern of life, that way of the cross.

Like practicing the Christian faith,

Practicing A.A.’s remaining eleven Steps means the adoption of attitudes and actions that almost no alcoholic who is still drinking can imagine taking. Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant? Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done? Who cares anything about a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer? Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry A.A.’s message to the next sufferer? No, the average alcoholic, self-centered in the extreme, doesn’t care for this prospect—unless he has to do these things in order to stay alive himself. (24)

God, mercifully grant that we, imitating your lowliness and following Jesus in the way of the cross, may find these 12 Steps none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Through the Red Door | Clothed with joy

My post entitled “Clothed with joy” was featured yesterday on Through the Red Door, the blog of Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church.

Some of the material comes from reflections on this blog, but I appreciated the opportunity once again to draw a connection between common recovery practices like Steps 10 and 11 and the ancient wisdom of the Church in those areas.

“One day at a time,” says Alcoholics Anonymous. “Daily we begin again,” say the Benedictines.

I am grateful for the Daily Office as a framework for living each day, and for the recovery community which has revitalized my spiritual life.

Give it away entirely and come into the oasis

Many of you know that two years ago this week I acknowledged my addiction to alcohol and began living in recovery.

I carry a pocket medallion as a reminder of the grace I have received in recovery – grace far beyond my imagining. Most days, I have a sense of living in what a friend calls “the oasis” and AA refers to as “a daily reprieve … contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).

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My prayer life, my practice of the Daily Office, the teaching I do and the conversations I have with colleagues and friends – all of it has been reinvigorated by what the Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr calls in Breathing Under Water the “coded Gospel” of the 12 Steps.

You may not realize, though, that stopping drinking was only a small part of the work that I have had to do in recovery. In addition to the medallion in my pocket, I also wear a bracelet around my wrist, one of the last things I bought without my wife’s knowledge before losing my job.

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My addiction to spending and to indulging myself has been much, much harder to deal with – it’s the same struggle alcoholics face when they can’t stop thinking about their next drink.

You lack one thing

I think I know a little bit about how the “rich young man” felt after he found Jesus.

A man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments …. “ He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:17-22)

You lack one thing …. you have many possessions.

Here’s where I think the rich young man realizes what the living God asks of each one of us. The living God asks for all of us.

The young man is looking for inspiration, but Jesus, who loves him, points to the one thing that really keeps him from God – the wealth he cannot imagine doing without.

“When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving.”

What a state he must have found himself in:

If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face! (Job 23:8-9,16-17)

The Almighty has terrified me

In our Old Testament lesson, Job has lost everything, and he does not yet have the answer that will help him remain faithful to God. The Almighty has terrifed him, and Job doesn’t yet understand that God loves him.

In the meantime, his friends and his wife, as Fr. Ralph reminded us last week, are giving him conflicting (and bad) advice. They can’t help him discover either God’s love or the one thing he lacks.

Unlike Job’s companions, however, my wife and my friends have given me good advice and steady support.

Their willingness to share love and to confront me about the things I lack has helped me do the hard work of staying steady in recovery.

  • A dear friend made sure I was “fearless and thorough from the very start” in admitting my failings.
  • A fellow deacon in another diocese helped me admit I needed to go to AA meetings and – laughing at how upside-down I had it – helped me understand that sobriety was an oasis, not a burden.
  • The first boss I had after losing my job, who has been sober for several years, gave me his 3-month sobriety medallion when I reached that milestone myself.
  • The guys in the Thursday morning breakfast and Bible study group here at St. Thomas drew me into their circle of support.
  • And my wife has cheerfully accommodated my being home and underfoot after nearly 10 years on the road, encouraging my new habits and being patient with my stumbling.

church-circle-graphicMy recovery – my new faith in this “coded Gospel” – really is something I have to work at every day. But what I have to work at most is not to do with drinking, but with spending money.

It’s a Pendleton, you idiot!

Sitting on the sofa watching TV one night a few months ago, I was in jeans and my favorite flannel shirt, and I thought “I really like this shirt; I should buy another one.”

A couple beats later, after that thought went away, a new one came in. “You’re an idiot; that’s a Pendleton shirt. It’ll last for 100 years. You’ll be dead before it wears out. You don’t need another one.”

“Oh, cool.”

Contentment is weird.

People in recovery are more used to being “restless, irritable, and discontented” (Big Book xxviii).

But when you’re content, it’s like you can just be, and everything is all right. Perhaps eternal life is like that – just being with God, living in an oasis.

What must I do?

“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” asks the rich young man, who probably had several shirts.

Jesus loves him, and says, “You lack one thing … get rid of the thing that’s keeping you from God, whatever it is. Give it away entirely, and you’ll have treasure in heaven.”

For me, giving away my desire for a drink and giving away my desire to buy more things have together led me back to Jesus and to “a faith that really works in daily living” (12and12, 43).

What is the one thing you lack?

What might Jesus, who loves you, point to in your life? What’s the one thing that keeps you from God?

Is it money?

Food? Anger? Gossip?

Is it drinking or drugs or politics or something equally addictive?

Is it approval or being right or getting your way?

What are you holding onto so tightly that you can’t receive the treasure of heaven?

Give it away entirely, and enter the oasis!

Speaking of oases

The story of the rich young man reminds me of another favorite story, this one not from an oasis but from the Desert Fathers of 3rd century Egypt:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

 Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “Why not become totally flame?”

abbas lot and joseph - all flameWhat’s the one thing you lack? What’s holding you back from God?

Why not give it away in order to find a faith that works, in order to find contentment?

Why not become totally flame?

Why not give it away entirely, and live now in the oasis with God?

Sermon at Morning Prayer | Sunday, June 21, 2015

“I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you,” a daughter of Ethel Lance said. “And have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgives you, and I forgive you.”

“As we said in the Bible study, we enjoyed you,” survivor Felicia Sanders said. “But may God have mercy on you.”

How in the world can these people from Emanuel AME Church in Charleston be at peace?

How in the world can they have forgiveness in their hearts?

How did they come to possess “the peace that passes understanding”?

The Cycle of Gospel Living

It’s clear that most of us do not have that peace.

We try to talk about racism and violence and the other ills that plague us, but we end up talking past each other and inflaming each other further. The news media and social media erupt with argument and counter-argument.

Even when we are fellow-Christians trying to speak about the Gospel, we do not always help as we had hoped to. We try to “proffer the Word of life,” but we still talk past each other.

The Rev. Eric H. F. Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute teaches about the “Cycle of Gospel Living,” and I believe it can help us in these challenging conversations.

We have studied this cycle in our Education for Ministry groups this year, as we reflect on “Living Faithfully in a Multicultural World.”

Take a moment to look at the diagram carefully.

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We all participate in the dying and rising of Christ, in the cross and resurrection, but we enter the cycle from different places – the powerless from the bottom, the powerful from the top.

This cycle is reflected in all three of the readings assigned for the Daily Office today:

From the bottom, from complete defeat and disaster for Israel, “The wife of Phinehas said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.’” (1 Samuel 4:22)

After speaking to someone on top, a rich young man, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:23).

And writing to Christian Jews living in “the Dispersion,” in a variety of different places, James says, “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low” (James 1:9-10).

The Coded Gospel

How in the world can these people be at peace?

How can we come to possess the peace that passes understanding?

“If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps…. Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery” (Big Book 58-9).

Through my own experiences in recovery I have heard in the 12 Steps of AA what Richard Rohr calls “the coded Gospel” (Breathing Under Water).

An experience of powerlessness can trigger our awareness that we cannot handle our life alone.

When we admit our powerlessness, we can find reprieve – “a daily reprieve contingent upon the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).

We may even find that our regular spiritual practices become an oasis, rather than a burden.

Sitting in the Oasis

The members of Emanuel AME Church were meeting for their regular Wednesday night Bible study.

They were sitting “in the oasis,” and they welcomed a stranger to join them, even offering him a seat of honor next to their pastor.

As African-American people in South Carolina, they lived in relative powerlessness – even though their pastor was also a state senator, the streets around their church are named for Confederate generals, a constant reminder of slavery and of past and present violence against people of color.

As people of color, their identification with Jesus, their entry into the cycle of gospel living, may have been at the bottom, but their endurance like Jesus, their empowerment by Jesus, and the daily maintenance of their spiritual condition in union with the resurrected Jesus produced in them an oasis, full of living water.

Choosing the Cross

We do not necessarily have the same experience of the Gospel.

Our identification with Jesus, our entry into the cycle of Gospel living, is more likely to start at the top and to require us to choose the cross, giving up the power and privilege we enjoy as white people in northeast Wisconsin.

Whether something like addiction calls us up short, whether the death of a loved one brings us low, whether we are cut to the quick by the words of Scripture, our falling and failing will also lead us into “the way of the cross, [which is] none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP 99).

You Cannot Transmit Something You Haven’t Got

So how did they come to possess the peace that passes understanding?

And how can we come to share in the peace that does not “treat the wound of [God’s] people carelessly” (Jer. 6:14)?

The “Big Book” of AA reassures me that “the answers will come, if your own house is in order. But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got” (164).

Many people in the Episcopal Church, especially as we prepare for General Convention, are calling us to a preach resurrection and engage in the kind of practices that will get us what we need to transmit.

A Memorial to the Church by the Acts 8 Moment invites the Episcopal Church to:

  • recommit itself to the spiritual disciplines at the core of our common life,
  • go into our neighborhoods boldly …, and
  • restructure our church for the mission God is laying before us today.

And 3 Practices TEC invites us to:

  • follow Jesus together
  • into the neighborhood, and
  • travel lightly

The Spiritual Disciplines at the Core

Like the 12 Steps of recovery, the “spiritual disciplines at the core of our common life” are deceptively simple:

  • Celebrate the Holy Eucharist on Sundays and Major Feasts
  • Pray every morning and evening, soaking yourself in the Scriptures
  • Confess your sins to God, and to another person if you need to
  • Feast during Christmas and Easter and on Major Feasts; fast during Lent and on Fridays
  • Baptize, confirm, and teach new disciples
  • Care for each other “in sickness and in health”

And, just like the folks in AA have a “Big Blue Book” we have a “Red Book” (the Book of Common Prayer).

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The “daily maintenance of our spiritual condition” is not a depressing burden, as I feared when I first entered recovery.

“You’ve got it all backwards,” a fellow deacon said when I called him in a panic. “Every day you don’t drink is an oasis!”

Rather than being a burden, our spiritual disciplines can create in us an oasis, a place where we are free to greet the stranger whom we meet in our churches or as we follow Jesus out into the neighborhood.

And one last thing, these practices are mostly portable, making it easy to travel lightly.

Sure, we usually gather in a church building on Sundays and holidays, but the book we need for the Daily Office fits easily into a briefcase – in fact, you don’t even need a book, since the Forward Movement iPhone app works just as well!

And soaking daily in the Scriptures means that following God “is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven … neither is it beyond the sea …. No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and your heart for you to observe” (Deut. 30:14).

The Word is Very Near You

Listen again to that word:

“We enjoyed you … and may God have mercy on you.”

These are the words of a woman who lives in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.

These are the words of someone whose own experience of powerlessness, death, and violence is being transformed by her endurance, empowering her to offer a blessing instead of a curse.

We may not be able to offer those same words – we are not at the same place in the cycle of gospel living – but we can also participate in the resurrection life.

For us it may require a costly admission or an unwelcome realization, and it may require us to choose the cross, giving up the power and privilege we hold onto so tightly.

But we, too, can know the peace of Christ, recognize it in our neighbors, and share it with those around us.

And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among us, and remain with us always. Amen.

Longing to be clothed

You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. (Psalm 30:12)

I carry on my person everywhere I go two talismans of my recovery. 

The first is a medallion celebrating my first year of sobriety. 

  
The second is a bracelet — the last thing I bought without telling my wife — that helps me remember I don’t need to spend money when I am feeling “restless, irritable, and discontented.”

  
But what recovery really looks like for me is the Pendleton shirt I’m wearing in this picture with my grandson. 

  
After I lost my job, I was at home a lot more often. I would usually wear jeans and a turtleneck and my favorite plaid shirt. 

I remember sitting on the couch one evening thinking, “I really like this shirt; I should buy another one.”

It took only a few seconds for my new inner voice to respond. “Don’t be an idiot. This is a Pendleton shirt, and it will last forever. You won’t outlive this shirt; you don’t need to buy another one.”

Paul writes that:

We do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day …. in this tent we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed” (2 Cor. 4:16, 5:4). 

Even though God is working in us to renew our inner nature, we may need reminders of that hidden process from time to time. 

How often? 

“One day at a time,” says AA. “Daily we begin again,” say the Benedictines. 

Even though we “wish not to be unclothed,” we may have to spend time being uncomfortably open and vulnerable — honestly sitting with our restlessness and our “stinking thinking” — before we can experience a new kind of peace and serenity.

Being content, being at peace, being calm — these are what it means to be “clothed with joy.”

May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. (BCP 102)

Bearing and being changed

In one of the talks in the online course related to his book Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, Richard Rohr describes the process of recovery in the words of Thérèse of Lisieux:

Serenely bearing the trial of being displeasing to myself.

And listen to Joan Chittister on the centenary of Thomas Merton’s birth:

What Merton calls us to do as part of this slow but fulfilling process [of spiritual development] depends on the raw and ruthless debunking of the self to the self that is the ground of humility.

In these last days of Epiphany, we approach the season of Lent, a season that the Church invites us to observe “by special acts of discipline and self-denial,” and we pray:

That we, beholding by faith the light of [Jesus’] countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory (BCP 217).

Being displeasing to ourselves is not the point; being raw and ruthless in our debunking of ourselves is not the point.

Being changed into Jesus’ likeness is. Being changed from glory to glory is.

Lent is the season where we deliberately turn our gaze toward the crucified and risen Christ of Easter, the one to whom John the Baptist points us in this morning’s Gospel reading (John 1:19-28). But in Lent we are also made more keenly aware of “every weight and the sin that clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1).

We commit ourselves once more in Lent to the helpful practices of the faith, knowing with the ancient Israelites that “if we diligently observe this entire commandment before the Lord our God, we will be in the right (Deut. 6:25). But on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent we are also reminded of “our self-indulgent appetites and ways” (BCP 268).

Thérèse of Lisieux offers powerful wisdom in this situation, for we find our serenity in bearing our trials and continually returning to God’s pleasure in us. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” we pray.

Merton’s words ring true, too, for desiring abundant life in God, we can be ruthless in ridding ourselves of everything that holds us back. “Grant me the courage to change the things I can,” we pray.

And finally, it is only with our gaze on “God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart” (John 1:18) that we have a prayer of receiving “the wisdom to know the difference.”

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Forgetful of the cleansing

For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is nearsighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins. (2 Peter 1:5-9)

One of the first insights I had about the Daily Office after I entered recovery was that, even though the rubrics say the Confession of Sin is optional at the beginning of Morning Prayer (BCP 79), for me it is required.

It’s so easy for me to be “forgetful of the cleansing of past sins,” to press forward without remembering the hard-won lessons of my recovery and my new life.

It’s easy for me to start thinking things are fine, but how quickly I can slip back into the thoughts that led me into trouble in the first place. How little I really want to do what is good, how little I want to wait for anything, how little thought I give to anyone else, how little self-control I have!

The grace that filled me when I entered recovery, admitting my powerlessness and my need for God’s help, is the same kind of grace that is given to us in the sacrament of baptism.

It occurred to me today that we make our Confession of Sin and then say the Apostles’ Creed each morning so that we do not become “forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.”

The point is not to rehearse our past sins over and over — they have been forgiven, and we are made new in baptism. Rather, the point is to learn from our experience in order to better trust in the hope we have been given.

The point is to be mindful each day of our need for God, and each day to recommit ourselves to walking in the steps laid out for us.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you. (2 Peter 1:10-11)

A Collect for the Renewal of Life

O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 99)

New in the kingdom of God

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark (14:22-25)

What a difference six months makes!

I have come to realize a truth that I had only intellectually known before. As the Collect for Guidance says, “in all the cares and occupations of our life … we are ever walking in God’s sight” (BCP 100).

Six months ago, I was completely discouraged and at the end of my own power. Today, I woke up glad, looking forward to the day.

I could not manage my own life; no human power could have relieved my problem. But God could and would if I sought Him.

“In these holy mysteries,” the Collect for Maundy Thursday reminds us, Christ “gives us a pledge of eternal life” (BCP 221).

In the holy mystery of a man sharing a meal with his friends (and his betrayer) …

In the holy mystery of a teacher serving his students …

In the holy mystery of the incarnate God dying a criminal’s death …

In the holy mystery of  an empty tomb on an early Sunday morning …

That day when the Risen Christ breaks the bread and drinks the cup with us — “new in the kingdom of God” — is about to dawn again.

In that dawn, we can be glad — in every dawn, because of that one, we too can be “new in the kingdom of God.”

Following the way of the cross

From the Society of St. John the Evangelist -- www.ssje.org

From the Society of St. John the Evangelist — http://www.ssje.org

A Facebook friend whose opinion I respect, William Henry Benefield BSG, posted yesterday about reading the Passion Gospel during Holy Week:

“Perhaps one day, parishes throughout the world on Palm Sunday and Good Friday will have all of us present — the baptized Eucharistic assembly — saying or chanting the part of Christ during the Passion and not playing the ‘crowd’ as our liturgical tradition so often dictates. Our theology teaches us we are the Body of Christ … so it looks and sounds rather strange, not to mention theologically questionable, for us to be shouting ‘Crucify, Crucify’ and ‘Give us Jesus Barabbas.’ Maybe one day we the Church will finally realize who we actually are, break with the previous liturgical tradition when chanting the Passion on these two sacred days, and claim our true identity in the world.”

I’ll admit I had never heard of that being done before, as William said he had experienced at an Episcopal church in New York City.

His thoughtful post got me thinking, and I enjoyed figuring out why I disagree with him.

+ + + + +

It seems to me that while we are the Body of Christ, we are not Jesus. The tension in our lives of faith is between living “in Christ” or “following the crowd.”

I think playing the part of the crowd in the Passion is entirely appropriate as a way of realizing that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 4:8). It also helps us accomplish the movement Paul describes to the Colossians: “You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Col. 3:9b-10).

Our creator, “being found in human form … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).

In our old self, I think we are the crowd, preferring spectacle, resistant to change, and easily led. By the grace of God and through the self-offering of Jesus, we are given a new way.

Being the Body of Christ means stripping off the old self and following the way of the cross instead of following the crowd.

+ + + + +

While I completely agree with the ancient homily for Holy Saturday that William shared — “together [with Christ] we are now one undivided person” — I’m also conscious at this time in my life that I am not always the “one person” I want to be. Like Paul, I “find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21).

Like AA members do when they share their stories of encouragement, hope, and strength, perhaps we in the Church use the Passion Gospel during Holy Week to remind ourselves “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.”

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The collect for today, Monday in Holy Week, is very familiar to us as the Collect for Fridays at Morning Prayer.

I hope it will remind you as you journey with Jesus during this Holy Week what you used to be like, what happened as a result of his obedience and death, and what you are like now.

May this Holy Week open the way to life and peace for you.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 99).

The power and the presence of God

victory of life and peace

The Fifth Sunday in Lent + Healing Sunday

Sermon given at St. Thomas Episcopal Church + Menasha, WI

About 46 years ago, I was baptized, my Episcopal priest father scooping the water over my head with his hand, and my parents and godparents promising on my behalf to renounce Satan and all his works, to turn to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to see that I was brought up in the Christian faith and life.

About 35 years ago, I was confirmed, renewing that commitment to Jesus Christ and promising (with God’s grace) to follow him as my Savior and Lord. My godfather, Bishop Folwell, laid his hands on my head and prayed that the Holy Spirit would empower me for God’s service.

About 25 years ago, Katrin and I married each other, joining hands, and promising to “have and to hold, from this day forth, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.”

A couple months after that, a high school friend of Katrin’s invited me to attend a John Guest evangelistic crusade in Chicago. Seriously? An evangelistic crusade? People waving their hands in the air? As the altar call began, my skeptical self was confronted by a vision of Jesus in person. That night, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and made a mature commitment to follow him as my Lord.

About 18 years ago, Bishop Frank Griswold laid his hands on my head and made me a deacon in God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I promised not only to be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church; but more importantly “to make Christ and his redemptive love known to those among whom I live, and work, and worship.”

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We make promises before we fully understand what they will mean for us and for our lives. We vow to follow, and then we find out where we’re going.

Our namesake Thomas exemplifies this pattern. Things are coming to a head between Jesus and the religious authorities, and they could expect trouble in the days ahead.

“Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’” (John 11:14-16).

We make promises in time, without fully understanding them, and it’s only over time that we come to appreciate how they will impact our futures.

But underneath these promises, in all our lives, in all of the details of what we promise and who we share our lives with, underneath it all is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.

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A little more than 5 months ago, head in my hands, I admitted that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable, and I made a decision to turn my life and my will over to the care of God as I understand Him.

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Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones is such an accurate picture of those moments.

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord GOD, you know’” (Ezekiel 37:1-3).

When we admit we are powerless, time stops, and in the present moment we see how broken and dry and dead we have become. It’s only through that awareness that we begin to rely on God entirely. “Can these bones live? O Lord God, you know.” The meetings I now go to, the 12 Steps I now follow like millions before me are about learning to live a sober life, sober meaning “dependent on God and free from self-centeredness, fear, anger, and resentment.”

As our Gospel lesson continues (John 11:21-27), Jesus is almost to Bethany, and there is Martha – brimming with anger, seething with resentment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” What she really means is, “if you had been here, I wouldn’t be in pain right now.”

Her faith tries to reassert itself: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha says to him – focusing back on her pain, her frustration – that’s no help to me, but sure, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus looks her straight in the eyes – no hiding – and says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

She blinks, realizing as she looks back at him that her trust is stronger than her grief, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Martha trusts Jesus, and even knows him to be the Messiah, but she actually has no idea the breadth of his power or the depth of his love for her, for Mary, and for their brother, for his brother Lazarus.

What is happening here is that, faced with our grief and frustration, faced with our anger and resentment, faced with our fear of death, God’s heart breaks.

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“God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart” (John 1:18), stands with us and weeps.

When God’s eternal Spirit, blowing through all creation, touches the tears on Jesus’s cheeks, even death is no match – even graves spring open.

Underneath our helplessness, underneath our fear and resentment, in all of the details of how we have failed ourselves and those we love, underneath even our own death is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.

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Until he died about 10 years ago, there was never a time in my life when my father did not pray for me. I can still hear his voice and feel his hand on my forehead:

Rodger, I lay my hands upon you and anoint you with oil, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; beseeching our Lord Jesus Christ, that all your pain and sickness of body being put to flight, the blessing of health may be restored to you and you may enjoy that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him now and always. Amen. 

Woven throughout my life, woven into the fabric of the promises I have made to God and the admission of my failures, is another pattern of healing prayers being offered on my behalf.

One of my first conscious memories of healing prayers other than my father’s is from about 30 years ago on my first Happening – Happening number 12 in the Diocese of Albany. I loved the singing, but I was rapidly losing my voice. I asked the Spiritual Director to pray for me at the healing service, and it felt like there was soothing honey pouring down my throat – for the rest of the weekend I could sing freely and loudly, even hitting the high notes in “I am the bread of life.” Thirty years later, and I’m still singing at Happenings – this last one was Happening number 67 in the Diocese of Fond du Lac.

Here at St. Thomas, I know myself to be surrounded by healing prayer, whether it’s in the chapel after the Eucharist, or here at the rail during a healing service, or at birthday and anniversary prayers during the Peace, or through special prayers for healing after my foot surgery. Your healing ministry also took the form of an invitation – since I have been home more often these last few months – to join the Thursday morning men’s Bible study group.

We ask for healing – we accept God’s invitation to health – before we fully understand what it will mean, before we fully grasp what wholeness may free us to do.

We admit our vulnerability, and find that, paradoxically, our weakness and honesty helps to strengthen others.

We are healed in eternity – because in praying for healing we are made open to God’s eternal love for all of creation. Like with Lazarus, even death cannot stop God’s love.

Underneath these healing prayers, in all our lives, in all of the details of our sickness and pain, in all the frustration of our limitations, in the loneliness and separation we feel, in all the push and pull of our relationships, underneath it all is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.

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If you desire to know the presence and the power of God in your life more fully, I will invite you in a moment to come forward and ask a member of the healing team to pray for you.

Who knows what that healing will mean for you, who knows where it will take you, who knows what it may set you free to do with and for others?

If you’d like to know “that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve God now and always,” I invite you to come forward now and ask.

victory of life and peace