Tag Archives: Christmas

This child is our spark | Sermon for 2 Christmas

The candles and the fire sparkle in the dim light of the simple home.

The visitors from far away have come and gone. The presents are opened and already forgotten; the child is playing with the boxes they came in.

The child is young and probably won’t remember the presents, anyway, especially after his family takes flight in their desperate need and leaves that simple home behind.

The British poet and priest Malcolm Guite writes:

Refugee

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font
But he is with a million displaced people
on the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road,
Fleeing the wrath of someone else’s quarrel,
Glancing behind and shouldering their load.
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.

As we stood at the beginning of this service, we prayed:

O God, who wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ … (BCP 214)

On this Second Sunday after Christmas, the Christ Child inspires us to reflect on the dignity of human nature.

First, we must listen to our prayer and its wisdom that God “wonderfully created … the dignity of human nature.” That is our starting point. God created all that is, including us, and it is good.

But we also know that sin quickly entered the picture, and that human history has often been undignified, to say the very least.

Our dignity can be obscured by our circumstances:

By poverty

By racial prejudice

By sickness

By war – making refugees out of people fleeing from the threat of death

And our dignity can be disfigured by our selves:

By greed

By fear

By anger

By cruelty – like the murderous arrogance of Herod and any who lash out at others

But our dignity can also be restored by our creator’s life-giving Spirit:

By our wonder at the stars and at human learning

By our faithfulness to God’s leading

By our foresight to protect those whom we love

By our willingness to travel far from home and face risks

Another British poet, George Szirtes, was himself a refugee from Hungary at the age of eight.

His haunting poem called “The Flight” was set to music as a commission for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge this year.

The sea is a graveyard
the beach is dry bones
the child at the station
is pelted with stones
the cop stands impassive
the ambulance drones

Its dissonant chords like wailing sirens made it hard to breathe as I listened last week:

We move on for ever
our feet leave no mark
you won’t hear our voices
once we’re in the dark
but here is our fire
this child is our spark.

This child is our spark.

This child whose very life restores the dignity of human nature.

This child who humbles himself to share our humanity, his own dignity obscured by poverty and war, by arrest and execution, but never disfigured by himself.

This child who through his death and resurrection, and the sharing of his Spirit, invites us to share in his divine life … this child is our spark.

We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font
But he is with a million displaced people
on the long road of weariness and want.
For even as we sing our final carol
His family is up and on that road …

If this child’s spark – if this Christ Child’s spark – is to burst into flame, then it is up to us to work against all that obscures and disfigures the dignity of human nature – by combating poverty, standing against war, facing up to racial prejudice, exposing greed, and abstaining from cruelty.

If this child’s spark – if this Christ Child’s spark – is to burst into flame, then it is up to us to participate with the creator’s life-giving Spirit in restoring the dignity of human nature – by our willingness and wonder, by our faith and foresight, by our humility in the face of the oppressed, and by our presence wherever humans still suffer.

That presence sparkles in dim light and desperate need.

That presence is not lightly forgotten or tossed aside.

That presence is in fact the Christ Child making his home with his people.

Here is our fire. This child is our spark. Amen.

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12 Steps of Christmas | Second Sunday in Christmas

Step Ten – “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong
promptly admitted it.”

Morning Prayer for this Second Sunday after Christmas can be found here.

Clothe yourselves with humility

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. (Col. 3:12-14)

In yesterday’s post on Step Nine I ran a little bit ahead of myself (a common symptom of addictive behavior) when I anticipated the focus of today’s Step Ten.

When we approach Step Ten we commence to put our A.A. way of living to practical use, day by day, in fair weather or foul. Then comes the acid test: can we stay sober, keep in emotional balance, and live to good purpose under all conditions? (88)

The habit of daily self-examination is one that dovetails nicely with the Daily Office, and this Step in particular has helped me appreciate the connection between recovery practices and the religious traditions I have known my whole life.

Confession of Sin

You’ll notice that the service of Morning Prayer that I linked to above does not include a Confession of Sin.

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen. (BCP 78)

My knowledge of liturgical history helps me understand that the Confession of Sin is optional in the Daily Office; it can be omitted, for example, during festive seasons like Christmas.

However, my practice of Step Ten has taught me that the Confession is not optional; it’s the daily self-examination that helps keep me on the road of recovery.

The quick inventory is aimed at our daily ups and downs, especially those where people or new events throw us off balance and tempt us to make mistakes.

… in thought, word, and deed …

… by what we have done …

… and by what we have left undone …

… we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

 

We need not be discouraged

What I have enjoyed learning as I practice recovery is how much the basic spiritual wisdom is the same.

In all these situations we need self-restraint, honest analysis of what is involved, a willingness to admit when the fault is ours, and an equal willingness to forgive when the fault is elsewhere. We need not be discouraged when we fall into the error of our old ways, for these disciplines are not easy. We shall look for progress, not for perfection. (91)

Daily we confess our sins, daily we resolve to do better, daily we admit that we cannot do it alone.

Daily we praise God and give thanks that we don’t have to.

Collect of the Day

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, you Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 214)

12 Steps of Christmas | Saturday

Step Nine – “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

Morning Prayer for this Saturday after the First Sunday of Christmas can be found here.

Who among you loves life *
and desires long life to enjoy prosperity?
Keep your tongue from evil-speaking *
and your lips from lying words.
Turn from evil and do good; *
seek peace and pursue it. (Ps. 34:12-14)

Step Nine, more than any other Step, I think, invites us into an entirely new way of living.

While laying out a sensible approach to making direct amends (perhaps for the very first time) to those whom we have harmed, Step NIne also reminds us that:

Of course, there is no pat answer which can fit all such dilemmas. But all of them do require a complete willingness to make amends as fast and as far as may be possible in a given set of conditions. (87)

Being willing to make amends “as fast and as far as possible” is the practice which really unlocked recovery for me.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Two incidents in my first year of recovery underscore how major a change this was.

First, because I spent a lot of time at home instead of on the road after losing my job, my wife and I had many more occasions to talk — about anything or nothing at all.

One evening, while she was making dinner, we were talking about money (which always triggered me) and I felt myself making my usual defensive responses. The same uncomfortable silence fell over the kitchen until I said, “I’m sorry about how I responded. Here’s what’s happening. Can we try this again?”

When I was working again, the second opportunity to practice making amends came my way.

I have always been a quick learner, a glib and articulate public speaker, but my new job required mastery of significantly more content than I previously had to work with.

When I was presenting to a colleague to demonstrate my competence, we came to a section of material I had neither studied nor prepared well. He very appropriately called me on the carpet, and I felt my cheeks burning with both shame and arrogance.

“How dare he challenge me?”

I took a breath and replied. “You’re right. I did not prepare as I should have. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”

To my astonishment, he accepted my apology and agreed to my request to demonstrate the material again the next day.

The generous response of most people to such quiet sincerity will often astonish us. Even our severest and most justified critics will frequently meet us more than halfway on the first trial. (84)

What recovery has taught me, first and foremost, is that I must take responsibility for my own actions and own up to them when I have harmed another person.

Don’t just “show up and throw up”

Some of the wisdom of Step Nine makes clear that early members of A.A. were professional salesmen, because their teaching is infused not only with insights into human relationships but also a sense of timing and appropriateness.

While we may be quite willing to reveal the very worst, we must be sure to remember that we cannot buy our own peace of mind at the expense of others. (84)

Experience taught the early members of the fellowship that there was a right time for most of the conversations that making direct amends would require.

We shall at once think of a few people who know all about our drinking, and who have been most affected by it. But even in these cases, we may need to use a little more discretion than we did with the family. We may not want to say anything for several weeks, or longer. First we will wish to be reasonably certain that we are on the A.A. beam. Then we are ready to go to these people, to tell them what A.A. is, and what we are trying to do. (84)

We may have an experience like I did, an admission of fault that was met with generosity. In those cases it is important not to think it’s “one and done,” but to remember this is a new way of living.

The temptation to skip the more humiliating and dreaded meetings that still remain may be great. We will often manufacture plausible excuses for dodging these issues entirely. Or we may just procrastinate, telling ourselves the time is not yet, when in reality we have already passed up many a fine chance to right a serious wrong. Let’s not talk prudence while practicing evasion. (85)

This Step is really asking us to act differently as well as to think differently. We are to be quick to admit fault, slow to place blame, eager to take the first step to restore a relationship.

Bearing with one another in love

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians asks for the same eagerness in acting on behalf of others.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1)

Paul is urging the Christians in Ephesus to practice unity, to live like they are one in Christ, united in one calling by the baptism they share.

Likewise, we in recovery are united by the common bonds of suffering and hope that we share. We also are to express that hope in action that seeks the best for others.

For the readiness to take the full consequences of our past acts, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is the very spirit of Step Nine. (87)

Collect of the Day

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

12 Steps of Christmas | First Sunday in Christmas

Step Three – “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

The readings for the Holy Eucharist on this First Sunday after Christmas can be found here.

I’m preaching this morning at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Menasha, Wisconsin — so today’s reflection will sound a lot like the sermon that it is.

God as we understood Him

There is a supreme irony in reflecting on Step Three on this particular Sunday, given that the Gospel reading from John (which is always read on the First Sunday after Christmas) contains some of the most mind-blowing language about God contained anywhere in Scripture.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:1-18 passim)

So, let’s get this straight.

This baby, born in a feed trough in a stable to an unwed mother, is God.

This infant, born far from home because of a government requirement that everyone participate in a census, is Life.

This child, who will grow up to be a perfectly ordinary Jewish man living under Roman occupation, is Light.

This man, framed by religious leaders, arrested by soldiers, and killed by the state as a political criminal, is Grace.

What this man revealed to his friends by his life and teaching, is Truth.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, that has made him known.”

OK, that’s perfectly clear, then. Everyone understand?

Grace and truth

Here’s the spiritual heart of John’s magnificent prologue: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

What we thought we understood about God has been turned upside down.

What we thought was a set of perfectly sensible regulations and statutes and commandments and ordinances — rules that would set us apart as better than others — turns out not to help at all.

What we thought was life was really Law — and we can never live up to what the Law requires. The evidence of our failure is all around us, most especially in the cynical way we talk about principles and values and then just do whatever the hell we want.

Step Three asks us to consider how well our independence has served us. “This brave philosophy, wherein each man plays God, sounds good in the speaking, but it still has to meet the acid test: how well does it actually work?”

Should his own image in the mirror be too awful to contemplate (and it usually is), he might first take a look at the results normal people are getting from self-sufficiency. Everywhere he sees people filled with anger and fear, society breaking up into warring fragments. Each fragment says to the others, “We are right and you are wrong.” Every such pressure group, if it is strong enough, self-righteously imposes its will upon the rest. And everywhere the same thing is being done on an individual basis. The sum of all this mighty effort is less peace and less brotherhood than before. The philosophy of self-sufficiency is not paying off. Plainly enough, it is a bone-crushing juggernaut whose final achievement is ruin. (37)

Into this bitter, barren ruin is born a baby, and John asks us to believe that he is the creative Word of God come to live among us, full of glory, full of grace and truth.

Elsewhere in his Gospel, John says he has “written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Our independent, intellectual, self-sufficient selves balk at this idea.

The paradox of willingness and grace

The explanation of Step Three continues, “The more we become willing to depend upon a Higher Power, the more independent we actually are” (36).

What we start to realize is that when Law comes first, we can never succeed — we are crushed by our failure to live up to its demands.

But when grace comes first, we find that all we have to be is willing to take the next step. Our willingness helps us to exert ourselves in the tasks placed before us.

All of the Twelve Steps [what Richard Rohr refer to as “the coded Gospel”] require sustained and personal exertion to conform to their principles and so, we trust, to God’s will. It is when we try to make our will conform with God’s that we begin to use it rightly. (40)

The paradox of willingness is that depending upon God makes us more free.

The paradox of grace is that it makes us more willing to pay back what we owe to God who gave away everything — power, might, majesty, freedom, even his human life — in order to live among us, show us his truth, and reconcile us to himself and to each other.

In the words of my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.

O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.

The opening of John’s Gospel is another hymn: “From his fullness we have received, grace upon grace.” Grace comes first, and always has since the time that the Word was with God, making the light that shines in the darkness. Grace comes first.

All that God asks of us in return is that we be willing, willing to follow the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, as best as we can understand him, along “the way to a faith that works” (34).

I’m willing to try today. How about you?

All the peoples of the earth / Aller Völker der Erde

Oh Gott, du hast aller Völker der Erde aus demselben Blut gemacht, und deinen gepriesenen Sohn gesandt, um denen, die weit entfernt und denen die nahe sind, Frieden zu verkünden: Gib, dass Menschen überall nach dir suchen und dich finden; bringe die Völker in deine Herde; gieße deinen Geist aus über alles Fleisch; und eile mit dem Kommen deines Reiches; durch Jesus Christus, unsern Herrn. Amen.

This is one of the familiar prayers for mission in Morning Prayer, but its plea takes on new meaning when one prays for “all the peoples of the earth” in a different language.

In this Christmas season especially, it’s important to remember that God became human for all of us, that God shares the flesh that we all share.

I’m grateful during this trip to Germany for the work of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, which has translated portions of the Book of Common Prayer into Italian, French, Spanish, and German.

Praying the Daily Office (das Gebet der Tagzeiten) in German means, for me, slowing down and paying attention to the words of the prayers in a new way.

What practice might you embrace during these 12 days of Christmas that will encourage you to slow down and “ponder all these things” in a new way?

Beginning the Office

Prefer Nothing to Christ

Yesterday we prepared to say the Office by finding our place in the Book of Common Prayer and marking various places in the prayer book and Bible for easy reference.

Today we will begin the Office, looking at the opening sentences, the Confession of Sin, the Invitatory and Psalter.

Tomorrow we will look at the Lessons and Canticles, and the next day at the Prayers.

Where to begin?

The proper beginning of Morning Prayer is the opening sentences on BCP 80: “Lord, open our lips. / And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

At Evening Prayer (and other offices throughout the day), the opening sentences are “O God, make speed to save us. / O Lord, make haste to help us.” (BCP 117).

You’ll notice, though, that there are several pages of material printed before those opening sentences. You may choose to begin the Office with a seasonal sentence from Scripture and/or the Confession of Sin.

Seasonal Sentences

Look at BCP 75-78. You’ll see four pages of Scripture verses chosen to fit the seasons of the Church Year.

You might choose to begin the Office with one of these sentences in order to give your prayers the “flavor” of the season. This is especially helpful to distinguish seasons like Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, from the long “ordinary” seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost.

Since it’s Advent now, you might choose to begin with “Watch, for you do not know when the master of the house will come …” (BCP 75). Over the next four weeks, you might change it up a little by using one of the other two choices.

Confession of Sin

Look at BCP 79. The italics at the very top of the page are called rubrics. They are directions telling you what to do next.

In this case, the rubrics say, The following Confession of Sin may be said; or the Office may continue at once with “Lord, open our lips” (BCP 79).

“May” is an important word in the rubrics, and it means what it says. You don’t have to say the Confession every time you say the Office; you may say it.

Many people who say both Morning and Evening Prayer choose to say the Confession only in the evening.

In this somewhat more penitential season of Advent, and certainly in the season of Lent, it may seem right to say the Confession at every Office. Again, the choice helps us focus on the season of the Church Year and its emphases.

At any rate, if you’re saying the Office alone, you can omit the introduction to the Confession and simply start, “Most merciful God …”

When you say the absolution at the top of BCP 80, change the pronouns from “you” to “us” — you’ll see the rubrics there to remind you.

The Invitatory and Psalter

Everything we’ve said so far is optional, remember. You could simply begin the Office here on BCP 80 with “Lord, open our lips.”

It’s customary to make a sign of the cross with your thumb over your lips when you say “Lord, open our lips” at Morning Prayer and to make the regular sign of the cross at the sentence “O God, make speed to save us” at the other offices.

Here’s how it goes:

Lord, + open our lips.
And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
Alelluia.

Pause here for breath while we talk about …

The Invitatory Psalm

The Office begins with a selection from the Psalter, which you looked up in the Daily Office Lectionary and marked with a bookmark. Before you say those Psalms, however, you say the Invitatory (or opening) Psalm.

There are two Invitatory Psalms, called Venite and Jubilate after the first word of the Psalm in Latin: “Come” and “Be joyful,” respectively.

Because the Venite is commonly used all the time as the Invitatory, you might like to use the Jubilate during Advent and Lent, just to set the season apart a little. There’s also a special canticle called Pascha nostrum, or “Christ our Passover,” that’s meant for use during Easter.

Again you’ll notice some optional material on BCP 80-82 before the Invitatory Psalms are printed. These are antiphons, or refrains, which you may use in order to give a seasonal flavor to the Venite or Jubilate, which you say every day.

So today, saying the Jubilate might go something like this:

Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him.

Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; *
serve the Lord with gladness
and come before his presence with a song.

Know this: The Lord himself is God; *
he himself has made us, and we are his;
we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving;
go into his courts with praise; *
give thanks to him and call upon his Name.

For the Lord is good;
his mercy is everlasting; *
and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

Our King and Savior now draws near: Come let us adore him.

The Psalm or Psalms Appointed

The Office continues with the Psalms appointed for the morning or evening.

You may say the “Glory to the Father” at the end of all the Psalms, or at the end of each individual Psalm.

Before you turn to the Psalms, though, let me suggest that you refer to the Table of Canticles that you printed out from the Resources page and taped here at BCP 84. Move your Morning Prayer bookmark or ribbon to mark the canticle assigned to follow the first reading.

Today is Monday, for example, so Canticle 9 is appointed to follow the OT reading.

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If you take a moment now to mark it, you can read the Psalms, then turn directly to the OT lesson, then when you come back here, you can continue on with the Office very smoothly.

What you’re doing with your Morning Prayer bookmark or ribbon is holding your place in the service as you turn to the other resources you need for the Office: the Psalms, the Scripture readings, the Collects and other prayers.

We’ll look in more detail at the Lessons and the Canticles tomorrow morning.

Until then, I hope the Office is beginning to feel a bit more manageable. Every blessing!

That is not what ships are built for

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“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” -John Augustus Shedd

It’s tempting to read words like those from today’s Epistle and feel content. “So we have known and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

Abiding sounds like being snug in port, securely tied to the dock, battened down, gently rocking on the peaceful swells. It’s a lovely picture.

But that’s not what ships are built for, and that’s not what we are meant for.

John goes further in his letter: “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:21).

Abiding in God means living in the way God lives – out in the world, vulnerable, open, available, giving without fear. We can live that way because God did it first in the person of Jesus.

So don’t be afraid to put out from safe harbor, and don’t be afraid of the storms that may come. That’s what your ship is built for, and the One who built it abides in you.