Tag Archives: God

12 Steps of Christmas | St. Stephen, deacon and martyr

Step Two – “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Morning Prayer for the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr, can be found here.

My heart trusts in him, and I have been helped

December 26, on the Western Christian calendar, is the feast of St. Stephen, one of the first martyrs who witnessed to his faith in Jesus as Lord even in the face of death by stoning.

Stephen’s story, told in Acts 6-7, is about trusting in a new revelation of God. In this case, the revelation is that Jesus himself was God and was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.

His witness, the sermon Stephen preached indicting the Sanhedrin (the religious leaders of Jerusalem) for opposing the Holy Spirit, is a reinterpretation of Jewish history that they cannot stand for.

Stephen’s trust in the Son of God and in this new revelation is so complete that he is not afraid to die. He is filled with a power greater than himself.

Higher Power

Many people I have met in AA meetings talk about how difficult it was for them to accomplish  Step Two.

They struggled to believe in, let alone acknowledge the existence of “a Power greater than ourselves” — which (with a capital P, of course) would seem to refer to the God of Christianity, especially of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran churches so prevalent where I live.

I did not have that particular struggle. As a person brought up in the church and serving for 20 years as an ordained minister, I have always trusted in the existence of God.

But I’m not sure I ever trusted God to “restore me to sanity.”

What really struck me about Step Two was its suggestion that the AA group itself might serve as one’s “Higher Power” as far as recovery goes. The point is, the group has wisdom that I don’t. In that sense, they are greater than I am.

I do well to listen to their counsel, to their stories of “experience, strength, and hope,” to their trust in a Higher Power, as I deal with my own issues.

The wisdom of tradition

There are clear ties here, in my mind, to the traditions of the church and the humility that we might be called to exercise in the face of 2,000 years of the lived experience of the saints.

St. Stephen, the first to demonstrate such a powerful faith, is often pictured holding up a church. Perhaps we are sustained, held up, by the faith of those who came before us.

perseverar-em-Jesus-3We are not the first believers to struggle in our faith, or to suffer because of our belief, or to doubt the presence of God in our lives. We are not the first to face ridicule, or to feel dryness in our prayers, or to question the dogmas that are being pushed on us.

Humility simply means admitting that we might have something to learn from believers who have wisdom that we don’t.

Putting away all earthly anxieties

But more is needed than just learning from the AA group or the church’s traditions if our Higher Power is to  “restore us to sanity.”

What shines through the stories of recovery I have heard is transformed lives. People talk about a whole new way of living that is not based on fear or addiction, but on gratitude and sobriety.

What is even more remarkable is the way people long in recovery maintain their poise even in the face of repeated trials and the need to “keep working the program.” Some even make the astonishing claim that hitting rock bottom was the best thing that ever happened to them.

In the face of struggles and doubts, people in the group “completely give themselves to this simple program” (Big Book 58) which is laid out in the remaining Steps.

It may not be quite the same as facing death by stoning, but practicing recovery — especially coming to believe that a Power greater than ourselves will restore us to sanity — seems to call forth from people a willingness to face difficult situations and people head on but without anxiety.

May we, like Stephen, give ourselves completely to this Power greater than ourselves in trust that we will be restored.

Collect of the Day

We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

A Collect for Saturdays

Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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You know all the prayers. You are God.

Neil Gaiman recounts this small scene in his stunning story titled, “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury.”

A poor man found himself in a forest as night fell, and he had no prayer-book to say his evening prayers.

So he said, “God, who knows all things, I have no prayer-book, and I do not know any prayers by heart. But you know all the prayers. You are God. So this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to say the alphabet, and I will let you put the words together.”

In the “Sunday’s Readings” article in this week’s issue of The Living Church, the authors speak of the glory of God who is beyond all our words:

The consistent theme of [Trinity Sunday]’s readings is the glory of God: a glory so deep and so rich that even the exalted poetry of Psalm 29 only scratches the surface. Wise theologians have said before that we will spend the rest of eternity learning about God and never exhausting the topic, because God is infinite and we are not.

Perhaps, like Gaiman’s narrator, we find ourselves grasping only the “dictionary-shaped hole on the shelf” rather than the words.

Perhaps, at the end, that is enough.

As Trinity Sunday approaches, I urge you to listen to Gaiman’s lovely story and join him in saying:

“Dear God, hear my prayer …

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

…”

Having the Son of God

And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:11-12)

What does it mean to “have” the Son?

Does it mean saying particular things about Jesus? Reciting particular creeds of the Church?

Does it mean arguing about religion? Imposing religious laws on people?

Does it mean wearing certain Christian t-shirts? Wearing certain ecclesiastical robes? Having a certain hairstyle? Wearing a certain hat?

Does it mean reading special prayers? Making up special prayers? Singing special music?

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What might it mean to “have” life?

Might it mean owning up to our own faults? Admitting our own mistakes?

Might it mean praising God for the way things are? Thanking God for what is?

Might it mean receiving forgiveness? Giving forgiveness?

Might it mean serving God? Might it mean being served by God?

Love (III)

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

-George Herbert

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.

XTD68231

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.

christ-in-gethsemane-p

“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

 

Out of the depths

74585-From-the-bottom-of-the-well_view

 

Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers; *
you are worthy of praise; glory to you.
Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple; *
on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you, beholding the depths; *
in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.
Glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

I’m not sure these were the exact words Joseph said to himself as he looked up from the bottom of the pit his brothers had thrown him into (Genesis 37:12-24).

It’s kind of strange that they’re the words we say (Canticle 13) right after we read that lesson from Genesis at Morning Prayer today.

But it’s also kind of appropriate, this juxtaposition between the bottom of the pit and God’s glory, especially during the season of Lent.

Lent makes us mindful how far we are from the glory God intends for us.

Lent reminds us in Paul’s words that “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:26-27).

This particular Lent reminds me, as I work the steps in my recovery process, that I “could not manage [my] own [life]; that probably no human power could have relieved [my problem]; that God could and would if He were sought” (Big Book 60).

The collect we usually read on Tuesday mornings also feels especially appropriate when we consider God’s goodness — God’s choosing us — in the face of our own sin and the predicaments we find ourselves in.

A Collect for Peace

O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 99)