Hallelujah is a word that we do not often use outside of church. It is one of those words like tabernacle, amen, or oblation that reside in the church lexicon. Hallelujah is also one of the few words that has been borrowed from Hebrew into English. Hallelujah literally means “praise to Yah.” In Judaism the sacred name of God cannot be said in full, therefore Yah stands in for the full name YHWH/Yahweh.
Hallelujah–praise be to God. That is a typical shout of all Easter services. This is especially significant because we have not said Hallelujah or Alleluia for the entire season of Lent. We have buried that word under the Altar or in the garden. We raise it up with Jesus on Easter Day.
Not only is it fit for Easter Day it is also fit for this glorious season of spring. We see flowers blossoming, grass growing and trees budding. We hear birds chirping. There are longer days and life returning to the world around us. We can shout Hallelujah praise to God for the glory of resurrection of our Lord and the resurrection of the natural world. The dry leaves of last fall disintegrate into the earth nourishing new growth. Limbs that seemed dead burst forth in green, violet, yellow and pink. Nests that were abandoned during migration now house birds returning from their winter. Bees buzz as they zip from flower to flower taking up nectar to make honey. The world is alive again.
Eastertide brings to mind a wonderful poem of e. e. cummings, “i thank you God for most this amazing.” Don’t just read it with your eyes. Say it out loud, shout it even, or whisper it if that feels right to you. However you say it, savor the words and enjoy the how the words play on your tongue and in your ear as they evoke the Resurrection of our Lord and the resurrection of the world around us. Revel in the “blue true dream of sky and … everything …which is yes.” Hallelujah!
i thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any–lifted from the no of all nothing–human merely being doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Good Friday is a curious day. When we read or hear the Gospel accounts everything, except for the crowds, seems so matter of fact. There is the rigged trial before the Sanhedrin, while just outside the chamber in the courtyard Peter denies even knowing Jesus. Then there is the transporting of Jesus to Pilate, then to Herod, then back to Pilate. Two men who are said to have despised each other, playing a game of political deference with a man’s life. Pilate questions Jesus and in this Gospel they have a bit of a philosophical discussion about truth. The whipping of Jesus is a formality. The Romans always did it before a crucifixion to weaken the one being put to death. The crown of thorns and purple robe may have been impromptu, but it is just the sort of thing that soldiers do to humiliate and dehumanize a prisoner before execution.
In John, the trip to Golgotha is uneventful. There are no jeering crowds. Jesus does not fall. He carries his cross through the crowded streets of Jerusalem, and no one seems to pay much attention. Once on the cross, Jesus resumes control of the situation. He speaks carefully to his mother and the disciple whom he loved. He does not express pain nor does he express anger at God. He stays in control to the last moment when he says “It is finished” and gives up his spirit.
Even those around him seem calm. Nicodemus who earlier had a discourse with Jesus at night, because he feared his fellow members of the Sanhedrin, comes out in the daylight and assists Joseph of Arimathea with the removal of the body from the cross and preparation for burial, using an extraordinary amount of spices. At this point everyone goes away in sorrow.
Whether we follow John’s account or the accounts of the other three evangelists we tend to think this is something that happened once and long ago.1 It is not. Christ is crucified every day. Christ is crucified when a girl is assaulted for going to school as Shamsia was in Afghanistan. Christ is crucified when the Rohingya people are persecuted by the Myanmar government. Christ is crucified when nations go to war, and innocents are slaughtered whether it is in Katyn, Poland, Oradour-sur-Glane, France, or My Lai, Vietnam. Whether it is Christians slaughtering Muslims during the crusades or Christians slaughtering Christians in Ireland and France and Switzerland over their ownership of Christ. Christ is crucified every time someone utters a racial slur, or when a child is terrorized by schoolmates for the color of his skin.
We do not seem to learn. The Crucifixion should have happened only once and long ago. Even if no one else learned the lesson of summary judgment and the brutality of capital punishment we who call ourselves Christians should have. We who know that our Lord and Savior was murdered by the religious and political powers of his day should know better, but we don’t. We just keep on keepin’ on with the same blind and brutal ways of our ancestors. It is true that the sins of the fathers are visited on their children. Until we can break the cycle of bloodlust, vengeance, and fear Good Friday will haunt us as it does each year. Only when we break that cycle will Good Friday truly be good and the darkness at noon will finally break through into glorious light for Jesus will never again be crucified in vain.
Yesterday we observed the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. Needless to say this was not a happy anniversary. One of the results of the lockdown was a dramatic drop in traffic on the roads and in the air. There was a wonderful byproduct to this drop in traffic—quiet. Without airplanes overhead, motorcycles thundering through town, and the day-to-day automobile and truck traffic the ambient noise level dropped. All of a sudden, it seemed like the birds, no longer competing with all of that noise, decided to chirp more often and for longer periods of time. The quiet was glorious, amazing, and at times a little eerie.
At first I think many folks relished the quiet as a lovely respite from the otherwise noisy world. However, as time went on we started to feel lonely and sought out sounds that reminded us of being normal. Also, as restrictions eased a bit, some of the traffic noise started coming back. Planes started flying into Dulles more frequently. Motorcyclists came back in droves and brought the sound of their exhaust with them. For merchants and restauranteurs those sounds might translate into the ring of the cash register. For others, birds included, it is the encroachment on our break from the noisy modern world.
What I am finding for myself and others is a craving for a return to periods of quiet. We cannot control the noise of the world around us, but, with some practice, we can control the noise in our heads. The constant chatter of the monkey brain or the cocktail party of voices that are our thoughts can be stilled. Religious folks of all stripes know this and seek this. By silencing these voices, we have the opportunity for the one true voice of God to break in and be discernable.
In recent years, what had been a spiritual practice of monks in the East and the West, has been popularized as mindfulness. That is the seeking of inner peace and calm through the stilling of the mind. In Christianity, this practice, as taught by the late Fr. Thomas Keating and the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, is called Contemplative Prayer. It is a simple practice, but like most simple practices it can be hard to master.
First, adopt a prayer word or phrase. This is something you chant silently to help clear your head of the other chatter. It is also the word that you use to bring yourself back to the center when you discover your mind has wandered off. The word can be simple such as surrender, be still, or a little more complex such as the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”)
Once you have a prayer word find a quiet and spare place to sit. While an icon or candle may be helpful, too much visual stimulation is counterproductive. Sit erect, not at attention just not slouching, with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Allow your hands to rest lightly in your lap. Focus on your candle or gently close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths in and out. Then really long deep breaths through your nose that expand your belly and chest. Exhale through your mouth slowly counting to ten. Do this several times (these are called cleansing breaths in yoga). Then begin silently chanting your prayer word or phrase.
You can allow the silent chanting to simply fade out as your mind calms. If you find your head chattering again return to your prayer word to calm things. Do not chastise yourself if you mind chatters. Do your best not to get frustrated. This is all part of the practice.
Start with five minutes of silence and gradually work up to twenty minutes. If you find yourself having trouble with a longer time then drop back. Like learning to run distances or lift weights we have to build up our prayer muscles slowly. Over time work up to two sessions a day of twenty minutes each. Once again be patient. One session of ten minutes is better than not doing this at all. I expect you will find yourself craving more silence as you feel the benefits of the experience seep into all parts of your life.
This practice can be done alone or in groups. It can be done at home, in a park, or in the church. Experiment with the location, time of day, and partners. If you are having trouble getting in tune with this let me know. We can set up a location for a group to meet or even have sessions via Zoom. I participate in a Zoom contemplative prayer session each week and find it very helpful.
Whatever you do find ways to cultivate silence in your life. You will find it transformative, healing, and you will be drawn closer to the heart of God.
As we finish the first full week of Lent, I hope that your intentions for this season, such as fasting, study, and prayer are taking hold and propelling you into a different spiritual place. Last week I advised taking some time to rest as we entered the season. We needed some time to clear our heads and hearts in order to get the most out of our Lenten disciplines. Now, like a hiker after a few days on the trail, we hope to be hitting our stride. What if we aren’t, then what do we do?
It may be that we needed more rest and more time for clearing our head. These past months have not been easy for anyone. The pall of the pandemic hangs over our heads. The newscasts with the daily and cumulative death tolls weighs us down. The illnesses of loved ones raise concern. The fear of catching the virus ourselves heightens our anxiety. That is just the pandemic.
This country and the world seem to be living through a liminal time. We are leaving something old and familiar behind and headed into something unknown. Even if the promise of the future is one of greater equality and justice for all, what do we have to give up to get there. We don’t know. We are hopeful, but even good change creates anxiety.
Lent is so important in times like these. Lent is a time of returning to God. The still small voice of God does not add another boom of burden and responsibility. Rather, like the comforting embrace of a mother, God soothes our hurts and pains. When we settle ourselves into God through prayer, meditation, or simple silence we can give up our worries and fears and place them in God’s care. There is nothing magical to this, it is like handing over a heavy package for another to handle. We feel lighter. We breathe easier. We stand straighter. We find our minds cleared.
I suggested giving up twenty minutes of screen time in exchange for twenty minutes of silence, meditation, or prayer as a Lenten discipline. This time of year one can easily sit at the window or even outdoors and contemplate nature. We can notice the trees budding, the daffodils peeking through the dead leaves or ice, the songs of birds as they return, the new slant to the sun, the whisper of clouds in the sky, and much more. The time spent in peace instead of in front of a screen will be restorative. Over the course of days you will find it easier to do and the rewards will be accumulating.
Perhaps instead of striding into Lent, we can sit our way into it. Perhaps the disciplines we set our sights on are not nearly as important as claiming peace and silence for our nourishment. Our good intentions may have revealed a deeper need to just be, rather than doing one more thing. Settle into being, it may be the most important journey you take this year.
Our first Lenten discipline may not seem like a discipline at all. It is rest. I can hear my conscience say, “But Lent is about doing something. I have to give up something or take on a new discipline.” This year let it be rest. We are so busy doing that we have little time for just being. Let us give up busyness and take on the discipline of rest.
When we rest we allow ourselves to breath. We allow our bodies to release the stress of daily life. We set aside chores for respite. We allow ourselves to feel our body, to hear our heart beat, to feel the intake of breath, the filling of our lungs, to work of our diaphragm, and the release of the breath back to the world.
Rest also allows us to relax our mind. Our brain is like a monkey in a cage jumping from side to side, bouncing off the floor and ceiling. It is responding to stimuli from all around us. It never has time to settle. Screens only make it worse as respond to rapid fire images, messages, and sounds assailing us from all around. Our brain needs time for peace, silence, observing the clouds or stars, and daydreaming to clear the clutter and rest.
Give yourself the gift of the discipline or rest this Lenten season. As you do you will find yourself refreshed in body and mind. You will also find that you are more attuned to your inner world and to God. Even God when the creation was finished allowed time to rest. That gift of rest was bestowed upon humanity in the form of Sabbath. Whether it is a weekly or daily discipline, Sabbath is an acknowledgment of God’s gift, and a celebration of God’s love for you just as you are, and you don’t have to do a single thing.
When I was a child there were certain activities that went into preparing for church on Sunday. Most of the preparation happened on Saturday night. Step one was polishing my shoes. I was taught that we wanted to look our best for church. It was not about showing off to others, but about honoring God. We wanted to put our best foot forward (pun intended) on Sunday morning. Polished shoes, white shirt, clip-on tie, dark pants, and hair slicked down with Brylcreem were part of the preparation.
Step two was getting my offering envelope ready. As a boy when I received my weekly allowance on Saturday I was to set aside a portion for the church. A dime, a quarter or a dollar was put into the envelope and set with my Bible.
Step three was to read the Sunday School lesson. It was often rushed which meant I was not really prepared for Sunday morning. I could have read the lesson earlier in the week, but there was always other homework to do.
As I matured my Sunday preparations changed. I still tried to dress nicely, but I stopped the whole Brylcreem thing. I still prepared my offering and put it in the envelope; although now it was more likely to be a check than coins. What was most different was preparing myself mentally and spiritually for Sunday. Reading the lessons ahead of time helped me prepare myself for the sermon and hymns we would sing. Preparation helped open me up so that I might have a richer experience on Sunday morning.
At my previous parish I helped write a series of Weekly Bible Studies available to anyone who wanted to receive them. These Bible Studies offered a reflection on the gospel, and questions to ponder that would help the reader ponder how the reading was speaking to them in the moment. These studies are available here. You can also sign up to receive them via email each week. I strongly encourage you to give them a try. Even a quick reading of them will give you deeper insight into how the Gospels are alive and speaking to our lives today. The Gospels may be set in time, but their lessons are timeless and invite us into them anew each time we read them.
Give the Gospels a little time each week. Prepare for Sunday the way you would prepare for an important meeting or doctor’s appointment. For Sunday is an important day where we meet God in word and liturgy and music. It is also where we receive healing for our souls. Being Prepared for Sunday is a gift we give ourselves and those we love.
This week’s blog post is offered by guest blogger The Rev. Stephen Wade. Steve is a retired Episcopal priest who has served a number of parishes including Trinity Copley Square in Boston and Immanuel on the Hill in Alexandria. Steve regularly attends Emmanuel Middleburg with his wife Molly, both of whom are valued participants in this parish and advisors to me. Steve’s meditation on prayer is most relevant in this time of pandemic, but is a powerful comment in prayer at any time in our lives. Thank you Steve for sharing this meditation with us. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Let’s face it. Prayer is tricky – when it is possible – in this time of COVID-19. My own spiritual direction practice has slowed because folks tell me that getting traction on the ways of God just now isn’t going so well. And operating by way of Zoom and Face Time leaves a lot to be desired too. I agree. It’s tricky, if possible.
Looked at a photograph the other day that I made last December of the Statue of Liberty at dawn, taken from Eight Deck of Queen Mary 2 entering New York Harbor at Christmas time. The realization that I’ll probably never see that again pretty much flattened me. So does the anger that I carry for the leaders of the world; the one about cutting funding for pandemic research and preparedness in order to lower taxes for rich people usually does a pretty good job. It’s hard to pray through all that. St Paul’s counsel to the Romans that, strictly speaking, we don’t know how to pray, and that when prayer happens it’s because God’s Holy Spirit is praying in us, has never been truer. But then, where to encounter God’s Holy Spirit?
For no apparent reason, the beautiful late Sunday afternoon yesterday found me wondering what the monks were up to over at the Abbey of The Holy Cross in Berryville, Virginia. I like that place. I like it that when the monks worship, they don’t so much read the liturgy as, rather, they “construct sacred space” for all to enter. I like the beauty of the place too and have made a lot of photographs there. Most importantly, and maybe because I have a pretty high diagnosis as a Feeling Intuitive type on the Myers Briggs, I can literally feel the energy shift around the place, a shift that I attribute to the monks’ ongoing prayer. It’s different there, getting around it, the force field of life changes, and it draws me in. All of that was very much at work yesterday.
An altogether appropriate hand lettered sign at the head of the Abbey’s approach road announces that the place is closed to the public just now and asks for our cooperation in honoring that. Good idea. That community of monks looks to be well into the range of a vulnerable, at risk population for this virus and they don’t need any curiosity seekers from inside the beltway dropping off their microbes around the property on a day trip out of the city.
So I reversed course and aimed out-of rather than in-to the approach. I noticed what looked to be a freshly paved “lay by” near the gates where you could pull over. I’d never noticed it before and decided to pull in and turn off the engine. I had the soft top down on the car and with the engine switched off, a wave of silence overwhelmed almost immediately. But then, what were those other rustling waves I was hearing as I soaked up the silence and the monastic force field? Leaves – just emerging – at the top of some mountain trees catching early evening breeze gusts. And, geeze, look at that dappled sunlight wrapped around everything as the leaves waved overhead. I was captivated. All at once, the fortress of my disappointment, anger, grief had been invaded by something else. Was it God’s Holy Spirit? The prayer began to gush like water out of a fire hose.
After I don’t know how long, I had the good sense to shut up and just sit there. Then came a sense that to pray as Jesus suggests might be a good idea, and I did, chewing each word of The Lord’s Prayer like as though my life depended on it. Then the 23rd Psalm, letting the Psalmist walk me through “the valley of the shadow of death”. And finally stillness and immense gratitude. Continued all the way home. Still hanging around today.
Where to find prayer in the time of COVID-19? To quote a photographer friend, “keep your head up and your eyes, ears and heart open”. God’s inscrutable Spirit may be riding on the evening breeze in some mountain tree tops, may be hiding in plain sight in the dappled light of a day’s end, may be calling out from the force field of places where prayer has been authentic. We just don’t know, do we? And isn’t it strange that after all that we have done to destroy “this fragile earth our island home”, God still hovers over us with sad and wondering eyes, and, yes, with consoling love?
My friend Heidi Schmidt is currently a missionary in Argentina. She has also served in Brazil, South Africa and other countries. She writes daily meditations which she shares under the title “Catch of the Day.” Today’s meditation resonated deeply with me, a perennial worrier, who comes from a line of worriers. It also struck me because of how much more birds are singing this year with the traffic and airplane noise reduced. I hope you find Heidi’s words as helpful as I do.
“I Worried” by Mary Oliver
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers flow in the right direction, will the earth turn as it was taught, and if not how shall I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven, can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows can do it and I am, well, hopeless.
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it, am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia?
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing. And gave it up. And took my old body and went out into the morning, and sang.
It is hard to sing and worry at the same time. Thank God. My goodness have I worried. A lot. Years of my life gone in worry. That came to nothing. And so I go about practicing singing. Often. As often as I remember, and take this old body out into the morning, and sing. Like the birds do.
They seem to know how to do this terribly well, so when I forget, I will look for a bird, and listen. And take their advice.
A clergy colleague sent me an article which has prompted me to think differently about our current situation. As the title makes clear, the authors, Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard, focus on organizations and how the pandemic affects them, “Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup”. But I think that their weather metaphor also speaks to us as individuals.
They use the metaphor of a blizzard and a “12–18 month ‘ice age.’” I think this is an important distinction. We are familiar with blizzards, or at least snow storms. We know what to do when the weather forecast tells us that heavy snow is on the way. We head out to the supermarket and stock up on toilet paper, bread, and milk. If it is a hurricane we might add bottled water in fear of an interruption in our water supply. When we were told that we would be in a lockdown for COVID 19 that is how we responded, but in the extreme. We had never experienced a lockdown so we resorted to responding to something we knew. We stocked up not for a weekend, week or even a month. We stocked up thinking these things might never be available. I know people who bought additional refrigerators, freezers, and storage space in order to store all that they were buying.
Now that we are more than six weeks into this lockdown we are not quite so frantic about stocking up on these “necessities.” The initial anxiety of the unknown is not so overwhelming, but there remains for many a wariness of the what is ahead. When will it be safe to gather in groups again? How long will the need for social distancing continue? When will it be safe for children and teachers to go back to school and to college? Will telecommuting continue? How many Zoom meetings must I attend in a day? These, to extend the weather metaphor, are not blizzard questions so much as little ice age questions. They are questions that we do not know how to answer, because none of us have lived through an ice age.
The world around us scurries to figure out the next thing to do. Cable news keeps us on tenterhooks waiting for the latest pronouncement from government and the scientific community. While situations are not changing as rapidly as they were a few weeks ago, we are still left with that sense of uncertainty and who are we to trust.
The answer for people of faith is that we trust in God. It may seem a rather simplistic on the face of it, but regardless of the situation whether it be the old normal of everydayness, lockdown, or something more extreme we are always called to trust in God. Psalm 40 says “Be still and know that I am God.” In Proverbs 3 we read “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” In Joshua it reads, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” And probably the most beautiful of these scriptures comes from Matthew’s Gospel:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore, do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”–Matthew 6:25-33
These scriptures are not idle nonsense, but indications of our true hope. In a world and situation that seems to be constantly changing, filled with uncertainty and where trust is hard to find we know that all rests in God. God is infinitely reliable, God is certain, God is worthy of our trust. We know through the full measure of our lives that God is with us. We know that God is at our side regardless of what the world throws at us.
We can get frantic about the news and mixed messages from government. Or we can rest in God. This course does not mean to put our heads in the sand ignoring the practical, but let’s not let that rule our lives. We already know that this is more than a blip on the screen. It is a situation that is changing our lives in the short term and in the longer term as we learn how to live in a post-pandemic world. If we rely on what the world is telling us we will not be able to get through. If we are willing to be still in God and strive for God’s kingdom come, we will not only live through this current situation, but we can go confidently into the future hand in hand with God.
The video above was shared with me this morning. Amanda Gorman is the first Youth Poet Laureate of the United States. She is clearly a talented young woman and wise beyond her years. The poem she recites in the video above was commissioned for this time of pandemic, when as the show’s presenter says, “we need comfort and courage.”
In her poem she uses the rhythms I associate with the African-American preacher and Hip-Hop singer to express a bold challenge for us during this crisis. She begins, “I thought I’d awaken to a world in mourning…But there’s something different on this golden morning.” Despite what she expects to see during this crisis she sees people who “might feel small, separate and alone” doing everyday things. Acts that strengthen them such as fingering a rosary, bring joy like chasing a dog, or bring health and togetherness such as going for a run pushing a baby stroller.
She sees us not drawing apart but more “closely tethered” and “weathering the unknown together.” As a people we are one in the defeat of disease and despair whether we are “healthcare heroes” employees, families artists, waiters, or school teachers.
She reminds us that grief gives gratitude, and teaches us how to find hope. She says we learn about love through loss, and that our aching hearts do not suffer in vain. Indeed, she says, “burdens braved by humankind … make us humans kind.”
She uses the metaphor of light to encourage us, writing that “we can’t be broken, even when we bend.” Also, that “we ignite not in the light, but in lack thereof.” We also are to heed “the light before the fight is over” never giving up that the light will come.
She is optimistic, hope filled, challenging, and uplifting as perhaps only the young can be. Which is why we need her poems as much as we need our doctors and scientists. We need the heart as much as we need the head, maybe even more at times like these. For the head may find the cure, but it is the heart that keeps us striving toward it. It is the heart that strengthens us to keep us going until that miracle morning comes.