Be Lent

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.

Resting into Lent

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.

Preparing for Sunday

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.  

Prayer in the Time of COVID-19

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.
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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?

What, me worry?

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.

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“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.

And sing. 

Trust in God

The blizzard response

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 Miracle of Morning”

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.

The complete text of “The Miracle of Morning” by Amanda Gorman can be found here https://www.cbsnews.com/news/amanda-gorman-youth-poet-laureate-coronavirus-pandemic/

With God’s Help

Church sign.

Last fall we were searching for a theme for our pledge campaign. Of course, there are many inspiring texts we are able to choose from, but I wanted something that spoke to us as a parish and a community. I thought about times in the liturgy when we express our sense of community; our individual and group commitment to our life together and to God.

As I pondered this I thought about the baptismal service where we affirm our faith through the Apostles’ Creed. After that we make promises about specific aspects of the Christian life. These are practical actions that we take as individuals and as a community of faith. They are to,

  • Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers,
  • Persevere in the resisting of evil, and whenever [we] fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord,
  • Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,
  • Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbors as ourselves,
  • Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

We affirm each of these statements of the Christian life by saying, “I will, with God’s help.” This is a critical statement for we promise to live by each of these statements. We also recognize that we cannot do it alone. We recognize that we need God’s help to accomplish anything, especially these most important promises that we make to God and each other.

We had our pledge campaign theme. We used it on our pledge cards, in the pledge letter, indeed in all communications written and spoken. We also printed it on the mug we gave everyone who made a pledge. But why on a mug of all the everyday, ordinary and almost trivial of things? Could printing it on a mug minimize the power of the statement? To my mind putting this statement on such an ordinary piece of pottery reminds me that it is not just in church, or baptismal ceremonies, but every single day of my life I need God’s help.

I need God’s help to get up in the morning, to make breakfast, to say my prayers, to do my work, attend to my responsibilities, to be kind to others especially when I am not feeling kindly, to be patient with those who pluck my nerves and to be patient with myself when I am not doing my best. Without God I am nothing. Without God I can do nothing. Even when I ignore or am distant from God it is still God who is upholding me in all that I do and I am. I can will myself to do things, but it is God who makes it possible and sustains me in my doing. I need Got to get through the everyday as well as the extraordinary days of my life. Days like those we are experiencing now.

“The mug seems weirdly prescient.”

I gave my friend Michael Sweeney one of our mugs. Just a few days ago he sent this photo and wrote, “The mug seems weirdly prescient.” [1] So it is. We do the practical things because we know they help—social distancing, staying home, wearing masks, etc. We know that these are genuine signs of love for our neighbor. Ultimately it is the living into our baptismal promises with the sure and certain knowledge that we can only do so with God’s help that we make our clearest statement that it is in God that we trust.  


[1] Michael has a knack for pointing out things I overlook and that inspire me

We wait, watch, and pray

Reading the Holy Week accounts I have been intrigued by the dichotomies of dark and light, evil and good, and fear and hope. Running through all of this is the element of confusion. It is a time of crisis and these are normal attributes of such times.

The Passover Festival was always a tense time under Roman rule. Passover is the Jewish celebration of God’s liberation from the Egyptians, but how do you celebrate liberation under the thumb of a new oppressor—The Romans? As the week progresses, Jerusalem overflows with pilgrims coming to celebrate the holy days. As more enter the city tensions will grow and tempers flare, if for no other reason than the crush of people filling up the city and the Temple Mount.

Throughout the week people gathered in the outer precincts of the Temple gossiping, meeting friends, and talking politics. It was like a vast church coffee hour with thousands of people in attendance. All the time they were being spied upon by the Roman troops garrisoned in the Antonia Fortress overlooking the Temple Mount.

There was a sense within the city that something dramatic might happen. The Romans sensed this as did the Temple authorities. They were ready to come down hard on anything that looked like it could lead to violence. Adding to the tension was the presence of Jesus and the attendant eagerness to hear his teaching and preaching and see his miracles. There were several incidents among Jesus and his followers that added to the pressure building in the city.

First, during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem there were crowds cheering him on. Certain religious leaders looked askance at this show of popularity. Some even implored Jesus to silence the crowds. They want to tone down the situation to prevent the Romans from noticing what is going on. They are also concerned that what seems like a joyful parade could turn into a riot.

Jesus’ running the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals out of the Temple further stirs up the situation. People need to get their money changed in order to make an offering (Roman money was no good because it had Caesar’s image on it). They needed to be able to purchase animals to make their sacrifice at the altar. Jesus’ actions upsets business as usual.

The good guys and the bad guys in these situations depended on your point of view. It also depended on the latest rumors running through the crowd. There was no social media to fan the flames, but people have always liked to talk and speculate, and there are some people who like to make mischief for mischief’s sake. The result as uncertainty and competing interests come into play is “moral bewilderment.”[1] There is uncertainty among the people about who is acting bravely and who is just a troublemaker, what is truth and what are unfounded rumors or even lies.

You and I know what is going to happen and we look on fascinated at how the men and women act. We wonder if we would have been as courageous as some of the women or as cowardly as most of the men. Would we have shouted “Crucify him” or melted into the crowds picking up a disguise along the way? This uncertainty makes the events of Holy Week even more poignant.

We cannot know what we would have done during that momentous week almost two thousand years ago. So we do what we can now. We wait. We watch. We pray. We give our hearts over to the one who gave his all for us, and we vow anew to live faithfully and lovingly through the power of God’s enduring love.  


[1] A term used by Norman Mclean in his book Young Men and Fire [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992] p.143

Crosswise

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. It is traditional that we read the Passion as part of the morning service. In parishes with which I am familiar, parishioners take the roles of Jesus, Judas, the narrator, Pilate and so on. However, certain parts of the reading are given to the congregation as a whole. This year in my parish the parts assigned to the congregation are accusers, bystanders, and people.

It is not by accident that we are asked to take the roles of those who turned on Jesus and saw him put to death, even mocking him as he died on the cross. It is important that we own these roles. It may feel uncomfortable. It may be confusing. After all, we go to church every week, we say our prayers daily, we read the Bible. We love Jesus. We revere him as our Lord and Savior. We testify that he is the Son of God. Yet that is exactly what his closest friends, his disciples, said, and then they abandoned him, denied him, and, except for a few women, hid themselves during Jesus’ execution.

Are we better than them? I think not. We need to own the roles of accuser, bystander and the crowd. We need to realize that it was people just like us that had a hand in Jesus’ crucifixion. We may have praised him when in entered Jerusalem on a donkey, but less than a week later we were shouting “Give us Barabbas” and “Crucify him!” at the top of our lungs.   

In the Episcopal Church during Lent we use a verse from First Letter of John directly before we offer our confession. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) I believe it is important for us to recognize that we are not perfect, and that we fail, sometimes miserably. It is not that we are evil so much as we are vulnerable and make mistakes. When we boldly say the words of the accusers, bystanders, and crowds we are owning our frailty. We are owning the times we ignored someone in need, looked askance upon a poor person, screamed at a driver who cut us offer, denied comfort to a friend with whom we were put out, or any of a thousand ways that we withhold love and thereby deny Jesus every single day.

Once we own our sins, mistakes, and failures we can ask forgiveness for them. We know that if we repent and ask for forgiveness we will be forgiven. As Jesus said from the cross. “”Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  (Luke 23:34) They did not mean to kill an innocent man any more than we would, but it happens because we really don’t know what we are doing. So we repent.

Join us 10:30 Sunday morning for Palm & Passion Sunday (https://livestream.com/eec) and live into the Passion of our Lord. Allow yourself to be a part of the accusers, bystanders and crowds. Experience the Passion again for the first time. Without the crucifixion there can be no resurrection. We need to proceed to the foot of the cross and tomb to come to Easter. Let us do that together.

The Lord bless you and keep you.