“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.

It is well with my soul

“It is Well with My Soul” sung by The Wartburg Choir

I know that I have lamented before about the paucity of quality content on the Internet. There is so much junk to wade through in order to find the good stuff. But there is good stuff. During the weeks of this pandemic what I am finding during this pandemic is that people are sharing content that is meaningful as they seek to reach out and stay connected. There are fewer cat videos and more videos of people helping others. There are fewer combative political comments and more inspirational quotes from spiritual leaders of all stripes. Musicians are posting live house concerts. Museums are offering virtual tours of their holdings. Libraries are offering live story time and movies, ebooks and other content.

David Brooks, in his column for the March 26 issue of New York Times wrote, “The paradigmatic image of this crisis is all those online images of people finding ways to sing and dance together across distance.” I’ve seen videos of Italians dancing and serenading each other from balconies, Baltimoreans singing the national anthem from their iconic stoops, policeman lip-synching and dancing in the streets to entertain those in quarantine, two children playing violin and dancing to a Coldplay song, and so much more. These are celebrations of life and the desire to be connected to one another. Again I quote Brooks who quotes Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, “Those videos call to mind that moment of Exodus when Miriam breaks into song. ‘It is the dance that generates the light, the women produce an energy in the light of which all participate equally in the presence of God.’”

Singing and dancing beg for us to join in. Even when we do not know the song, we feel a sense of connection as we hear and watch the singers. I have sung in choirs since I was a child. I have a profound affection for choral singing. A few weeks ago I posted a video of the Wartburg Choir singing the gospel song “Ain’t No Grave.” This week I saw their video of Rene Clausen’s “It Is Well with My Soul.” This video may be a reminder of normal times. No one is social distancing, masked up, or vigorously washing hands. These talented young people simply sing and it is beautiful, calming, graceful, sonorous…angelic. Listen and be transported to your special place of peace and calm. Come back often to listen and be changed.

There will be many changes in the world as a result of this pandemic, one could be that each of us finds the value of and time for being still and at peace. Let’s get it in our bones now so that when normalcy returns part of the new normal will be the practice of life-giving peacefulness.

The Lord is my Shepherd

Psalm 23 is the most loved of all one hundred and fifty psalms in our Psalter. We say it at times of distress, illness, and at funerals. We have relied on the comfort of its words for more than 2,000 years. I expect that as long as there are people, religious or not, they will find comfort and consolation in its tenderness and pastoral imagery. The poem evokes a timeless sense of well-being and security that only God can provide. Writing about it at this moment I feel my heartbeat slowing, and my breath steadying.

Even as we endure the daily and hourly news and precautions about the COVID-19 pandemic, we can trust in God and be at peace. Pray the psalm. Pray for calm as well as scientific breakthroughs. Help friends and neighbors, remembering that everyone, even our enemy is our neighbor. Work in the garden. Enjoy the spring weather, but away from crowds. Check in on others, especially the isolated and the elderly. Check your temperature a few times a day. Go to the doctor if you do not feel well. Do things by Internet or telephone to limit your exposure to others and to limit their exposure to you. Resist gossip and rumor mongering. I know it helps to talk, but gossip and rumors only feed our fears. Don’t glue yourself to the 24-hour news stations it will only up your anxiety.

The twenty-third Psalm is not medicine nor is it a panacea. It helps us re-center on the one that loves us most, God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whatever storms we may face in this life God is always with us. As the name of our parish rightly says, Emmanuel, God with us.

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; *
    I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; *
    he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; *
    he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his
                                Name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; *
    for thou art with me;
    thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of
                                mine enemies; *
    thou anointest my head with oil;
    my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days
                                of my life, *
    and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

If you have never memorized this Psalm perhaps now is the time to do so. Pray it throughout the day in whole or in part. Focus on what gives you comfort and turn it into a mantra or breath prayer that you repeat over and over again. Let it guide you in your waking and in your sleeping. In turbulent times and quiet times, these are words you can trust.

Preach it, Sister!

A few days ago an online friend shared the video above. It did not look promising. A choir from a Lutheran college in Iowa singing a spiritual. Bach perhaps, but would they have the spirit that a spiritual requires? Being a sucker for choral music, I clicked on the link to give it a listen. Boy was I blown away.

This arrangement is amazing. It is sung perfectly and with great passion. What really moves me is the use of sign language to interpret the piece. The entire choir signs much of the song to powerful effect. It is the young woman who stands to the front signing the entire spiritual who is amazing.

She signs as if she is preaching rather than singing the song. I do not know sign language, but her signs are more than conventional.She preaches as convincingly and powerfully with her hands, eyes, face and arms as any preacher does with words. She adds nuance, inflection, and emotion. She is like a preacher in the pulpit whose powerful voice rises and softens. She draws is in, raises us up, invigorates us, and inspires us. She seems to believe each word she is singing and signing. As much as I enjoy seeing the singers, when the camera cuts away from her I am disappointed. I feel that I am missing something that the lyrics alone do not convey.

If I were not already disposed to believe the message of the spiritual, her signing would convert me on the spot. Would that we all had the passion, conviction, and means to convey it as wonderfully as she did.

A Wounded Healer

The psalmist wrote, “My sacrifice, O God is a broken spirit;/a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” With those words and others like them we began our Lenten pilgrimage on Ash Wednesday. After the weeks of Epiphany during which we marveled at the revelation of Jesus as Messiah and Christ, it seems strange to switch to a confession of brokenness and contrition.

A friend of a friend refused to believe there was anything broken about her. She was absolutely perfect as she was. It seemed a strange thing for a seminarian to believe about herself, when we have verses like the one about that tells us God is looking to us in our brokenness. It seems important to acknowledge our brokenness; our hurts, flaws, unhealed wounds, and scars that cover the wounds. They are all part of who we are. I find it hard to believe that anyone is free of them.

What’s more we seem to need our brokenness. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” Our cracks and brokenness can be disfiguring, but they can also be what allows us to be truly human. The disfigurement can be our beauty.

None of us signs up for the wounds that we receive. Few wounds are really justified, but we have them nonetheless. We have choices about how to respond to the wounding. We can choose to keep the hurts alive with anger, envy, or righteous entitlement. We can lash out at others passing forward the pain we received. We also have the choice of saying as Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That attitude is one that transforms the wound into a balm for others. It may feel to acute to do so in the moment, but it is that stance that heals us and frees us from the burden of caring the hurt as an open wound all of our life.

Those who are hurting can recognize us by our scars. They are marks of a real life lived openly. If we choose to be a healer, they are signs of our compassion. They are signs of our willingness to sit with another and be a companion in their pain. For the cracks not only let light in, but they let out the light that is the love of God for each other.

It is that attitude that takes our wound and turns it into something beautiful. Like the Japanese potters who mend a broken vessel with gold so that the break stands out. The break, rather than detracting from the beauty adds to it. For the wounded human it also reminds us of the wonder of healing.

Saintly Love

Poor St. Valentine. He was martyred for his faith in 269. St. Valentine was beaten to death with clubs and then beheaded for his refusal to submit to Emperor Claudius’ command to give up Jesus in favor of Roman gods. Now of 1,700 years later he is linked to a Roman god in the person of Cupid, “son” or Mercury and Venus. Additionally, our modern celebration of St. Valentine’s Day has been shortened to Valentine’s Day and the martyred saint (or saints, as there are at least two men named Valentinus associated with St. Valentine’s Day) is all but forgotten among boxes of chocolate, champagne, fancy dinners, and cute greeting cards.

Among the legends and hagiography of St. Valentine there are a couple of stories that link St. Valentine with love. Early Christians were pacifists and did not serve in the Roman army. Valentine, who was either a priest or a bishop, would officiate at the marriage of Christian men and women. Marriage would help the man avoid military service to the Empire. Valentine purportedly made hearts out of paper to remind the man of his duty to God and his wife for helping him to avoid conscription. Another is that Valentine, when imprisoned, cured the blind daughter of his jailer, and they fell in love. His last letter to her was signed “your Valentine.” They are sweet thoughts, but probably apocryphal.

According to the History Channel website, Geoffrey Chaucer may have invented the modern Valentine’s Day. They write, “In his work ‘Parliament of Foules,’ he links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day–an association that didn’t exist until after his poem received widespread attention. The poem refers to February 14 as the day birds (and humans) come together to find a mate. When Chaucer wrote, ‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day / Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.’”

So St. Valentine became the patron of lovers, at least in popular culture (in the Catholic Church he is designated as the patron saint of beekeepers and epileptics). Additionally, his day has been coopted for commercial purposes. Not unlike how St. Patrick’s Day somehow has become associated with excessive drinking and anything green, rather than a celebration of the man who brought Christianity to Ireland.

I do not begrudge anyone their Valentine’s Day romance, but let us not forget that there was a man or men who went by the name of Valentine and died for his belief in Christ Jesus our lord. He, like so many early martyrs of the Church, died for a love more profound than one based on hormones, earthly beauty, and passionate embraces. He died for the love of God for all, even those who persecuted him and ultimately took his life from him. His truly is a love worth dying for.

At Play in 10,000 places

As Kingfishers Catch Fire–Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889)

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying, Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

I confess that I often find Hopkins’ poems difficult to decipher in their wholeness. But then there comes a line or two that is of such great beauty that I am stopped dead in my tracks. So it is with this poem, and with the lines quoted in the photo above.

I believe too often we think that after Christ’s ascension we can no longer see Christ in the world. Yet as Hopkins write Christ is at play everywhere. In the messy face of a child, in the gnarled hands of a a man in a retirement home, in the soft hands of a toddler, in the drawn face of a homeless woman, in the lovely face of a Bedouin, in the sleepy eyes of a newborn and the wondrous smile of his older brother age three and three-quarters, in the tearful eyes of one who grieves the loss of a relationship or a friend, in the joyful tears of one who has found love, in the bare feet of a boy in Mexico, in the shiny patent leather shod feet of a Spanish schoolgirl, and the list can go on and on.

Christ is everywhere and in everyone. For God is in us all. The trick for you and me is to have eyes to see. God sees it as Hopkins tells us. We seem to have scales before our eyes that are our prejudices, our fears, and our egos. These are the “original sins” that blind us to the presence of God in all people.

With the help of Jesus and those who love him those scales can drop away. Sometimes it is partially and we see as if “through a glass darkly.” Other times those scales can drop away completely and we see as if with new eyes, as St. Paul did in Damascus. It is a process that is never complete this side of the veil, but it is what Jesus calls us to as he is at play in a thousand places. Places that include your heart and mine and the hearts of all who are beloved of God. Which is, of course, everyone.