Monday, October 31, 2011

Whole Worship for the Whole Body of Christ: The Day of All Souls

November 2, though officially named the “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed” by the Church, is more commonly known by its old name: All Souls’ Day. The history of this commemoration is given in brief here,

There are many traditions around the Christian Church connected with this day. Most focus on offering prayers for the dead in Christ throughout the ages. This linking of the saints of the past with those of today is very much in the New Testament understanding of sainthood, where everyone who is part of Christ’s Body the Church is described as being a “saint of God.” This day also connects the "big picture" of our faith (the Communion of Saints, celebrated on All Saints' Day) with the personal side, the individual losses we bear. This is partly why it has a particular power, felt mostly by those who have known death's capacity to distort and diminish life.

On All Souls’ Day proper, St. Timothy's usually offers two liturgies: one for those whose schedules and abilities permit a daylight observance, and another for parishioners needing an evening service. Both liturgies are Prayer Book Requiems – Eucharists offered to God in commemoration of the dead in Christ.

The lessons from Scripture and the special prayers used are from the Burial liturgies, with one special addition: the reading of the necrology or memorial list, which includes all those names members of our parish (and others, as well) have asked to be read at the altar, and those who have been buried from this parish this last twelvemonth. When possible (i.e. when it isn’t a driving rain outside), we then process to the Memorial Garden for the memorable Litany of the Dead and concluding prayers. For us the grave is not the end of the journey, but the portal through which we all must pass into that "larger life" awaiting us with Christ in the Kingdom.

There are many theological reasons for this day: the centrality of the Communion of Saints in the Catholic Faith is deeply affirmed, the victory of Christ’s death and resurrection is shown forth by denying death’s power to separate all members of His Body in a final and decisive way, and a positive sense of connection between the “Church Militant” (those struggling against evil in this world) and the “Church Triumphant” in heaven is drawn – as shown so powerfully in the Book of Revelation.

Yet it is not only formal theology that counts in faith: the pastoral element, as an application of the “Faith once delivered to the saints” is also highly significant. On All Souls’ we experience deep emotions: loss, sorrow, sometimes even anger, regret… the very stuff of our fallen and broken world. Yet, we do so in the embrace of the Gospel: the story of God’s victory over these things is the foundation for this openness to exploring a territory fraught with unseen dangers – yet a territory we must traverse as disciples of Our Lord. Because Christ has been here before, he knows the way. His victory is ours, but we must take his yoke upon us, sharing in His victory even as He has shared in our sufferings—unto death.

So, All Souls’ is at turns a somber, tearful, peaceful, comforting, and assuring day. I have seen the unique way God performs “soul-surgery” in the liturgy – drawing connections, kindling hope, and shining light where darkness had reigned. As with all authentic Christian worship, All Souls’ day is not a “head trip,” limited to our intellects. It engages our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual selves: whole worship for the whole person. It is one of the great blessings of living in this tradition. For this teaching and practice, I am deeply thankful.
May they rest in peace!

The Collect for All Souls’ Day
O God, the King of saints, we praise and magnify thy holy Name for all thy servants who have finished their course in thy faith and fear; for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all other thy righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we beseech thee that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Some additional prayers for use on this day are located here.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pledging, Stewardship of Money, and the Parish Budget: An Introduction

St. Timothy’s funds its ministry largely from one source: the money gifts of its members. There are a number of ways one can do this. Many people, when they first begin to attend St. Timothy’s, put cash or a check in the offering plate when it goes by. This is a great start, but is important to ask: “why am I giving?” Is it due to peer-pressure? How about “fee-for-service” or perhaps something like a club’s membership dues? If it is anything like these answers, it is time to go deeper into what we call stewardship, meaning our care of God’s gifts to us in faith.

All we have—from life itself to our relationships and possessions—is a gift from God. We don’t own anything, not even our selves. Christians are supposed to be stewards, not owners. Learning to live this way is one part of growing in Christian authenticity.

A central way of becoming a conscious steward of God’s gifts to us is by giving a portion of one’s income back to God. This is called proportional giving. It mean consciously deciding to give God the cream—not the dregs—of our money. That translates to making a commitment and doing it “off the top.” The standard of proportional giving in the Episcopal Church is the tithe, or one tenth of our income. All Episcopalians are called to give the tithe as the basic standard of financial giving.

Some people were blessed to grow up in a tithing household; they know it is not some extraordinary thing; it is the “natural” level of giving, freeing us from fear-based relations with our money, making us stewards and not owners. Others have to learn to trust God, moving their proportional giving up a percentage or two each year until they reach the tithe. Either way, this is something we need to pray about, consciously offering our monetary assets to God as a thank-offering for the many, many blessings we have received in life. Being thankful is a mark of true stewardship.

Once a person has become a conscious, proportional giver, it becomes natural to make a pledgea commitment to the parish of a specific amount of money weekly, monthly, or annually. Our annual pledge is in the fall, but new members—or those who do not currently pledge—may request a pledge card and fill it out any time.

If, during the year, circumstances change and you cannot fulfill your pledge, there is an easy process to change it: contact our treasurer with the new amount. It will be taken care of confidentially. 

Do remember: money is just one measure of stewardship: how we use our time and talents is just as important. Many opportunities are given through the year for the stewardship of time and talent.

Some other points:
  • No one is required to pledge; but giving in your own name is part of how full membership in the Church is defined.
  • The amount you give is not the issue: it is the commitment and the prayerful intention.
  • Pledge information is confidential (the Treasurer, the Bookkeeper, and the Rector are the three people who might know it—and they aren’t talking)
  • St. Timothy’s sends out reports through the year to all pledgers to help you keep track of your pledge payments.
  • Automatic withdrawal may be set up, if you wish.
  • One of the Church’s important missions—believe it or not—is to help us learn how to relate to our money properly, from a position of faith. This is one of the main reasons we give proportionally, tithe, and pledge.
  • We do not pledge to a budget; we give God a share in thankfulness for the blessings we have received from God’s own hand… thus freeing us to be generous is giving out all our time, talent, and treasure as directed by God. The budget is built in response to our Mission Statement, annual goals, and income, and may be adjusted through the year as necessary.
  • Let your giving be an act of faith: not of fear or of mere habit. Amen!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Like a Field of Untrodden Snow" -- Beginning Continuous Prayer

The theme of continuous prayer, spoken of by St. Paul and so many in the Christian spiritual tradition, can seem an unattainable goal. It is not. Metropolitan Anthony, in clear language, shows us it is a matter of resolve, desire—love. When a person turns to God, however simply or imperfectly, that person is blessed by communion with God. Responding to that blessing, we may be begin to offer our ordinary life—its hours, choices, encounters, possibilities—to God in prayer. Thus, a life of continuous prayer is born.

It is difficult to pray for a whole day. Sometimes, we try and imagine what it would be like. We think either of the liturgical life of contemplative monks or else the anchorite’s life of prayer. We don’t so often think of a life of prayer taking place in ordinary life, when everything becomes prayer or an occasion for prayer. But this is an easy way to pray, although it is of course very demanding.

Let us rise in the morning and offer ourselves to God. We have woken from a sleep which divides us from yesterday. Waking up offers us a new reality, a day which has never existed before, an unknown time and space stretching before us like a field of untrodden snow. Let us ask the Lord to bless this day and bless us in it.

And when we have done this, let us take our request seriously and also the silent answer we have been given. We are blessed by God, his blessing will be with us always in everything we do which is capable of receiving this blessing. We will only lose it when we turn away from God. And God will stay near us even then, ready to come to our aid, ready to give us back the grace we have rejected.
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Day by Day we praise you: an introduction to the Daily Office

The Apostles’ Creed

After the Lesson(s) and Canticle(s), Morning and Evening Prayer make a turn from illuminative prayer towards the unitive. That “turn” is marked by the offering of the Apostles’ Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed is the basic statement of faith used in Western Christianity from very early on. It has always been connected to baptism, but has also been used at a variety of other liturgies, and eventually in the Daily Office itself. It came to the Daily Office fairly late, and there are contemporary versions of the Office that omit it. The Prayer Book liturgy, however, gives it a central place… and for some very good reasons.

Some people find the prospect of using the Creed each morning and evening to be a bit, well, repetitive. A friend’s wife once said she thought the idea fairly ludicrous. “Why would you need to say it so often?” The same could be said for the Lord’s Prayer, but I didn’t want to make anything of it. Sometimes (probably often), clergy need to remain quiet.

We say it often because we so often forget what we are about. We forget when we stop viewing each encounter with another person as a holy moment, when we charge head-down through the day without prayer or gratitude, when we do not notice the beauty of the sun or rain or flowers or birdsong, when we trade our identity as disciples of Christ for consumer or fearful employee or angry voter. The words of the Creed are no mere catalog of beliefs or a list of spiritual “belief boxes” to tick off: they are the equivalent to the “Pledge of Allegiance” in our faith life. This is indeed what I believe; ah, now I remember. Lord, thank you; Lord, have mercy. The Creed is always a sacred act of remembering. As C.S. Lewis made so clear in The Silver Chair, we must remember this list of “signs” to guide us through our day and our life.

The Creed is said each morning to begin the day with an affirmation of our baptism. This is the essential DNA of the faith, and I am charged with living it out in my words, thoughts, and actions.

The Creed is said at day’s end as a preparation for our life’s end. This is the faith I believe in and will give my life for; now I commend myself into your loving hands for the night in sure confidence of your saving power.

When saying the Creed, it is good to stand—the posture of a believer before God. At the name of Jesus, it is customary here (as elsewhere in the Church’s liturgy) to bow the head, honoring the sacred name of our Savior. It is also customary to make the sign of the cross at the words “and the life everlasting” as a personal signature of assent and recalling the signing with the cross at our baptism, by which we were “marked as Christ’s own for ever.” By the power of the Cross, we are given the everlasting life the Creed speaks of.

All of this is both illuminative (recalling the essential elements of the catholic faith for our assent) and yet also unitive (expressing our deepest longing: to be one with God through the faith we confess and were made part of through Holy Baptism). With the Creed, we have “made the turn;” we now come to the final part of the Office.

Friday, October 21, 2011

“That all who seek you here may find you:” The Dedication of a Church

Almighty God, to whose glory we celebrate the dedication of this house of prayer: We give you thanks for the fellowship of those who have worshiped in this place, and we pray that all who seek you here may find you, and be filled with your joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

This Sunday St. Timothy’s will observe one of its two Parochial Feasts: the dedication of its church (the other is its “feast of title,” the commemoration of St. Timothy in January). This annual event recalls the dedication liturgies in this parish’s history: of the first church building (now our parish hall), of the second (and current) nave, and of the educational, office, and chapel addition in 1997.

This liturgy has several special characteristics. First of all, it is a feast with its own collect, lessons, prayers of the people, and hymns. It opens with a Festal Procession, with a collect at  a station where the icon of our  patron St. Timothy is displayed. The Gloria in excelsis, the great hymn of praise from the early Christian era reserved for major feasts, is sung as the altar is censed. Deceased benefactors and members of St. Timothy’s are recalled in our prayers. Finally, before the liturgy concludes, a solemn Te Deum is sung, giving God especial thanks for this house of prayer as a guaranteed place of meeting and as a center of mission. So much for the liturgical details.

What must be of greater concern for us is the meaning behind this feast and its special elements, for the liturgy is a direct participation in the mystery of God the Holy Trinity, and a showing forth of the Kingdom of God, dawning even now in its fullness by the action of the Holy Spirit. What, then, does this liturgy signify to us?

The collect for the feast puts two things front-and-center: communion and its fruits. The Feast of Dedication is a thanksgiving for communion in its many forms: fellowship with God, fellowship with other disciples, fellowship with those who have already entered eternal life. It is also a plea to God that this parish—holy ground, dedicated to God’s way, God’s presence, a kind of divine beachhead in our agonized and strife-torn world—may always be a place where people may find God and be filled with divine joy and peace.

Ours has become a “desacralized” world; that is a fancy word for the condition of having little or no holiness. In its place, we have tried to substitute the material, the commercial, the purely physical. All around us we see the grotesque results of this experiment: addictions, obsessions, environmental degradation, the commodification of human life, industrialized killing, and the reduction of mystery and awe to such slogans as “follow your bliss” and “it’s all good.” The hunger for something more is being bought off—temporarily—by a less and less effective array of consumerist and ideological stop-gaps.

But we have the one thing that will satisfy that hunger: communion with God, with the creation, and with each other. Here, in this place, the cheap and sleazy answers the world hands out are not offered. Here, the utter connectedness of all things to their God is revealed. Here joy and peace are not just words: they are the currency of our shared life. Each Eucharist is a joyful renewal of that fact, reaching out beyond the buildings of St. Timothy’s into the lives of its members throughout this city and its surroundings.

The Feast of Dedication is no self-congratulatory party wherein this parish looks admiringly at itself in a mirror. It is a thanksgiving for the grace of God leading to the foresight, sweat, and sacrifice of those who came before us to bring about this parish’s physical presence. But it is more than that: it is a rousing call to take seriously the preciousness of Holy Ground in a city where hope, justice, peace, relationships, and even human life have become just words.

Here, at this place, the Kingdom of God is made known at each Eucharist, in each class or parish event. Here, those who seek God are able to find him: imperfectly, yes—but find God we may. For the Lord has blessed it, set it apart, making it a portal through which all may enter and be restored, refashioned into what we were created to be from the foundation of the world: the Royal Priesthood of Creation.

Let us give thanks for the dedication of this parish and live out its promise. Like all churches who retain zeal for the Kingdom of God, it is a beacon of hope in a world awash in turmoil and anxiety.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

"And turn once more our water into wine"

A poem about the forms religion may take in our world… both for divine and destructive purposes. Vaughan had lived through a period of religious bigotry, warfare, and growing atheism, but refused either to join in the distortion of faith or to turn his back on what gave him life, joy, and hope. This is a poem with great validity in our own day.

by Henry Vaughan, from Silex Scintillans

My God, when I walk in those groves
And leaves thy spirit doth still fan,
I see in each shade that there grows
An angel talking with a man.

Under a juniper, some house,
Or the cool myrtle’s canopy,
Others beneath an oak’s green boughs,
Or at some fountain’s bubbling eye;

Here Jacob dreams, and wrestles; there
Elias by a raven is fed,
Another time by th’ angel, where
He brings him water with his bread;

In Abr’ham’s tent the wing├Ęd guests
(O how familiar then was heaven!)
Eat, drink, discourse, sit down, and rest
Until the cool and shady even;

Nay thou thyself, my God, in fire
Whirlwinds, and clouds, and the soft voice
Speak’st there so much, that I admire
We have no conference in these days;

Is the truce broke? Or ‘cause we have
A mediator now with thee,
Dost thou therefore old treaties waive
And by appeals from him decree?

Or is’t so, as some green heads say
That now all miracles must cease?
Though thou hast promised they should stay
The tokens of the Church, and peace;

No, no; Religion is a spring
That from some secret, golden mine
Derives her birth, and thence doth bring
Cordials in every drop, and wine;

But in her long and hidden course
Passing through the earth’s dark veins,
Grows still from better unto worse,
And both her taste and colour stains,

Then drilling on, learns to increase
False echoes and confused sounds,
And unawares doth often seize
On veins of sulphur under ground;

So poisoned, breaks forth in some clime,
And at first sight doth many please,
But drunk, is puddle, or mere slime
And ‘stead of physic, a disease;

Just such a tainted sink we have
Like that Samaritan’s dead well,
Nor must we for the kernel crave
Because most voices like the shell.

Heal then these waters, Lord; or bring thy flock,
Since these are troubled, to the springing rock,
Look down great Master of the feast; O shine,
And turn once more our water into wine!

Song of Solomon: Chapter 4, Verse 12
My sister, my spouse is as a garden inclosed, as a spring shut up, and a fountain sealed up.

Notes & References:

juniper: 1 Kings 19:5
myrtle’s: Zechariah 1:8-11
oak’s: Judges 6:11
fountain’s: Genesis 16:7
Jacob dreams and wrestles: Genesis 28; Genesis 32:24-30
Elias by a raven fed: 1 Kings 17:6
Another time by th’Angel: 1 Kings 19:6
In Abr’ham’s test…shady even: Genesis 18:1-8
In fire: Exodus 3:2
Whirlwinds: Numbers 11:25
Admire: am amazed, wonder at
Conference: conversation, discourse
Cordials: enlivening drinks
Drilling: flowing in a small stream, dripping
Puddle: foul, stagnant water
Physic: medicine
Sink: cesspool
Samaritan’s dead well: John 4:5-15 (Jacob’s Well is “dead” water compared to the “living water” Christ promises)
The springing rock: Exodus 17:6
Water into wine: John 2:1-10

A peaceful body

We must learn to acquire a peaceful body. Whatever our psychological activity, our body reacts to it; and our bodily state determines to a certain degree the type or quality of our psychological activity.

Theophan the Recluse, in his advice to anyone wishing to attempt the spiritual life, says that one of the conditions indispensable to success is never to permit bodily slackness: “Be like a violin string, tuned to a precisely note, without slackness or supertension, the body erect, shoulders back, carriage of the head easy, the tensions of all muscles oriented towards the heart.”

A great deal has been written and said about the ways in which one can make use of the body to increase one’s ability to be attentive, but on a level accessible to many, Theophan’s advice seems to be simple, precise, and practical. We must learn to relax and be alert at the same time. We must master our body so that it should not intrude but make collectedness easier for us.
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Lord, I have expelled them"


My God! Thou that didst die for me,
These thy death’s fruits I offer thee;
Death that to me was life and light,
But dark and deep pangs to thy sight.
Some drops of thy all-quick’ning blood
Fell on my heart; those made it bud
And put forth thus, though Lord, before
The ground was cursed, and void of store.
Indeed I had some here to hire
Which long resisted thy desire,
That stoned thy servants, and did move
To have thee murhered for thy love;
But Lord, I have expelled them, and so bent,
Beg, thou wouldst take thy tenant’s rent.

--Henry Vaughan, from Silex Scintillans, 1655

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"This Love, This Power to Heal:" On the Feast of St. Luke the Physician

It has been said that the authentic Church is known by its capacity to make saints. This is deeply true: holiness in the lives of people is a direct fruit of encounter with God the Holy Trinity. And this holiness always results in something; it is never a static condition, bottled up in itself. The holiness of God when encountered inevitably becomes an opportunity for healing on all levels of our being. For some, this includes sudden, miraculous bodily healing—events so shaking in their power that we do not speak of them easily. For others this healing overcomes memories, childhood trauma, or the effects of years of self-destructive addictions or patterns of life. Yet always this healing is the result of a call to the wholeness and holiness made available through the life and embrace of the True Physician of our souls: Jesus the Christ.

Healing is a by-product of Love. The power to heal in the authentic Church—something we must look for in our parishes, our dioceses, our bible studies, or wherever we gather as Church—is never an end in itself. It always looks forward, stretched out to the love of God, who is the author of life, health, and love itself. Jesus Christ embodies that Love, and communion with him means an unrelenting call to healing.

Make no mistake: though free to us, this gift of healing cost God everything; it can never make peace with sickness or death; all that is not love, all that is not life in its fullness, all that is not well in us, is illuminated by Love and must be let go. Much of the Christian road of discipleship is about this.

Our final healing can never be in this life. All therapies and programs for health making such promises are frauds and delusions. This world is radically and fundamentally unable to fulfill this promise. This has become the source of much misery in our day, as the capacity to extend life is confused with the ability to give life in all that means. Though a physician, St. Luke never confused these two things, and we must not, either. The fulfillment of our desire for healing can only come when God is “all in all,” in the Kingdom of Love and Knowledge, of which life in the Church is and must be the portal.

The Church holds “this love and this power to heal” that makes humans fully free. Tempted as it is to trade that gift for the power to control, punish, or indulge our unworthy drives, the true Church will ultimately always choose to live in the love and healing of Christ, and to share that love and healing with anyone who seeks it.

Almighty God, who inspired your servant Luke the physician to set forth in the Gospel the love and healing power of your Son: Graciously continue in your Church this love and power to heal, to the praise and glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Day by Day we praise you: an introduction to the Daily Office

The heart of the Daily Office consists of the Psalms and the Lessons. This is the “illuminative” face of prayer par excellence. When considering the vastness of the Scriptures, it can be daunting, though: “Where to start?” one might rightfully ask. A solution sometimes suggested is to start at the beginning of the Bible and go to the end. This can be useful for some people, but most find it impossible to maintain and/or mystifying in the extreme. It also means that one does not get to the Gospel for quite a while.

Fortunately, the Church has an easier and more practical answer available.

The Book of Common Prayer makes provision for an orderly and extensive reading of the Bible through use of a Lectionary, a table or program of selections from scripture appointed for each day of the Church Year. We first encountered the Daily Office Lectionary (BCP pages 934 to1001) when we dealt with the Psalms in the last section. Here we will use it again. This is why it is a good idea to keep this section marked!

The current form of the Daily Office Lectionary is arranged in a two-year cycle (we are currently in Year 1, which begins with the First Sunday of Advent prior to odd-numbered years). Taken together, it means we get to the vast bulk of scripture in two years. Some passages are omitted, while others (the New Testament, in particular) are read quite a bit more than once during that time. For most days, three readings (also called “lessons”) are appointed: one from the Old Testament (or the Apocrypha, as Anglicans use these books in our worship and faith life), one from the Gospels, and one from elsewhere in the New Testament.

Most people find having one or two readings per Office to be beneficial (two was the classical number in previous editions of the Prayer Book). Some will read all three lessons, especially if they know they will not be praying any other Office that day. My custom for years now has been to read two in the morning and one in the evening. Whatever you feel called to do, try to make it balanced. Avoid reading only from one Testament or the other. Anglicans value a balanced and integrated faith, and our scriptural diet should reflect this.

There are many online sources that can help you find which set of readings is to be used each day, but I think it valuable to learn how the Prayer Book works, so suggest some time spent with the Lectionary itself. If you get lost, you should try using Forward Movement’s Day by Day daily meditation (which lists the lessons), or seek the assistance of parish clergy or lay leaders.

You will find that for certain Holy Days there are special suggested lessons appointed at the back of the Daily Office lectionary. You may choose to use these lessons (and their accompanying Psalms) as you see fit. They break up the steady march through the scriptures in the main portion of the lectionary, but they deepen the experience of the Church Year. As one learns to use the Daily Office and Lectionary, you might try using more of these Holy Day lections. All of this seeks a balance between liturgy and scripture reading that the Church is always trying to get right… and never quite does.

Finally, some people will want to consider adding a reading from the Early Church (as made possible by Fr. Wright in his excellent Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church—a resource I cannot praise too highly) as part of praying the Office. This practice (explicitly suggested in the Prayer Book on page 142) originated in monastic worship but has since become known and used by Christians far beyond the walls of the monastery. It provides a way for us to enter into the vast and nourishing world of the Fathers and Mothers of the faith, whose writings in the first five centuries of Christianity crystallized the way we confess the faith and live it out. Anglicanism, together with other Christian groups valuing visible unity with the Ancient and Undivided Church, hold these saints and their writings dear. This writer often reads such a lesson before the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. Consider using them, even occasionally, in the Daily Office.

Anglican custom is to follow each lesson from scripture with a canticle or song. Most of these are taken directly from the Scriptures themselves, but a few (the Gloria in excelsis, the Te Deum) are hymns from the early Church. The Prayer Book has a table of canticles on pages 144/5. This table allows the user to vary the canticles by day of the week or season. I find this very helpful at Morning Prayer, but much less so in the evening, where the traditional canticles of the Song of Mary (Magnificat) and the Song of Simeon (Nunc dimittis) seem to be much more natural and effective.

The canticles (often known in shorthand by their Latin openings) provide a response to the lesson just read. They remind us the scriptures are not “data” to be consumed but encounters with God, moments of transformation to be pondered and integrated into our full being. Finally, the canticles are poetic texts, often expressing intense experiences or deep mysteries in rich language able to bear the weight. Over time, Anglicans have such canticles as Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc dimittis, and Te Deum committed to memory for times of prayer outside the Office. Many of us develop great associations with these poem-prayers (especially when some of the greatest composers in history of have set them to music). May it be so for you as you learn the deeper meaning and value of the Daily Office!

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Holy 'also-rans' of God

A standing cross marking a site where St. Paulinus preached centuries ago.

Today is the traditional date for the commemoration of St. Paulinus of York, a date sadly missing from our current Episcopal Calendar. I say this not because Paulinus is a major figure being blatantly ignored in our country, but because he is a fairly minor figure who has something important to teach in our day.

Paulinus was part of the second wave of mission activity sent to England by Pope St. Gregory the Great in the very early 600’s. Unlike St. Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with the earlier and far more influential St. Augustine of Hippo in northern Africa), Paulinus did not enjoy a great deal of success in his missionary work.

After coming to Canterbury from Rome, he was sent north with the intention of basing his church-building efforts in the ancient (yes, by then it was pretty old) ex-Roman military base of York. This was the same city in which Constantine the Great was first proclaimed Emperor in the 300’s. It seemed a natural and poetic choice.

But ‘facts on the ground’ were very different when Paulinus arrived. The York of old was more a ruined memory than a Roman city. The environment was hostile and in constant turmoil. After vigorous efforts, he was able to make converts and ultimately did baptize local royalty and even a future saint (Hilda); but, the mission eventually ended in near total collapse after the death of his royal patron and resulting warfare. Paulinus had to beat a hasty retreat with the remnant of the royal family, leaving behind him a small contingent of locally-grown Christians to carry on the mission (and possibly to keep alive the story of his mission long enough for Bede to hear it and write it down). Even the pallium from the Pope, confirming his authority as Archbishop of the north in England, missed him ‘in the mail,’ so-to-speak. Forced to move south, he eventually re-established his ministry in Rochester, near Canterbury. It was as Bishop of Rochester, not Archbishop of York and all the North, that he died on this date. It has the feel and sound of near-disaster about it.

The seeds planted by Paulinus, though, would eventually mature into a much richer harvest through the efforts of the Irish mission to the north from Iona, via Lindesfarne—but this would not be until nearly a generation later. So, for a season, it looked like this mission had failed. What do we make of all this?

Paulinus shows us that missionary work is often slow, frustrating, and apparently unsuccessful. This can sometimes be the result of human failings: a poor choice for mission leadership, a failure to grasp the needs of a particular mission setting, arrogance or cruelty in how the Gospel is shared, brought, or (worst of all) imposed.

It can also be the result of bad timing, circumstances, or an outright attack of evil (we are not, after all, dealing with a “morally neutral” setting when we share the Gospel of Christ with the World). Paulinus and his mission seems to have suffered from some or of all of these.

There were a great many setbacks to his work simply because key people proved unreliable or all-too-human. Events and timing conspired against him on several occasions. The mission itself may simply have been set up in a way that was not flexible enough or grass-roots enough--a frequent mistake made by missionaries. The fact that Celtic Christianity a few years later was able to make inroads quickly and effectively suggests at least the possibility that the Roman and civic model Paulinus brought with him at the time was not quite the right formula. 

This is something contemporary evangelists in our part of the country need to think about. Celtic Christianity’s profoundly ‘authentic’ way of living the Gospel was both deeply mystical and deeply orthodox… but it was also very simple and not reliant on an enormous, costly apparatus. Its abbots and bishops were very close to the people, being evangelists and models of Christian intentionality far more than ecclesiastical legislators. We could learn from this.

Finally, Paulinus’ ministry shows us that we must above all be perseverant and patient as sharers of the Word. St. Seraphim of Sarov, when asked what the difference was between Christians who grow in holiness and joy in God and others who made no progress and slid more and more into sin said simply: “Only determination.”

It is easy in our immediate-gratification culture to discount ministries if they do not yield results quickly. But this is a great error on our part. Authentic ministry, wherever it is offered, plants seeds that will mature. Often they do so in unexpected ways, but since it is “God who gives the increase,” ours is not to try and control the outcomes. We are needed to provide the hand- and leg-work, the eyes, ears, and strong backs for the effort: that is enough.

The mission work of the Church in the United States is undergoing tremendous shifts. Lots of people think they know how it needs to look, but none of them really do. We are too early on in this to have reached a new synthesis. Instead, what is needed is a new faithfulness, a new suppleness of outlook, and a renewed simplicity, or better, humility. Then we will have the courage and vision to send out a new Columba, Aidan, Cuthbert, Augustine, Hilda, or any of the holy “also-rans” like Paulinus. 

In our day, the Church is being challenged to ‘get leaner’ not by discarding or watering-down the saving message of Christ, but by becoming more like Christ and his Apostles in its faithfulness, focus, and farsightedness. Re-introduction of mystery, sacramentality, and intentional community are needed. Institutional simplification and replacing bureaucracy with time spent in relationship-building and hands-on mission would be helpful, too. That is an adventure worth going on! It is also of such that the Kingdom of God is—and will continue to be—made.
O Lord our God, you call whom you will and send them where you choose: We thank you for sending your servant Paulinus to be an apostle to the Northern English, to turn them from the worship of idols to serve you, the living God; and we entreat you to preserve us from the temptation to exchange the perfect freedom of your service for servitude to false gods and to idols of our own devising; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Banquet of God at the Restaurant of the Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Today’s Gospel lesson (Matt. 22:1-14) requires we know about some history and customs to understand it. The parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew is about a Royal Wedding. The King invites special honored guests, who turn him down. Not only do they turn him down, but they abuse and kill his messengers bringing the invitation. Jesus is informing his hearers that he knows exactly what they think of God’s invitation through his ministry. In a passage recalling the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 AD, the King sends an army to destroy the rebellious and arrogant ex-invitees. This part of the parable alone shows how closely tied custom and etiquette is with religion in the Bible.

After all of this, you might think the King has lost interest in the party. Not at all. There is still a wedding to be performed and guests to be invited to celebrate it. So the King’s servants are told to go out and bring everyone—the good and the bad—into the banqueting hall. I’ve seen a few real royal banqueting halls, and they are impressive: an entire building set aside for partying, eating, drinking, and making merry. Part of the custom in Jesus’ time for such an event was for the host to provide a clean, white garment for each guest—a sort of “partying uniform” as a gift. Such clothes were of the “one size fits most” variety, I imagine. In any case, wearing it was a sign of accepting the invitation and the hospitality of your host.

As the King goes around the wedding banquet, he meets all sorts of people. Remember, the “good and the bad” have all been swept into the banquet. One of the people he meets is a man not wearing the special Banquet uniform. When confronted about this, the man can’t—or won’t—say anything. By his actions, the guest has shown that he rejects the host… just like the first invitees. Like them he is condemned by his own actions.

This can seem like a very strange story, and not at all like any party we would like to be part of. But St. Matthew is trying to get into a very touchy subject. We all want peace and acceptance. God desires our participation in his Kingdom where that peace and acceptance is found. We don’t get to enter that Kingdom on our own terms: we must be invited. To accept the invitation is to agree to his conditions, and that is the Gospel way of life. When we accept these terms, we are given the white robe of holy baptism—new life in God’s eternal banqueting hall, of which this Eucharist is always a direct participation, not just a dim memory or a vague approximation.

God is very free with invitations. Some Christians forget this and try to turn our God into a hard-hearted and miserly figure. The opposite is true, and this parable reminds us of it. But the choice is still ours: do we accept the invitation or not? If we do accept, then we ourselves must become “Kingdom inviting” people. After all, if we were allowed in, how can we bar the way to others

Maybe Christians need to be a lot less proud of being invited to the party ourselves, and a lot more interested in getting the invitation out to others. 

Oh, and don’t forget the dress code: white robes are provided… just remember to wear yours.