Saturday, November 30, 2013

St. Andrew: Apostle, Evangelist, Model for Discipleship

Today is the feast of St. Andrew, Apostle—and brother of St. Peter. Andrew’s feast usually falls in Advent, but this year it precedes it by one day. 

As we end the Church Year, it is a good time to think about the foundations of that year, especially the mystery of our salvation. Since St. Andrew is my ordination patron, his witness is particularly significant to me.

By tradition, Andrew was martyred through crucifixion on an X-shaped cross. What follows is a meditation on that scene, as written by the great preacher, teacher, and biblical scholar Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard recalls it in detail, especially the aspect of the story about St. Andrew going joyfully—and without fear—to his cross. This portion of his sermon is focused on the reason for St. Andrew's attitude toward suffering and death.

Bernard reminds us we are in essence no different from St. Andrew. We must each take up our own cross, not in our own strength, but in the strength of God. When we do this, we find that the cross is not the source of shame and foolishness the world sees, but the unique and holy access point to the unlimited Power of God. In this way, St. Andrew’s story is a constant source of encouragement to us in our own struggles.

From a Sermon by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Abbot

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Andrew. If we attentively meditate upon it, we shall find in it much food for our spirit.

You must have noticed that St. Andrew, when he came to the place where the cross was prepared, was strengthened in the Lord and started uttering fiery words, being inspired by the Spirit whom he had received together with the other apostles, in the form of tongues of fire. His mouth spoke from the abundance of the heart, and the charity that burned in him gave ardor to his voice.

And what did St. Andrew say when he saw the cross that been put up for him? “O cross,” he said, “long desired and now offered to my soul’s desires! I come to you full of joy and assurance. Receive me then with gladness, for I am the disciple of him who hung from your arms.”

Whence then came to that man such astonishing joy and exultation? Where did he, so frail a creature, get so much constancy? Where did he get so spiritual a soul, so fervent a charity, and so strong a will? Let us not imagine he got that great courage from himself. It was the perfect gift issued from the Father of lights, from him who alone produces marvels. It was the Holy Spirit who came to help his weakness and filled his soul with the charity strong as death, and even stronger than death.

May it please God to make us share in that Spirit! For if now the effort of conversion is painful to us, and if we are vexed by watchings, the only reason is our spiritual indigence. If the Spirit were present to us, he surely would come to help our weakness. What he has done for St. Andrew when he faced the cross and death, he would do also for us: removing from the labor of our conversion its painful character, he would render it desirable and even delicious. “My Spirit, says the Lord, “is sweeter than honey,” so much so that the most bitter death could not lessen its sweetness.

We must take up our cross with St. Andrew, or rather with him whom he himself has followed, the Lord, our Savior. The cause of his joy and his exultation was that he died not only with him, but like him, and that he was so intimately united to his death and to his sufferings that he would also reign with him.

Let us too listen, with the ears of our heart, to the voice of the Lord who invites us to share his cross: “If any wish to be my followers, they must deny themselves and take up their cross, and follow in my steps.” For our salvation is found on the cross, provided we courageously are attached to it. “The message of the cross,” the Apostle [Paul] tells us, “is complete absurdity to those who are headed for ruin, but to us, who are experiencing salvation, it is the power of God.”
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, [1153]
from the Second Sermon for the Feast of St. Andrew

Collect for the Feast of St. Andrew

Almighty God, who gave such grace to your apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of your Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give us, who are called by your Holy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Celebrating a Holy, not merely a happy, Thanksgiving

The Collect for Thanksgiving Day from the Book of Common Prayer
Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Below are words from St. Basil the Great: bishop, theologian, spiritual guide. He lived during the fourth century. He was a highly insightful pastor of souls. One of his chief concerns was to motivate Christians to be generous and live truly thankful lives…lives filled with “eucharist” to God.

Thanksgiving Day is often spoken of and experienced as largely a celebration of family and the happy, cozy family atmosphere. But for the Christian, this is not its deepest or most significant meaning. For us, Thanksgiving must be a crystallization of lives lived with gratitude and concrete acts of generosity and service to those in need—the “Christ in our midst” who is so easily forgotten when we focus on mere physical or sentimental “happiness.” This is why this reading from St. Basil has special significance today. As the Thanksgiving Day collect notes, this is not a personal but a communal feast, one that may only really be celebrated by Christians if the rest of the year expresses the generosity of God to and through us.

For this day truly to be a Holy Day in the Calendar of the Church, it must be a celebration of Christ’s call—and our response—to live holy lives of thankfulness expressed in mercy, giving, and compassion. If we have not cared to do so before, let today mark the beginning of a new life of thanksgiving-in-action. Then—and only then—may we feast in the justice and purity of Christ’s Kingdom, of which today’s Eucharist and earthly banquets are a foretaste.

Take care that the destiny of the “wicked rich” is not yours. Their history has been written to help us avoid being like them. Therefore, imitate the earth: like it, you should bring forth fruit; do not show yourselves worse than something which has no soul. It is not for her own pleasure that the earth brings forth her fruits; it is for your service.

But you have this advantage, that the benefits of your benevolence will ultimately return to you; for benefactors always reap the reward of the good they have done. You have given to the poor; what you have given is returned to you with interest. The wheat, when it falls to the ground, produces for the sower. Similarly, the bread that you hive to the poor is a source of future profits. Therefore, may the end of labors be for you the beginning of celestial sowing: “Sow for yourselves righteousness,” says Scripture.

Why then torment yourself so much and make so many efforts to preserve your riches behind mortar and bricks? “A good name is more desirable than great riches.” You love money because of the consideration it procures for you. Think how much greater will be your renown if one can call you a parent, protector of thousands of children, rather than if you keep thousands of gold pieces hidden away. Whether you like it or not, you will surely have to leave your money behind one day; on the contrary, the glory of all the good you have done will go with you before the sovereign Master, when an entire people will hasten to defend you before the Judge of all things, and will confer titles showing that you nourished and assisted them, and that you have been good.

One sees people throw their fortune to wrestlers, to comedians, to repugnant gladiators—and all this in theatres, for a moment’s glory, for the noisy acclamation of the people. And would you count the cost when you can elevate yourself to so great a glory? God will approve of you, the angels will acclaim you, and all who have lived since the creation of the world will celebrate your happiness: an imperishable glory, a crown of justice, the kingdom of heaven—such will be the prizes that you will receive.

St. Basil the Great,
from a Sermon on Love
as translated by J. Robert Wright.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Sharing the Gospel in an Apocalyptic Era

Christians are rightly concerned with sharing their faith in a way that actually
speaks to the culture around us; but, above all, we must share that faith
from our own experience of its transformative power.

Here are words by the estimable priest, poet, and theologian Thomas Traherne (c. 1636-1674; commemorated 10 October) on the theme of what it means to share the Gospel—evangelize—in a society rather like ours: a busy, worldly, and often hardened era that seems to worship money and status alone (later seventeenth century England was surprisingly similar to our own day). Like now, many at the time prophesied the end of religion; atheism was steeply on the rise amongst the “better class” of intellectuals and social elite, and many of the clergy tended towards venial careerism and spiritual decadence. Yet, Traherne could make these trenchant observations about how to share our Christian faith from our own experience of friendship with God...

Our friendship with God ought to be so pure and so clear, that nakedly and simply for His Divine Love, for His glorious works, and blessed laws, the wisdom of His counsels, His ancient ways and attributes towards us, we should ever in public endeavour to honour Him, Always taking care to glorify Him before men: to speak of His goodness, to sanctify His name, to do those things that will stir up others, and occasion others to glorify Him. Doing this so zealously that we would, not forbear the least act wherein we might serve Him for all worlds. It ought to be a firm principle rooted in us, that this life is the most precious season in all Eternity, because all Eternity dependeth on it. Now we may do those actions which hereafter we shall never have occasion to do. And now we are to do them in another manner, which in its place is the most acceptable in all worlds: namely, by faith and hope, in which God infinitely delighteth, with difficulty and danger, which God infinitely commiserates, and greatly esteems. So piecing this life with the life of Heaven, and seeing it as one with all Eternity, a part of it, a life within it: Strangely and stupendously blessed in its place and season.

The problem with a great deal of “evangelism” in such times is that it can assume the culture is able to hear the Gospel message. This is not always true. In our day, the minds and schedules of many are simply closed and full. To bring Christ to others in an authentic and non-coercive way to a modern secular American often means showing forth a converted life ourselves. In other words: practicing what we preach. Nothing very radical here.

Except that it is. To practice the Christian faith outside of Sunday morning is actually rather novel to many in our tradition. After years of noblesse oblige and privileged indolence, it is easier to talk about being an Episcopalian than it is to practice a transformed life in Christ, loving God and neighbor through prayer, acts of compassion, and living a simple and holy life. It means intimacy, friendship with God.

In this passage from the Centuries of Meditation (a book of short meditations on the nature and practice of the spiritual life he wrote for woman seeking instruction in these matters), Traherne is emphasizing “naked and simple” desire to live for God’s wise and life-giving way made known in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are to adapt our way of sharing this message to the person and situation…but never to forget that the years of our life are the most precious in Eternity because all Eternity depends on how we use them. People who evangelize based on their own experience of transformation inherently know what to say—and when—because the saying is really just the application of an already well-practiced life of doing. As St. Francis is quoted as saying: “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words when necessary.”

Traherne’s world and ours share an apocalyptic setting, being times of both decay and renewal. An old order is passing out of existence and a new way of living, sharing, and experiencing is being established. What stays constant for the Christian is a deep communion with the essence of faith and practice. A ready access to God as friend and companion, not intellectual or ideological "concept," will make connections that no amount of "tips," stratagems, or techniques to shore up a human institution could never make. Such openness to God and neighbor is the one kind evangelism that never grows stale or out-of-date.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Praying for Those in Error or Sin

One of the truly solemn privileges of the Christian’s prayer life is to intercede for those corrupted by sin. Every person, age, and place struggles with the temptation to be conformed to the world, and there are always voices and powers that seek to recast even the Gospel itself to the idols of a particular era.

The Liturgy of Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer requires that we must first renounce “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God,” “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” and “all sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God” before we may take the name of Christ Jesus upon our lips as Lord and Savior.

We simply cannot make sin a blessing. Any attempt to do so is both betrayal and folly.

The struggle around this issue is firstly a personal one. Each Christian must enter into a lifelong journey of deepening dependence on Christ, confronting all idols and evil within us in the light his love and cleansing grace—so that we (in the words of the Collect) may “purify ourselves as he is pure.”

To this end, the Church offers the Confession of Sin in both the Daily Office and the Eucharist as well as through the Reconciliation of a Penitent (private auricular confession). It also offers the Laying on of Hands and Anointing for healing, fasting, individual Rules of Life emphasizing repentance and humility, education about the nature of sin and God's grace, spiritual direction, and pastoral care by both clergy and lay persons who are also seeking to live the Beatitude that says “blessed are pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Yet, this struggle with error, sin, and corruption also must inform our prayers for others. We cannot remain silent before God when sin—in whatever form—runs roughshod through the Christian Church and the world God fashioned. We must intercede for others, even as we pray for ourselves.

The prayers that follow are derived from ancient sources and are deeply aware that error in faith and practice corrupts us, damaging the work and presence of God in our life and exposing us to great danger. (I think here of those whom I have served who have told me of their recovery from lives of carnality, darkness, and participation in evil, and of the great costliness to all dimensions of their being and relationships.)

But these prayers are also full of hope and trust in the strength of God to deliver not only individuals but whole groups from the grip of delusion and error (the lives of the saints--known and unknown to the wider Church--are full of such stories of recovery and healing). We must never forget this: though powerless in the world’s eyes, we bear a message and a medicine greater than all the armies, lawsuits, or advertising campaigns the world over: the mercy, grace, and love of God in Christ. It is this we plead when we pray for others in their need—not our own supposed righteousness or even our just outrage.

So, it is with a personal humility grounded in a practice of repentance, and with an earnest love for those trapped in sin, that we offer these prayers. In so doing, we place whatever grief or sorrow we have in our hearts on Christ’s altar, that our motivation may remain the victory of Truth over all lies, and the worship of the Triune God over all the false idols of this and every epoch.

+  +  +

That you would bring back the erring into the way of salvation, we beseech you, hear us.

O God of heavenly powers, fulfill your promised mercy; that the hearts of the rebellious may be subdued to the truth of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That you would bring back the erring into the way of salvation, we beseech you, hear us.

Almighty and everlasting God, who saves all peoples, and does not will that any should perish; look upon the souls which have been deceived by the fraud of the devil; that all heretical perversion may be driven away, and the hearts of the erring may repent and return to your unshaken truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That you would bring back the erring into the way of salvation, we beseech you, hear us.

Dissolve, O Christ, the schisms of heresy, which seek to subvert the faith and which strive to corrupt the truth; that as you are acknowledged in heaven and earth as one and the same Lord, so your people, gathered from all nations, may serve you in the unity of faith. Amen.

That you would bring back the erring into the way of salvation, we beseech you, hear us.

Grant forgiveness, O Lord, to those who have turned from the grace of the Font, that they may again be adorned with the gifts of faithful repentance; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That you would bring back the erring into the way of salvation, we beseech you, hear us.

O God most merciful, who recalls the erring and does not despise sinners, we rely on your own promise that you will give pardon to the penitent. May all who seek you find you. Grant this, O Lord. Amen.

That you would bring back the erring into the way of salvation, we beseech you, hear us.

Have mercy, O Lord, upon your servants, that all their wickedness may be put away; grant that they may be so protected by the defense of your compassion that, shunning all misdeeds, they may go on to perfection in the keeping of your commandments and at the last day come before the presence of your glory without shame or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That you would bring back the erring into the way of salvation, we beseech you, hear us.

O God, you delight in the devotion of the faithful; make your people to be devoted to your holy things; that they who depart from their sacred vows by ungodly depravity of mind may be converted by your grace and return from the snares of the devil wherein they have been held captive; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

That you would bring back the erring into the way of salvation, we beseech you, hear us.

Gracious Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ your Son our Savior.  Amen.

That you would bring back the erring into the way of salvation, we beseech you, hear us.

Everliving God, whose will it is that all should come to you through your Son Jesus Christ:  Inspire our witness to him, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Litany for the Philippines

Below is a litany for use at times of natural disaster. In the midst of our practical work to relieve such immense suffering, it is essential for us to pray to God for the victims, the suffering, those who are aiding directly in relief, and for the grace and courage to remain faithful to the task at hand for the long term.

A Litany in Response to a Natural Disaster

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Son, redeemer of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful,
Have mercy upon us.

Holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, One God
Have mercy upon us.

Remember not, Lord Christ our offenses, neither reward us according to our sins.  Spare us, good Lord, spare your people, whom you have redeemed by your cross and passion, and by your mercy preserve us forever.
Spare us, good Lord.

From all natural disasters, from hurricanes, fires, tornados, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards and floods,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all disease and sickness, from famine and violence,
Good Lord, deliver us.

In all times of sorrow, in all times of joy; in the hour of death and at the day of judgment,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Hear our prayers, O Christ our God,
O Christ, hear us.

For the + repose of the souls of our brothers and sisters in Christ who have died in this disaster, that your holy angels may welcome them into Paradise,
O Christ, hear us.

Console all who grieve: those whose loved ones have died, whose families are torn; whose homes have been destroyed, whose possessions have been ruined, who are now unemployed.
O Christ, hear us.

Heal those who suffer from injury and illness, emotional and spiritual distress. Give them hope and encouragement to meet the days ahead.
O Christ, hear us.

Give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty.
O Christ, hear us.

Give rest to weary and peace to the restless.
O Christ, hear us.

Give strength to the governments of affected regions and all others in authority and leadership; grant them wisdom and power to act in accordance with your will.
O Christ, hear us.

Bless the clergy and people in areas of danger and destruction who strive to do your service in the midst of their own grief and pain.  Give them fortitude to serve as you would serve.
O Christ, hear us.
Grant your people grace to witness to your word, to open their hearts in love, and to give generously from their abundance, that they may bring forth the fruits of your Spirit.
O Christ, hear us.

Forgive us Lord, for all negligence and hardheartedness, for an over-reliance on technology and a lack of preparedness that result in bitterness and strife, in injury and death.
O Christ, hear us.

In the midst of loss, grant us eyes that see, ears that hear and hands that work so that we may discern how you would have us respond.
O Christ, hear us.

We give you thanks, Lord God for all agencies and individuals who assist in relief efforts; continue in them the good work you have begun, through them your presence is made known.
We thank you O, Lord

You are our refuge and strength
Our very present help in trouble

In you Lord is our Hope
And we shall never hope in vain

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever.

O merciful Father, you have taught us in your holy Word that you do not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men: Look with pity upon the sorrows of your people [especially _______, for whom our prayers are offered]. Remember them, O Lord, in mercy, nourish their souls with patience, comfort them with a sense of your goodness, lift up your countenance upon them, and give them peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.