February 26, 2020
[words of imposition from the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday]
For years I have felt such a degree of bewonderment at a Lenten phenomenon that used to make me sit up and take careful notice. At my former church home in New York City, within that highly congested, yet all too significant crossroads of Wall Street and Broadway, 15-20,000 people made their way, and for that matter still make their way, to Trinity Church on Ash Wednesday. They come every year without fail. They come to have carbon black smudged on their heads in the form of Cross. They come to be reminded of their mortality. Now that is a staggering number of people, and such a swell in weekday attendance, that it demanded we marshall every possible black-cassocked resource in the southern part of Manhattan to do the work of imposition. You should have seen our thumbs when all was said and done. From way before sun up to way after sundown, we stood there amid long queues of somber souls who wanted that simple ministration of being ashed with a cross, along with the sobering words “Remember that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Remember, don’t you ever forget, keep it fresh and green in that mind and heart and soul of yours that you are but a speck of lifeless, burned-out matter as you enter this holy place…that’s your heritage, that’s your present tense in one sense, and as a matter of fact, that’s your destiny as well…and if, in your arrogance, you think you’ve got something going for you, think again! Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return. Oh I know there’s much more to be said about who and what we are in the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ, but we’ll get to that truth in due course…like Easter and Pentecost. For today, let’s honor one truth at a time.
In this season of life when we’ve become a notoriously impious lot who taste and nibble at any spirituality on the market that will tell us I’m OK and you're OK and we’re OK, I think it nigh incredible that we would ever even listen to such a dust-laden dictum, much less have it smudged on our consciousness. I’m surprised the Standing Liturgical Commission hasn’t decided to remove the medievalism here, extract the penitential, and substitute new words: “My brother, my sister, you are lovable and adorable, and God just thinks you are peachy-keen. —and, instead of ashes, then perhaps sprinkle the imposee with the silver glitter of fairy dust.
Now why in heaven’s name would such a lugubrious action that sounds and feels almost like “mud-in-your-eye” bring in the sheaves? I’ll cast caution to the wind, and hazard a guess. I would say it draws the masses because it becomes for so many of the Wall Streeters—and for a good number of us—one of the few moments in life when the unvarnished truth is spoken, and as Jesus told us in no uncertain terms, the Truth will set us free. We treasure our freedom, and truth is the door that opens itself to it. Here is Ash Wednesday—a liturgical nano-second-in-time when the Church can say without equivocation that our souls are tarnished, that we are broken, that there is something “not right” about the likes of us, that we have erred and strayed like lost sheep, that there is no health in us—AND that we are in dire need of being rescued. You know we’ve lost that important sense of desperation, the true gift of desperation that calls out for a Savior, but the reality is, nonetheless, still present and still yearning.
Without a strong-as-vinegar reminder of that which constitutes part of the truth about us, I suspect we might go to stand on a street corner like one of those inflated, pumped-up Pharisees, tooting our egoistic horns, making a display of our pompous selves, posturing self-righteousness to the nines. Episcopalians are good at that. How counter-cultural it is to learn to tell the truth about ourselves, the unvarnished brand; share it with God, perhaps with another; get yourself rightsized during this Lent, and do it without any display whatsoever. I would go so far as to say, forget about all this “giving-up” business for Lent; or parading about Little Rock with ash-streaked foreheads; or using briars and thorns for floral displays at the Altar. Instead, concentrate on your inner life and your own yearning, pining, desire for Jesus to set it right, help us get back on track, deliver us from the disquietude of this world, rescue us from the powers of what we once referred to as “the world, the flesh and the devil.” Cultivate that relationship in a spirit of truth, and all else will follow.
I’m certainly exaggerating my point just to caution any or all of us about trivializing and domesticating the spiritual power of this very important day and season. Every year some of my acquaintances will proudly tell me that they have given up lobster for Lent; or blue-colored, peanut-chocolate M&Ms; or chateaubriand avec l’onions. I just want to freak out. This kind of ego-inflating self-denial has little impact on one’s life, and absolutely nothing to do with our walk with Christ. If you really want to give up something, why not—as one sage put it—“give up your fear of failure, or your small and limited view of God, or your need to worry, or your comfort zone, or your desire to people please, or your tendency to overcommit, or your estimation that your opinions about the nature of things constitute truth.” (Phil Ressler, 40 Things to Give up for Lent). Now we might just be getting somewhere, and Christ could well be honored in the process.
Listen to a portion of today’s Gospel reading from Matthew in contemporary parlance: Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding. When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘playactors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out. And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.
(Matthew 6, The Message)
I got into trouble one year when I preached an Ash Wednesday sermon on the very end of that pericope, that portion of Scripture. It says: Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage… I said to the congregation, “Don’t just do something this Lent, sit there….” The liturgical police from the diocese got after me, and the pious folk in the congregation begged me to enjoin them to practice acts of self-denial, mortifications of the flesh, edifications of the mind, and invigorations of the spirit. One person even said, “Don’t you understand dear Father? The Church is the Gold’s Gym of the spiritual life. It’s where we pump ourselves up and strengthen our spiritual abs and lats.” I was so tempted to say, “Fie on thee, that’s inflationism of the worst kind—you’ve missed the point.” The point is developing a relationship, a relationship where honesty is the key. Sit down with Jesus, and let the focus shift from you to him, and then, as the Gospel promises, you will begin to sense his good grace.
There is an abruptness about Ash Wednesday. Truth-telling always comes in that kind of package, and while it may knock us for a loop, or irritate the fire out of us, or cause us to feel & think, the truth will set us free. Let me end with the Collect for Ash Wednesday—a truthful and earnest prayer if ever there was one. In earlier times we said it every day during Lent, but now—probably because of its vinegar-esque potency and brutal honesty—we say it only one time, i.e. today. Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made, and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
February 16, 2020
On rare occasions, our readings on a Sunday morning veer in the direction of the Apocrypha, i.e. the 15 historical and prophetic books of sacred literature that Anglicans/Episcopalians use for purposes of edification and spiritual counsel. Today our case in point is from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach. The category is Hebrew Wisdom Literature, a life-giving source of ethical teaching written two centuries or so before Jesus’ birth.
“If you choose,” says Ben Sira the writer of this account, “you can keep the commandments of God, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. God gives you the power to do just that. He has placed before you fire and water; so stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.”
This past week I conducted a clergy conference In Lisbon, Portugal, and I used these words of the rabbi in my addresses. It was a gathering of the Convocation of American Episcopal Churches in Europe together with our sister church—the Lusitanian Apostolic Evangelical Catholic Church of Portugal (not Roman Catholic—but Anglican—and what a name—I like to say it: the Lusitanian Apostolic Evangelical Catholic Church of Portugal). We met together in that beautiful capital city of Lisbon, and I was invited to come over with an expectation that I might assist them in understanding and addressing the spiritual dynamics of addictive illness, alcoholism in particular—along with its insidious effect on families of those so afflicted. Our American congregations abroad—scattered throughout the European continent—are having quite a time with this disease and its many ramifications in church life, so they pocketed their pride, and they asked for help. 33 years in recovery from the disease of alcoholism, and a doctoral degree in spirituality, and the emergence of a life’s work helping addicts and their families—provide me with some degree of expertise when it comes to leading such a conference—“Been there, and done that” as the saying goes.
We no longer observe “Alcohol Awareness Sundays” in the Episcopal Church. Such Sundays used to be de rigeur in Episcopal life and practice, but sadly they have disappeared. I’ll use to my time in Portugal as an opportunity to share with you what I shared with some of them…and we’ll make this our own Addiction Awareness Sunday. Back in the olden days, especially in churches of the south where preachers still had a measure of credibility and their words a powerful sway, people like me could get up in a pulpit and raise the dickens with their congregations about the evils of smoke and drink. And those dickens appeared to pay dividends—at least to some extent. Preachers screeched, temperance clubs flourished, stills were smashed in the name of Jesus—especially up there in NW Arkansas—Newton and Boone Counties to wit. We had teetotalers all over the denominational map signing pledges of abstinence and promising on Bible stacks to lead lives along the proverbial straight and narrow—ultimately giving way in this country to Prohibition — Can you imagine? 13 years of Prohibition.
In 1920, the USA executed a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Exasperated by attempts to control people’s behavior (which we know, or should know, that we cannot do), I can almost hear the comments on such an ill-fated and naive law. Especially the question in our current parlance: “And how’s that working for you America?” In 1933, we repealed the constitutional amendment, and went back to walking our way down that primrose path that leads to perdition—at least for some of us—not all, but for some of us.
Teetotal. Now that’s a strange word. Legend says a preacher man named Turner back in the early 1900s addressed the Preston SC Christian Temperance Society about the evils of John Barleycorn and the Demon Rum. He castigated that crowd in no uncertain terms, saying that partial abstinence from intoxicating liquors would not do; that believers must insist upon capital “T” total abstinence. Hence total abstainers began to be called teetotalers. Capital “T” total abstinence. Of course a number of listeners to such homiletical fireworks didn’t sign the pledge, or take an axe to the stills. Instead, They flocked en masse to the Episcopal Church where there were much less stringent rules for fellowship, where moderation was preached in all things, and where a libation or two was considered a pleasant and honorable thing to do and to share—with the proviso that one can handle it.
33 years ago, I capital T-totaled, and poured out my last glass of the demon rum, along with a few martinis. I’m one of the 20% of human beings who cannot negotiate alcohol or drugs—and do so successfully. People like me cannot drink or drug, or we end up in jail, or the looney bin, or the graveyard. It’s as simple as that. The rest of you, I say “Salud” - “To your health” - “Go for it.” Just do so in moderation. This life of sobriety has been quite the enormous gift for me, as well as for a number of others. It has taken me all over the place—even Portugal—as a relatively sane person who can share his experience of recovery, or should I say salvation, in ways that trigger resonance in others who are similarly afflicted…and not only resonance, but healing identification, a desire to get off the road to leads to perdition, and a pledge to quit relying on ourselves when we have proved to be so unreliable. God has placed before you fire and water—states the apocryphal preacher—with God’s good grace, stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given.
Just to be clear, and to set the record straight, let me say that my name is Stuart, and I am a recovering alcoholic. By the Grace of God, and the fellowship of a program of spiritual healing, I haven’t found it necessary to take a drink of alcohol, or to ingest any other mood-altering substance, since the 8th day of March, 1987—and for that enormous gift, I am forever grateful. I’m not signaling myself out when it comes to addiction—Lord only knows, I’m not the only addict in this room. We all have our addictions—attachments—idols that drive us to look for value and meaning and strength and purpose and relief in all the wrong places, It’s the nature of the human beast to go looking for love in all the wrong places, and we’ve just about mastered the art.
In 1982—the #1 hit song in Little Rock, Arkansas was that of Johnny Lee:
Well, I've spent a lifetime lookin' for you;
singles bars and good time lovers were never true.
Playin' a fools game hopin' to win;
and tellin' those sweet lies and losin' again.
I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places,
Lookin' for love in too many faces,
searchin' their eyes and lookin' for traces
of what I'm dreamin' of.
I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places,
Lookin' for love in too many faces,
In the early 1970s, the liturgy professor at the Virginia Theological Seminary…a man by the name of Charles Smith…wrote a prayer that was later captured by the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer 1979—what I still refer to sometimes as the “new Prayer Book.” As far as I can tell, and I have searched the matter, it was the first time an official prayer of any denomination in our country publicly addressed problems related to addictive illness. With a significant percentage of the American population—perhaps as high as 20-25 percent suffering from alcohol or drug addiction—that’s pretty late in the game to start saying our corporate prayers for healing the afflicted in that area. The denial of this disease and its effects on individuals and families is staggering. Denial is refusing to acknowledge what in our hearts we know to be true. It is the first and foremost symptom of the disease of addiction, and a dynamic that allows many of us to keep our heads in the sand until it becomes too late to get help.
Listen closely to the prayer as I pray it. It has a peculiar flaw within it. See if you can spot it. O blessed Lord, you ministered to all who came to you: Look with compassion upon all who through addiction have lost their health and freedom. Restore to them the assurance of your unfailing mercy; remove from them the fears that beset them; strengthen them in the work of their recovery; and to those who care for them, give patient understanding and persevering love. Amen.
Notice how we the praying community distance ourselves from the poor addicts…Restore to them…remove from them….strengthen them in the work of their recovery. As we say up there in my part of Arkansas, Mississippi County, “Why bless their hearts—they’re so drunk they don’t have the sense to come in out of the rain.” I suggest we change the pronouns in this prayer to us. Strengthen us in the work of our recovery, and to those who care for us, give patient understanding and persevering love. Again—and let me be very clear about this—We all have what psychologists refer to as attachments; we all have what theologians refer to as idols; we all have what medicine refers to as addictions…people, places, things, situations, and dynamics to which we assign value, meaning, and purpose—and relief. That which, those which, promise an easier and softer and quicker way to the kingdom…be it alcohol, or opiods, or material things, or religion, or success, or debting, or hoarding, or food, or pornography, or compulsive gambling, or power, or control. Shortcuts to happiness where in our graven lust to feel better, some of us have lost control and life has become unmanageable.
My own presenting complaint that became a compulsion was alcohol. I drank too much, I drank too often, and I drank to change my reality, alter my mood, and adjust my attitude… to make myself feel better, and to do so at “happy hour.” I got to a point in that slippery slide that leads to alcoholism where I could not predict with any degree of success what would happen to me after I took that first drink. At times I felt that I could control my ingestion of strong drink; at other times it was “katy bar the door”…and slowly but surely and quite imperceptibly, I began walking that primrose path that leads to perdition…troubles erupted…symptoms multiplied…problems gathered momentum…until a group of Episcopal church people like you had the nerve, the guts, the audacity to say to me as their Rector—Stuart, we love you, we care for you…but you have a problem that’s affecting all of us. Let’s get help…for you and for us. I was dispatched to a residential treatment center for alcoholism, and the help I was given in that place was monumental. Just the knowledge of the disease itself was a godsend, but then there was the on-going treatment which has given me the remarkable and reasonably happy life that I have today.
During the intake procedure in that particular rehab, I met with the attending physician. He was reading my chart with a degree of scrutiny, sported something of a scowl on his face, and I was prepared for him to say, “Son, you are doomed.” Instead, he looked up, smiled and said, “Well I see here that you have a case of garden variety alcoholism. My advice to you is this: Don’t drink anymore, go to recovery meetings regularly, get yourself a sponsor—a spiritual guide, read the literature and learn everything you can about the nature of addictive illness, do service for others, pray and meditate, and you’ll be fine. I said, “wait, wait a minute… you don’t know the troubles I’ve seen…I need an exotic form of treatment….” He said again… “Don’t drink another drop, go to meetings and do so regularly, get yourself a sponsor, read the literature, do service for others and a whole lot of it, pray and meditate and you’ll be fine… That was 33 years ago next week, and I have been much better than fine ever since that time.
On returning to Amarillo, Texas, after 28 days in that treatment facility, a man from a recovery group met me at the airport, and told me that he would be my temporary sponsor, and that he was there to get me started in a program that would change my life from henceforth and forevermore. A big promise and one that turned out to be right on target. He showed me a passage that originated in early day recovery groups in New York City. He asked me to commit these words to memory, and recall them every single day—which I do— and he said that these words were none other than the promise of God’s redemptive work in the world, and that if would take them to heart, I would find myself in the fellowship of the redeemed, have the shape of my own ministry redirected, and discover a joy and a peace like I had never known before. Truer words were never spoken. Let me share them with you as I close, and I will say to you that these words can apply to anyone—especially if you’ve struggled any kind of issue or dis-ease:
Showing others how we were given help is what makes life so worthwhile to us now. Cling to the thought that, in God’s hands, our own dark past is the best resource we have when it comes to helping others. With it—that is to say sharing our story with others either by living it or telling it— we can help others avert misery and death. (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 124)
May the Lord who has given us the will to minister to all who through addiction have lost their health and freedom, now give us the grace and power to bring in the sheaves.
August 26, 2018
This morning in our lectionary reading from the Hebrew Scripture, we read from a historical document—the First book of the Kings—a book said to be a holy history of a holy people, history recounted from a spiritual vantage point with a theological agenda to promote. Our particular pericope this morning involves the great King Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba, ruler of the United Kingdom, and exemplary of Israel’s leadership at the height of her worldly greatness—that being 10 centuries before the birth of Jesus.
Throughout the ages, sacred history has revered and celebrated King Solomon—most especially for an asset of character that we call wisdom, a God-given ability to discern the Spirit’s movement, a blessing of insight and perspicacity—and then for his application of that holy gift in building a temple for the worship of God right at the heart of Israel’s life. Wise King Solomon knew that the God of the Universe (whose breadth and depth never ever could be contained in an earthly vessel or quartered by human hands) must nevertheless have a name, an address, and a visible, audible, feelable, touchable, sensible, and BEAUTIFUL presence in a particular place in ordinary time and recognizable space if flesh and blood human beings like ourselves are ever to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” [Psalm 34:8]
So Solomon constructs this lavish temple; he adorns it with worldly greatness and inspirited beauty; and from its description it apparently was as awe-inspiring in its architecture and fabric as is Trinity Cathedral on Spring Street in Little Rock—the point being those beautiful buildings are very very important to us, and should never be taken for granted or thought to be excessive. Within the heart of this magnificent Temple, Solomon ensconces the Ark of the Covenant, the holiest of holy for God’s chosen, the sacred law that binds God and God’s people in a relationship. Solomon pleads with God to listen to the prayers of those who come to the temple to venerate the Law, and he even delineates for God the kinds of prayers that will undoubtedly travel from human lips to the divine ear:
Most especially prayers uttered —
by those seeking help in times of need…
by those In the clutch of transgression, begging for forgiveness…
by those in crisis because of great famine or withering drought
by those in despair when a loss is pronounced and failure colors the day…
by those living through seasons when a loss is pronounced and failure and colors the day.
even by those who are foreigners and aliens who come as curiosity-seekers hoping they might find the One who is said to live here.
Listen to a portion of Solomon’s grandiloquent prayer, prayed—I suggest—with energy and passion:
And Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the congregation of Israel, and spread forth his hands toward heaven:
“O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like thee, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to thy servants who walk before thee with all their heart. But will you, O God, dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of thy servant and to his supplication, O Lord my God…. And hearken thou to the supplication of thy people Israel, when they pray toward this place; yea, hear thou in heaven those who gather together in thy dwelling place; and when thou hearest, forgive…in the sense of “give for.”
The construction of the great Temple in Jerusalem and its use in Israel’s history has become—in my estimation—an archetype, a blueprint, a prime example of sacred structure ever since. The 20th-century psychologist Carl Jung focused on archetype as an original model or type after which other similar things are patterned. In Jungian psychology, an archetype is an inherited pattern of thought or symbolic image that is derived from the past and stays active and alive in the unconscious of the human soul. An archetype is often activated when a crisis occurs, when the soul needs a sign from high above or deep within in order to take the next step of the journey. I have seen this reality lived out, and I want to share a portion of what I witnessed in this regard. Keep that in mind as I shift my homiletical gears.
On the eleventh day of September 2001—one of the several days in history that has seared the hearts and scarred the minds of anyone who was alive at that time—the unthinkable occurred, the unimaginable happened. Terrorists attacked our country; destroyed our sense of impenetrability; wrecked our notions of security; and caused many deaths and massive destruction. The legacy of that horror is still present today with the evil it unleashed across the globe. I happen to have been an eyewitness to the events of the day at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City, a mere 150 yards from the Church where I worked. Another Trinity Church that lies at the heart of another great city; another Christian community bound within the name of the Trinity that exists for a world of good just as we do here. Next month on September 16th and 23rd, I plan to share details of the day with you in the Dean’s Forum on Sunday morning, and reflect on those gut-wrenching and life-changing events from a spiritual perspective…as well as the outpouring of redemptive love that began to occur within seconds of the attack…how God redeems time, repurchases time, and is forever and a day bringing good out of evil, light out of darkness, joy out of suffering, and life out of death. Today—just a small piece of it as it corresponds to our reading this morning from the Hebrew Scripture.
Early morning on a workday after getting out of the number 9 subway train at the corner of Rector and Greenwich Streets in lower Manhattan, a friend from work greeted me with the news that a small plane had veered off course and had hit the upper stories of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. We scurried two blocks down the street to join the enormous crowd which had gathered to gooseneck the “accident,” While standing there, a second plane, a massive 737 jetliner, flew right over our heads at a speed of 586 mph, rammed the building’s second tower a 1000 feet above us, and caused an explosion so massive that it sent all of New York’s financial district on a run for their lives. I ran a short distance into the office building of Trinity Church where my office was located on the 24th floor. The Rector, Dan Matthew whom many of you know, caught me in the lobby of the building, and in no uncertain terms told me to get myself to the church which lay across the street and to do something with the crowd of people who were pouring into the building.
The organist-choirmaster, Owen Burdick, and I did as Fr Matthews directed…and there for the next 45 minutes—until that horrible moment when the first tower imploded and fell to the ground—Owen and I carried out an extemporaneous service of prayers, readings from Scripture, and hymns from the hymnal for this rag-tag collection of anyone and everyone who had entered that great monument of a church [and one that-looks-like-a-church] seeking the very thing the Church offers in abundance when she is at her best: safety, security, serenity, solace, sanctuary, succor—in a word SALVATION—at the very instant in time when the sky had fallen on our heads and the rug had been pulled out from beneath us. You can see how the archetype “temple” or “church” was triggered, and how the people responded.
And what a group we were—so diverse, so colorful, so emotionally shredded that we gave new meaning to the word eclectic. Heterogeneous, broad, diverse…Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Zoroastrians, agnostics, atheists, Episcopalians — a disparate assembly if ever there was one gathered under one roof, most of them on their knees, all utterly dependent at least for a moment upon the grace of God. I think of James Joyce’s definition of the Catholic Church as he defines it in his book Finnegan’s Wake: “Here comes everybody” and indeed everybody came. Of course, they came. They were frightened out of their wits, scared beyond their imaginings, and there stood a church with an open door. The unconscious holds the original pattern, and it’s activated in all its glory when the time is ripe. Of all the buildings on Wall Street that one could have chosen for a reprieve from the disaster, the Church became the place to go for so many of the scattered. Furthermore, this church was an Episcopal Church—with that familiar sign of ours out front that said, “the Episcopal Church welcomes you”. Hospitality is our middle name! — that being the creation of a warm and open space for all strangers of any stripe to come in, sit down, and “be still and know that God is God” [Psalm 46:10].
On that morning of abject terror, we did just as Solomon imagined we would doing when human condition is at a point of imploring divine assistance. We prayed to God for deliverance. We asked for forgiveness. We sang in praise; we listened to Word, and we embraced a peculiar kind of peace that so often occurs in the beauty of holiness, and—I would add—in the holiness of beauty. In that church, as in all churches, the Sacred and other-worldly Word of God often intersects the mundane and quite pedestrian lives of those who hear it. How many times have you noticed a word from the liturgy, or heard a phrase from a sermon, or spotted a visual message from a sliver of stained glass that spoke with directness and urgency to just the issue you were dealing? Quick blips that contain just the very thing we need to hear, just when we need to hear it. The synchronicity in a house of worship can be uncanny at times. It’s as if God hears our prayers, and makes a response in ways that are tailor-made to whatever it is that happens to be going on within us. The Sacrament of the Present Moment as Christian mystics once deemed it.
Picture this. Here was that most eclectic group of worshippers gathered together in an old Neo-gothic church house, right at the edge of unimaginable destruction, The sky had darkened outside to the point of blackness; sirens roared everywhere the ear could hear; fear was at such a pitch that only assurance from above, not some mawkish nosegay of re-assurance, only assurance of divine origin could help. I was scrambling through the hymnal looking for songs of devotion and praise that we could all sing. Remembering the wartime movie “Mrs. Miniver” with Greer Garson, I recalled images of a church in England that had been bombed and partially destroyed, and the white-haired vicar climbs into the pulpit and directs the congregation to stand and sing “O God our Help in Ages past.” So I did it. I used to know the names and number of every hymn in the hymnal, so without pause, I said let us stand and sing number 680, and those battle-torn, rag-tags sang their hearts out.
In that context of the darkening sky, flickering electricity, fear ascending, and death impending, we sang the first verse of that stately Anglican hymn, and an utterly amazing spiritual awakening occurred.
O GOD OUR HELP IN AGES PAST
OUR HOPE FOR YEARS TO COME
OUR SHELTER FROM THE STORM BLAST
AND OUR ETERNAL HOME….
The Congregation gasped audibly when Word intersected with Event. Our shelter from the stormy blast indeed. OMG, we’re here. We’ve entered our eternal home, no matter what is to befall us in the minutes and hours ahead. Do you know that sound we often make when a connection like that is realized? It’s Ahhhh, Ohhhhh. “The spirit working within us in Sighs and groans way too deep for words” as St Paul describes it. Where in this world would you ever experience such a thing if not for a temple dedicated to the glory of God and housing God’s holy presence? A Church to wit. A name and an address in each community where the divine has agreed—thanks in part to Solomon’s prayerful negotiation—to be present. A place where song, sacrament, sermon, the sacred word all conspire to rocket you and me to a 4th dimension.
Coincidence—if there be such a thing—happened again moments later as events worsened outside the church’s doors. When the ash from the burning wreckage began to be sucked into the building thanks to a new HVAC system, I turned to the 8th chapter of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to read those amazing words of consolation that we use in our tradition almost invariably at funerals. In a moment of exaltation, Paul writes: “For I am absolutely convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I read these words as if they were addressed to me personally, with such energy, such purpose. I read them as if I really and truly believed what they were saying. I did and I do, and I cannot begin to describe how much these words mean to me even today.
Again that sound went up, and this time much louder than before—Ahhaaaa, Ohhh, those sighs and groans too deep for words. A Co-incidence…or perhaps a better word would be God-incidence. Oh I have much to say on these matters, and I will be saying it, and I want you to hear it, and everyone you know. It’s so important as we gird our loins, gear our minds, and temper our hearts to deal with the vagaries and vicissitudes of life in the 21st century. If death or destruction happens to come our way, we absolutely must know that redemption is occurring simultaneously. That’s the very nature of our loving God who is doing for us what we could never do for ourselves.
But for now, as we near the anniversary of 9/11, as we continue this week and month and year to trudge through the dispiriting and often demoralizing experiences of seeing the world, this nation and THE CHURCH go through a period of upheaval—and perhaps cleansing—and as we wonder at times if the sky IS falling and if the rug IS being pulled out from under us, I’d stay let’s stay close to the church! And I say that from good experience. Go to the temple, and go often. Hear the Word. Receive the Sacrament, and do so regularly. Say your prayers. And Sing your witness. It’s the only place on earth where the reality of redemption is given to us in technicolor. Where serendipities and consolations are commonplace, where grace is unmerited and grace-full events are often perceived almost as ordinary, where hospitality and beauty are our middle names, and all of it occurring among such an eclectic collection of “everybody come”.
Glory to the Holy and Undivided Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit whose redemptive hand is forever and a day bringing Good out of Evil, Life out of Death, Joy out of suffering, and Light out of Darkness.