Monday, December 17, 2012

A Short Devotion for Students in the Midst of Finals

"There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love." Bernard of Clairvaux

A Student's Prayer, Thomas Aquinas:
Grant, O merciful God, that I may
ardently desire,
prudently examine,
truthfully acknowledge,
and perfectly accomplish
what is pleasing to You,
for the praise and glory of Your Name. Amen.
" transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2b)

From the Book of Common Prayer:

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have
done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole
creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life,
and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for
the loving care which surrounds us on every side.
We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best
efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy
and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the
truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast
obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying,
through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life
again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.
Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and
make him known; and through him, at all times and in all
places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

The Stable's Demand

Last night after worship, one of the St Francis House students sent me a text with a screen shot of a Christmas poem, written by her uncle, a monk in the Order of Julian of Norwich. B shared it with me in light of our evening's worship and conversation, which touched on last Friday's shootings, gentleness, and the hard discipline of joy. The poem came to me as an incredible blessing. With B's permission, I share it with you here:

Bethlehem broadened and filled our horizons,
The stable demanded our hearts in return,
God spoke the Word in the flesh of a man-child
And wrote with that Body what mankind must learn:

Suffer, He said, but never cause suffering,
Give, while the rest of the world seeks to take;
Die, if it's needed, but never cause dying,
Love, with the knowledge that friends may forsake.

Peace is your hope while others are warring,
Gentle your way while the rest are all strong;
Care, in a world which has grown past all caring;
Sing to a world which despises your song.

This is your duty and this your commission;
To dance among those who creep on the earth;
To celebrate life amid deathly confusion,
To speak in your living the truth of My Birth.

Fr. John Julian, OJN

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Risking Joy.

Advent Wreath-1
Christian worship is always counter-cultural, but maybe never more so than this Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, the pink-candle observance of Advent - Gaudete Sunday - when, positioned as we are within the university context, standing on the front-edge of final exam week, and, more sharply, in the shadow of the shooting deaths of twenty seven - mostly school children - last Friday, the liturgy comes to us with the simple, one-word exhortation that does not fit at all: Rejoice! Rejoice.

Unfortunate. Embarrassing, even. But that’s what the pink is about. The readings, too, try to do their part: Gaudete coming from the first word of the Latin translation of St Paul’s epistle tonight; St Paul to the Church: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice.”

Zephaniah, also: Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The canticle: Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy!

The gospel, well, it’s harder to see the joy in John the Baptist, but it’s there: the promise of baptism at the hand of the coming Messiah, the holy One come to save Israel from her sins, to reconcile, restore, the People of God to God; baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Then again, this is starting to sound like exam week.) And then, my favorite line for its confusing peculiarity, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

This is how John proclaims the good news: fire is coming! Everyone will burn. John is not the one you put in charge of departmental Christmas parties.

For many of us, though, I imagine John sounds more honest that the other lessons. An end by fire fits more nearly our understanding of the world we inhabit. In this world, it is not easy to rejoice. Finals week or not, rejoicing comes with difficulty. Joy is not easy. Some would say, is not responsible. Knowing what we know about the world and ourselves, is not possible. For some, expressions of and hope for joy feel like betrayals of the truth.

But Luke intercepts our attempts to co-opt John with our doom and gloom projections when Luke tells us that John thinks he is proclaiming genuinely good news. Maybe he is, but we have inherited enough of Dante’s legacy to know that fire means hell. Hell does not sound like good news. But that we think of John’s fiery language first in terms of what it will do to us and only afterwards in terms of what it says about God names precisely the sin from which John tells the people we will need to repent.

For John, fire is not primarily the avoidable consequence reserved for lives gone awry (i.e., hell); instead, fire is first the impossible possibility of God born in our midst.

God will not burn us with fire, as if fire were a tool in God’s hand, a Zeus-ian lightning bolt god. No. God is the fire. God might burn us, yes, but with the same, living presence of God born to Mary. This presence is the fulfillment of a deep ache, desire, and promise. God’s presence is good news. God’s Fire, an occasion for joy: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. We are right to name - and hold in holy fear - the judgment of the light, what it will require of us, but also to feel the thawing ice sliding from our shoulders, the promise of what John Wesley called a heart “strangely warmed.”


Think fire that came to Moses in the bush that burned but was not destroyed;

think fire, that great column that lit up the nights, by which God led the People of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, into the Land of Promise, so that the night and the day might be both alike, that fire which anticipates the realms of angels;

think fire as the Spirit descended on Mary, sparking the flame of the Church whose head is Christ, only Son of the Father;

think fire that formed as flame and fell on the heads of Jesus’ friends as they stood there, in his absence, locked for fear behind closed doors. The Holy Spirit birthing, breathing, life of the kind and quality we share by virtue of our baptism.

Think even the flames of the Great Fire stoked at the Easter Vigil, in which we celebrate, we remember, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Fire, not first as our punishment, but - throughout the resounding witness of Scripture - first as God’s presence. Fire as good news.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;            
shout, O Israel!            
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,            
O daughter Jerusalem!    

The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst.

If you’ll humor me, turn to page 286 of your Prayer Book, the Easter Vigil, the night before Easter morning, the heart of our baptism, at which the Great Fire is lit. I pray you’ve had the wonderful occasion to attend an Easter Vigil, preferably with Great Fire. See the three-fold response sung by the deacon as the flame is introduced in procession before the Assembly:

Rejoice now.
Rejoice and sing now.
Rejoice and be glad now.

The response of the People of God to the presence of God. As Christmas announces and Easter confirms, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. In the words of John Wesley again: “The best of all is, God is with us.”  Rejoice.

There is this great, bittersweet quote I love: “Smile, people will wonder what you are up to.” I love the quote for its reminder to treasure the gift of joy. But I also grieve the quote, just to the extent that even the barest hint of joy - a sidewalk smile - is estranged to our cultural sensibilities, deeply buried beneath the grief for so many people, such that folks will wonder what you are up to.

Count the truly joyful smiles you see, walking here on campus or on the streets back home. And, if you are brave, the next time you are walking out across those sidewalks, smile, not at people, but simply before people, the next time you are walking. Pay attention to the faces that express their gratitude for a face that reflects the fire’s warming glow. See how they acknowledge your risking the impossible possibility of joy in this world. No less than the theologian Karl Barth once said that “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” And elsewhere he wrote, “The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all.”

Of course, one should not fake it. Cannot fake it. And yet joy may be the truest measure of one’s remembering the nearness, the presence, the fire, of Jesus. So we practice the hard discipline of joy as we come here and become the burning bush by our participation in the Eucharist, and by the daily practices of thanksgiving that are an extension of this act.

The joy we find in the nearness of Jesus, says St Paul, allows us to be gentle with ourselves and the world. Allows us the gentleness to bear with one another in love. I often wonder if gentleness is not among the most understated, underrated, of the fruit of the Spirit. Of course, in addition to gentleness, the joy we find in the nearness of Jesus allows us the patience to be present to those living in what appear to be hopeless situations; indeed, the joy we find in the nearness of Jesus paradoxically teaches us how to truly grieve, allows us to be present to God in the present, now, as it is, broken, remembers that the most definitive word about ourselves or the world finally belongs to God, and that Word, in the end, is good. Even after an unthinkable Friday morning at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that Word is Christ,

Who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, now, and forever.



Saturday, December 15, 2012

Songs of Grief:
3 Songs after Friday at Sandy Hook

Media and social media have offered plenty of words in the not-quite 48 hours since the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Many of those words are likely not as empty as they seem right now, but my ears stopped trying to listen that closely pretty early on. (Part of me refuses to believe that anything intelligible can be said without more time than has elapsed.) Numb. Empty. Echoes. Distance. Stop. All words that begin to scratch at grief like this.

Unexpectedly, my ears opened up tonight at dinner, not through words, but through three particular songs, each giving voice to a separate, distinct part of the conflicting chorus of this grief and yearning. For those who need an alternative to words.

Where is the Love? (lyrics)

All Will Be Well (lyrics)

Finally, Andrew Peterson's Doxology (song and lyrics). The only (to my knowledge) recording of this song on the net.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Promise is Fire

 An old sermon (4+ years ago??) from my curacy at St Helena's, Boerne, probably a little too long, overdone, and/or redundant, with some good images nevertheless to which I return in my own prayers each Advent.


The awkwardness of teenage years is too inevitable to regret.  Which would have been good news if I hadn’t found it out so late.  But what a waste, as I look back, what an unnecessary burden of emotion, tears, and self-ridicule in the learning of that lesson.  Things just don’t come easy in that adolescent cave.   They didn’t for my folks and they didn’t for me.  Those who remember adolescence fondly, well you are the special cases.  Conflict is the norm, and the nature of that growth. 

But somehow I expected to be different.  Or at least, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the struggle.  For example, I couldn’t for the life of me have told you why every outside comment felt like the critique of my whole being.  I couldn’t have understood myself why the words I offered back came out the hurtful ways they did.  Looking back, it was all so regrettable, except that it was so equally inevitable.  The necessary and natural next-step on the way to growing up. 

I remember one particularly regrettable day: my brother and I had spent the whole morning at war; fighting and climbing and otherwise monkeying our way through the house.  Finally, my parents, fed up, had enough.  In plain words, Dad told us to take our show on the road, to get out of the house, lest our next round of fisticuffs bloody the floor, he explained.  Indignant, and in a rare display of solidarity, Matthew and I stormed out the front door, together, hollering as we went, “We’ll be back.”

To which my dad deadpanned behind us, “Is that a promise or a threat?”

And as I think about the gospel read this morning, it calls to life that adolescent mood.  Enter John, the scolding parent, prattling on about repentance, good fruit, and viper broods.  Hollering to God’s children that they could as easily be rocks; that is, that they can easily be replaced.  Imagine anger, the insecurity, and the venom.  There’s a heritage to account for after all: a last name that makes them family.  But John’s words sting against the whole history of the people called Israel.  “What about Moses?  What about Exodus?  What about wilderness, exile, deliverance?   What about Abraham?  What about the promise of God made to us?”  Still John continues, his rant undeterred: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

A gasp!  Fire?  Would he destroy us?  Nonsense!  The rulers of Israel seethe, their anger burning back toward John.  With all of the Old Testament noise of fire and brimstone--of God’s wrath made real--John’s fire comes to their ears as the blinding exclamation point of God, the parent’s fed-up “GET OUT” to God’s children in rebellion.

Except, and this is important, John doesn’t say, “Get out.”  He stops himself short.
Instead, the merely regrettable becomes the inevitable with these sober words from John, “Get ready,” he says.  “Get ready--fire’s coming.”

“I baptize you,” John says, “with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Here me Israel, the fire’s coming.”

The One to whom John points, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the One baptized with a dove overhead and the thunder of God all around, this One is coming.  He is coming like fire.

You and I, from the other side of Jesus’ coming, you and I are where we are, you and I are who we are--as the Church--on account of this holy fire: this baptism; God living among us.  What Israel first heard as threat, we now live as God’s promise.  After all, if we have any place in the story of Israel, it is as the rocks from which God makes and names his new children.

For this reason, it can be easy, I think, to read the gospel today with a sort of “stinks to be them” smile on our face.  How embarrassing for them.  Those Pharisees.  Those Sadducees.  Those snakes.  Tsk.  Tsk.  Thank God for God’s grace, for our welcome; thank God for His fire; but to be honest, it’s all a little hard to take too seriously, at least from this side of the smoke. 

After all, we have the Reformation to tell us that we can be confident in salvation through Jesus.  As Christians, we do not fear the fires of hell, and while our smugness makes us nervous, we feel that Christ compels us to be smug: our faith is rightfully in Him.  Jesus, we pray, delivers us from God’s judgment.

But to think in this way, to somehow see Jesus as water to douse the fires of judgment, this is to miss John’s point this morning: GOD IS THE FIRE!  John doesn’t threaten the fires of hell, he promises the fire of God!  And so fire is not the avoidable consequence of a life gone awry; instead, fire is the reality of God born in our midst. 

Last week, we baptized a child in this font, and immediately afterwards many of us congratulated the family of the baptized.  Had we thought much longer about it, though, we might have exclaimed--just as rightly--“Good Lord, what have we done?”  The answer of course would have been, “We’ve thrown him to the Fire.”

Let us make no mistake, the waters of baptism are dangerous waters; they are Spirit-drenched waters; the waters of baptism are fire waters of God--waters soaked through with the presence of God.  The final words of the baptism drive home the terror and finality of this moment: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

And so John’s words to his vipers are no less meant for us: He asks, “For what do you come to these waters?  Only know that the One that you seek will not leave you unchanged.  The fire water of God will not allow for disparity.  But when your lips touch the coal, the very fire of God, when you drink of the Spirit, the fire will burn holiness in you.  Should you allow it--should you desire it--the fire of God will be the birth of God’s will living in you; the death of violence and all self-deception, the explosion of a new creation in Jesus.”

As the Christian preacher and story teller George MacDonald reminds us,
“It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; but that the fire will burn us until we worship thus; yea, will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God.”

All of which is why Christians don’t just run up to Christmas.  We take our time.  We prepare.  We wait.  We walk up to the fire.  Fire is coming.  In the meantime, we look at ourselves and we say, “What thing--what distraction--what obstacle--what vice--what defect--would I ask the fire of the living God to melt away in me?”  “How is my life set at odds with the heritage I’m so eager to claim?”  “God help me,” we say, “to be more truly me.  God help me,” we pray, “to abide more deeply with you.”  We ask: “What about me and my living twists my relationship with God into lies?”  Advent reminds us that Christmas is a transforming gift to be prayerfully approached; a gift to be received with the expectation of new life--even yours and mine. 

The reception of God’s gift is repentance in us.  It is the turning of our whole lives toward the promise of God.  It is the attending of our lives to the Life of God made man.  And as we take our steps toward Mary’s baby, this divine gift of God, we find ourselves made closer to one another, too.  Like Israel, we find ourselves made a new people:

At the nine o’clock service, just before we read the gospel, the gospel is walked into the middle of the congregation.  And our instinct is to turn toward it.  To look at it.  To orient ourselves around it.  So doing, turned around that book, we become a certain kind of people.  In that Gospel moment, we become the people who have Jesus at their center.  Advent-like, we turn toward the Word; we prepare to receive the gift of God’s Word with us.

Together, we walk toward the fire. 

And as we approach the fire that is the baby’s birth--Jesus, God with us--as we draw nearer, we bear glimpses of the holiness of God.  We reflect--if so slightly--the glory of the One we pursue. 

And this is God’s delight.  God gives us His child, that we would become His children.  That we might rest in His peace and know the end of rebellion.  That we would know ourselves--every inch of ourselves--cleansed by fire, and reconciled to God.

So walk toward the fire.  Grab hands as you draw nearer the heat.  You who would be the People of God, come to see the Son of God; come to be changed by the life that He gives.  And though we don’t necessarily know what we’re doing; though we fear the inadequacy of all that we are; though we know that this fire will consume us completely, may we pray with our being the only words that make sense:

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


The Day the Stones Sang Songs of Hope

Today I attended a lecture entitled Eclipse of Empires, Dawn of a New World Order, featuring two of UW-Madison's most prominent and (on this day) book-promoting professor's: Alfred McCoy and Crawford Young.

I cannot pretend to do justice to the remarkable conversation here, but a particularly compelling digression occurred over McCoy's observation that, with the decline of the U.S. as world empire a near-certainty (within 25-40 years, McCoy projects), a futuristic global empire is imaginable in which a global, governing class of wealthy, largely corporate, elite, navigate between high-profile cities as the masses are relegated to the margins, with economic disparity on a scale never before seen in the history of humanity, and governments relegated to contractor status for these dominant corporate powers.

The digression came in the form of another well-respected professor's suggestion that McCoy and Young were being too optimistic; that their "straight-line" projection failed to account for human depravity, world war, and a potential global economic collapse on par with the Great Depression.

As the professor spoke, it was hard not to hear echoes of the apocalyptic gospel lesson that began the Church's Advent season. Indeed, a friend recently preached his observation that, while the post-modern world finds end-time claims of faith traditions unintelligible, the post-modern world's vivid imagination for the end of all things is all too operative. "There will be signs..."

And then, as the conversation droned on, a most peculiar sign: bells, from the carillon tower just across the street, lifting up what I would have sworn - had I not known better, situated as we were in the heart of secularist UW - was a hymn. It was a hymn. And more than that, a laughably out of place hymn for a land and still holding the season's first snow. I began to mouth the familiar words: "Now the green blade riseth..." An Easter hymn. In the bleak of winter. In the face of annihilation and collapse, even faced with the revelation of the sin that makes the American empire possible. In the deep winter of the soul's despair. The very rocks crying out:

Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
In the grave they laid Him, Love who had been slain,
Thinking that He never would awake again,

Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
Forth He came at Easter, like the risen grain,
Jesus who for three days in the grave had lain;
Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Jesus' touch can call us back to live again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Simply and Slowly
(on advent preparation)

“...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord...’”

How does one prepare the Way of the Lord?

We know how to prepare, say, cakes - goodness knows this group knows that! (And I’m grateful.) We know  - or hope we know - how to prepare for exams, studies. A good essay is prepared with research or an outline. Ideally both, I suppose, but let’s not be picky. One prepares for a wedding with the help of friends, maybe a wedding coordinator, photographer, priest, and caterer. Cold weather is prepared for with a down jacket, and something substantial to cover the ears. My grandpa always swore by good socks. Game day preparations can differ greatly, depending on the sport, one’s mental approach, and whether one’s preparation is as athlete (warm-up and prepare the body) or as spectator (warm up the nacho cheese). We are endlessly engaged with all kinds of daily preparations, sometimes to our soul’s exhaustion. And even here, the simple preparation of ceasing preparations, requires toothbrush and floss before going to bed.

John has come to prepare the way. He cries out to  us, too: prepare the Way of the Lord, make straight his paths.

And I wonder how one does this.

I wonder about the various understandings, spoken or otherwise, that direct (for example) our Christmas preparations. In my family growing up, the season of Advent was greatly revered. No Christmas songs until Christmas, or until Mom put on Bing Crosby while dad was out running errands. On the whole, this approach meant that we mostly got ready for Christmas by not getting ready for Christmas. The not getting ready was the way we got ready; the not preparing was the preparing. It was all very Zen.

Of course, it’s not that we didn’t get ready at all; rather, in bold defiance of society’s worship of efficiency, productivity, and speed, my family taught me that, in some things, at least, timing matters and some matters take time; moreover, time and patience bring with them the humbling acknowledgement that we do not control God.

So the apparent tension of Advent - between waiting on the one hand and preparation on the other - can, perhaps, be held together. Expectant mothers, for example, know the truth, the secret, that the preparation is the waiting, the emptying; making room, physical space - like nurseries - and also temporal space, like stripped-down schedules that, while not neglecting life’s other commitments, are simple, bare, and expecting interruption. Preparation is making room for that for which one waits.

This is why, when John the Baptist comes preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins, so many Israelites flock to him, repent, and ask to be opened to the coming of God - because the preparation of repentance is a powerful kind of emptying that can open one’s eyes to the salvation of God.

‘...the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'

A friend told me about his recent trip to Uganda; he had been honored to preach at a service of baptism and confirmation. The bishop stood up and invited those who would like to be baptized and/or confirmed to meet him in front of the altar. Several dozen young teenagers rose to meet him. “You are saying ‘yes’ to Jesus,” the bishop observed. “Tell me,” he said, “in order to say ‘yes’ to Jesus, to what are you saying, ‘no’?”

Now, one could read this invitation as a simple retread of pietistic moralism, but I think that would be a mistake, to miss the larger challenge. It is not just bad sins or habits we put down in preparing for Christ; it is everything that, once set down, frees our lives to receive him. Put differently, Christians have no grounds for discerning good or bad habits apart from the measure of life lived with Christ.

I think, then, we are finally left with this question: What does life lived with God look like? This is why Advent begins with John, with Israel, the people of God struggling to live with God. Advent invites us to enter Israel’s struggle; to consider an intimacy with God closer than what we were initially prepared to take on. There’s that word again: prepare.

How does one prepare the Way of the Lord?

Preparation: not being asked to do more; maybe being willing to do less or to do what you are doing more slowly; making physical and temporal space; John asking us to re-envision all of our doings as preparation for - and eventual participation in - the three-fold mystery we don’t yet know: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

I wonder if you are among those whose preparation this Advent would be blessed by the emptying, the holy space-making, of repentance. I wonder if there are things weighing heavily on you for which the ear of a priest, spiritual director, or holy friend, listening on behalf of God, would aid your preparation, make room for his coming. I wonder if a part of your heart aches in a good way at the thought of the relief this might bring. I wonder if instead you are mindful of a particular relationship into which you might speak your desire for forgiveness.

I wonder also - as one preparing - how slowly you are willing to linger through the story of God this Advent. I wonder what room might open in you, simply walking, slowly through the pages, the landscape of shepherds, stars, camels, and kings until the story becomes alive and wild and strange. Words that you had not noticed the first time reframing your second reading. Preparing your third reading. Anticipating your fourth. Just of Luke’s first two chapters. I wonder if the commitment to memorize - carry in your person - a small portion of the story would open in your person a place for the One whose coming we prepare. Preparation is making room for that for which one waits.

John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord...’”


SFH 12.9.12

Monday, December 3, 2012

Humility and Love's Acceptance


"It's hard to be humble, when you're as great as I am."
Muhammad Ali

In my most recent sermon/post, I found myself concluding that

Saints are not the ones who always get it right. Rather, saints are those who always remember their great, great need of God. It is the humility of the saints that protects them from presumption and so keep their eyes waiting, watchful, responsive, fixed on the horizon of Christ’s returning.

In addition to believe this conclusion to be faithfully in conversation with the lessons appointed for the occasion - the 1st Sunday of Advent - I somewhat accidentally found the emphasis on humility echoing the language of that Sunday's collect:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

It has been said that humility is almost too tricky to be helpful in practice because of the human tendency toward the extremes of self-loathing on the one hand and self-righteousness on the other: so humility is a kind of logical response to shortcomings and as damper to successes that have not proven themselves over time; that is, humility serves as an indicator of self-awareness in moral practice.

This operating definition of humility makes humility especially hard to talk about in Advent because Advent is no longer considered a strictly penitential season, and penitential seasons are when moral practice is most up for open conversation. Thus, that humility still comes up in our collects in Advent should make us question our presuppositions about humility.

The collect recalls us to the humility of Christ in his being born among us to Mary. The One without sin poured out such that the humility open to Christians becomes less self-loathing v. self-importance but rather life without God v. life united to him. And life united to God means life for the world as well. Advent calls Christians to the humility of love's acceptance.

All of which occasions my sharing a hymn that has become my daughter's favorite - one she asks me to sing to her at least three mornings a week - #277 - in the Hymnal 1982.

Sing of Mary, pure and lowly,
Virgin mother undefiled;
Sing of God's own Son most holy,
Who became her little child.
Fairest child of fairest mother,
God the Lord who came to earth,
Word made flesh, our very brother,
Takes our nature by his birth.

Sing of Jesus, son of Mary,
In the home at Nazareth.
Toil and labor cannot weary
Love enduring unto death.
Constant was the love he gave her,
Though he went forth from her side,
Forth to preach, and heal, and suffer,
Till on Calvary he died.

Glory be to God the Father;
Glory be to God the Son;
Glory be to God the Spirit;
Glory to the Three in One.
From the heart of blessed Mary,
From all saints the song ascends,
And the Church the strain re-echoes
Unto earth's remotest ends.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Stuff My Dad Says(1):
an Advent homily

I wonder if you can think back to one or more especially quirky things your parents used to say with some regularity throughout your childhood. Maybe they still say them. Do you have a good one you’d be willing to share? It needs to be endearing/lame/memorable.

[When asked for an example: when Dad would set the table for dinner, prepare drinks, he'd find my brothers and me in the living room and say something to the effect of, "Well, what'll it be, boys? Juice? Or Gentiles?" I'll wait a second while you put it together. Ready? Good.]

As a young teenager, I would sometimes holler to my parents as I was leaving the house, “See you later. I’ll be back!” To which my dad would inevitably and dryly respond: “Is that a promise or a threat?”

Har har. Love you, too, Dad.

Tonight, we hear the news that Christ will come again, and I think about my dad. The image given to us in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, and again in Luke’s gospel, is of God’s people standing before the Son of Man, standing blameless before God the Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all the saints. And hearing that Christ will come again - us, before the throne - I wonder my dad’s question: is that a promise or a threat?

On the one hand, clearly promise. Promise: à la Thomas Aquinas in that great hymn - hymn 314 of the 1982 Hymnal - “face to face thy splendor I at last shall see, in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee.” Promise: that, on that great, last day, suffering and injustice will be ended, that God himself will dry every tear. Promise: that, on that day, all things will be reconciled, made whole, brought near to God. Promise: no more warring madness, both in the land and in my soul, but peace, the true peace, of the city of God.

On the other hand, threat. Threat: just to the extent that I sometimes act as if I will not ever be seen by God - or anyone else, for that matter - as I really am, and just to the extent that I sometimes enjoy, find relief in, this thought; the desire to flee, to hide, to escape; never fully eclipsing the instinct that Adam and Eve first learned in the garden.

I wonder if you have ever feared the coming again of another person, and who that person was. My parents used to leave my brothers and me with lists of chores when they would leave the house, things to do while they were away. The chores nearly always were left undone, or put off until the very end. We had reasons, self-inflicted, to fear their return. There are those of us who have more serious associations with fear and returns. Returns like the commotion of the drunken parent, back from God’s knows where, who might or might not have found the hidden baseball bat. Some people think of God’s returning like that. Or returns like the return of the loved one who has come back with tears in her eyes to accept the apology you know cannot undo the hurt you have caused her, and to give the forgiveness you know you will never deserve. I wonder if God’s returning has ever seemed like that for you.

Christ will come again.

There are some of us who, from time to time, long for the return of Jesus so that the others will finally get their just desserts, swiftly. Not just in a nasty way, but even in noble ways that are jealous to see justice and mercy lived out. The Psalms are full of examples like this. I suspect, though, that it is naive and dangerous to pretend that those others have offended God’s justice and mercy more often than I have.

Christ will come again.

There are even some of us who, from time to time, pray against the coming of Jesus so that we can get to do all the things we are planning to do before then. A good friend of mine in college - engaged - one day vocalized his fervent prayer that the second coming hold off just a few more weeks, at least, until he and his fiance were married and had enjoyed their wedding night.

I suspect my friend only said out loud what most of us quietly think about the end and Christ’s coming; reminiscent of Augustine’s brutally honest prayer: “Lord, make me chaste, but Lord, not yet.”

“Be on guard,” Jesus says, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation (that is, wasteful consumption) and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly.”

So here is the question to which these readings and this Advent and the thought of his coming and the standing before Christ keep calling me back: What about the way I hope to be then, standing in the full presence of God, am I putting off now?

What are the contours of holiness? What is its taste? Of the steps I take each day, which steps are in step with my growing understanding of who God is and who I am as God’s own? Which steps merely keep time? Which steps, when I am honest, make me doubt my desire for God? Would I be willing to surrender this last sort of steps?

And here, in the midst of this desire, that question, and honest, self-reflection, a last word about holiness and the practices that might sustain it in this life. It has been said of the saints that for all their pursuit of perfection, it is not their perfection that defines them. Saints are not the ones who always get it right. Rather, saints are those who always remember their great, great need of God. It is the humility of the saints that protects them from presumption and so keep their eyes waiting, watchful, responsive, fixed on the horizon of Christ’s returning. So it is the knowledge that they have been forgiven, for example, that becomes the generous stream of forgiveness flowing through them. It is God’s great love for them, shown chiefly in the humility of Christ born to us, that at the same time embarrasses and inspires them to love without hesitation or fear. It is exactly the brokenness, the weakness, of the saints that occasions their praise of the Great Physician. In each of these ways the lives of the saints grow an appetite for a fulfillment that must, in the end, come from outside of themselves, as gift from outside. So their lives expect, look for, live the yearning of, this gift: the promise of the presence of God.

Christ will come again.


SFH. 12.2.12

(1) I wanted to title this post something other than '"stuff" my dad says' (let the reader infer), but Rebekah tells me that, while culturally relevant, the preferred title is too edgy for a priest and, more than that, I risk losing the readership of the two or three of you who read the blog with any regularity. "Stuff" it is.

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