Monday, October 12, 2015

Shield the Joyous

There is a concluding prayer in Compline I have always loved.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.  (BCP, p. 134)

I love the thought that the church is praying for those who work or watch or weep through the need as well as for those who sleep.  The sick, the weary, the dying, the suffering, and the afflicted are never far from the church’s care or God’s.

The last petition, to shield the joyous, has always seemed a bit strange to me.  At first glance it does not seem like the others, which are all some situation of need, sometimes great need.  Shielding the joyous seems different to me.  It has been something I’m not sure I have understood.  Until now.  Now I get it.

My tutor for the need to shield the joyous is our new puppy, a black Labrador Retriever named Georgia (Annie is fine, by the way, although at 14, slowing down).  Georgia is almost nine months old.  We’ve had her since March.  And for many of the days during these seven months, we have thought Georgia was a huge mistake.

As puppies will do, Georgia has unbridled energy and is being cared for by two people without it.  If we don’t make sure she gets the exercise she needs, we pay a high price. We take her to the dog run in the park for self-preservation and a break.

Georgia’s enthusiasm is boundless.  She runs around our living room as if it were her playground, jumping from floor to sofa to chair to floor and then running around behind them all.  Nothing makes her happier than to destroy a newspaper or magazine.  Our apartment looks like a hamster cage.  She has a fondness for Ginger’s clothes (fortunately, not mine so much, except undershirts).  She landed in the doghouse so to speak for eating Ginger’s glasses.  She finds playing keep away to be hilarious fun, taking something she shouldn’t have, often a shoe, and racing around the room while we try to take it back.  We’ve learned to erect barricades so we can trap her.  I may not have her energy, but I’m smarter than she is.  I think.

In all of her exuberance she also a tendency to get into more serious trouble.  It is not uncommon for me to have to pry something potentially harmful out of her mouth.  Somehow in all her bouncing off the walls she injured her ACL.  (The vet prescribed strict rest.  I know you’re kidding, I said.)

There was the day she pulled herself out of her collar while we were on vacation in North Carolina.  It took her a minute to realize what had happened, but when she did, she took advantage of her new-found freedom and ran straight for the road.

Fortunately it is a small town.  I flagged down oncoming traffic so that I could catch her.  People waited patiently in their cars while I chased her from one side of the road to the other.  Finally, I asked one of the drivers to open his back door.  Only then was I able to grab her as she made a break to the getaway car.  Puppies are fast.

No harm done, thanks be to God, but it makes shielding the joyous make sense to me.  Exuberant puppies know nothing of danger.  Excitement knows nothing of being guarded.  Joy does not shield itself.  It’s up to those who love the joyous to do that. 

So now the prayer to shield the joyous makes sense to me.  And the one about giving rest to the weary has fresh meaning, too.  All for the sake of love.  Amen.


Monday, September 28, 2015

Loopholes and Compassion

I once preached what I thought was a really good sermon about marriage.  My basic point was that that commitment had ceased to be a value in our culture. 
So the very next Sunday I was again standing at the church door greeting my congregation.  I woman I thought a lot of came up to me, shook my hand as she always did, and said, “Father, I want you to know that I’ve been thinking a lot about your sermon last week.  And I’ve decided to divorce my husband.”  Now her husband may very well have needed divorcing.  I don’t really know.  Still, it was not exactly the result I was going for.

Divorce, to be sure, is sometimes a necessary evil.  It is sometimes something simply unavoidable.  It is sometimes something that is actually in the best interests of the people involved, particularly when there is abuse of some kind.  Over my years as a priest, I have found myself on occasion encouraging someone to take the necessary steps to protect herself and her children.  I have, on occasion, asked people to stop and both think and pray carefully about what they were doing, although I’ve never tried to tell someone what they should do when it comes to marriage and divorce. 

This week’s gospel reading is Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce.  It is often misunderstood, particularly in two ways.  For one thing, even Jesus does not say divorce is never permissible.  He characterizes it as regrettable and a concession to human hardness of heart.  What Jesus said is that remarriage after divorce is impermissible.  Nor did Jesus say that remarriage after divorce was permissible if one acknowledged fault in the failure of the first marriage.  He just said it was impermissible.  Period. 

Southerners have an expression for this.  This is the point at which Jesus has done gone from preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.   

Given how clearly Jesus spoke, it is amazing, is it not, that I have never heard a sermon preached evil of remarriage.  I’ve heard sermons preached about the evils of a lot of things and about a lot of sexual practices but not once about remarriage.  Remarriage is something we not only allow; we celebrate it. 

Generally speaking, we look at second marriages as a second chance at life and a second chance at love.  Second chances are generally something we think people ought to have.  People do stupid things sometimes.  They ought to have another chance.  People make mistakes.  They ought to have another chance.  People even sometimes end up divorced through no fault of their own.  They ought to have a second chance.  People get hurt by our human tendency to hardness of heart.  They ought to have a second chance.

And doesn’t this have something to do with why I’ve never heard a sermon against remarriage?  The explicit words of Jesus notwithstanding, followers of Jesus, precisely because they are trying to be followers of Jesus, have an immense capacity to seek compassion.  They have an immense capacity to seek mercy.  They have an immense capacity to seek forgiveness.   They have an immense capacity to seek love.  They take seriously that Jesus said, not to give just a second chance, but to give seventy times seven chances.  That is one of the things that makes me want to be a Christian.

The only thing that worries me is when our capacity to seek compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love tends to be greater with respect to our own situations in life than with respect to someone else’s.  We have made an enormous exception to the words of Scripture that have a tendency to benefit ourselves.  I have a hard time seeing Jesus as having a problem with that.  The problem comes when we make an enormous exception to the words of Scripture to benefit ourselves, to give ourselves a loophole in the law, but refuse to do that for others.  And that, my friends, is something I do think Jesus has a problem with—a big problem.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Praying for Parking Places

I once attended a conference on prayer.  I was invited by a very devout person, whom I have no doubt prayed a lot.  Mostly I think she prayed for me to fall off the Earth.  I often have that effect on the devout.  Still, it was an expectation of the job so I went.  I couldn’t have the bishop not appearing to be interested in prayer, and in fact, I actually am. 

I was surprised, though, to hear praying for parking places being extolled as an example of faithfulness.  I had never thought of praying for a parking place, although I have come to see the utility of it since moving to New York.  It seemed too trivial for God in the moment.

Now this part is wrong and it goes to something I learned as I reflected on that conference on prayer.  I think my spiritual director had to point out my error.  Nothing, of course,  is too trivial for God.  If God has counted the hairs of our heads (Mt. 10:30), nothing is beyond God’s caring.  But that doesn’t mean nothing is beyond God’s acting.

The problem with praying for parking places is not that it is beneath God’s dignity or not worth God’s time, even if it isn’t.  The problem is that it is selfish.  After all, the reason parking places are scarce is that there are a lot of people who need them.  Whereas I might want a convenient place at the grocery store, someone else might need a space close to the Urgent Care to take a sick child.  The person I’m praying against (that says it all, doesn’t it?) might need the space closer to the grocery story because she just had hip surgery.  Or someone else might need the space closer to the grocery story because he’s just had some devastating news and needs to get home to deal with it.  My prayer is trivial in the extreme by comparison, but the real problem is that it is selfish, that my wants are more important that someone’s else needs or even someone else’s wants. 

The Epistle of James speaks of the prayer of faith and the prayer of the righteous.  What distinguishes that sort of prayer from praying for parking places?

I think there are two things.  One is that the faithful prayer of the righteous is more often than not for others rather than for oneself.  “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).  The prayer of the righteous is prayer for the well-being of others.

Not all faithful prayer is for others, though.  Faithful prayer can be for oneself.  James mentions both those who suffer and those who are joyous.  The faithful prayer of those who suffer is about a need.  The faithful prayer for the cheerful is a song of praise.  (James 5:13)  That is also a need of a different kind.   Faithful prayer, at a minimum, is about what one needs and not what one wants. 

The difference between wants and needs is something many of us have a hard time getting, to be sure.  A lot of my time as a parent has been about trying to teach my children the difference between wants and needs.  I’m sure the same was true with my parents with respect to me.  I am quite inclined to get them mixed up to this day.  When it comes to prayer, though, praying for parking places is almost always about want.  There just isn’t much faith in it.  And if I happen to get the parking place of my dreams, I’m pretty sure that’s a matter of luck and not the sort of prayer James calls powerful and effective.


Monday, September 14, 2015

Stumbling Block

I was walking back to the office from a lunch meeting.  The meeting had been productive as well as interesting.  It was a beautiful spring day, the kind that makes you grateful to be able to breathe in the air.  I was somewhere along Lexington Avenue, I think, at about 39th or 40th street.  I waited for the light to cross and as I got to the other side, I somehow missed the curb.  I wasn’t looking at my phone, just not paying attention that carefully; distracted, I think, by the beauty and satisfaction of the day.

I tried to catch my balance for three or four awkward steps as I must have done when a toddler.  Curiously, I remember the heaviness of each unbalanced step, my foot hitting the pavement hardly and my arms flailing in unknown directions, indeed just as I’ve seen toddlers do.  I’m not sure if my effort finally succumbed to gravity or I just gave up, but down I went, and found myself sprawled out on the sidewalk.  Fortunately, I was not hurt beyond a slightly scraped-up hand, bruised knee, and very bruised ego.  Even more fortunately, I did not take anyone down with me.

My instinct, indeed my most fervent desire, was to get up and act as if it hadn’t happened, avoid eye contact (this is New York after all), and continue on my way.  It was not to be.  Instead, I was immediately surrounded by several people asking if I were alright.  One was insistent on helping me up.

With great embarrassment I replied that I was fine and declined assistance.  The young man offering to help me up, however, was insistent.  He would not take no for answer despite several attempts on my part.  Providentially, sanity and humility returned, and I extended my hand up to his outstretched in my direction.  He pulled me up advising me to keep weight off the knee.  He and several of the others asked again if I were sure I was alright.  Did I want them to call anyone?  No, thank you, I replied.  Soon enough, but not as soon as I might have liked, they went on their way and I went on mine. 

St. Paul wrote, “[W]e proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  Stumbling blocks are now more than a figure of speech to me.  Mine was not so much the curb at 39th and Lex as it was my illusion of self-sufficiency and pride.  That goes in part to what the proclamation of Christ crucified is about.  Paul’s words that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (v. 18) make more sense. 

In my very slight encounter with perishing, the idea of having to be helped to my feet was utter foolishness.  In the reality of my awkward vulnerability, though, it was actually a mild salvation by the power of God.  Even though I could have put myself back on my feet, admittedly with some effort, reaching for an outstretched hand allowed the love of God to be made real to me along with my need for it.  It allowed passersby to express concern and the concern to be received, whether I wanted to receive it or not.  It allowed me to appreciate what interdependence means, which is something that is a challenge for me and a concept I prefer to avoid.

Our need for each other has an awful lot to do with how God is experienced, even when we don’t want it to.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Speaking with an Accent

On Saturday I had the privilege of attending the funeral of my friend Bishop Onell Soto.  Onell was born in Cuba and left after the revolution as a young man.  He was once a staff member of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society working in world mission, and he was most certainly a missionary at heart.  He went on to serve as Bishop of Venezuela.  From there he became the Assistant Bishop of Atlanta, which is where he entered my life as a great blessing.  Then he was the Assistant Bishop of Alabama.  He was a dear man, a devoted husband and father, and a faithful pastor to his people as both priest and bishop.
When he visited my parish in Atlanta, he almost always compared himself to Ricky Ricardo.  He began virtually every sermon by reminding people of his Cuban heritage and saying, with great delight, “Lucy, I’m home” in a thick, Cuban accent. 
But his joking around was not without a point.  There are few sermons I remember from my life, either ones I’ve heard or ones I’ve preached.  But one I do was preached by Onell Soto.  In it he went on from his “I Love Lucy” routine to make a profound missionary point.  “The Gospel,” he preached, “has always been proclaimed with an accent.”  The Gospel has always been proclaimed with an accent.
The Gospel’s hometown is Jerusalem.  Its original accent and ethos are Jewish.  Its original proclaimers, first the women at the tomb and then the apostles sent to the ends of the earth and chiefly Paul, spoke with an accent everywhere they went.  The Gospel has always been proclaimed with an accent.
The first missionaries to Britain, whose names are now lost to us, spoke with an accent.  St. Augustine, who led a second wave of missionaries in the sixth century, spoke with an Italian accent.  Later missionaries to Britain spoke with an Irish accent. 
British missionaries, too, spoke with an accent in the Americas and elsewhere.  American missionaries, in turn, took the Gospel to new places. They spoke with an American accent, sometimes, I hope, maybe a Southern one.  The Gospel has always been proclaimed with an accent.
We are living in a time when lands to which missionaries were once sent are now sending missionaries of their own.  Desmond Tutu is South Africa’s missionary to the world.  He speaks with a delightful accent. We will be visited this month by Pope Francis.  He speaks with an Argentinian accent.  Malala Yousafzai, while not a Christian, is Pakistan’s missionary of peace, and she speaks with a beautifully soft accent.  The Gospel, however known, has always been proclaimed with an accent.
The Gospel has always been proclaimed with an accent because it is inherently foreign, not just to a particular time or place, but to humanity.  The Gospel entered the world from outside the world.  It was, from the very beginning, proclaimed with an accent because God necessarily speaks with an accent.  The Word become flesh was spoken with a heavenly accent very difficult for human beings to understand. 
I am grateful to Onell for teaching me that.  He has taught me, when I hear an accent, to listen up for the Gospel.
And finally, it is true.  “Lucy, he’s home.”

Monday, August 31, 2015

Spiritually Damaging Experiences

I’ve been reflecting on four years as your colleague in mission.  After my appointment had been announced four years ago I remember writing to all of you expressing my excitement at the prospect of working with you.  I have never, not once, been disappointed in that.

I also remember saying something about which I have thought many times since.  I said that working for the church ought not be a spiritually damaging experience.  I think I said it to begin with because I realized the enormity of the challenge ahead and I was trying to say words of encouragement to myself.  I’ve come to realize that is easier to say than it is to make a reality.  I’ve also come to realize that making it a reality is my own work to do.

What is true is that there will always be those who are challenging.  Sometimes there will be those who are just mean.  From time to time there will even be those committed to damaging others, but even then, I don’t doubt they do it with the best of intentions in a strange sort of way.  From time to time, we will be challenging, mean, and damaging to ourselves.  These things build up to run the risk of a very spiritually damaging experience indeed.  In a strange sort of way, it is to be expected when people care as much about an endeavor as they care about the church.  Family is the only thing that comes close.

This is what I’ve learned from you over four years of working together to focus The Episcopal Church on mission:  I can’t do anything about how others behave, well or badly, above board or underhandedly, transparently or not.  Yet, whether any of this damages my spirit is entirely up to me.  It threatens to, of course, from time to time.  But it only harms my soul if I allow it to. 

For me that means struggles with anger from time to time, and worse, acting out of anger, particularly speaking out of anger.  It helps me to remember that anger is in essence and at its root the same emotion as grief.  In fact, the word anger comes into English from the Old Norse word angra, which means to grieve.

I know more what to do with grief in a spiritually healthy way than I do anger.  I know that my spiritual well-being depends on letting myself grieve when I need to until I am ready to move on.  Grief is not fun.  It just has to be done.  Tears help.  Sadness eventually yields to something else.  Never, though, have I acted damagingly out of grief. 

I find it helpful to approach anger more like grief than anything else.  I just need to grieve until I’m ready to move on.  Tears help.  Sadness dissipates eventually while if I just leave it as anger, it tends to hang around longer.

So it is true that working for the church ought not be a spiritually damaging experience, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be wrongs, injustices, and hurts in this holy work of ours.  It does mean that what they do to us, and whether they damage us, is ultimately up to us.  Our spiritual well-being is in our hands alone.  And God’s.

Here’s looking toward the years ahead and the holy work we have been given to share.  We will make of it what we will and we will never let it damage our spirits.