Armed, more

Immediately on publishing my Daily Cup, “Armed,” I realized that it might be interpreted as a commentary on recent events. While i, like everyone else, have been keeping up with the news, I don’t know what happened there and have no conclusions or judgments about fault on either side. More than anything it was a reflection on my own experiences in this increasingly armed society.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 19-August-2014.

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For seven of the twelve years I was with the Customs Service, when I was a Special Agent, I carried a gun. I had never fired or even held a revolver until one was issued to me my first week on the job and the range master in the San Francisco office taught me how to use it. Guns had never been part of my family. My dad was not a hunter, and I think he had had his fill of them in the war.

I recall some of the approaches instilled in us in training: never threaten anyone with your weapon; don’t upholster it unless you have to use it; don’t fire it unless you have to, but if you have to shoot, shoot to kill. It sounds cold, but if you imagine yourself in one of those split-second life and death confrontations it is just realistic, practical survival guidance. Behind the increasing deadliness of handguns carried by police officers, from the 38 special that was the standard issue 40 years ago, to the 357 magnum, and then to the 9 millimeter semi-automatic, is the fact that the criminals were becoming better armed than the police and that the 38 special was often ineffective. There are numerous accounts, familiar to every officer, of persons shot six times with a .38 special who still over-powered and killed the officer.

Whenever we in the San Francisco office had to make an arrest we followed the FBI protocol – go in such large numbers that resistance is seen as futile. That way no one gets hurt.  But the reality is that most officers today work alone.

My other impression from those days to share with you is the effect it had on me. I didn’t know at the time that there was any. I was never possessed of any macho tendencies during that time; I found that I used a camera a whole lot more. So I was really surprised to find that when I left investigations and turned in my badge and my gun that I had an immediate strong feeling of vulnerability, almost nakedness. Equally surprising was that it took about five years for that to go away.

Mainly though I am thankful that I never faced one of those situations and never shot anyone.

There isn’t a prayer in the Book of Common Prayer for police officers, but there is one for Prisons and Correctional Institutions which will have to do for now.

Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment. Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous. And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for, constrain us to improve their lot. All this we ask for your mercy’s sake. Amen.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, 19-August-2014.

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For Our Eyes Only?

On Saturday morning I attended a funeral.  The service was for a individual that I didn’t know well, if at all, relatively speaking.  To be honest, and because I had just returned from a marvelous three-day getaway, the thought of donning a suit, dress shoes and clerical garb on my last vacation day wasn’t all that appealing but I needed to go.  By the end of the funeral I was very glad that I did – a relative of the deceased that I do know was glad that I attended.  Equally important, however, was the fact that the service allowed me – invited me – to enter into a posture of prayer and personal refection that listening to Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me on NPR never would have.

Attending worship (especially when we don’t feel like it) is designed to do just this – to invite us to places that the world or our own thoughts won’t or don’t always invite us to go.  For the believer worship invites us to prayer; to supplication, to thanksgiving and even to repentance to use some pretty churchy words.  And the worship of the church offers that invitation to us especially – or maybe even only – if we know the drill.  At Saturday’s funeral I was able to enter into what is known in Celtic spirituality as a thin place – a place where the boundary between the heavenly and the worldly is especially thin – because I knew the drill.  I wasn’t worried about getting anything right or doing anything wrong.  At every point in the service I knew what had already happened and I knew what was coming next. I knew when I needed to pay attention to others and when I could get lost in private thoughts about my life and journey with the God I’m seeking to know and to understand more fully.

Employing more churchy jargon, another way to describe the worship of the church is to call the worship of the church a liturgy.  The word liturgy means, literally, the work of the people.  But it’s hard for people to do the work if they don’t know the drill.  At a time when the church is desperately seeking to be relevant to people who don’t know the drill one must wonder about the liturgy of the church – it’s worship – and to consider whether it’s inviting or if it’s strange or non-sensical or even if it’s off-putting.

So now I’ve opened the proverbial can of worship worms…  The whole point of the liturgy is that one learns it in order to enter into it, Jim!  Doing anything well takes knowledge and practice!  Don’t you dare “dumb down” the liturgy that is sacred to me – the liturgy and the worship that I know… and love – in order to make it accessible!  The liturgy of the church is art!  It’s esoteric!  Not everyone can attend the opera or the ballet and “get it,” silly!

Is it possible to take the liturgy of the church too seriously? Can the liturgy of the church be lost even on the experts?

I’ve been “doing church” for quite some time now.  I’m nearly fifty years old, grew up worshiping in the Roman Catholic Church and I’m now in my 14th year of work as a parish priest in the Episcopal Church.   And only lately there’s a moment in the Episcopal liturgy that is increasingly lost on me.  It’s the point when the people engage in what we believe to be one of three essential elements of being a member of the church – confessing our belief in the Trinity by reciting The Nicene Creed.  At St. Alban’s Parish, a church where the nave resembles the fuselage of a jet plane, when we recite the Nicene Creed most everyone simply stands and looks forward and “up” at the windows over the altar (where the captain sits!).  The worshipers who are seated in places that don’t face the altar physically turn in the direction of the windows and then we begin…  “We believe in one God,  the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen…”

I get it.  Or maybe I should say that I got it.  When I was the rector of St. George’s Church in New Orleans I remember instituting the very same practice insisting that the choir, who sat facing one another and not the altar, before reciting the creed, should stand and turn toward the image of Jesus over the altar before reciting one of the essential elements of our faith.  But lately, instead of joining the throng and turning toward a stained glass window to confess my belief in the Trinity I want to stand and quote The Book of Acts: “Men of Galilee (sic), why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”  If I were choreographing a liturgical movement based on the opening words the Creed – “We believe in God… maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen…” – I’d have people reciting the Creed while turning in circles and looking not only up but also down while simultaneously opening and closing their eyes!  Just so we don’t have people getting dizzy, falling down and getting hurt in church perhaps a compromise would be to find a mid-point in the fuselage and have the people of God face each other rather than a window?  As if to enact, liturgically speaking, that we are at church to find the Spirit of God in Christ in one another rather than in a stained glass window?

As was quoted after a snafu during a recent worship service at St. Alban’s, my liturgical professor in seminary used to tell the budding priests he was instructing that the only mistake one can make in practicing or leading the liturgy of the church is doing something and not knowing why.

The need or the desire for liturgical renewal in the church is not a new phenomenon and whether one thinks of Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, its counterpart in the Protestant church or “alternative worship services” in any denomination we’ll never agree that one form of worship is better or more accurate than another.  But if we in the church are engaging in practices that don’t make sense to us I’m pretty sure they won’t make sense to anybody who doesn’t know the drill either.  Which parts, if any, of the work of the people are lost on you?

Happy Monday!


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A Time Away Part 2

Hello Again All,

Here are the scripture passages for today–today we celebrate Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ.   Take a moment and read them, enjoy them, and I’ll be back to writing again next Friday.

The Collect: O God, you have taken to yourself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 61:10-11

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Galatians 4:4-7

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.


Luke 1:46-55

Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”


Peace and Blessings,


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South Africa – Week Two

Wonder would be the most common state that I find myself in.   I am  wondering about all kinds of things while here.  The natural beauty of a city built between mountains and two oceans, the abundance of flora and fauna of kinds and sizes that make you appreciate our creative God all over again.  Wonderful! It’s easy too to wonder about the successes and failures of what is actually a very new country.  How did a culture of apartheid become one of forgiveness?  Why is violence against women still treated with some nonchalance and explained away as “cultural”?  I wonder.

Our experiences these past few days have included a drive down to the Cape Point, where we hiked for several hours around the Cape of Good Hope.  Seeing the storied Cape with its vast expanse of seas and sky that meet at this (almost) southernmost point of Africa gives true meaning to the word “awesome”.   imageWe’ve seen ostriches grazing by the roadside, been chased by playful baboons (intent on playing with each other fortunately), and walked among South Africa’s national flower, the protea.  All wonderful.  And yes, we went on a wine tour around Stellenbosch and sampled wonderful local flavors of another kind!   I have  some  suggestions for new communion wine….image

One of the greatest wonders of this part of Africa is Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  Many of you may have heard him speak during one of his several visits to the U.S., but it was our privilege to be with him here on his home turf at the Cathedral of St. George, where he celebrates the Eucharist every Friday at 7:15 a.m.  Fifty or more gathered in one of the cathedral’s side chapels, and when visitors were asked to stand and say something about themselves, we learned that a large group from George Washington University was there, in South Africa to study the effects of microeconomics, together with a local lawyer and his team who were working to make the current President accountable for the corruption many feel to be part of his government. imageThe Archbishop wouldn’t let one man sit after simply stating that he was there with his wife, who was an Anglican though he was not.  Tutu wanted us to know that this man was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, the church that right up to the end found Biblical justification for apartheid.  Archbishop Tutu wanted everyone in that chapel to understand that this man had worked for racial equality from within his church, and to appreciate the personal and professional costs he endured.  And there it was, right before our eyes – the answer to how a culture of forgiveness was created in South Africa.  That is one of the many things that causes wonder in me –  the leadership of Archbishop Tutu and Mr. Mandela, ready to move in the ways of  redemption as a new country was being formed.image

One more person stood up at the very end of this time of introductions,  which was in fact its own kind of sermon.  He was a young man from the Xhosa tribe who said that though this was his first time in the Cathedral, he never felt like a visitor in any Anglican Church.  End of sermon. Amen.





P.S. The first photo is mine, the last two are photos of photos, taken at an exhibit currently at the Cathedral here in Cape Town.

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Unbelievable! (Four)

This series explores what we don’t believe — and why — in order to help us understand what we do believe, and why we do.

The church does not believe in an angry God. 

When I was a child, my mother told me, “Don’t touch the stove. It’s hot.” Of course, I then Unknownreached out and touched the stove — and it hurt. To my childish mind, it may have felt like my mother was punishing me for breaking her rule. As an adult, I know better: she was explaining to me the way things are, and if I ignored that reality, I was going to be hurt, not because she was angry, but because touching a hot thing means being burned.

I think that a lot of our experience with God works the same way. When something painful happens to us, particularly if it happens imageswhile we are doing something that we feel is pushing the envelope, we can interpret the pain as the work of a punitive and angry God, when it is, in fact, just what happens when we push the envelope in a certain way. For example, if you go out and party this Friday, you may be hung over on Saturday morning; that’s just what happens. But if you go to the same party, get into your car while you are tipsy and have an accident that kills your spouse, it may feel like God is punishing you for your decision, when the plain reality is that driving drunk greatly increases your chance of having an accident.

Theologians, who are great at coming up with dull names for interesting things, distinguish between primary and secondary causality. Primary causality is when God reaches out and does something (becomes a burning bush). Secondary causality is when images-3God allows the normal physical and moral laws of creation to do their thing unimpeded. For example, if I go into the living room and put a ball down on the side table, that’s primary causality (and my mother would scold me for doing it). But if I go into the living room and drop the ball on the floor, and if it bounces and hits the wall and flies across the room and knocks over a couple of knick-knacks and then lands on the side table, the ball ends up in the same place, but my role in the process is quite different. I did not put the ball onto the table; instead, I dropped the ball into a pre-existing environment with its own laws of physics, and they guided the ball into its final location.

When God created this earth, God created an orderly system that works in predictable ways. Even the things that seem frightening and unpredictable to us (earthquakes, hurricanes) are the direct result of measurable natural processes. Likewise, the teachings of Jesus guide us into the moral laws that are woven into the fabric of the universe, which Dante called “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars”). It’s as if the world were a piece of wood, and we can choose to work with the grain, or against it. That’s not to say God never intervenes directly; I believe that God does, from time to time. But it is far more common for God to act through the ordinary processes he has set up to guide and govern this world, which are not separate from God, but are part of God’s will.

So, does God ever get angry? Scripture tells us God does, but not often. More often, the people of Israel ascribe anger to God when things are not going well, while all the time God has been calling to them like a person lost in love. The divine statements that we often hear as anger are more likely to be the bone-deep response of One who loves us, who sees us going astray and who knows that harm will be the inevitable result.

Listen, for a moment, to what God says through Ezekiel: “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.” (18:30) The judgement God promises is nothing less than the ruin we have actively been seeking. Just as the person who takes heroin risks addiction and death, so the person who is cruel to the poor will reap from them a harvest of rage and bitterness, and the person who worships false gods (whether those be ancient gods like Astarte and Odin, or modern gods like Porsche, Wealth, and Self) will have to live with the result of turning away from the face of Truth. God is trying to save us from the consequences of our own decisions, but God will not do that without our willingness to change.

“Return, faithless Israel,” says the Lord through Jeremiah. “I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the Lord; I will not be angry forever.” (Jer 3:12) And, most tellingly, in Hosea, “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” (Hos 11:9) God says right there that the difference between Godself and a human being is that God stays with us even at times when we would desert one another, and God forgives even when we would be lost in our own anger. In other words, God is not like us. God may be angry with us for mistreating one another, but God’s primary nature is always mercy.

Still, when you  feel that God is angry with you, pay attention. Your feelings are likely to be a projection of your own conviction that you are not living in holy and life-giving ways. Attend to your soul. Slow down and listen to what your heart is telling you. And then change course. You’ll be amazed how quickly that divine rage turns to joy.




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Psalm Cycles

Today, boys and girls, we’re going to talk about psalm cycles, much like Sheldon Cooper’s “Fun with Flags.” One of the puzzlements you will notice after you start to say the Daily Office on a regular basis is that there are two psalm cycles. One is set forth in the Daily Office Lectionary (DOL) which begins on page 934 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP). In this cycle a psalm or psalms or psalm verses are designated to be read at morning and evening prayer for each day of the year, beginning with the first Sunday of Advent. For the most part, the selections follow a seven week cycle, but there are some deviations in order to match psalms to special days, such as Psalm 22 on Good Friday and Psalm 88 on Holy Saturday. The running footers make it easy to find the designated psalm in the Psalter (the name of the book of Psalms) in the BCP on pages 585-808. This cycle is often referred to as the cathedral cycle, and its characteristic feature is an attempt to match specific psalms with specific days.

There is another cycle though. It is designated within the Psalter itself, beginning on page 585, with “First Day: Morning Prayer” just before “1 Beatus vir qui non abiit” This is the heading for a group of psalms, 1 through 5, to be read on the first day of the month at morning prayer. This cycle ends with psalms 148 through 150, designated for “Thirtieth Day: Evening Prayer.” Thus, the Psalter is marked off into 60 segments of roughly equal length, to be read straight through in a month, without regard to matching the themes of the psalms to particular days. This cycle is often referred to as the monastic cycle, a reference to the way the psalms have often been read in a monastic environment. It is also sometimes referred to as the Cranmerian cycle after Archbishop Cranmer, who in the first prayer book of 1549, marked off the Psalter in this manner as part of the simplification of the eight monastic offices into Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

How do these two cycles relate to each other? Not at all; they are separate and independent cycles. Does one somehow use them together? Again, not at all, except to the extent that one following the monastic cycle might consciously deviate from it occasionally, such as on Easter Sunday so as to avoid using psalm 88 should Easter fall on the 17th day of the month.

The advantage of the monastic cycle is that one experiences the entirety of the Psalter each month, without exception, whereas the cathedral cycle omits or makes optional some verses and some entire psalms.

How are they used then? I dare say that use of the cathedral cycle is practically universal in the Episcopal Church today. The running footers of psalm numbers in the Psalter in the 1979 BCP are especially conducive to its use. All previous editions made use of either cycle equally easy with running headers for not only the psalm numbers but also the days of the month.

One would suspect that the monastic cycle would be used in monasteries. It may be, but the only one of which I have any knowledge is the Order of the Holy Cross which has it’s own breviary in which the psalms are read in their entirety in two weeks, at four offices a day, rather than in a month at two offices a day, and with some deference to special designations for special days. Clearly we have deviated from the Cranmerian ideal of common prayer, that is, that all of Anglican Christendom be reading and hearing the same psalms and the same scripture lessons on the same day.

How then might one experience the monastic cycle? One could adopt that in one’s own individual use of the Office. This would be most satisfactory if adopted for consistent use over two or three years. Another way would be in a small group that meets daily for morning and evening prayer, much like a monastic community. Choice of the cathedral or monastic cycle would ideally be a group decision that held for a year or more, certainly not something that fluctuated from day to day or even month to month. If you ever do decide to use the monastic cycle, you will find it pays off in the long run to write in running headers for the days of the month in the BCP that you regularly use.

I close with the Collect for the feast day of The First Book of Common Prayer. “Almighty and everliving God, whose servant Thomas Cranmer, with others, restored the language of the people in the prayers of your Church: Make us always thankful for this heritage; and help us so to pray in the Spirit and with understanding, that we may worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for even and ever. Amen.”

Oh, by the way, that phrase above, “Beatus vir qui non abiit,” is the first half verse of psalm 1 in Latin. Many of the psalms are familiarly known by their Latin first lines, such as Psalm 100, the “Jubilate.”

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 12-August-2014.

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