Double, Double Toil and Trouble

I’m pretty sure that I’ve not ever written for The Daily Cup on Halloween before.  Alas, as I was reading through the Scriptures assigned for today I couldn’t find any of them that were sufficiently spooky.  But I was able to remember how, as a child, I both loved and dreaded Halloween.  I think this dread came from the build up to the annual Halloween parade at my elementary school.  Every year we paraded around the playground (or in the tiny gym if it was raining) showing off our costumes to one another and the assembled parents who busily snapped pictures of us all as we walked by.  Needless to say between the children in my class there was always a bit of rivalry about the costumes–and a good amount of pressure that accompanied that rivalry.

Glencliff Elementary School annual Halloween Parade in Rexford, N.Y. October 31, 2011. (Skip Dickstein/Times Union)

Glencliff Elementary School annual Halloween Parade in Rexford, N.Y. October 31, 2011. (Skip Dickstein/Times Union)

Although I don’t recall an abnormal amount of worry in my childhood, this one day always brought a hefty dose of worry: would my costume (which usually was hand made–with a good bit of help from my mother–and often only a day or so before Halloween) actually come together; would I be able to get the costume on and situated properly for the big parade; would I look cool or dorky in my costume; would my friends think I looked cool or dorky in my costume?  Ah yes, such are the monumental worries of a third grader.

 

From the Gospel reading for today’s Daily Office come these words from Luke:

“And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?”    Luke 12:25-26  

 

I am not a fan of worrying.  I believe worrying is a bit pointless, and in the end doesn’t help to really accomplish much of anything.  Looks like the Jesus of Luke and I are in agreement on this point.  All the same I sure spend time and expend energy worrying about things.  And something tells me I’m not alone…that as a society we worry.

 

The point that Jesus is trying to make in this pericope for today (Luke 12:13-31) is that worrying is the way of the world, faith is the way of the believer.  Jesus talks about how those who are in the world worry about what clothes they will wear, what they will eat and drink, but that God loves us so much that we should no longer worry about such trivial things.  We who believe have more important work to do: we are charged to help with the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

 

What does that in-breaking look like and how do we, “strive for the kingdom,” as Jesus puts it?  My bet is that in small ways all over the place we are engaged in this in-breaking.  Perhaps we help simply through the acts of charity and kindness we show others (*Sneeze*, God bless you!); or through the prayers we offer on behalf of those we know are in pain or suffering or grieving; or maybe we help that in-breaking of the Kingdom through how we use our God-given gifts to the benefit of others as my mother did with all of those Halloween costumes she helped me pull together at the last minute.

 

In Christ’s Name,

Matthewfirst

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Requiem aeternam

My morning walks these past few weeks have given me a chance to ponder our collective need to decorate for Halloween. Colorful leaves seem like decoration enough, but the faux graves, rattling skeletons, graceful ghosts, and less poetic effigies of ax murderers and blood-dripping fanged wolves and vampires seem to imply a certain fascination with frightening gruesomeness, and with death itself. It’s all in good fun, I realize, but I’m not sure if these decorations help us to embrace our fears or serve to make them seem more distant and less real.

Church has always seemed like a good place to confront fears, acknowledge weakness and meditate on hard truths, the hardest truth for some being the reality of death. And music throughout all of human history has connected people with the unknowable – giving language to fears, emotions and joys just beyond our comprehension.

The requiem mass has been chanted on behalf of those who have died as a prayer for their entrance into heaven for nearly all of the two thousand years of Christian liturgy, and songs of sorrow and comfort have been sung for thousands of years before then. Many composers have taken up that cause, creating works for chorus and orchestra that grew increasingly more complex and terrifying throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Mozart, Verdi, Berlioz.  But first Brahms, and then French composer Gabriel Faure aspired to tell a different, more hopeful story. Brahms sought to comfort the living. Faure wanted to share a message that he had taken away from his many years of playing for funerals as organist at Church of the Madeleine in Paris – that death is “a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness of the hereafter, rather than as painful passing away.”  The word requiem after all means “rest”.  Requiem aeterna. Rest eternal.

Working on his Requiem setting between 1887 and 1890, Faure expressed a desire to create a new kind of church music and told an interviewer, “It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death.” Days of wrath (Dies irae) quickly give way to the gentle promises of Pie Jesu and In paradisum.  Composing filigrees of sound that feed our visions of heaven with images of angel harpists and beams of light, Faure created music that gives our mortal minds and bodies a place to rest in God as we pray for those we love but see no longer. Join us if you’re able on Sunday, November 2 at 7:30 p.m. for a liturgy of remembrance, an All Souls’ offering of the Eucharist and Faure’s Requiem.

SonyaFirst004

 

And if you’re not able to be at St. Alban’s on Sunday at 7:30, spend a peaceful 35 minutes listening to Faure at home.

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Father Holub

E. A. Holub is his signature on my diploma from St. Anne School in Beaumont, Texas, on the occasion of my graduating from the “grammar grades” in 1952. I never knew what his initials stood for; to me he was always Father Holub. I don’t remember his face or the sound of his voice, but I have vivid memories of him and things we did together when I was in grades four through eight at St. Anne School. I remember preparing the thurible for the Benediction service with him on Sunday evenings.  I remember swinging the thurible side to side ‘long chain’ to keep the coals live and censing the monstrance when he raised it and blessed the people with it.  I remember being his altar boy and saying the responses in the Latin mass, not only on Sundays, but weekday mornings before school. I remember kneeling behind him on the deacon’s step and elevating the hem of his fiddleback chasuble when he genuflected before the altar.  I remember being at his side during the administration of communion, holding a paten under the chin of each person, to catch any flakes of the sacred hosts as he took them from the ciborium and placed them on people’s tongues.

But he wasn’t only about liturgy.  Every year he took a group of the older boys on rattlesnake hunts.  He cheered the kids on when they tried to claim the prize at the top of the greasy pole at the spring festival.  Indeed, the clearest visual memory I have of him had nothing to do with worship and was little more than an instant in time.  It is of him working at an outdoor workbench. He was working on something held in a vice, maybe sharpening something. He was in his clerical shirt but sans collar, and his sleeves were rolled up.  He was intently focused on his task at hand.  I did not approach him.  Neither did I linger and watch.  I was just moving through a parallel alcove when I saw him. The juxtaposition of him vested in chasuble saying mass and then later doing some manual labor with hand tools made a lasting impression on me.  It shaped my idea of what a well-rounded priestly vocation looked like, an idea reinforced on later hearing about the “worker priest” movement in France. Being the verger at St. Alban’s is, for me, the perfect mix of participation in the liturgy and hands-on work, influenced somewhat, I’m sure, by that remembrance of Father Holub at his workbench.

At lunch break one day last week it occurred to me to Google his name.  I fully expected Google to return an obituary.  I was surprised to read that as recently as 2006 he was the master of ceremonies at a retirement celebration for another priest in the diocese of Austin.  If it is indeed the same E. A. Holub, and if he was as young as 20 when he started St. Anne School in 1938, which seems unlikely, he would have been 88 in 2006 and 96 now.  Google didn’t return an obituary though.

Why am I telling you this?  And do I have anyone in mind in writing it?  Well, not any one person, but all in the church who work with young people.  My message is that the young people you are working with, even just being with or just being observed by, will remember you all their lives, just as I remember Father Holub.  And even the most mundane of activities, like working alone at a workbench, will live in some child’s mind for years and years and have an influence you can’t begin to imagine.

For the Care of Children.

Almighty God, heavenly Father, you have blessed us with the joy and care of children:  Give us calm strength and patient wisdom as we bring them up, that we may teach them to love whatever is just and true and good, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.  (BCP, page 829)

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 28-October-2014.

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Are You Free?

Last night I looked around at all of the unpacked boxes from a recent move.  I wondered, “What’s the point of opening them?”  Iv’e moved four times in the last 24 years (five counting the latest, which was local).  Most of the stuff that I’ve packed and unpacked (especially the things that fit into boxes) doesn’t get used in between moves.  Things come off a shelf or out of a drawer and go into a box…  then they come out of a box and get put on a shelf or in a drawer, where they collect dust.  I spend more time dusting these things than using them.  Am I Gollum? Its caused me to wonder about the relationship between spirituality and possessions.

Shortly after hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast I pastored a devastated parish community in New Orleans.  For the people who lost EVERYTHING, amidst the pain of tossing mold-filled photo albums, a lot of them also felt strangely liberated, as if losing their possessions actually brought them a freedom they didn’t know they had lost.

In chapter ten of Mark’s gospel there’s a wonderful parable about possessions.  When Jesus encounters a rich man seeking true righteousness Jesus tells him, ironically, that he lacks one thing, the absence of his possessions:  “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”  When the man heard this he was “shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

So here’s the thing.  Spirituality is hindered by possessions.  One of the phrases related to the current struggles of the church is the claim that people today are “spiritual but not religious.”  If that were really true today’s homes wouldn’t be on average a 1000 sq. ft larger than they were in 1973 and the living space per person wouldn’t have doubled in the last 40 years.   That’s not a movement toward spirituality.  It’s called being fooled.

If you haven’t noticed, our culture implicitly values desire and the world’s economy is driven by desire and consumption.  I recently read a book called The Power of Habit.  In it there’s a chilling chapter on the marketing savvy of Target (How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do) ending with these frightening words from a Target data executive:  “Just wait… We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.”

The spiritual journey does not require our running and screaming from life’s pleasures. But it does mean maturing in faith and learning to distinguish between what will make us whole versus what will burden us.  It also requires freedom.  Target, and nearly every other cog in the wheel of our global economy wants you to tie you down.  How free are you?

Happy Monday,

Jim+

 

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Everybody Just Shut Up

When I was teaching 5th and 6th grade religion class at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School I had a challenge for each of the six sections of 5th graders I saw every week:  two full minutes of silence at the start of each class.  No talking, no whispering, no dropping something on the floor, no giggling…it was an immense challenge.  The reward was that if they could do it just once I would buy them pizza and ice cream and we would have a party at the end of the year.

 

Sometimes I would give them a theological question to ponder while they were silent.  Other times I would instruct them, “Just sit silently and enjoy not having to DO anything for two minutes.”  How many times did I have to pay up?  Zero.

 

Towards the end of the year, and after telling the class that their archenemies, one of the other sections in the 5th grade, had made it all the way to one minute and 48 seconds of silence, one particularly competitive girl in a moment of frustration with her fellow noisemakers burst out, “Shhhh!  Everybody just shut up!  Shut up for two minutes, is it REALLY that hard?!”

 

Turns out being silent and still for two minutes is darn near impossible for just about everyone, especially 5th graders coming to religion class right after gym class.

 

On Wednesday night, as part of the Get Fed series and six-week conversation I’m leading on how we “Live our Faith Monday through Saturday,” I asked the 20 or so people to sit in silence for one minute.  What we noticed is that one minute seems like an eternity to sit and be still.  Several people remarked that they couldn’t get their brains to quiet down with all sorts of thoughts zipping past.  Others noticed that they were focusing on random noises and had a difficult time not concentrating on those noises they heard.

 

The point of the exercise was that in our overly-scheduled lives, we don’t make time to listen for God, especially in our prayer life.  We are pretty good, when we actually make the effort to carve out time for prayer, to TALK to God…but we don’t tend to remember that LISTENING for God is the other side of that same coin and just as important.

 

But the noises of life, and the roar of thoughts that happen inside our heads can make one heck of a racket.  When we are able to create those moments of  silence we should expect that God will, in God’s own way, speak to us.  Here the words of the story of Elijah–waiting to hear the voice of the Lord which comes to him out of the sheer silence–come to my mind:

11“He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?'”            1 Kings 19:11-12

 

Sometimes the great wind, the splitting of the mountains and rocks, earthquakes and fires may seem to be going on all around us, maybe even inside of us.  Admittedly those noises in and around us are difficult to clear away so that we can hear the voice of God speaking to us.  Practicing those minutes of silence can lead to finding our own holy silence and hopefully even the voice of God.

 

My hope is that those minutes of silence will indeed become holy and sacred for you.  Now, I won’t buy you pizza and ice cream if you can achieve two full minutes of silence, but I can tell you that in those two minutes you very well may hear that still small voice, those “sighs too deep for words,” of God and the Holy Spirit.

Matthewfirst

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Truthful Stories

(first published on November 17, 2011)

Stories may be the most powerful tool we have for communicating our core beliefs. Those things we value most highly aren’t always easily described except in story. Think of the great truths imparted in Aesop’s Fables on topics such as perseverance and humility and patience. The knowledge that love requires sacrifice is at best an unformed, dry, intellectual statement until it has the power of a story – truthful or fanciful – behind it. Children learn this in beloved books like Charlotte’s Web and The Velveteen Rabbit. The best sermons are ones that use stories which draw us in and allow us to make connections to our own stories.

Music doesn’t need a story attached to it to be enjoyed or to move a listener, but I have found that people can sometimes be more appreciative and more deeply involved in a piece of music when it’s telling a story – opera! – or when a story about the music is known – how something came to be written or what the composer’s frame of mind was at the time of composition. At the 11:15 service this Sunday at St. Alban’s, the story of Mr. Valiant-for-Truth will be sung in Ralph Vaughan Williams setting.  It’s a story told near the end of John Bunyan’s 17th century allegorical tale Pilgrim’s Progress.  Mr. Valiant-for Truth has been bloodied in an attack by Wild-head, Inconsiderate and Pragmatic (I paused for reflection on that last attacker and wondered if Relevance might be Pragmatic’s cousin…), but Truth wins the battle of 3 against 1, and when he “crosses over” some time later the trumpets sound for him on the other side, exulting in the grave’s lack of victory over us.

We may know intellectually that truth does eventually win every battle, but how much more stirring to be reminded of Truth’s triumph in story. There is as well a greater sense in Bunyan’s tale that Truth’s victory happens in God’s time, much to our chagrin when faced with injustice and untruth in our daily life. God’s time is nearly always quicker or slower than we want.  Would it be useful to know that Vaughan Williams was setting Bunyan’s text during the darkest days of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War?  The story he tells in this piece, and the story about the piece’s creation both give context to those bits of knowledge that are sometimes factual, and sometimes simply truthful.

SonyaFirst004

 

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Unbelievable! (Nine)

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

597374-c7fad318-745c-11e3-82a9-fbdd3ae7c5dfThe church does not teach that self-realization is the goal of our existence (at least, not the way we usually think of it).

If you drive down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, heading toward the ocean, the terrain gradually changes from the crass ugliness of commercial construction to the studied spectacle of mansions inhabited by the very rich, and then to smaller homes tucked into verdant gardens. Eventually, you enter winding canyons with wild terrain, and then you pass a large and beautiful garden with a lake that reflects the golden dome of a shining white temple and arch. It is the headquarters of the Self-Realization Fellowship, and I always thought it was appropriate that it should be in Southern California, in Los Angeles, a city so dedicated to the individual human being and its image that one of the first signs I read on the day that I moved there identified the office of “Dr. X, psychiatrist and media consultant.”

Self-realization is an alluring prospect, isn’t it? At its core, the idea (as it’s used commonly, not specifically by the gurus in Los Angeles) Bliss_thumb1implies that we are at our core deeply good, infinitely to be valued, and that if each one of us can let go of the various things that inhibit us and simply express the fullness of who we are, we will be happy and the world will be a better place.

And there is a lot in that idea that coincides with the beliefs of the Christian faith. We do believe that each person — every single human being — is made in the image of God, which means that, in our core, we are deeply good.  We believe that our life experiences (the way were raised, the ways other people have treated us, images we’ve been fed by the media, or various ideas we’ve been taught) can get in the way of our ability to be those wonderful, loving people we were created to be, and that we need to do spiritual work in order to be freed to live in holy and life-giving ways.

But here’s where the teachings of Jesus exceed mere self-realization: images-1the goal is not to become ourselves so that we can live for ourselves, but to become ourselves so that we can live for others. Christianity teaches us (and, if we are honest, our own experience shows most of us) that in addition to that wonderful self we were created to be, most of us have a hard seed of self-centeredness wedged like a flint in our hearts. And the aim of our prayers, the aim of our spiritual disciplines, is to open ourselves to the touch of God, who yearns to pour his grace into our hearts and heal us so that we can be free, not to live autonomous lives, but to welcome the life-giving interdependence of love for one another and for God. Only in such mutuality can we be fulfilled,  for we were made in the image of a God whose fundamental nature is to be in relationship. That’s what the doctrine of the Trinity shows us: that  God’s very existence takes the form of mutual self-offering and love.

We are surrounded each day by so many people who stridently insist on their rights. Sometimes, they insist on them because they are images-3losing what they need to live a decent life; other times, because they want more for themselves even if it means that other people have less. We do not live among a chorus of people crying out with insistent voices that other people matter; that it’s OK to ask us to trim our down our desires so that others can have enough to live. We live in a world of vociferous takers, and few are the people who generously offer one another the best of what they have and are.

And yet, that world, the world of loving self-offering, is called the Kingdom of God. When we see hints of it around us, they move us greatly. When the volunteers poured in to the site of 9/11 to feed and water the rescue workers, we were cheered. When tornados ripped through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and my small god-daughter came to her mother with the one stuffed animal she possessed that had belonged to her deceased older brother, Jacob, and told her mother to give it to a child who’d lost her home, so that Jacob could watch over her, too, I wept. When the members of a community step back from their own wishes and look at what is good for all of its members, so that all can flourish together, it creates a sense of safety and of plenty and of flourishing.

Martin Buber wrote, “I was a Thou before I was an I.” He meant that, Unknownfrom our earliest moments on this earth, we received our sense of who we were from the gaze of our parents. And from that time to this, we have been given our selves by others, over and over again.

What do your words and your actions say to others about who they are? Do they say, “Move over; get out of my way?” Or do they say, “You are precious to me, so beautiful that I am willing to offer my time, my care, and my self, so that you may flourish, too?”

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

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