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)

Posted in The Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Let there be light.

When these Cups were launched a few years ago one of the thoughts was that we writers would write about our ministries here. As faithful readers know, that isn’t always the case, but today I’ll be faithful to that.

How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? Well, I’ve usually done it with four, but this past Saturday there were six of us: Rich Turner, Tom Mahaffey, Darin Bartram, Gray Maxwell, Jordy VandeBunte and yours truly. Four might have been enough, but it was good for even more to become acquainted with the process. Goodness, what bulbs are these, you ask? They are those over the altar, the choir pews, and the rafters above the transepts. This entails use of the church’s 32 foot extension ladder. Just moving it about requires several people.

This time I took a cue from a recent visit to Home Depot to buy some shelving. There was one package at floor level but others too high to reach without the assistance of store personnel. They used a powered lift. The lift had a platform about 5 feet square with rails around it, but the store worker who rode it up first put on a harness and connected himself to the railing with a strap. Falling, though unlikely even without the strap, was thus virtually impossible.

I’d been up and down our ladder many, many times in the last 10 years changing these bulbs and never employed any safety features such as I observed at Home Depot. From years of working on our multi-story house, I am very comfortable high up on a ladder.

But lately a couple of things are making me more safety conscious. Three or four years ago I took a fall changing a light bulb in the stairwell of Satterlee Hall. I wasn’t on a ladder, but had stepped up on a table and from the table to a big box. In coming back down, I stepped on the edge of the table instead of the middle, and the table turned over. I fell on the then-upright edge of the table, landing on my ribs, breaking two of them. The distance of my fall was probably less than four feet. That gave me a new personal perspective on falling. The other thing is that I’ve started to notice in the past year or two is that my sense of balance isn’t quite what it used to be.

So for this round of bulb changing, I went to Hudson Trail Outfitters and bought a climbing harness and a length of climbing rope. I have prior experience with a climbing harness from working every July on the roof of the three story farmhouse we used to own, a roof much too steep to stand on at all. With the rope over the top rung and me clipped to it with a carabiner, and with Rich Turner on the nave floor holding the rope, and the other guys holding the ladder and ferrying new bulbs up to me, this time I felt as secure as a babe in its mother’s arms.

I hasten to mention that some of the guys offered to go up the ladder in my place. I appreciated the offer but declined for many reasons. First, I was familiar with the fixtures into which the bulbs are screwed. The fixtures are in two pieces, held together by springs. They have to be pulled apart to get to the bulb. It sometimes takes two hands. I was able to demonstrate this to the guys on the floor, so they at least have seen it from a distance and this would be less of a factor in the future. Second, I’m not a lawyer, but I think there is a completely different liability picture for me, paid staff directing the activity, to be at risk versus a volunteer member of the parish. Third, I have a sense of how to do it carefully, and I have no way of surely knowing if someone else would have that same sense of caution, and I wouldn’t be – couldn’t be – right there to ensure completely safe procedure And, last, is just how I feel about it. There are probably two ways of looking at a risky activity. One is, “if anyone is going to get hurt or killed doing this I don’t want it to be me.” The other is, “if anyone is going to get hurt or killed doing this, I want it to be me.” For better or worse, I’m in the second group. If someone else went up the ladder and fell, I wouldn’t be able to bear it. I would not be able to face another day.

So I am grateful for Rich, Jordy, Gray, Darin, and Tom for making this a safe activity; and for Hudson Trail Outfitters for having what I needed to feel at ease 30 feet off the ground; and for Adrienne at HTO for getting me fitted with the right harness and the right rope.

And thanks be to God for the blessing of serving in this place we call St. Alban’s.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 21-October-2014.

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What’s Your Usual?

The conversation was pretty fascinating.  I had only known them for minutes, literally. It was the kind of conversation that only happens here, in DC.  Most of you know “them,” of course.

It’s a miracle of God that somehow (not really) we talked about Wednesday Morning Bible Study and service times at St. Alban’s.

“Shoot!  Both times are problematic for me because…” (elaborate in your mind great and very important reasons – like saving the world –  for not doing church).

Boldly I asked (there was wine) the forlorn if they were always so good at making excuses.

Luckily for me there was a close friend of my new conversation partner listening in.  “Usually not,” they chimed.

Happy Monday,

+Jim

Posted in The Rev. Jim Quigley, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Forgotten in God’s Sight

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  Luke 12:6-7

 

There is something terrifying and yet wonderful in the words of Jesus in this portion of the gospel reading appointed for the Eucharist service for today.  In essence Jesus is telling his disciples (and us as his disciples in this age) that God who knows and remembers even the slightest of creatures, knows us so intimately that no detail about us is forgotten–and more importantly–that we are of value to God.

 

For most of us, I think the first part about every action, thought, word, and deed being known about and remembered by God is the part that sticks.  And, usually, I suspect we only tend to think about it in the negative:  God remembers every little thing I do that was wrong/bad/horrible/manipulative, etc.  We are pretty capable of not letting go of a whole host of moments that we wish we could forget where we acted inappropriately, or maybe made someone feel small and insignificant, or even when we’ve caused someone else great hurt.

 

The harder part to remember, especially in the light of us being weighed down by the knowledge that God knows and remembers all of the “bad” things we do, is that God remembers all of the wonderful things that we’ve done–the times we’ve helped someone to feel important, or appreciated, or loved.  God also remembers and knows all of THOSE moments.

 

In both our best moments and our worst moments, we are of value to God.  In those moments when we cannot understand how anyone could love us, value us, care about us, cherish us…God does.  Yes, God wants us to be better than we are in those moments, to live more perfectly as God knows we can, but God never gives up on us and God never stops loving us.  We are never forgotten in God’s sight; we are of great value to God.

 

In Christ’s Name,

Matthewfirst

Posted in The Rev. Matthew R. Hanisian | Leave a comment

Is That Relevant?

These are a few of my least favorite things: umbrellas, litter, slugs, and stinky cheese. And here’s a recent addition to the list – the word “relevant.” I noticed an advertisement in The Washington Post this past week for a concert by the Choir of Westminster Abbey at Washington National Cathedral. It suggests that this concert is: “Keeping ancient traditions ALIVE and RELEVANT in the modern world”.  Who said this? Reading it made me shudder.Westminster Abbey Choir advertisement 001

Expressing my dismay at this need to be relevant, I was pointed towards Henri Nouwen’s 1989 book In the Name of Jesus which warned of this very thing. For those who don’t know the book, Nouwen, specifically addressing clergy but admonishing all Christians, I believe, urges church leaders to beware of the temptation to be relevant (turn these stones into bread, Jesus), to be spectacular (show us how great you are, Jesus, by throwing yourself from this pinnacle and saving yourself), and to be powerful (which makes Nouwen wonder if we find it easier to be God than to love God).

That first one, the temptation to be relevant feeds our need, or a church’s need, to be productive, successful, competent. Relevancy requires a quantitative usefulness and measurable signs of success. Well, that pretty much defines everything I do as irrelevant. And those choir members from Westminster Abbey who rehearse and sing services daily, and then travel 3,000 miles from home to make music for an American audience? How to measure their productivity?

Fortunately Nouwen reminds the reader of Jesus’ response in the fourth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word – and for some, every musical note – that comes from the mouth of God. Nouwen believed that we are closer to the heart of God when we simply offer our vulnerable selves to God. For some, hearing a beautifully trained choir in a glorious space might not only help them to hear the voice of God more clearly, but might also call up all kinds of vulnerabilities – our irrelevancy, our lack of greatness, and our powerlessness. Hmmm…maybe that makes such an opportunity to hear a musical tradition come alive more relevant than I thought!

SonyaFirst004

 

 

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