Risky Behavior

Of course I’ll hurt you. Of course you’ll hurt me. Of course we will hurt each other. But this is the very condition of existence. To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter. To become presence, means accepting the risk of absence. ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

The words “risk” and “convention” don’t really belong in the same sentence, but I think we all have a conventional notion of what risky behavior is – something dangerous to our bodies, minds or souls. Drug abuse, driving while intoxicated, jumping out of airplanes or climbing mountains. And then we have to begin breaking risk into two categories. Those that are simply harmful, and those that promise in equal measure the potential for creating good or harm. Success or failure. Presence or absence.

There are those who find themselves in a moment when they can risk something big – a priest willing to give up his vocation and march in Selma, as we heard in the Easter sermon, for example. But who sets out to risk something that big, without having walked a road of many, many small risks that had created an inner voice along the way saying “yes” when everyone else is saying “no.”?

I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity lately. What is it, who has it, how is it demonstrated? I’m convinced that the world needs more of it, but how to nurture it in everyone? At its heart creativity is about taking risks, isn’t it? You’d be very surprised to learn how nervous I am about the risks I take as a church musician, hardly a risky occupation by any conventional standard. An hour-long Haydn string quartet on Good Friday – will people be bored or confused? A feminine pronoun-ed hymn with tambourine at the Vigil – will everyone think that’s just weird? These seem like laughably small decisions, these creative risks, but they might also be nurturing a spirit of readiness for bigger risks when the world calls.

We have just risked the winter of Lent. It felt long and dark and somber, but we’ve entered into the spring of Easter, and the risk was not only worth taking, it has prepared us for the risks we continually need to take in order to live fully as Christians.


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May Contain Pits

The Monday after Easter is often a rocky day for me. After the deep spiritual commitments of Holy Week and Easter, after the planning, the preaching, the music, the flowers, after the meals and the people and the weeping and the joy, I have a hard time entering ordinary time again, entering ordinary life again. It all comes down to a paradox: He is Risen. I have crashed.

This year was no exception. I ended Easter Day by taking a long walk Unknownin the park in the beautiful spring weather, marveling at the tulips and the redbuds and all the ways the earth has come back to life again. I read a good book. I prayed some. Then I slept for a long time….and woke into The Day After.

It began with praise before I nose-dived into all the things that needed to be done, all the ordinary cares pressing in upon me. All the weariness in my bones. I was about there when I went into the kitchen and saw the label on my loaf of olive bread: Caution. May Contain Pits. Well, I thought, that about says it.

The thing is, the loaf is so much better with the olives. They are chewy and salty and rich. They give it flavor, something to lift it out of  the ordinary. We would not want an endless succession of just-the-same-Sundays, no feasts, no fasts, no Christmas, no Easter. Those special days lift us out of our ordinary selves, stretch our hearts and souls beyond what we had been. But it takes effort to remain transformed. It takes grace. There are growing pains involved with becoming a deeper, more true human being. That’s what Easter is about, isn’t it? It is the place where new life touches death.

St. Paul writes, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not [what is] to be, but a bare kernel.” Those all-too-human days are the soil from which your life in Christ is sown. Those things that seem like pits? They’re the seeds, and we can only pray for grace to wait for the new trees to blossom.


Posted in The Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister | 1 Comment

Moses the Showman

I just love the story of Moses, on so many levels. It is amazing all the things God does to position someone who can learn the leadership skills necessary to lead a people out of bondage. One born and who lived his whole life in slavery wouldn’t be able to pull it off. And an Egyptian certainly wasn’t going to do it. So it had to be an Israelite raised as an Egyptian. But then he had to be gotten out of that comfort zone and into a place where he could ponder things more deeply.

But Saturday evening, at Easter Vigil, for the first time in hearing this story after hearing it so many, many times, I saw Moses the showman. When he and the people he has led out of Egypt come to a body of water and they begin to go ballistic when they see the Egyptians coming to drag them back, Moses doesn’t say “Calm down, I know this territory. I’ve wandered in it since I fled after killing that slave driver, and I know that this time of year, at the full moon there is a really low low-tide and a strong wind that opens a strand that we can walk across. And when the tide comes back in, the Egyptians won’t be able to get across.” No, he just says, “Watch this” and he sticks out his walking stick as the tide goes out, as if he is causing it to happen. He might well have learned this showmanship from the very magicians that he had bested in his pleadings with Pharaoh. He probably knew them from his time in the Egyptian court.

Is it any less miraculous that it could have happened this way; that water didn’t stand up like walls? Not to me, not to one who tries to see the miraculous taking place through ordinary events. It was miraculous that Moses was formed into the man he was with the requisite presence and leadership skills. It was miraculous that he has such knowledge of the hatching of flies and frogs in the springtime in the mud of the Nile basin. And his timing of the departure from Egypt so as to reach the Sea of Reeds at just the right moment to be able to get everyone across was truly miracle of miracles. And the showmanship? Necessary I would say to establish and maintain his charisma. And miraculous that he knew that too.

“A hundred thousand miracles are happening every day.” Rogers and Hammerstein, Flower Drum Song.

Oh Lord, open our eyes to the miracles all around us.

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, 22-April-2014

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Is That You?

Today is the first Monday after Easter.  One point of agreement in the biblical accounts of post-resurrection experiences is that the risen Jesus wasn’t immediately recognizable.  It’s interesting to think about what it might be like to encounter the people that we know well anonymously.

One of the things that I’ve realized in my vocation is that the people that I interact with as a priest are often times perceived somewhat differently by others.  These differences aren’t drastic, and there are exceptions, but in my experience rarely are these inconsistencies flattering; the person I have encountered as patient and respectful is abrupt and gruff with others.

If the cycle of the Christian calendar in any way mirrors a divine reality the next few days or weeks will be the time that the resurrected Jesus will be walking down the road with us as a stranger or observing us from the shore.   He’ll be listening or watching to see if all that has taken place has made any difference in our lives.  If we’re lucky we’ll recognize him.  Hopefully he won’t recognize us.

Happy Monday,


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Yeah, Jesus is Dead but What’s He DOING?

When I was teaching fifth grade Religious Studies at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes, before coming to St. Alban’s, I had a day once a quarter when students could ask me any theological question they’d like.  Sometimes the questions were pretty straightforward, other times they reflected a genuine curiosity about what we believe as Christians.  They ranged from, “So who is God’s mom?” to things like, “So if Jesus died to save sinners from hell, what happens when a non-Christian like my friend ________ who is Jewish dies, or a non-believer dies?  Is THAT person going to heaven or hell?”  Those question days were always eye-opening.


One question that was asked was: “What is actually happening to Jesus after he’s been crucified and dies, but before he is raised from the dead?”  Great question!


I don’t think we give much thought to what happened when Jesus was dead, and perhaps we should.  On this Good Friday, please allow me to jump ahead a day and think a little bit about this in-between time for Jesus and our faith.


The day after Good Friday is known by many different names by Christians around the globe.  Some call this Saturday, “Joyful Saturday,” “Black Saturday,” or, “Holy Saturday.”   In the Episcopal Church we call this day Holy Saturday.  Now, as to what Jesus is doing on this day we get only a bit of a clue from Holy Scripture.  One passage that provides some clarity comes from the prophet Hosea (Hosea 13:14) and the most colorful translation of this verse is:  “O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.”  The two other passages in Holy Scripture that seem to come close are Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 3:18-20.


Apart from the verses we have in the bible, we mention this time in-between Jesus’s death and resurrection quite clearly in The Apostle’s creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.  He descended to the dead.  On the third day he rose again.”  (BCP p. 96, my emphasis added)  The Nicene Creed puts it this way:  “For our sake he was crucified, under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again from the dead…” (BCP p. 358)


Now, scholars are rather divided about what is going on when Jesus goes down amongst the dead.  Many in the Middle Ages believed this is when Christ triumphantly freed all of those souls from the Old Testament who did not have the option of believing in Christ because, well, Christ had not yet come into the world.  There are numerous icons and images that depict this scene.  Others think that perhaps Christ is redeeming the fallen angels who sided with Satan.  Still others believe that Christ literally is closing hell–that all souls are redeemed through Jesus’s death and resurrection as the living Christ.


This belief of Christ saving the souls of people like Adam and Eve makes one wonder about hell (Sheol or Gehenna, or “The Pit”) and how that whole system works.  Clive Staples Lewis presents a particularly Anglican view about how hell works and I invite you to explore for yourselves by reading The Great Divorce.  No matter what we think Jesus is up to on this Holy Saturday, one thing is clear:  Jesus is busy.  He is at work, even in death.


On this day when we concentrate on Jesus’s death, and tomorrow, Holy Saturday–when for a brief bit of time Jesus is dead-and-not-yet-risen–let us focus on the love of our God who CHOOSES to die on the cross for US.  God chooses to die so that we all might be cleansed of our sins.  How much does God love us?  How much does God want us to be reunited with God’s self?  Jesus.  That’s how much.



Posted in The Rev. Matthew R. Hanisian | 2 Comments

The Seven Last Words of Christ

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do

The Seven Last Words of Christ, or more literally, the seven last phrases of Christ, are believed to have been uttered by Jesus while on the cross. They are words that have inspired artists of all kinds since the 17th century – poets, painters and more than two dozen composers.  Not to mention books and sermons and a variety of discourses.

“Verily I say unto thee, this day shalt thou be with me in paradise”

Beginning as a response to earthquakes in Peru in 1687, a Jesuit priest introduced a Good Friday service based on these seven phrases, pulled from the four Gospels. As it became more popular, the service of seven last words often merged with a Three Hours service, in use since the 4th century, marking the time from noon till 3:00 on Good Friday when Jesus hung on the cross.  Eventually the tradition of a service on the seven last words migrated from Peru to Spain.

Woman, behold thy Son.  Son, behold thy mother

In 1785, the most popular composer of the day, Franz Joseph Haydn, was commissioned for a musical setting of The Seven Last Words for the Cathedral in Cadiz, Spain. He wrote an orchestral work of nine movements that would serve as an introduction and conclusion, together with meditative movements between sermons on each of the phrases. He later transcribed his orchestral piece for string quartet, and others created choral and even piano arrangements of Haydn’s work.

Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani?

It is the string quartet version, together with brief introductory chorales, that will be part of the Three Hours service at St. Alban’s tomorrow, Good Friday. This is not the Haydn of The Creation or his 100+ symphonies, but Haydn at his most intimate and prayerful. It is not music that seeks to do any “text-painting”, but an attempt to create an emotional correlation, unrelated to actual text, between the words of a dying Christ and the abstract notes of instrumental music.

I thirst.     It is finished

Since its creation, however, performers have seen the need for words to expand on the music. Sometimes accompanied by poetry of John Donne, George Herbert and others, sometimes by readings taken from theologians. Those who are able to be at St. Alban’s this Friday at 2:00 (the third hour of our Three Hours service), might want to meditate on the seven last words of Jesus, listening to the music alone, or while contemplating the poetry of Canadian-American poet Mark Strand, whose seven poems on these “words” stem from his doubts and the inspiration he found in the Gospel of Thomas. Seven Last Words – poems

Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit

This represents a unique opportunity at St. Alban’s to watch and pray with Jesus and I hope you are able to share in this time of contemplation on suffering and redemption tomorrow afternoon.




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One Commandment

Jesus began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him and beat parable9-wicked-tenantshim and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. (Mark 12:1-8)

Today’s parable is not fiction. Most often, a parable is. That’s the definition: a story that conveys a spiritual truth. But today’s parable has been enacted over and over again, most recently in Kansas City, where three people were shot to death this week in a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement home, one day before the start of the Passover.  Ironically, the victims were Christians, but their deaths reecall so many Jewish deaths, in so many places, even, in the events we remember this week, in Jerusalem.

The story Jesus tells is simple enough, but at its heart lies the ultimate form of spiritual sickness. Not the selfishness of the tenants, nor their reluctance to pay the landowner (who stands in for God) what they owe, but a bitter root of rage that leads us to think that our lives are somehow blighted if some other person or group of people is allowed to exist, as if the sun that shines on me will be paler and less golden if it also shines on one other person who lives and breathes on this earth.

The terms God gives us are simple enough: love one another, which means, give one another life, as God has given it to you. Tomorrow, we will come to Maundy Thursday. We will gather and eat; we will share Holy Communion; we will wash one another’s feet; and then we will go, together, to wait in a garden, a garden in which a man beloved of God was cut down and betrayed, one day before the Passover.

That man, Jesus, died so that others would not have to. He paid the price for all of us, so that we might freely live. Those who corrupt that teaching and use his death as an excuse to kill others — Jews, Muslims, blacks, whites, women, men, gay people, Klan members, anyone at all — have fallen so far from the truth that they have utterly lost sight of Christ’s face.

That does not obliterate the work and death and grace of Christ. Rather, God works through our very confusion and sin to bring about God’s purposes. The psalmist writes, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

God does what God wills. But that does not vindicate us or excuse our refusal to walk in God’s ways. What God has asked of us is so very little: love one another.  Is that really so hard to do?


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