A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Waters of Baptism, Thicker Than Blood

In this week's gospel (Mark 3:20-35, RCL), Jesus “redefines” family. And that’s important for the church to understand, because local churches often think of themselves in familial terms without actually making it clear that we are a different kind of family; that lack of clarity is risky. For people wounded by their families of origin, or by divorce or abandonment, the idea of church as family can be very off-putting. For people whose families were havens of comfort and a refuge from the world, the idea of church as family can create expectations that the church was not created to meet. For those reasons I’m very careful how I describe the church, and family is not a word I use often. Christ’s church must always be a place where all are welcome, and where those who commit to following Christ become brothers and sisters regardless of how little else they may have in common. “Blood is thicker than water”, we say. That may be true of ordinary water; but blood is never thicker than the waters of baptism, where we all who desire to follow Christ and do the will of God become part of the household of God. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Place Where We Live

Andrew and another disciple of John the Baptizer are the first disciples called in the gospel of John. Jesus, aware that they are following him, turns back and asks them what they are looking for. “Rabbi, (meaning teacher)” they reply, “where are you staying?” Jesus answers, “Come and see.”

The particular word for “staying” that is used when Andrew and his friend ask that question is the Greek word μένεις. In addition to stay, this word can also mean remain, or live, or dwell; it can be translated last, endure, or continue. But throughout the gospels, when that word is used, it is very often translated as “abide”.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?” Where do you abide?

Months later, when Andrew and that other disciple sit around a table in an upper room in Jerusalem with other followers of Jesus, hearing him talk about vines and branches, perhaps they would realize that their initial question to Jesus, as well as his answer, had much deeper significance than simply a home address somewhere near the River Jordan and that their initial encounter with him had led them far beyond a domestic location and into a new way of life that defied not only the physical boundaries of a home or an inn, but also religious, social, and cultural boundaries as well. The place where they and their fellow disciples abide at this point in time is not like anything they could have imagined when they began this journey.

Jesus has opened up a whole new life to them: “life on the vine”. Life on the vine would be disciplined, sacrificial, selfless, but ultimately fruitful and rewarding. Life on the vine would require a willingness to let God be in control, to let God prune away anything and everything that might stand in the way of full and complete commitment to the new way of being and of relating to God and one another that Jesus had come to inaugurate. Life on the vine, life in Christ, would also mean having a new place to live: not only where to abide; but also how to abide.

The word abide is used eight times in these eight verses. As Christians we abide in Christ, we abide in God and so naturally, logically, we also abide in one another. We stay, we remain, we endure, we continue, because this is where we Christians are called to live.

God is love. Fearless, bold, perfect, abiding love. It’s the love made flesh and blood in the selfless love of God’s son Jesus; it’s the love that pulls us back when we lose our way and forget where it is that we live. It’s good to remember that. We have a home. No matter how bad life gets, or how good life gets, we have a place to abide in the God who is love. Regardless of where our lives happen to be at the moment, our home is in and with God. That’s where we live. That’s also where we meet others who may, on the surface, appear to be nothing at all like us but who become our brothers and sisters in love.

When we baptize someone we welcome that new Christian into both the local and the larger Church by saying “We receive you into the household of God.” In other words, you have a new home now. You abide in God; you have entered a community of love. From now on, we say, no matter what happens this is where you live. This is your “real” estate: a home in the place God calls us all to be; where we experience the abiding presence of love, the beloved community that Christ created for us. And when we do, no matter where we find ourselves in this world or what shape our life takes, the place where we live is the place where God’s love abides, and where we abide in it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Going Gently Into Lent

We think of Lent as many things: a journey; a time of discipline, solemnity and self-denial; a time to engage in self-examination, to prepare for the joy of Easter and resurrection. Whatever we may have decided to do to mark this season, we enter it hoping to carry it all the way through to the end. After all, if Jesus could spend 40 days and nights in the wilderness fasting, praying, and resisting the temptation to “be God” or to test God, the least we who follow him can do is give up chocolate, pray more, and try to stick it out until the Great Vigil. Praying more and being diligent with our chosen disciplines are good things; I’ll leave it to you to deal with your chocolate.

But do we ever think of Lent in terms of being gentle? Here’s a pitch for observing a “gentle Lent”. Not that we should just sit back, relax, and let spiritual practices slide. But there are practices that might make the keeping of a gentle Lent productive, meaningful, and spiritual.

Be gentle with others. Who is in need of a kind word, a helping hand; a donation of some kind, monetary or material; a shoulder to cry on, an ear ready to listen? Who needs the kind of help and support that only you can give? Make yourself available. Where is that person with whom you’ve had a misunderstanding, or an argument that goes unresolved? Make every effort to make peace with that person, remembering that the mission of the Church is reconciliation both with God and one another. It’s so easy to indulge in the very human tendency to judge another person, consciously or not, because of something that person cannot help or simply because of who that person is. Such thoughts can slip so easily into our minds. Remember that God’s grace, love, and mercy extend to all. No exceptions. Be gentle with others.

Be gentle with the creation. Buy only what is needed. Less consumption means less waste. Recycle whenever possible. Become an ethical and sensitive user and consumer; keep in mind your carbon footprint. Get acquainted, or re-acquainted, with God’s world. Remember that “the earth is the Lord’s.” Be gentle with the creation.

Be gentle with your community, and with the world and its people. Look to the needs of your neighbors; what can you do to meet those needs? Work for cooperation and understanding among those of different religions, different races, different backgrounds, doing whatever can be done to eliminate stereotypical thinking, for we are all children of God. Pray for peace, advocate for justice, be proactive in showing compassion to the hungry, the homeless. Where you have been blessed with abundance, give something back. Remember: Isaiah reminds us of the fast that God finds acceptable: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. Focus more on the common good, and less on individual salvation, because Christ has already taken care of that second item. Be gentle with your community, and with the world and its people.

And finally, be gentle with yourself. This may be the most difficult of all, because we all tend to have blinders on when it comes to both our strengths and our weaknesses; and because even though being gentle with oneself may sound as though we’re taking permission to be lax about our Godly habits, the truth is that we tend to be inappropriately and inaccurately hard on ourselves, rather than too easy. And so as Paul reminds us, first and foremost let us be reconciled to God, for Christ’s sake. Strengthen your relationship with God in prayer. Relinquish the need for control – of others, of oneself, and of God and God’s purposes. There is tremendous stress associated with the need for control. Like that ubiquitous song from Frozen reminds us, “Let it go!” Accept your complete and utter dependence on God, and be grateful for the love that God shows us; because with God we have everything we need. God gives us the gift of community; so if there is any self-denial to be engaged in, let it be the denial of individualism - the self-centered tendencies we all have to rely on ourselves and our own strength, which serves to isolate us from God and from one another. Be gentle with yourself.

What will each of us do with these next 40 days? How will we spend our time and energy between now and the Great Vigil of Easter; and most important, how will our choices shape the way we live our lives far, far beyond that?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"Come and See!" A New Hymn Text

Having looked for a hymn specific to the the gospel for 2 Epiphany (Year B), and finding none in the usual sources, I wrote one myself. It fits any tune with the meter 87 87 D; we're using Nettleton (Come Thou Fount of Ev'ry Blessing) in my parish on Sunday.

1.      When the Baptist saw the Savior
“Lamb of God!” he testified.
His disciples turned to Jesus,
“Teacher, where do you abide?”
“Come and see,” our dear Lord answered;
 “Come and see where faith is found. 
So they went and followed after,                                
Stayed to learn God’s truth profound.                        

2.       Andrew found his brother Simon
“Come with us, the Christ is here!”
Jesus said, “I name you Peter,
Rock of my Church, faith sincere.”
Philip brought his friend Nathanael.
“He is with us! Come and see
Jesus whom the prophets spoke of
Here with us in Galilee.”

3.      Jesus called this son of Israel,
Full of truth and honesty:
“Seeing you beneath the fig tree,
I knew you would follow me.”
“Son of God and King of Israel!”
Cried Nathanael with delight.
“Greater things than this,” said Jesus,
“Will appear before your sight!”

4.      Jesus, may we seek and find you,
May we be where you abide,
And to seek the world’s salvation,
Spread the gospel far and wide.
“Come and see!” Lord, you invite us
To the truth sent from above.
“Come and see!” May we bring others
To your mercy, grace, and love!
                                                -Cynthia J. Hallas

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

On Not Getting "Back to the Garden" – Thoughts on the Feast of the Epiphany

Scripture is full of all kinds of stories – intimate and large-scale, joyful and tragic; stories of loss and reclamation, of sinning and redemption; of life and death and then even more abundant life – you name a situation that’s part of the human condition, and you can probably find it somewhere in the Bible. But ultimately the narrative of scripture is story of returning: of finding our way back to God. Ever since Adam and Eve lost their way and found themselves on this side of Eden’s gate; ever since disobedience fractured the creatures’ relationship to the Creator, we have all been on a journey: a long, long journey home by another road.

Most of us like to think we have our life all mapped out - we are IN CONTROL. Then something unforeseen happens: we get the pink slip – or maybe the job promotion - and with either one, life changes for us and for our family. We have retirement all figured out, where we’ll go, what we’ll do - and then the market takes a downturn and we lose money; or a troubling diagnosis comes and rather than traveling, we are forced to spend our time healing - or not – and grieving. We get halfway through a degree program and realize that the career we have had in mind is not how we want to spend our future. The spouse leaves, the grown child moves back home; the list goes on and on. “Best laid plans.” We have all experienced what it’s like to have to take a detour – most of us more than once. The spiritual journey can be like that, too, of course, because for people of faith our spiritual journey is our life journey, encompassing all those twists and turns and detours of career and health and family and financial well-being and relationship. In all of that we trust God to show us the way as we navigate both the rough patches and the good times.

 Matthew tells us that a group of “wise men” – kings, magi, astrologers, whatever they were – saw a moving star in the sky and followed it west toward Jerusalem. Did they come with the intention of worshipping Jesus, or were they simply paying their respects to a future monarch? Did they have a conversion experience when they presented the gifts? Whatever their original intentions, the wise men play a brief yet critical role in the story of Jesus’ infancy. They arrive at their destination, do what they have come to do and once done, prepare to return home - gifts presented, homage paid – with just one quick stop on the way to give that great manipulator King Herod the information he seeks.

And then comes the dream, the angelic vision that arrives in sleep. And it is at that point – where their plan falls apart and reforms itself, where they lose control–that their true journey begins. All their best laid plans could not happen the way they wanted or assumed. And in one phrase, the evangelist encapsulates the whole of the human faith story: they left for their own country by another road.

It’s been pointed out that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. That means that no matter how hard we try we cannot, in the words of Joni Mitchell, “get ourselves back to the garden.” That path is closed and the gate barred. Humanity will never again achieve that perfection, that peace, that particular communion with God. We lost it, our disobedience caused us to give it up, and we can never get it back. I’m not sure we were ever meant even to try, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because God has shown us another way home. Eden is gone. The journey home is ongoing. Another destination, our true and final home, beckons us forward where the holy city and the heavenly banquet await us.

Like the magi, we ultimately are not in control of our journey. But the place where we lose control is often the place where we gain the most grace. The Incarnation, the holy and miraculous event, promises us that new path of grace. The magi, those wise men, had seen and experienced that grace in the person of the young child Jesus. As strange as it may sound, the road back to God, the true road home, can only be the way forward. Like the magi, we cannot retrace our steps, but must travel by another road; back home to our own true country, our own true home in God. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Litany for Advent IV

It's customary in the church, beginning on this date each year, to use the so-called "O" Antiphons when praying the canticle Magnificat, or Song of Mary. Each day leading up to Christmas has its own such antiphon, each of which delineates an attribute of the expected Messiah; the best known version is in the hymn "O come, O come, Emmanuel". For this coming Sunday in my parish, I've written Prayers of the People based on these antiphons. The translations are found in many sources. Specific intentions may  be added as desired.

Prayers of the People for Advent IV, based on the “O” Antiphons

O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: hear our prayers for the earth and all of creation. Lead us to be better stewards of the world you have made and given to us, that those who come after us may enjoy its bounty and goodness.
Come, and teach us the way of prudence.
Come and save us.

O Adonai, Lord and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the flame of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: hear our prayers for the church; for __________; for Christians in trouble or danger, and for peace and understanding among the religions of the world.
Come, and redeem us with outstretched arms.
Come and save us.

O Root of Jesse, that stands for an ensign of the people, before whom the kings keep silence and unto whom the Gentiles shall make supplication: hear our prayers for our nation, our state, our region; for those who govern, especially ______________; for those whose needs are overlooked, and for those who work for justice and reconciliation.
Come deliver us, and tarry not.
Come and save us.

O Key of David, and scepter of the house of Israel: open wide the door of healing, and close the doors of suffering. Hear our prayers for _________________________.
Come, and lead forth into wholeness those who are captive to illness, injury, and pain.
Come and save us.

O dawn of the east, brightness of light eternal, and sun of justice: hear our prayers for the departed, especially _____________, and for those who mourn. You who are the hope of everlasting life and our light amid the darkness of death,
Come, and give us light. 
Come and save us.

O King of the gentiles and their desired One: hear our prayers of thanksgiving for ________________________. Give us thankful hearts; ground our gratitude in humility and service to others.
Come, and deliver us, whom you formed out of the dust of the earth.
Come and save us.

O Emmanuel, God with us, the expected of the nations and their Savior: hear our prayers for all the people and nations of the world, especially __________________. Lead us into paths of justice and peace, and bring to an end our warring ways and violent inclinations.
Come to save us, O Lord our God.
Come and save us.

A concluding collect (prayer) may be added.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Way of Advent - Stations Eleven and Twelve, and Concluding Prayers

Eleventh Station – John the Baptist Anticipates the Coming of the Christ 
(Mark 1:7-8)

Our King and Savior now draws near:
Come among us and save us, we pray.

John proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

V.  Here is the Lamb of God
R.  Who takes away the sin of the world.

Let us pray. (Silence)

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.     (Book of Common Prayer, 211)

Savior of the nations, come!
Virgin’s Son, make here your home.
Marvel now, both heaven and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.
               - Martin Luther (after Ambrose of Milan)
               The Hymnal 1982, #54  st. 1

Twelfth Station – The Fulfillment of the Reign of God (Rev. 21:1-4a)

Our King and Savior now draws near:
Come among us and save us, we pray.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

V.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
R.  See, I am making all things new.

Let us pray. (Silence)

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 236)

Come, O Father’s saving Son,
Who o’er sin the vict’ry won.
Boundless shall your kingdom be;
Grant that we its glories see.
               - Martin Luther (after Ambrose of Milan)
               The Hymnal 1982, #54  st. 4

Concluding Prayers

Our King and Savior now draws near:
Come among us and save us, we pray.

Let us pray. (Silence)

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 211)

Go in peace.
Thanks be to God.