The Love of God

Michelangelo CreationI had much to be thankful for in church this morning.

Ten days ago I received a phone call that no mother ever wants to receive. Our son, 44, had been seriously hurt in a surfing accident in Costa Rica. He was in a hospital in San Jose, the capitol. Broken vertebrae and discs meant he could not be moved. Surgery would be necessary.

While I have rejoiced often in our son’s love of life, I have just as often feared for his loss of life. What he thinks normal, I deem risky. Needless to say, there have been many scrapes and bruises in his growing up, many warnings that he is, after all, mortal like all of us.

When the word got out about the accident (gotta love Facebook), the prayers rose to the heavens. Angels had been with him, I believe, during the accident itself and those early hours as he lay on the beach in pain. Now hundreds of friends and family members joined the angel chorus of healing and protection. They stormed heaven with prayer.

Yes, angels had been with him when he hit hard-packed sand. One of his spinal discs shattered, and a fragment entered the spinal column, .5 millimeter from the spinal chord, which would have caused paralysis or even death.

The ensuing days of pain were turned into grace by the love of God. Our son said that the love of God poured into him through his friends and family. The love of God answered him when he cried, “Lord, help me,” as he waited for the surgery, his neck brace necessary but strangling. In all of this, Christ strengthened our son in this Cross of suffering. God held him in his palm, so that he could, as he said to me, sing like the Psalmist,

“I waited patiently for the Lord, and he inclined unto me and heard my calling. He brought me also out of the horrible pit, out of the mire and clay, and set my feet upon the rock, and ordered my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even a thanksgiving unto our God.” (Psalm 40)

This morning in church, as I listened to our preacher speak of the hand of God reaching out to us, creating us, saving us, parting the seas for us, I smiled. For God reached out to our son as he does to the faithful every day. If we choose, we can grasp that hand. We can hold on tight. But we must be faithful, live a life of faith. Like St. Peter walking on the water toward Christ, we must keep our focus on Christ.

Today our son is home in the U.S., safe and healing, and I continue to be stunned at the many answers to prayer. There will be months of therapy, but he suffered no brain damage, and he is walking short distances. This is because of God’s presence in his life and God’s love pouring out to him through others. 

I often think of Michelangelo’s magnificent painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. In the Creation scene God’s finger reaches for Adam’s. The touch will give Adam life, and the divine spark will flow from God to his new creation, mankind, Adam.

Christians are a sacramental people. We know God works through us and in us. God took on flesh to be one of us, with us, and he continues this sacramental work of grace, working his will through matter. We need only be faithful, to feel his touch upon us. One way to ensure our faithfulness is to keep Sundays holy, to worship weekly in church. Here we are reminded of God’s commandments. Here we are given the grace to open our hearts to God. When we do this, angels will dwell with us, even when our backs are broken and we lay on a beach in pain. And we will be healed.

As we sang this morning with St. Patrick, “I bind unto my self today/The power of God to hold and lead,/ His eye to watch, his might to stay,/ His ear to hearken to my need” and concluded with his wonderful song-prayer, “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger,” (Hymn 268) I knew it all to be true.

Thank you to all the friends and strangers who were the means, the pathway, for God’s love to heal our son. And thanks be to God for his marvelous grace, his new song to sing.

All Is Grace

Holy_TrinityAn icy wind threw hail against my kitchen window earlier this afternoon. A dusting of snow had settled on the top of Mt. Diablo and, as I peered out to the angry weather, a rainbow, barely visible, tried to emerge through mist over the mountain, soon to be gone.

A good first Sunday in Lent, I thought. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

We are frail creatures inhabited by the love of God, unfit for such glory, yet yearning for more. Our pilgrimage in time – to our deaths – is the essence of all creation. Made in God’s image, we incarnate him as well. We are like him, for we can reason, we can create, and we can love.

Our fragility bears such greatness, as it bares its carefully guarded conscience within. We must bare and confess our failings, our not loving enough. We must inform our conscience so that we can learn to love better. For as our conscience grows in strength, we become less fragile. It is all up to us, up to our willing God’s will. It is up to us to commit to loving, to giving away our precious time, to taking the hard road when the easy one is so tempting.

I have found Advent and Lent to be a good school of conscience training. The discipline of saying the Offices of Evening Prayer or Morning Prayer (or both) immerse the heart and mind in God’s will for us. The prayer offices – going back to the seventh century – include rich poetic prayers, Scripture inspired. They include Scripture readings, true lessons, appropriate for the season. They include lyric psalms that join our voices to those of thousands of years, B.C., before Christ walked among us.

Advent prepares us for the Feast of the Incarnation, Christmas, the birth of Christ. Lent prepares us for the Feast of the Resurrection, Easter, the great salvific atonement of Christ’s Passion.

As my bishop often reminded me, passion is the union of love and suffering. And so we make small suffering sacrifices of self during these forty days as we step through the wilderness of Lent. We give up minutes of our time in the morning or evening to reach for God, to stretch our heart to welcome him within us. We follow Our Lord to Jerusalem, the Way of the Cross, and his Passion.

How do we follow Our Lord to Jerusalem? We make a Lenten rule, to do something for someone else – for God – and to give something up – for God. Like an athlete in training, we tone our wills to run the race of time to the finish line of eternity. We sculpt our wills, through abstinence and fasting, to unite perfectly with God’s will. As Our Lord said to His Father, in the Garden on Maundy Thursday, in the dark of the night before Good Friday, let thy will be done.

The sun has come out, the storm has passed. The earth is watered and green. We too must be watered, sometimes by storms, sometimes in ways we do not desire. We suffer. Our loved ones suffer. And yet, there is a greening that comes through suffering love, there is a growth. But it must be within God’s will. That greening is called Grace, the Grace of God.

My bishop often said, “All is grace,” and it is true. God pulls good from evil. He turns humility into glory. He redeems suffering that is united to his own suffering on the cross. We sometimes call this “offering it up” to God, to the cross. And so it is. It is an offering, indeed – our own pain and confusion and heartbreak filling the holes in his hands and side, sharing with him.

I have come to believe that evil is real. It is planted in hearts by little sins, infinitesimal wrongs, hardly noticeable. It is fed by pride and then greater sins. Soon, it is cancerous, devouring. I have known those who succumbed to these hissing snakes, thinking they sang songs of adoration. They had grown blind to their sins, little and big, so that grace could not work upon them. Grace was refused.

Lent is a time to consider these things, to examine one’s heart and mind. Does the heart love enough? Does the mind train the heart in the will of God? It is a time to root out the rot, the multiplying mold. It is time to confess.

And when the heart is scoured clean, it can be filled with grace, with the love of God. It is then, after forty days in the wilderness, thirsty and tempted, that we can say, “Abba,” Papa, Father. It is then that we can fill the heart with holy desire, desires informed by Scripture and prayer. It is then that we have a conscience that will unite our will with God’s will.

It is then, and only then, that we can celebrate Easter, the resurrection of God-made-flesh, our own Incarnate One, for we are finally made fully at-one with him in the Atonement.

We must run the race to Easter, to eternity. In my end is my beginning; in my self-denial is my self-affirmation; in my death is my life. We must train, we must learn this discipline of love.

The novelist George Bernanos reflects St. Therese of Lisieux’s words when he writes, “Grace is everywhere,” or “All is grace.”

In Lent, we learn to welcome the Grace of God into our lives.

Eternity in Time

Time sometimes meets eternity. Or is it rather that eternity intersects time?

I have been working through the final edits of the late Archbishop Morse’s sermons, to be published soon by the American Church Union. Organized according to the Church Year, I am immersed in a conflation of time, all time, all seasons, as though standing outside of time and yet within its heart.

Indeed, time and eternity dance with one another in these words, phrases, and paragraphs. They mingle as in a sacrament, when the holy enters the ordinary, when God becomes bread and wine, and He enters our world, our bodies.

In this dance of time and eternity, I notice things differently. I watch white clouds scuttle across blue skies and see Heaven looking back. The natural world – trees, grass, the earth under my feet, hold eternity in its atoms. Where is the line between matter and spirit, between body and soul? Working on the archbishop’s sermons, I cross those boundaries, as though nonexistent. Yet I know they exist.

I have not breathed my last and I am still living in the material world. But the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lives within me, in my flesh, just as He promised. After receiving the Eucharist on this brilliant blue morning, I know I was strengthened immeasurably as the Host was placed on my tongue. Kneeling before the altar, I crossed the border between Heaven and Earth, offering myself once again to His glory. And as I offered, He offered back, giving Himself to me.

In the Eucharist, there is a unity, a sanity, a wholeness. We are meant to live, created to live, in this moment of love. We come home to God in every Eucharist.

Getting back to the sermons of our dear archbishop, I must confess that I am tempted to the sin of pride. It is easy to think yourself quite wonderful when you edit a book of such historic and inspiring words. It is easy to give yourself the credit. And yet I know that nothing can be done without grace, without God’s action upon me and through me. I know that I must be very very very small for God to use me, and for me to hear His voice. Like C.S. Lewis’s image in his novel about the division between Heaven and Hell, The Great Divorce, we must be tiny to fit through the door to Heaven, to be pulled through the eye of the needle, to keep to the narrow path. As I recall, the entrance to Heaven in Lewis’ wonderful story was up through the soil of the earth, through a blade of grass, into a more-real realm of mountains and rivers and valleys, Paradise. You had to be tiny to enter Heaven.

Sensing that celestial world so near as I edit these sermons has made my own world of the senses luminous, transfigured. I have been adding footnotes to Scripture references and Book of Common Prayer references, and the movement from sermon quote to King James Version chapter and verse, from liturgical actions and phrases to the Book of Common Prayer orders and offices, has woven threads of gold into my life and the work of my fingers as I tap the keys.

This morning, as I knelt at the altar rail, I looked about. The chancel appeared the same but different as though the air shimmered. The marble altar shone in shafts of sunlight, the tabernacle reigning in the center between candles and flowers, the large medieval crucifix high above. The clergy moved along the altar rail, pausing before each one of us, giving us the Host, saying, “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.” Soon came the chalice holding the wine, and I heard the words, “The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.”

I gazed at the red carpet that led up the central aisle, from the entry to the steps to the chancel where the path widened to nearly fill the chancel. The carpet had been laid on dark gray tiles, stormy in color. This morning they appeared like a great void, a cosmic falling away on either side of the red carpet. The path was narrow from the entry doors to the altar. Stepping off the red carpet would mean flying into the abyss. But we, the faithful, rode the ark of the Church in these seas of eternity, safe and warm, welcomed home by God.

And all we need do is show up on Sundays, say our prayers, confess our faults – those falling-away moments – and offer ourselves to this God of immense love. Seems easy, to reap such glory. For if we do attend Mass faithfully, in all our humility and littleness, if we do offer ourselves to Christ to use according to His will, God will return the gift a thousand fold when we receive Him in the bread and wine. For if we are little, we can fit on the narrow path, enter through the low door (on our knees), and yet miraculously grow in grace to be all that we are meant to be. We run the race, as St. Paul said in today’s Epistle, to receive an incorruptible crown. We labor in the vineyard to receive our reward, the last first, the first last, as Christ said in St. Matthew’s gospel parable. For today is Septuagesima Sunday, the beginning of “Little Lent,” and we consider what fasts to observe in Lent, three weeks away, be they fasts of food or wasted time. We must tone our souls to prepare for the race to Easter’s Resurrection.

If we do these things, in remembrance of Him, we will know glory on earth as well as in Heaven. And nothing will ever be the same.

A Dream of Hope and Change

flagIt is a time of rituals and rites of passage for our culture. In this third week of Epiphanytide, when Christians celebrate the manifestation of Christ to all the world, we cast our eye back to the peaceful pastor Martin Luther King who had a dream.

Pastor King’s dream was a Christian dream, in that it was formed from the ideal of the dignity of every living person, regardless of race or class. That each and every one of us was to be treated with respect is a relatively new idea in the history of mankind, an idea taught by a loving God, the God of Abraham.

He was a Jewish God, to be sure, who burned his laws of love onto tablets on a mountain, to teach peace among men. He guided his chosen people through history, through an older testament and into a newer testament, to the birth of his Son in a stable outside Bethlehem. For this was the crucial lesson in personal dignity, in love, teaching that true love demanded humility and was defined by sacrifice, the sacrifice of the Cross.

Other cultures do not share the Judeo-Christian belief in the dignity of man. Indeed, even the West has not always practiced its preaching, but still it preached, and continues to do so, from pulpits with words and soup kitchens with deeds, proclaiming a God of love who commands that we love as He loves, sacrificially. And it is far better to fall short of the ideal than to have no ideal at all.

And so today we honor our past. We honor Dr. King and his peaceful dream of dignity for all. We honor the freedom of speech that gave him the right to speak publicly on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in 1963, calling for an end to racism and the passage of civil rights legislation in Congress.

And in the light of that Epiphany star two thousand years ago that guided the wise men to the humble bed of straw, we look ahead to the great rite of passage, the ritual of change in America, the inauguration of a new president, the ordering of a new government that will rule our people.

This ritual, wisely, still includes an oath sworn on a Bible. Across the land prayers will be said and hymns sung. And be of good cheer, for our new president is a good man. He embodies our ideals of equality, of dignity for all, of liberty protected by law. These ideals have been increasingly eroded in our culture, increasingly attacked under a guise of caring and concern. In this last year, we wanted the wisdom of the wise men to see through such disguises, to see the wolves in sheep’s clothing, to see that desire for power over our daily deeds, words, and goods, posed as caring and concern. Sorting fake news from real news, soundbites from snakebites, we came to see that elites breed elites and protect their own. They do this through power over you and me.

So Americans did see through the shadowy media reports with the light of reason and faith, and a little help from Twitter. We will try now to protect the unprotected a little longer. We can now protect the unborn and the aged, the handicapped and the unschooled, the poor in spirit, in goods, in talent. Our new president sees these things. He sees through the trappings of wealth and power. He understands ideals and recognizes those who yearn for truth and goodness, who watch and listen to the heavens and the angels.

There are those who fear the new government, this new hope and change. They abhor the man elected for he spoke bluntly. They believe the media’s distortions. They see themselves as part of the club, the elite, the well mannered, the bright and the beautiful. But they need not fear this hope and this change. Be of good cheer.

There was a time four years ago when these fearful ones celebrated their victory. There was a time eight years ago when others questioned the nature of a hope that had no object and a change that was undefined. Explanations were vague and propaganda surfed a wave of… hope… in something, somewhere, sometime… a wave of change… from the past to the future to be sure, but change to what? The mantra “Yes, we can!” didn’t explain what it was, exactly, that we could do. There were no answers, only trite pieties, only manipulations of hearts and minds, recalling traveling salesmen and TV evangelists. We were invited, I suppose, in those elections, to fill in the blanks with whatever we hoped for, much as a child did for Santa Claus.

The new president doesn’t speak in vague generalities, pulling on heartstrings, but speaks as one who knows how to move forward, representing all Americans, not just the powerful elites. He will stumble, for he is human, but I honor his courage, his convictions, and his selfless work ethic. He will do his best and we must hope for his best. He will sacrifice for us. He will defend us.

And so in this third week of the new year, we gather together on Friday and watch America form a new government of the people, by the people, for the people. Once again we have swept our house. We have  thrown open the windows and looked up to the stars in the bright night sky. Our right to worship, to feed the poor, to teach our children, has been protected a bit longer. We can sing about the child in the manger who will grow in wisdom and stature. We can tell how he rode through the gates of Jerusalem to his death on a cross on a hill they call the place of the skull. We can celebrate his resurrection, ascension, and his gift of his Holy Spirit. We can tell the greatest story ever told, how God loves us, each and every one.

For a time, we are encouraged with this new presidency. For a time, the winds of hope and change will blow through our open windows. “Yes, we can!” we will tell the unborn and the aged. Yes, we can protect you. Yes, we can believe in God and obey his laws with a free conscience. Yes, we can have real hope in these real changes.

Yes, we can realize our dream of hope and change. We can follow that star.

Tumbling Time

journey-to-bethlehemA year has passed. We have marked our time on earth once again with the changing calendar page, the midnight fireworks, the rituals of memory and memory’s children, the now and near, today.

Time has passed, and our world fumbles and tumbles into another sphere, caught in another orbit. It has changed since this time last year. I have changed. You have changed. We have lived another year and we have one less year to live. Change. There is no stopping it. Time tumbles, stumbles, on.

My second great granddaughter came into our world in May, and as I cradled her in my arms at Christmas, I gave thanks for this change that is housed by love. New life is the kind of change we understand, we celebrate. Children and mothers and fathers form families, and add to the extended family, so that generations are changed, but in ways we know, for it is change housed by love, the love of family.

I have found that the Church is such a house, that it holds truths that do not change. Entering its doors is to enter God’s house, his holy place of worship. The central aisle leading to the chancel steps and the altar points to the sacred, the unchanging, the eternal. Stepping into this home of God is to step into a crèche, a manger, and fall down to worship. We bring the Christ Child, His presence in the tabernacle, gifts like the kings will bring soon. We have followed the star in our hearts to this place of holiness. We have heard the choirs of angels sing, pointing the way to Sunday worship, and as we look up from our pews we see them fluttering around the altar with their golden glittering wings.

These things, the truth of God and of His Son and of his Holy Spirit of love, do not change. They form a foundation of love, sacrificial love, that girds the earth and its created order with the Cross. To worship on a Sunday is to feel the firmness of this foundation, to know that truth steadies the quicksands beneath us, turning the swirling soil into rock, so that our faith can be rock-solid.

Today we celebrate the eighth day of Christmas, the eight day since the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, born to us in Bethlehem. Thursday will be the twelfth day of our celebration, marking the end of Christmastide, the Twelve Days of Christmas. Friday we celebrate the glorious Feast of the Epiphany, when the Three Kings, the Wise Men, the Magi, visit the Christ Child, bringing him gifts. These celebrations of what God has done for us, does for us, do not change. We mark them year after year, and while we have changed, will change, and our world around us changes, our hearts and souls are firm, buoyed by the changeless seasons and festivals of the Church Year.

Love does not change. And since God is love, He does not change either. He is true and He is steady and He loves us. When we are lost He finds us. When we despair He gives us hope. When we doubt He gives us faith. But we must watch and listen for Him. We must seek Him. We must open our hearts so that He can find a room in the inn of our souls.

A star appears and leads us out of the dark forest of doubt and despair, of loneliness, into the light, onto the right path, to Him, with Him, in Him, to faith, hope, and charity. He calls us and we know His voice. We are on a ledge looking down at a great gorge and up at the sheer cliff behind, trembling, and He reaches for us and pulls us back to safety with a father’s strength. How do we know His voice? We hear it in His Church.

All of this and so much more is found in His house, His Church. Even with all of the human frailty and unlove, His house is a haven from the world of change. His house is a refuge from the questions and fears and uncertainties we face daily. He invites us into His house to dine with Him, to share His Eucharistic supper, to get to know His family (and His voice), the Body of Christ, our sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers, and our children. For we are not alone. God has provided shelter, family, friends, and love.

And so today, this New Year’s Day 2017, we were thankful our bishop visited us and confirmed of one of our children. In this sacrament of Confirmation, the child confirms the vows made at her Baptism, vows to follow Jesus as her Lord. She has now become an adult member in Christ’s body, and she has received the Holy Spirit through the hands of the bishop, who is in the long line of succession of bishops going back to the first apostles. In this way time has entered eternity and eternity has entered time.

Tomorrow, January 2, we will face the tumult of our times, the selfishness of our own hearts and those we love. We shall hear of wars and tragedies and hurricanes and earthquakes. And yet, the Church will hold us fast until our next visit. This Body of Christ, all around us, seen and unseen, past and present and future, will light our way in the darkness on our pilgrimage to God with God.

I choose to follow that path of love, day by day, to Epiphany, to the next lamppost, the next liturgy. For between Eucharists, we travel safely, to safety, allowing the Christ of Christmas to enter our own time, our own bodies, allowing eternity to enlighten our minutes, hours, days, and years.

Cradled by Grace

pageant001Our Living Crèche Christmas Pageant cradled our parish this morning in God’s grace.

Grace was everywhere – outside in the brilliant sunshine lighting up the icy world, inside in the laughter that sang and wove among us as we donned our costumes. Phones snapped photos of angels in white cottas wrapped in golden garlands, of shepherds in subdued earth tones, of Mary in her blue gown.

Once costumed, we assembled in the narthex of the church and waited for our cue to step up the aisle, seven pews apart, genuflect before the chancel steps, and take our places in the scene. We were adults, young and old, and children, two to fourteen. We were of many races and backgrounds. But the love of Christ wove through us on this cold and bright wintry morning.

This tableau is not a silent one, for we spoke our lines from Luke 2 about the greatest drama on earth, the birth of our Lord Jesus. We sang carols full of hope and faith, sending our song over the rapt congregation. It was as though we included them in the Living Crèche with our soaring song. The notes danced in the air, sweet tunes, simple tunes that lingered. We invited those in the pews to watch and pray, to worship with us within the tableau. We invited them into our story.

For it is a story for all of us, about all of us, with no one left out, no one separated from the love of God. In our divisive world, in this world that fractures faith and bullies belief, in this world that isolates and pushes the pulse of church life to the edges of society, we will not be silent. We will sing our songs and proclaim our good news, our message of salvation. As we stood in the chancel, our songbooks in our palms, we sent our music winging, not only to the people in the pews, but out the front doors and into the streets of our communities.

It has been said that man is incurably religious because of his mortality. At some point we all must face our death, our dying flesh, our limited time on earth. What comes next? Is this all there is? Our culture wishes to silence our reply. Heaven comes next, we answer. Let’s get ready. Let’s prepare here on earth for the great banquet in Heaven. Let’s set out on the right road on our pilgrimage to God with God. For only by journeying with him will we arrive at our true destination, find our true destiny, God himself.

I have taken part in Christmas Crèches and Pageants for over forty years and I am always stunned by the miracles birthed as we tell the story. We are so small and weak and human, so full of self. And yet as we tell this story of the child born to Mary in Bethlehem, of the shepherds and the angels and the heavenly host on a cold clear starry night over two thousand years ago, we are fed by love, made one body in the love of God. We soon see that the glories of the Incarnation are here, present among us, present on the altar, present in our hearts. The holy child of Bethlehem lives today.

It happened this morning once again. It was clear and cold, a midday clear if not a midnight clear, and grace wove among us, lacing us together with God’s love. Such a Christmas present is nearly too joyous to bear. And so we share it with you, let it overflow into the communities in which we live. For grace grows in love, weaving us together into a beautiful tapestry, a solemn sonnet, so that many races, many ages, many walks of life are woven together. No one is left out in this creche.

For all is grace.

A Story of Glory

christmas-lightWe assembled in the first pews after Mass, the cast reflecting our parish in the vast span of ages, 2 to 81. We gathered on this Rose Sunday in Advent to rehearse our Living Crèche Christmas Pageant, to be performed next Sunday, December 18.

As we sang the carols and read the verses from Luke 2, we became part of the story, telling it again, bringing it to life with our words and song. Dramas like this were done since the earliest days in the Church to teach the glorious events of that first Christmas. And so we continue to tell and to teach, to act out, to paint a canvas of love on the chancel steps.

The organ, high above in the loft at the other end of the sea of pews and walls of stained glass, sent its rich tones soaring toward us, and we caught them and sent them back. It was as though we were wrapped in music and words, in this tableau called a Living Crèche. We were a wrapped gift decorated with the ribbon of music, ribbons curling with joy, ribbons tying us close to one another, closer to love.

Advent is a time of preparation for the Feast of the Incarnation, the eternal entering time, the Word becoming flesh, the light entering the darkness. Christmas expands our universe and pulls us into Heaven. The reality of God’s love is too large for us to grasp, and so we shrink it into pieces of art, pieces of truth shared in a way that we can fathom, that we can touch. We domesticate this awesome God, this magnificent transcendent God who searches for us and within us, who desires us with him forever, who loves us so.

And so the Church, from the earliest days, has used art to touch us with the love of God. With image, drama, poetry, music, dance, God reaches out to us. For God is the burning bush and we cannot bear his brilliance. Moses approaches with care. So do we. We are frail human beings, made of dust who will return to dust. So, in our tentative frailty, we listen to stories. We look at paintings and icons. We sing hymns and carols. We allow a booming organ to enter our hearts on the chancel steps. We domesticate the brilliance, the magnificence, with art, glorious art.

T.S. Eliot said that mankind cannot bear very much reality. Truth and beauty find their way to us even so, if we watch and listen, if we are awake. The love of God shatters the universe into billions of stars, and becomes a tiny baby born in a stable. For, as St. John says, God is love, and it is this reality that is the good news of Christmas. It is this truth that mankind yearns for, hopes that it really is true. It is this love, the source of all creation, that we fear is simply too good to be true. And yet it is.

Love shatters us for it sees us as we are, broken and selfish, but remakes us into who we should be. Love takes our shattered fragments and puts them back together, healing us, making us whole.

The Living Crèche tells the story of God’s love for us. One by one, each character steps up the aisle. One by one, they are added to the picture painted, each adding to the whole. We begin with Adam and Eve, then enters Isaiah, Mary, Gabriel, Joseph, shepherds, and the heavenly host of angels. With each one, the song grows, the story is born in a stable in Bethlehem. Each one journeys up the long aisle from the narthex to the chancel, a pilgrimage to God with God, just like our lives in time, from birth to death to Heaven.

We take our places in the chancel, and behind us the tabernacle holds the Real Presence of Christ. Tall tapers flame on the altar, framing God among us, Emmanuel, God with us. The flaming candles remind us of light in the darkness. They remind us of the warmth of God’s love. They remind us of life itself.

The story of Christmas is so fantastic it could never have been invented. It is a story that has a reliable historical pedigree, told and retold through the ages, by reliable witnesses. The Gospels, as Classics scholar C.S. Lewis points out, read as history, not fable or myth. They read as an account of events, marvelous, incredible events, good news for mankind:

“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.” (KJV John 10-14)

In Advent we tell the glorious story as we wait for Christmas, the Word made flesh, the Incarnation.

Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell

 

palm-sunday3

Entry into Jerusalem, Giotto

Today is the First Sunday in Advent, the first day of the Christian Year, our New Year’s Day.

I often wondered why the Gospel appointed for the First Sunday in Advent (Matthew 21:1+) recounts Christ entering Jerusalem. This is the Palm Sunday story, not the Bethlehem story, I often thought. Christ enters through the gates, the people welcoming him with palms and hosannas. Why does this Gospel usher in Advent, the prelude to Christmas, when it seems the prelude to Easter?

I gazed this morning upon the Advent wreath and the four candles in the greenery, tapers representing death, judgement, heaven, and hell, the “four last things” we experience. The Church reminds us of these great events in Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas, the season in which we look forward to the Son of God born among us, incarnate love, in our flesh. Today we are reminded of our death, next Sunday our judgement, and the last two Sundays, heaven and hell. Death will usher in judgement, and the judgement will bring heaven or hell. It will be, and is, and ever shall be, our choice, our free choice, for love is defined by free will, freedom to choose.

And so as I consider the itinerant preacher, Jesus of Nazareth, riding on a donkey toward the gates of Jerusalem, I know he is riding toward the gates of my heart. He enters Jerusalem and judges, overthrowing the tables of the money-changers in the temple. He enters my heart and judges, overthrowing the tables of my sins. For we too are temples, incarnate houses of the divine, or would like to be. Christ cries, “My house shall be called the house of prayer; yet ye have made it a den of thieves.” Just so, my heart must be purged of the thieves of time and love, the thieves whispering lies and encouraging greed, distracting me from my true end, God.

Christ enters Jerusalem. Christ enters our hearts. And Jesus Christ enters our world, born in a manger. Advent means coming, the coming of Christ, his entering through the gates of time into our world. The immortal breaks through the boundaries of the mortal. To do this he must take on flesh, become one of us. How does this happen? It happens through love, the sacrificial, suffering, immense love of God.

Advent calls us to focus on death and judgement so that we may fully live today and in eternity. Advent cries, “Wake up! Your time is limited, do not waste it.” Love one another. And how do we learn to love? We welcome God into our hearts and lives, for God is Love.

Many preachers rant against the festivities and trappings of Christmas as being too materialistic. But we are material creatures, and we celebrate with matter, with material goods that reflect the joy of the season. The Advent wreath of greens tells of the tree of life that brings light. The wreath is the crown of thorns become a crown of light, eternity seen in the circle and life living in the branches. We decorate a fir tree, bringing it in from the cold outside and into the warm inside, placing it in the center of our homes and hearts, stringing glittery bits through the dark foliage, hanging bright shiny ornaments that dangle and dance, that hold our memories, setting a star on top, leading us to the manger in Bethlehem. We gather around the tree, warmed by its light, and we are touched by eternity, transcendence. It is the tree of life that will become our salvation on Good Friday.

And what about the gates of our hearts? We are more than money-changers. We are called to love, to give, in this holy season. We consider others and their needs when we choose our gifts, and we wrap each one to sing our love, with ribbons and bows and glossy paper. We share meals with friends and family, and bake cookies with children and grandchildren. We set out a crèche, a stable, and place Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds and the wise men around the manger that cradles the Holy Child. We sing Silent Night and The First Noel and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. We tell the story again and again, as we draw closer to Christmas Day. We tell the story of God with us, Emmanuel.

In America we celebrate our freedom to worship whomever and whatever we choose. Christians can choose to worship the triune God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They can choose to gather together in church, to love God in prayer and song, to call him to come among us. We are blessed to have this choice in a violent world growing more and more hostile to freedom of worship. We must not waste the time or take it for granted. We must embrace what we are given, with joy and gratitude.

This morning in church we lit one candle, one lone flame to welcome Christ into our hearts this magnificent season. This flame will light the second candle next Sunday, and the third the following Sunday, and the fourth the last Sunday before Christmas Day. In this time of Advent, of the waiting for the coming of the Holy Child to be born, we are given the rich rituals of the season to lighten our darkness, so that we can see where we are going.

On this first Sunday in Advent we sang, “O come, O come, Emmanuel…”, calling the Messiah into our world, opening our gates to the Son of God. The hymn is a haunting cry in the wilderness for help, a confession of need, an admission of guilt, and a wail for mercy. Our country and our world cry for him to come, to become incarnate among us, within us.

I looked to the altar and the tabernacle holding the Real Presence of Christ. I thought of his Last Supper and his commandment to love one another and to re-member him in the Eucharist until he returns in judgement. And this we did, consecrating bread and wine into Body and Blood as he commanded. As we knelt and received our communions, we entered Love and Love entered us.

Death, judgement, heaven, hell. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Enter our gates. Teach us to love one another.

A More Perfect Union

This mflagorning as I watched the acolytes and clergy process into our collegiate chapel, St. Joseph of Arimathea, I was thankful. Cal is, after all, the home of the Free Speech Movement. There seemed a chance now for our precious freedom of speech and religion to be protected. I had hope that peace and freedom would return to our land. Our country, held hostage by political correctness, crime, and anarchy, was slipping down a dangerous slope into dark muddy waters. Without shared law and order, tyranny rules. Hopefully, the recent election will cause a change of course, just in time.

This year election day and Veterans Day were close to one another. Americans observed both, the electing of those who govern America, and the honoring of those who protect her. It seems appropriate, for both the voters and the veterans fight for the same thing, freedom and the rule of law. And now, after our national elections, we seek a more perfect union, uniting our many wonderful and colorful peoples.

In order to form a more perfect union, we agree on common laws that keep us safe from one another, that keep the peace. We elect those who will best do this.

For we are human beings, full of self, full of pride, and we butt against others full of pride who disagree with us. Nations pass laws that protect the peace, laws inspired by our better selves, our better angels. It is as though our better angels within us govern those darker angels within, the demons, who seek to do us harm.

In order to form a more perfect union, a more peaceful United States, we give voice to the voiceless through free press and rigorous debate. But speech, being human speech, is also targeted by those lesser angels within us, those demons. And so the war within each of us continues and will continue until the end of time.

This election was a challenge for both winners and losers, for the winners didn’t expect to win and the losers didn’t expect to lose. Our “free” press, largely owned by the Left, muddied the waters of our electoral process again and again, painting false pictures, telling outright lies, sneering and ridiculing, throwing innuendos and salacious dirt into the public square. False testimony, name calling, and gutter arguments appealed to the lesser angels, those who enjoy Twitter tittering and thinly disguised pornography. Confusion reigned, distorting the issues and hiding the facts.

Spreading confusion is a favored tool of those dark angels. Confusion leads to chaos, evident in the violent demonstrations, the attacks on police, and the disruption of peaceful rallies. Chaos leads to anarchy.

But Mr. Trump won in part because of this violence. Americans desire peace and freedom, law and order. They want everyone to be equal under the law, the rich and the poor. Many women voted for Mr. Trump, which was not surprising to me. Women want safe streets and schools for their children. They want protection from assault. They want crimes prosecuted and criminals removed from their communities. They don’t want to live in fear, hiding behind locked doors. Women are mothers and grandmothers and aunts and sisters. They care immensely about family, the next generation and the one after that. They fear for their daughters and granddaughters.

There were other reasons that Mr. Trump won, for he provided real hope and change, not mere words, especially in states hurting from free trade policies and the religion of environmentalism. Workers wanted work and voted for the return of factories and jobs. They could see that Obamacare, when it inevitably became a single payer system, would end their union health care, a substantial loss.

I am proud of America, that her citizens could see through the hype and slander and lies of the media and the elite politicos on both sides. They saw through the fog, the evasion of the issues. Americans refused to fear a Trump presidency, as they were commanded to fear. And they were labeled and punished for their views. They were forced to be silent, to hide. They were accused of racism and judged deplorable. If Trump supporters felt fear, it was fear of their neighbors, fear of alienating their family, fear of even speaking, and even today they fear the childish, dangerous rioters on their city streets. They hide behind locked doors, still fearing to offend.

So the more folks riot and smash windows and spray paint and destroy property and refuse to be responsible citizens in our great land, the more I realize that President-elect Trump is a much needed correction to American narcissism. Their violence validates America’s presidential choice; clearly a correction to the culture of America is needed. Mr. Trump will not be rash or hurtful. He is, I believe, smart and honest and brave. He will rely on good advisers. He will negotiate his path forward, not rule by executive fiat as President Obama enjoys doing. He has a big heart for the American people, all races and genders, and this soon-to-be great nation. He will unify us, assuming the media changes course as well and supports our country rather than tearing it apart, and assuming we all listen to our better angels.

Those veterans we honored on Friday fought for this historic moment. And as we pray for a peaceful transition of power, the free world will soon realize they are better off with a President Trump who will strengthen America and thus protect the West. He was and is their best hope as well as ours. A strong America is an America that can defend peace and freedom, law and order, abroad as well as at home, even on university campuses in California.

Those veterans fought for my right to worship in our beautiful barrel-vaulted chapel alight with song and thundering organ and flaming candles and hovering angels. They fought for my right to write these words. I gave thanks for them this morning. I gave thanks for America.

For All the Saints

all-saints

Saints are those who are so full of the love of God that they radiate His glory. They love as He loves, and thus care for the poor, heal the sick, feed the hungry. Sometimes their vocation is to pray, cloistered from the world, or sharing their abbeys and chapels with any who desire a quite moment with God. They are men and women of sacrifice, for their Lord is a God of sacrificial love. They give half their cloak to a naked beggar, as St. Martin did. They heal lepers and tame wolves, as St. Francis did. They preach the love of God in Auschwitz and offer their lives in place of others. They care for the dying and give shelter to the homeless. Having a vision of God, they write and preach, bursting with a love that cannot be hidden, helping the blind to see.

As our culture becomes increasingly secularized, the idea of self-sacrifice has become unpopular. Even Christians run away from Christ’s commandments, bending their knee to the politically correct dogma of the day. Christianity is not for sissies. And yet, it is definitely for lovers.

My bishop often said that you won’t like Heaven if you don’t like being in love.

And this morning, as we sang the thundering hymn, “For all the saints…”, as the priests and acolytes royally processed up the red-carpeted aisle of our local parish, I was glad to have the blessing of worshiping God in this beautiful sacred space. It was indeed like being in love. In love with glory, in love with God.

The Epistle, our first Scripture reading, was St. John’s vision of Heaven, in particular the saints and martyrs who stand before the Lamb, the Son of God, Jesus Christ:

“After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb… These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall  wipe away all tears from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:2+, BCP, All Saints Day)

In their sacrificial love of God and neighbor, the saints are given a special place in Heaven, close to the throne of God, fed by by the Lamb, Christ himself. They are our heroes, those who thirst after righteousness, who tell the truth, true to God.

The Gospel for today complements this vision of John, for Christ lists the blessings (Beatitudes) given to the poor in spirit (the sad, depressed, despairing), those who mourn, the meek, the lovers of righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” This last phrase speaks to us today, for Christians are being persecuted throughout the world, as well as here. Our Lord concludes the passage:

“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” (Matthew 5:1+, BCP, All Saints Day)

We are in the last hours of a national election. The vote could go either way. The electorate seems to be split between one candidate who breaks the law boldly, with impunity, immunity, and perjury. The alternate candidate upholds the law and tells the truth. But truth is difficult to bear. T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” And so we have a media of lies as well, denying the reality of international threats, of domestic disorder, and of late-term abortion. It is a media that covers up major flaws in one candidate and exaggerates minor flaws in the other. It’s all upside down and topsy-turvy. Confusion reigns. As a supporter of the second candidate, I have felt reviled, persecuted, and slandered for my beliefs, by media, friends, and family who look down from their lofty and superior perch.

This election is a turning point for America. It is a referendum on her very identity. History tells us that a democratic nation without the foundation of equality under the law will crumble. A nation crumbling will be prey to foreign powers, ideologies, tyrannies. The great experiment in democracy may be seeing its last days.

But today I gloried in an hour of Sunday worship, an hour in which I faced the reality of God, of Heaven, of the Saints. It was an hour of prayer and praise, a victorious hour that reminded me of who I am, why I was created, and my eternal destiny, Heaven. It was an hour bursting with God’s love, incarnate on the altar in bread and wine, a love fulfilling all righteousness.

Please pray for our country, pray for this election, pray that in all things, large and small, nations and people, God’s will be done. May we all be sanctified in time, so that we may in eternity gather by the river that runs by the throne of God.