Pages of Grace


COVER 5.1It’s been nearly a two-year project, and I’m happy to announce the release of All Is Grace, a Collection of Pastoral Sermons, by the Most Reverend Robert Sherwood Morse (1923-2015), published by the American Church Union. I was honored to edit this remarkable collection and enjoy a remarkable journey.

The gathering of these sermons, written on yellow pads and bits of hotel stationery, also gathered my own life together, pulling in the scattered, shattered bits of grief over his passing. Reaching into the sixties, the words reflected the reach of my own life, having come of age in that tumultuous time. As I typed the words, turning them into digital format, I lived a parallel story that at times intersected with Bishop Morse’s own life.

Those who knew him often recall how they met him, for he changed lives. We all have our stories. The Assistant Priest at our Berkeley chapel regaled to me on Thursday how he and his fiancee were looking for an Anglican clergyman to perform a Nuptial Mass. He was finally directed to St. Peter’s Oakland where,  he was told, they were “more Catholic than the Catholics.” My friend found Father Morse outside, cleaning up the grounds, picking up bits of trash. That was 1969. His friendship with Father Morse continued for forty-eight years. He chuckled, his eyes shining, young again. “We have been so blessed to have known him.” I nodded thoughtfully. Indeed.

My story has been told in these pages before, but humor me, dear reader. Allow me to reminisce a bit too, on the occasion of this publication.

I was a single parent returning home with my four-year-old son. I was looking for an Anglo-Catholic parish, like my friend, for I had fallen in love with the Eucharist, the “smells and bells,” the dance of song, prayer, and liturgy. I was, as C.S. Lewis said, “surprised by joy,” again and again, every Sunday morning. I had tasted Heaven, and nothing could compare. So I looked for Heaven, in February 1977, in the yellow pages of the phone book (remember those heavy doorstoppers?)  I found St. Peter’s Oakland, a twenty-minute drive from our apartment in Walnut Creek. I guessed the parish was Anglo-Catholic since they listed times for “Confessions.” I knew, after the service, I had found my home. Father Morse greeted me on the steps of the church as I was leaving and handed me a pledge card. “Fill it out and come downstairs,” he said simply, after we had chatted a bit.

He was larger than life – 6’3″ – and seemed to float in his white robes. He had a huge smile and a booming voice. He owned a confidence, a sense of knowing, that I trusted. I did as he asked. I was unemployed, but I filled out the card, pledging 25 cents a week. I stepped downstairs to the undercroft. It turned out to be a momentous coffee hour, a historic meeting in which the congregation voted unanimously to leave the mainstream Episcopal Church.

Looking back forty years, I wonder at the miracles that unfolded before me. I learned to be faithful, to worship every Sunday. I worked in the Sunday School, then helped with other projects over the years. He was my priest and my friend and a good listener. He blessed my marriage to a wonderful man who became father to my son and the “wind beneath my wings.” Over those forty years, I listened and I learned. I prayed the prayers and sang the songs. I stepped along the narrow path, to Heaven, both in time and in Eternity.

Bishop Morse is in Eternity now, by the river that runs by the throne of God. He is also on the cover of this book of sermons, and as I opened the first box of books that arrived on my doorstep, I smiled. There he was, his image beneath the large red letters, ALL IS GRACE.

My friend, the Berkeley priest, said he recalled how Father Morse repeated simple phrases, words we could carry with us beyond the Sunday sermon or the weekday office visit. “All is grace!” was one of those phrases. Often we needed more encouragement, and he would help heal our wounds with, “God writes straight with crooked lines,” “God sits in the corner and waits,” “To love is to suffer,” and “The Passion of Christ is the union of love and suffering.” There were many other words that helped us understand who we were and are as human beings, gifted with freedom, created by a God of infinite love.

And it’s so very true. All is grace, for all ends well for Christians who believe in Christ, our God of love. Our dear Lord looks after his sheep. He calls us by name and we know his voice. We are pilgrims on a path through the dark wood of the world, listening for his call in the quiet of the forest. We know we will emerge into the bright light of Heaven, into a chorus of angels and Heavenly host. We know that our suffering is redeemed by God’s grace.

All is grace, for all ends well for Christians who obey God’s law of life and love. His love demands obedience to the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. But his infinite mercy offers forgiveness, a chance to repent, to change, to start anew, again and again. These themes live in the pages of Bishop Morse’s sermons, for this Easter 2017 the book has been born, breathing on its own, resurrecting my bishop’s voice.

“I hear his voice,” my friend and others are saying about the book. Yes, and I have been living within the voice for two years. No, forty years. Ever since my son and I visited St. Peter’s and the tall welcoming priest in the white robes greeted us on the steps.

All is grace. Indeed. All is grace.

To order copies, visit http://www.AmericanChurchUnion.com or email sjatc@sbcglobal.net.

             

Easter Flowers of Life

IMG_2603 (2)We drove to church in a gray drizzle that watered the earth this Easter of 2017. I looked forward to the flowering of the white cross by the children of the parish. For in this flowering we acted out a wonderful story, and I had a part in the story simply by being faithful.

I read recently that Christianity invites us to become a part of a glorious story. If we accept the invitation, we shall be changed. In the twinkling of an eye, we shall embark on a new path, in a new direction. We shall not look back to those days when we were not a part of the glory story.

Being a part of something larger and greater than ourselves satisfies a basic human need. We naturally reach for the heavens, reach for meaning, desire to believe we are more than mere matter, but spirit as well, that we house a divine spark within us. Those who do not believe in Christ, in his salvation invitation, seek religiously to be a part of social or political stories. It is an innate yearning for belonging to something greater.

In the Bay Area, mobs gather and destroy property. They attack others, in the name of hating hate speech, defining hate speech as opinions with which they disagree. They are reminiscent of zealots in sixteen-century Europe who destroyed images of Christ and attacked clergy. Today Christians throughout the world are persecuted. Churches are bombed and believers slaughtered. The local vandals who riot, breaking laws and denying freedom, believe they act righteously. They are purifying their gathering places – parks and campuses –  to make them “safe” spaces where they won’t feel “microaggressions,” i.e. different opinions. They are channeling their yearning for meaning into a cult of sensitivity and self.

Created by God, we yearn for him. We want to believe in him. We want to be part of his story. But today it is unfashionable to believe the historical evidence of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, so folks who want cultural approval find other ways to express their religious impulse.

And so at Easter, I am thankful that I am part of God’s story. For the Christian story is the very heart of our humanity. It is the foundation for all good law and every just liberty. It is the source of the deepest love and the most extraordinary mercy.

It was still drizzling as we arrived at church. Children gathered in the Sunday School and adults took seats in the pews. The thick white cross with the holes drilled through to house the flowers waited at the head of the red-carpeted aisle.

The children and teachers entered as the organ thundered and the congregation sang. We stepped happily up the red carpet to the white cross, carrying our flowers. As I helped a two-year old shove a green stem into one of the lower holes, I sensed we were anointing those holes made two thousand years ago on Golgotha, filling Christ’s wounds with this green life, with these rainbow colors, with our own healing salve of love. For long ago, outside Jerusalem, we nailed Our Lord to that cross. We buried him in the tomb. Now, we filled the holes, making his body whole again. And so, as Christ’s body, we became whole too. And as part of the story, we rise with him to new life.

The tiny hands pushed the stems deep, and soon the greens and reds and yellows and blues burst from the white wood of the cross. We stood back and gazed at our masterpiece. It was a transformation from death to life, a kind of transcendence, a resurrection, a master-piece, a piece of our master. We processed back to the Sunday School, satisfied, having played leading roles in the story of Easter, in our own life-stories.

We celebrate new life on Easter, the gift of eternal life. We celebrate the greenery of God’s incarnation, his passion, his life, death, and resurrection. On Easter, death passes over us, and we are reborn. We flower in this time of pass-over.

Our children will not forget how they flowered the cross today, for in our parish we do this every Easter, again and again. We repeat the important parts of the story, so that we become a part of them. We repeat Easter with every Eucharist, and we repeat the cross-flowering with every Easter. We act out the drama again and again, because it is true, because it is life-giving and life-saving.

After the organ played its last note and the priest prayed his last prayer, the flowered cross was taken to the front steps of the church. The rain rested for a bit, and in the watered air the light glimmered and glistened. We took photos alongside the colorful cross as though Our Lord stood among the children. “Let the children come,” he told his disciples.

And so we do. We welcome the children into this glorious story of life, love, and God. We welcome them to flower their cross and ours.

The Passion of Passiontide

PassiontideAn old friend entered eternity this last week.

He was a part of the Body of Christ on earth, our particular part of the Body, part of the glorious stream of life that poured from Bethlehem two thousand years ago, part of an even earlier river rolling through history, dating to Abraham.

We saw our friend and his wife regularly over the last forty years, at church events we worked on together with others. All the while the Holy Spirit wove among us, gathering us up. Now in looking back, I can see that God was teaching us how to love. And he continues to teach us, continues to gather us together.

I thought of these things as I gazed upon the purple-draped candlesticks on the altar in church this morning. The crucifix above was hidden too, the massive purple cloth falling in soft folds toward the purple-draped altar and tented tabernacle. Shrouded in purple as well was the sweet Madonna and Child to the left of the pulpit. We had entered Passiontide, stepping toward Palm Sunday and the great events of Holy Week and Easter. Passion is the union of love and suffering, and Passion Sunday helps us focus on the last days of Christ before his crucifixion and resurrection. In these two weeks, we follow him to the gates of Jerusalem.

When I enter the nave on Passion Sunday, all that purple cloth, burying the images, is a sudden shock, and perhaps this sudden loss nudges me to focus on the weeks to come. It is a culmination of Lent, this loss of Our Lord’s image, this shrouding of the chancel. It says, pay attention. These days are important.

I looked over the congregation. Each person is part of our Body of Christ, and the stream of God’s love runs among us all, gathering us all up in the Eucharist. In our communions, we commune with Christ’s Real Presence, and in that communion, we become one with each other. In our common prayer and song, we become a family of God, the Body of Christ.

I prayed for my son, for whom many prayed over the last few weeks (thank you all!), who is recovering from a surfing accident in Costa Rica. He told me that the day after the accident, when he was in the hospital and word was getting out to his church family, his workplace family, his neighborhood family, and his filial family, he was soon flooded with prayer. “It was the love of Christ coming through them to me,” he said. “God’s love through others. It was amazing.”

Yes, the Body of Christ is glorious. Evelyn Underhill, the Anglican mystic, wrote that Christians form a “school of charity,” a “school of love,” that is reflected in their creed. In the Church, the Body of Christ, we are taught to love one another, to suffer for one another, to experience true passion, a union of love and suffering. As we grow in grace, in love for one another, we draw closer to God, so that when it is time for us to leave this earth, we can bear his love, can look upon his face in the brilliant light of glory, as Moses did before the burning bush, and the shepherds did before the heavenly host of angels.

Today, the Church, the Body of Christ, has a greater mission that ever before: to meet loneliness with love. As the family fractures, and communities hide behind locked doors, Sunday worship welcomes those isolated from true community. We say to those broken and betrayed, hurting in silence, enter our doors and take our hands. Sing with us, pray with us. Be a part of our dance of love. Be a part of something greater, something holier, something more glorious than you can imagine.

Our Lord commanded on that first Maundy Thursday, “Take, eat, for this is my body that was given for you. Do this in re-membrance of me… love one another as I have loved you.” And so we do as he said, we re-member him in his Real Presence, veiled under the forms of bread and wine, but present in a very real sense.

The images of Christ are shrouded in purple, but I know they are present beneath the cloth. The Presence of Christ is shrouded in the Host and the Chalice, but I know Christ is present in the bread and wine, as he promised.

One day, I will join my friend in Heaven, by the river that runs by the throne of God. There will be no shrouds, no veiling. Then, because of Christ’s Passion and his Easter resurrection, we will know the glory of the Father, full of grace and truth.

 

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.