Thoughts on Michaelmas

Today is the Festival of St. Michael and All Angels:

“There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” (Revelation 12: 7-10, KJV)             

And so now there is war on earth and within each of us. For each of us is a house divided between spirit and flesh, and a civil war battles within us.

The mystery of man is the mystery and miracle of spirit within flesh. Unlike angels, who are pure spirit, our spirits are entrapped, or perhaps enthroned, in flesh. We are em-bodied, and we think of ourselves as separate in some way from the houses we live in, instinctively sensing that we will travel on when our bodies die.

We are made up of two opposing forces and we yearn for peace. And to add to the battle, the great deceiver enters our hearts and minds, telling tales, tempting and tricking since he was kicked out of heaven.

I have long been fascinated by our dual natures and all of my novels have, to some extent, explored the borderlands of mind and body, heart and soul. We live in an unbelieving age, and yet we long for belief. We long for the union of our disparate parts, a wholeness, an understanding as to who and what we are. We are told by materialists that we are only matter, but we don’t believe them, or at least we don’t act as if we believe them. They are deceiving themselves. We are far more than mere matter, we say; we truly do matter.

Words—in speech or on pages—are one way we have been able to unite mind and body. For the words are seen and interpreted by our flesh, our eyes, our ears, our brains. To write down words, as I do now, I must engage fingers, muscles, eyes as well as heart and mind and soul. I hold a pen or tap a keyboard to give physical reality, flesh, to my thoughts, and not only mere reality, but entire universes mapped with reality.

The miracle of language, that graduate degree in consciousness, with its intricate architecture we call grammar and structure, with its melody of image, metaphor, and symbol, with its rhythm of phrases beating to one’s heart, or breezy as one’s breath, links us, one with another, so that once again, flesh is happily linked by spirit. This happens—remarkably without notice—between speakers side-by-side, face-to-face, through words heard. This happens—again without thought—between readers separated by miles and years, by space and time, through words written. Only through this astounding miracle, this breathtaking mystery of the physical (our bodies) linked to the spiritual (our thoughts ) by means of language, can we know those from the past, can we connect to those who wrote on paper and parchment, who introduced themselves to us through language.

These words I write today, on this mysterious and miraculous Feast of Michaelmas, are not new; the dance has been ongoing, a symphony of sounds that plays in my pages. Archangel Michael, who plays a key role in my current novel, Angel Mountain, reminds me today of these mysterious realities, our human nature, our very creation, life itself.

For we are stunningly beautiful creatures, you and I. We were made and destined for glory and the angels help us to remember this. Other dark deceivers hover in the shadows, twisting and denying, tempting us to belittle, to make little, the glorious. We were made in the image of God, and one day we will go to God, to become fully realized in Heaven.

As a Christian, I have visions of that fullness now, in the Church—in its theology and sacraments, its family of God, its living testimony to historical truth, witnessed and scripted in codices. I am blessed beyond measure by such fullness, such treasure, a wedding feast awaiting my daily presence, if I so choose to accept the invitation.

For I have the freedom to choose the light or not, to choose life and love or not, to choose Heaven and glory or not. I have the freedom to become what I was created to be, and to see the face of God in glory, a creature united in spirit and flesh.

And to see Archangel Michael and all the Heavenly Host.

Happy Birthday, America!


Happy Birthday, America!

AMERICAN FLAGI have been reading Dr. Wilfred McClay’s recent book on the history of America, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (Encounter, 2019).

It is so refreshing to read a balanced history, one that shows the founders and other figures in our past as real people, with flaws, just like all of us, but whose passion sought that necessary balance of liberty and law, truth and freedom. And it is the complexity of the historical characters and the civility of the debates (compared to today) that gives me hope as an American. Thank you, Dr. McClay! Our national history is one of flawed men and women rising to greatness, or at least achieving great things in spite of their failings. This is a hopeful record for all of us.

For if one person can indeed make a difference, then each of us must do just that.

As a Christian, I turn to God to help me with this life challenge. Otherwise, the responsibility would be overwhelming. For I know I am flawed, prone to sin, and without confession and absolution, these sins would rule my heart and mind. Without a blazing desire to live my life within the realm of God’s will, I would withdraw into myself. Today, we call that depression and one is medicated.

This July 2019, I realized that I had not posted on these pages for a year—since July 2018. Why so long? I found that when I prayed (again and again like the nagging Psalmist) for God’s will to be done in my life, many challenges suddenly arose, many commitments demanded my time. The first challenge was my current novel-in-progress, Angel Mountain. Determined to finish that first draft, I finished it and sent it off to a few experts (a theologian and a hermit) for feedback. Both have given me enthusiastic and encouraging endorsements for the novel. Angel Mountain is now with my local editor who will help me polish it—add here, explain there, pay off the set-ups, develop the characters, sharpen the plot. We want you, the reader, to keep turning those pages.

Angel Mountain is about the Holocaust, a hermit, happiness, and Heaven. It speaks freely as to definitions of who we are and who we are meant to be as human beings, considering evolutionary theories and genetics. It speaks about the free speech that Americans take for granted—the speech that runs through the sentences and pages of our books that live on the shelves of our libraries, books available to all. It is speech that must freely tell the American story accurately, with balance, with pride, and with love, a story told to unify and not divide. It is speech that is protected by those waving stars and stripes (that some won’t honor), a flag welcoming those silenced by tyranny. Those many words—in my coming novel, on those library shelves, or in devices and on screens—have been given the freedom to be born into our world, to live in readers’ minds or speakers’ speeches. Americans must never take that freedom for granted.

The Bill of Rights—those early amendments to the Constitution—were fought over by the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The debate was a serious one, for Britain’s monarchy loomed large in the memory of the Founders. The Revolutionary War was not ancient history; the suffering was recent. The Constitution, some claimed, while creating our admirable system of checks on authority and balanced governing, needed to be further checked and balanced by rights listed and claimed for every American.

The first amendment was freedom of speech.

Our preacher this morning spoke of those days, those debates. He pointed out that the language Americans lived in and used to express their thoughts, their fears, hopes, and dreams, was the language of the King James Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The colonists lived within this world of faith, faith in the Judeo-Christian God and his law. Virtue was something admired, considered necessary and to be encouraged in a free people. While a theocracy was abhorred (too much centralized power) it was assumed that all Americans desired to be good citizens, to follow the law. Those who broke the law needed to be judged before a court of their peers, not only to protect society from harm, but to set an example.

Today we have a much less cohesive culture. Generations since World War II have been told that the only good, the only virtue, is pleasing oneself. Our children have been raised within the religion of self-esteem. Goodness is not desired. Many look out for only themselves, not their brothers and sisters. They spew hate, as they seek to silence the “haters,” those who disagree with them, triggering their discomfort.

And those who speak out against this major shift in cultural mores are silenced by the mob. Where is free speech? Civil discourse?

Those early years of our republic were fractious as well and not always civil. But most desired what was best for the newly formed union of colonies, this new nation, not just power for a few elite, or what would benefit oneself alone. If they didn’t desire this then they desired to desire this. Their conscience told them that division would hurt the nation, and union would strengthen it. But how to heal the divide?

I believe as Americans we know, deep within our hearts, that union is better than division, when all voices are heard and respected. We know that love is better than hate, that love creates, and that hate destroys. Truth is better than lies. Order is better than anarchy. We know that liberty must be protected by law, and that laws must be made by the people, through their elected representatives, laws made by citizens who love America and her freedoms, by Americans who see their country as a light beckoning to the world. 

I will continue with Dr. McClay’s excellent text and pray that it finds a home with many students and teachers across the land. It may also be a good gift for Christmas and birthdays.

This morning in church, we prayed from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and listened to lessons from the King James Bible. The stars and stripes stood to the left of the sanctuary, near the pulpit, as though protecting that seat of free speech. As the clergy and acolytes recessed down the aisle, we sang with one voice, the organ booming:

God of our fathers, whose almighty hand/Leads forth in beauty all the starry band/Of shining worlds in splendor through the skies,/Our grateful songs before thy throne arise.

Thy love divine hath led us in the past,/In this free land by thee our lot is cast;/Be thou our ruler guardian, guide, and stay,/Thy word our law, thy paths our chosen way.                

 (Hymn #143, Daniel Crane Roberts, 1876)

Happy Birthday, America! You still speak to our hearts and minds. Let your citizens cherish one another, respect one another, listen to one another. Let us tell the truth as we see it, with love, without fear of reprisal. Let us be thankful for this great land of liberty and do all we can (within God’s will) to preserve our nation’s freedoms, every day, every week, and every year.

Angel Mountain and the Edges of Heaven

Mount_Diablo_from_Quarry_Hill_in_Shell_Ridge_Open_Space26,000 words and counting.

My novel-in-progress, Angel Mountain (a.k.a Mount Diablo), involving a hermit, a Holocaust survivor, a librarian, and a geneticist, is growing daily. I’m feeding it with prayer, trust, image, and song. But mostly trust.

Each day the boundaries of the manuscript are moved farther out, stretched like an elastic with hopes they remain until further stretching.

The process of growing my novel, adding faithfully to its meadows and mountains, has been one of not knowing what comes next. There are general parameters of course, but the ending is not yet clear, and so the growth could go in many directions. I have several crises in mind, and must decide which one or all of them. In a way I am daily facing an abyss, the edge of a cliff, looking for a bridge across to another land, another chapter or scene.

The novel itself is about borders, boundaries, edges, Heaven and Earth. There are planetary edges too, horizons, curves that outline the earth or perhaps underline the heavens. Where do they merge? When, in the spectrum of colors we call light, does blue become green? These are moments of infinity, eternity.

Our preacher today spoke of grafting our souls onto Christ. We must tap into the root of the Cross in mortal time to enter immortal time, eternity. We rise to eternal life, promised by Christ, because we have already become part of Him. We cross the borders of this life and enter a new land of color, joy, and song, only because we have been already grafted into Christ Himself.

I have found that the more we graft ourselves and our souls onto Christ in this life, here and now, through Eucharist and faithfulness and love, the more we know joy here and now. In this way, eternity is now. God is now. We can have it all right now.

If we choose to.

And so my novel is about choice and about the place where Heaven meets Earth, where Earth meets Heaven. My hermit knows this and his dreams of color and music and beauty scatter through the pages, hoping to graft the reader into his visions. It is about angels and mountains. It is about faith and science and the perceived edges of each, false peripheries rapidly disappearing with each discovery in genome and cosmos. Faith supports science and science supports faith. They need not be separate realms.

It is also about freedom of speech, the use and abuse of language and rhetoric, the boundaries of civility and respect and honor. Where does civilized speech end and hate speech begin? Must language be ruled by laws or outlaws? Must speech become a weapon used by identity groups and powerful interests to maim and destroy?

I fear I have too many ideas to cram into my little story about the goings-on on Angel Mountain.

The geneticist has met the hermit and the Holocaust survivor, and the librarian will soon meet them all. There is a gigantic book collection and baptisms in a pond. There is an earthquake, a shooting, and a book-burning. There are the usual questions, such as “What is the meaning of life?” and “Who am I?” and “Why believe in God?” There is song and dance and the music of the spheres. There is, most of all, pure joy on these edges of Heaven.

So, we shall see what happens next.

REVIEW: The Legacy, by Melanie Phillips

The LegacyThe Legacy, a first novel by the bold British journalist Melanie Phillips, is a page-turner involving layering mysteries. The mysteries interweave through time to the present day, in a story set in England, America, and Israel.

But The Legacy is more importantly a novel of ideas. My novels, too, are novels of ideas, with characters that care about today’s culture, about moral choice, about faith and family, about the survival of the free world.

There are far too few novelists brave enough today to write novels of ideas and write them well. Such courage means ostracism by the mainstream (read leftist) media, for such novels encourage thoughtful debate. They ask questions and search for answers, which is not appreciated by the left. I applaud Ms. Phillips’ honesty and courage.

In The Legacy, the central idea behind the characters and plot is the question of Jewish identity, not only in the history of persecution and dispersion, but Jewish political positioning in media and politics with regard to Israel and British antisemitism.

The main character, Russell Woolfe, is a TV producer who has absorbed without thinking leftist propaganda. He shuns his Jewish family in his desire to be part of modern culture. We enter his world as he faces the death of his father, and with this death he must face the death of his own history, the legacy of the Jewish people.

I have often wondered why many Jewish liberals are anti-Israel, the only western democracy in the region and a vital ally to our own Judeo-Christian foundations. I am perplexed as to why many of these unliberal liberals discourage and intimidate free speech on college campuses, and why they shun the voice of religion in the public square. It makes little sense that they enforce the tyranny of political correctness in the arts – in publishing, news media, and movies. These are trends that can only hurt the Jewish people, and all of us.

I found some answers in Andrew Klavan’s memoir, The Great Good Thing, in which he recounts his conversion to Christianity. He explains the nature of his Jewish upbringing in America. His immigrant parents desired to become Americans, to merge into the culture, and to lose, in time, their Jewishness, become “secular Jews.” To them, this was the way to succeed and, above all, survive. This was the way to calm the fears of deportation, that knock on the door in the night. And so the next generation denied their religious roots and their roots as a people, a chosen people of God. They wanted to meld into the great American melting pot.

As I read Ms. Phillips’ novel, I could see some of these themes emerge. Russell Woolfe has followed a similar path, separating himself from his family and his legacy. But slowly events unfold (involving a physical legacy) that shock him into the truth of his identity.

What are the roots of antisemitism? One root is envy. History tells us that the Christian bans on “usury” (loans at interest) by the medieval world opened the field of banking and finance to Jews. Through the years, Jews became wealthy and powerful. Wealth and power attract envy and hatred. Antisemitism surges, fueled by avarice. The chosen people of God learned to survive, with God’s help.

In our own time, the West seems to be committing suicide. As the crucible of freedom and individual rights, of equality under the law, of government by the people for the people, the Western world must survive. The hordes, having been stopped at Vienna on September 11, 1683, are once again at the gates of the West, most significantly in their attack on another September 11 (no coincidence). And like a Greek tragedy, hidden in the Trojan horse of liberal blindness, they are within our gates, owning our literature. And so we destroy ourselves with our own self-hatred. Our children have not been taught our legacy of freedom. Our schools malign and shame our history.

Russell Woolfe’s journey through these pages opens his eyes. Is he too late? The left, made up of many talented Jewish writers and producers, must take their blinders off, if democracy, and all that it means, is to survive this onslaught from within and without.

Kudos, Ms. Phillips! You have told the truth in journalism, and now you have told the truth in a novel of ideas. Thank you for your contribution to our legacy of freedom.

The Time of Our Life

IMG_3529 (2)I recently had the blessing of taking part in our annual Anglican synod, a gathering of clergy and laity that meets to discuss and decide many issues relating to this part of the family of God, the Body of Christ.

We see old friends and make new ones. We propose and dispose and encourage the discouraged. We listen to one another and support one another, disciplining urges to gossip or belittle. We guard our tongues and speak in charity. All the while, as we mingle as an ecclesial family of many generations, we listen to the voice of God, his promptings. We pray and worship together in a holy communion, allowing the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn bright, inflaming our love for one another and for God’s holy Church.

These synods are times of unifying the disunity that threatens any society of human beings, be it religious, political, or cultural. We come from small and large parishes, separated by space not spirit, and it is good to see this greater network of traditional Anglicans from all over America. It is good to spend time with our leaders, both clergy and lay, who sacrifice their time on this earth for us. They give themselves freely, all for Christ’s flock, all for love of him and he in us.

Time is a terrible thing, an awe-full thing, an awesome thing. It is God’s gift, falling through the hourglass without thought to person or place. Our lives begin. All too quickly, they end. What are we to do with this precious window, this time of our life? Time passes, ticks, slips by, gone. Irretrievable.

Smell the roses, some say. Notice everything and forget nothing. And yet, with time our bodies age and our minds retreat. And so we look to the young, the next generation. What gifts can we leave for them? What can we bequeath them? What is our legacy, their inheritance, that we joyfully pass on?

At the synod last week, I watched the generations mingle. I could see the young absorbing the gifts of the old. I could see that what we elders did mattered immensely. I could see that I could be a part of this great golden chain linking us all, a rosary of souls redeeming the earth. I could mentor as I had been mentored. I was pleased that the Bishop Morse Youth Camp would be held once again, linking the generations, for Bishop Morse founded and nurtured these gatherings, bringing in young people from far and wide.

One of my mentors was the late Archbishop Morse (1923-2015). He was simple Father Morse of St. Peter’s Oakland when I first met him in 1977; I have spoken of him often in these pages. He carried the cross of Christian sacramental orthodoxy through the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. He bore it as a shepherd bears a lamb, its weight balanced over his shoulders, safe. His vision never wavered, or never appeared to, and I often thought he was listening to the voice of God, a prompting as to where to go and what to say in that time, that moment, given to him. He was ever-present in the present, and people loved his total, undivided attention. They basked in it. He taught me this – the virtue of time, the power of now.

I try and do this today, to listen, listen, listen. Distractions abound and will always dilute our present. So we practice the discipline of listening, paying attention. We are open to change, to pivoting, if required, but always within the orthodoxy of Christ’s Church.

Archbishop Morse’s spirit wove among us in the meetings last week. He was a great blessing to us in some miraculous way. Memory of his mentoring, his shepherding, embraced us. I could see him carrying his cross, his gentle and strong hold on the wooden beam resting lightly on his shoulders. I recalled how he kept his eye focused on the road ahead, a path untraveled by us but well traveled by the saints. It was a path, he knew, rocky with boulders and prickly with thorns. It was a path frequented by hungry lions and venomous snakes. We too, I thought, must do as he did. We must carry this same cross up the road, a bit further into time. We must keep our eye trained on the straight and narrow path, listening for the shepherd’s voice calling us home.

Early Friday morning, we worshiped together in the Synodical Mass at St. Joseph of Arimathea Collegiate Chapel in Berkeley. In this barrel-vaulted space, the red floor tiles shine from decades of kneeling, decades of seminarians praying for discernment of vocation, of choice, of paths forward. The tiles gleam with this devotion; the white stucco walls reflect the clerestory light from high above. On this Friday, as the clergy processed through the doorway on Durant, I was thankful. In the packed space, we sang and celebrated the gifts of Robert Sherwood Morse – this chapel, our faith in Christ, the vision of God that he showed us. The organ boomed. The people sang. Candles flamed before the St. Vladimir icon of Mary and her Son. Candles burned too on the sanctuary altar between white roses, before the simple wooden crucifix on the wall high above. The Paschal candle to the side testified to resurrection, Easter’s and ours, the flame burning not far from Bishop Morse’s episcopal chair, a chair empty since his passing into eternity.

We are all witnesses to love, to the love of God, the love of our good bishops, priests, deacons, and laity, the love of our mentors in time. This is the miracle and mystery of life in the Body of Christ. We carry our crosses along the path of love, singing with all our hearts and souls.

Read Bishop Hansen’s sermon here:  The Power of Place, Synod Sermon St.Joseph’s

See video clips of the Synod Mass at St. Joseph’s: St. Joseph’s Chapel Facebook

A Good Greening

IMG_3395 (6)Northern California had a good drenching these last few weeks. The hills are an incomprehensible shade of green. When the winds blow billowing white clouds across the skies, I understand what God meant when he said, “It is good.”

It is good indeed, and in a time of division and heated words between neighbors, family members, and friends over propaganda spewed by the press, the natural world reminds us of our common roots as humans. The hills and the skies proclaim the glory of God, and we all share this good, earthly home together.

Many things bind us as a human family and it is good to be reminded of this. We all are born (the lucky wanted ones). We live. We die. We arrive at the portal of Heaven, knock on the door that is Christ (as the preacher said this morning), and the door opens. Does Christ know us? Do we know him? The shepherd knows his sheep we are told, and the sheep know the voice of the shepherd.

Christ binds us together. He gathers us, heals us, and teaches us to love one another as he has loved us.

One of the remarkable aspects of the two parishes my husband and I alternately attend – St. Peter’s Oakland and St. Joseph of Arimathea in Berkeley – is the varied ethnicity and  multi-generations that form our congregations. The Anglican churches I have been a part of have always had this colorful cross-section (no pun intended) of worshipers, but it is particularly reflective of our urban churches. I have come to take it for granted that these varied identities unite in worship, that we all become sisters and brothers, a family. When we have our divisions, and we do, we are gathered back together at the altar, hearing the voice of our shepherd calling us in for supper.

And with the Supper of the Lamb, the Body and Blood of Christ, we commune together in a single communion.

Identity politics is washed away; ageism is denied and children precious; gender and race is cause for celebration. We teach our young the way of acceptance and love by singing together, praying together, worshiping God together. We form processions, singing hymns our ancestors sang, and time disappears. We genuflect and we kneel.

When our natural families fragment and reform, we depend on Sunday worship to give us not only identity, but meaning, purpose, and peace. Priests counsel and forgive. The sisters and brothers of our parish family uplift one another in prayer, sometimes with names on lists, names laid at the altar to be spoken. We pray for those who suffer, here and outside our parish. We pray for the unborn who never had a chance, and for the mothers who mourn them. We pray for the students who study, the teachers who teach, the speakers who speak. We pray for peace and freedom. We give thanks. We worship our Creator.

The sufferings of today are no worse than other times, just colored differently by culture, freedom, and choice. We have been, and always will be, selfish creatures, shunning sacrifice, lazy and dishonest in our confession of sin. But one day a week we are redeemed. We are given a chance to start over. And we don’t have to be alone in this re-birthing, for we have the family of God, no small thing.

This morning, as the contralto sang “Ave Maria,” and her voice soared in amber arcs through the russet barrel-vaulted dome over the altar, I returned from my communion, thankful. The notes were like rain on my parched heart, greening me like the hills. Having received the Son of God in the form of bread and wine, I knew my soul was greened too. I was ready for the week to come and all of its challenges.

Our individual identities are many, each one of us so unique, so very different from one another. But our creator calls our names, and having been baptized with water and spirit, we know his voice. When we look to the hills and up to the skies, we find others are looking too, answering his call. They are all around us. We join hands in a dance of joy, this family, this earthly and heavenly host.

And our Creator says, “It is good.”

Sacred Resolutions

christmas-lightChrist is born, God incarnate, in flesh, lying in a manger.

Our Christmas tree, twinkling and tinseled with glittering decorations, remains in the corner of our living room. The presents have been unwrapped, the carols sung, the tables no longer crowded with laughter and joy. For a few hours on Christmas Day, we forgot our disappointments and squabbles. We loved one another a little better. The baby in the manger taught us how to do this, gave us the way toward the light in the darkness, towards love, towards peace. He continues to lead us to that star in the heavens. He does this through incarnation, through baptism, through sanctification.

I have come to see that the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, is called to sanctify the secular world, to baptize the culture with Christ.

As Christians, we are strangers and sojourners in a strange land. Yet we are called be witnesses. We are called to tell our story of Incarnation and Resurrection. As a military friend said recently, “We signed up for this.” Indeed. At our baptisms we received the Holy Spirit through the pouring of water, and incarnated in that water, the Holy Spirit was resurrected in our flesh. At our Confirmations, we were received into Christ’s flock and signed “with the sign of the Cross, in token that thereafter (we) shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant until (our) life’s end…” The Holy Spirit came to us through the hands of the bishop and with the anointing of holy oils. We became adult Christians. We became one flesh with the Body of Christ, a family of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, by adoption, through Grace.

Since the first century, the Church has baptized the secular world with love. Being composed of fallen men and women, this Body of Christ has also done harm. But the Church admits this, and invites our secular world inside, through the open doors of its heart, into the nave, up the central aisle, to the high altar. The Church invites the world to come inside, to repent, to change, for her rites are birthed by penitence, so that mankind can sing a new song.

To repent is to change, turn around. To repent is to confess and take stock of the truth about ourselves. To repent is to look in a mirror and admit flaws. To repent is to choose a different path, a path of love.

New Year’s resolutions are actually diluted penitence, a thin, watery version, yet at the same time impossible to fully implement. We seem to have an innate desire to better ourselves. At the end of the year we consider again how to improve ourselves – diet, exercise, relationships, success, screen time, education. Just so, repentance considers improvements, but with a difference.

Secular resolutions demand that we make these changes by ourselves. Repentance – sanctified resolutions – requires that we make these changes with the help of God. We recognize we cannot do this alone, we cannot perfect ourselves alone. We need spiritual help. The Church provides this help. It provides a way, the only way, that it can actually be done.

Looking in the mirror or into our hearts, we reflect on the last year, and we consider the seven deadly sins, Christian versions, baptized versions, of common human failings, and their opposites: lust/chastity, gluttony/temperance, greed/charity, sloth/diligence, wrath/patience, envy/gratitude, pride/humility.

These are simple beginnings, broad categories of wrongdoing. If we practiced this simple list – turned the seven deadly sins into their respective virtues – our secular resolutions would be covered and then some. Within the Body of Christ we are urged to practice this resolving on a regular basis, weekly at minimum. We confess our sins in the Mass and are absolved so that we can resolve to do better. We enter the new week as though it were a New Year.

But we make our resolutions with the help of God through the Church, not on our own. Steadily, slowly, confessing and repenting, resolving to do better, be better, receiving forgiveness for daily failures, we might even lose weight, become healthy in both body and soul. We will learn to love as we are meant to love. And through patience and diligence we will work hard and produce bountifully for the glory of God. Depression is dissolved through gratitude. Ambition is anchored by humility. Lust is lost in temperance.

We Christians are a resolving people. We resolve many things with words we recite in our liturgies and hear in our sermons and lessons. We resolve, by God, to be better people, with the help of God, not alone. For without Him, we can do nothing. With Him, we can do anything.

We are a new creation living in this New Year 2018. Our newness is again and again renewed, reborn, through self-examination and turning around. Our culture speaks of second starts, second chances. We as the Body of Christ are given an infinite number of beginnings, turning-arounds, re-turnings to God. With our heavenly Father’s help, with the Incarnation of his Son in human flesh, and with the ongoing incarnation of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us, we are reborn again and again.

And so the Church improves upon the secular resolutions of the New Year. The Body of Christ sanctifies, through repentance, every day, week, year. The Church promises the help of God to make this happen, so when we pass into Eternity, we will see the face of God, the burning light of Christ. We will be perfected in love.

Christmas Day is passed, and our fir tree will soon be gone. But Christ Jesus is with us, Emmanuel, God with us. We celebrate this union of Heaven and Earth, this incarnation of love among us, for when we do not love enough, Christ shows us how to love more. Through holy-days that punctuate our time on earth, we tell the wondrous story of mankind: who we are, and who we are resolved to be, baptized children of God, on the way to Heaven.

Merry Christmas and blessings in the New Year to you and your families.

Giving Thanks

prayerIn my next novel, I would like to explore thanksgiving – giving thanks – so I’m setting the story in November, the thankful month that turns away from Halloween and is born on All Saints Day. November gives thanks for our veterans – all those who keep us safe from those who would harm us. And finally, November celebrates our national holiday of Thanksgiving, a time of giving thanks for the founding of America, for those who fled tyranny in foreign lands and came to our shores to found our great land of freedom with its liberty and law, its celebration of human dignity.

November is a time of seasonal changes, the passing of summer and harvest and the coming of winter. Leaves change color. Days shorten and nights lengthen. Temperatures drop. We give thanks for our delicate and complex natural world, and its moments that please our sensitive senses: light slanting through clerestory windows, hovering over a medieval crucifix, and bathing a wall in golden sun; a crisp apple; billowing clouds; a child’s laughter. We give thanks for every breath, however labored, for every baby, however unwanted, for every prayer and every praise, however ridiculed, for the miracle of life from womb to grave, however threatened.

We count our blessings, seeing them all around us. We know we are frail and tiny creatures in a gigantic universe, and yet we are loved by God our Creator. That in itself is unfathomable, one of the unfathomable riches of Christ, mentioned by St. Paul and extolled in the hymn, How Great Thou Art (words from a poem by Carl Gustav Boberg, 1859-1940).

And when I think that God His Son not sparing / Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in / That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing, / He bled and died, to take away my sin.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee, / How great thou art.

Music, that perfect harmony of song and dance and poetry. But music reflects our souls and in the last century became dissonant, atonal, war-like, full of angst. We understand from history that after the Second World War, man became disillusioned with “civilization,” questioning why we could not prevent the slaughter of six million under Hitler, and close to one hundred million under Stalin and Mao and Castro. Our music and art reflected this angst, this nihilism, this despair and still do.

We distrust. We become cynical, spiraling into hopelessness and despair. We forget to give thanks, the greatest antidote to depression.

Our human story tells of a man and woman in Eden long ago who rebelled against God. Their pride desired power; their greed needed feeding; their covetousness laughed at love. They chose their own way and were exiled from Eden, following a path into the dark forest of sin and and death. For it is sin that causes death, little deaths and big deaths, according to this human history.

Thankfulness. How can we be thankful. How can we hope for faith and have faith in hope when we are surrounded by death, when we recall the carnage of Nine-Eleven, when we witness the massacre in Las Vegas, when we read about the methodical brutality of a shooter in a little church in Texas, an atheist driven by hate toward Christians. There have been so many tragedies entering our homes and settling in our hearts that we grow numb to their number, else our hearts would shatter.

Thankfulness. But the floods, the hurricanes, the tornadoes? Where is God?

Yet it is because of these horrors that we search for answers and find those answers in Christ. We have reason to give thanks because this Son of God lived, died, and rose in real time, in a real place, in real history. We give thanks there is a way beyond ourselves, beyond our warring, a path to peace, to eternal life, to the conquering of sin’s death. We are sorry and we repent. Our shattered hearts are healed by God’s touch. We give thanks for God’s great and loving entering of our history and living among us today. We give thanks for all those who protect our freedom to choose or reject this loving God. We give thanks for so many things in this fallen world.

We reach for His hand that reaches for us, pulling us out of the mire of sin and suffering and death, raising us from the quicksand of our world.

There would be little hope in humanity without hope – and faith – in God. There would be little reason to give thanks and many reasons to despair.

But we can be of good cheer, for the myriad perfection of nature, tiny and grand, the intricate interweaving of our world to produce all manner of beauty and delight, reflect a magnificent design, a story of glory that is to come and that is here now. That we should think and ponder and consider these things is proof of a God who thinks and ponders. That we should love is proof of a God who loves. That His Son lived, died, and rose from the dead is proof that we will live, die, and rise to glory.

And so November with its thanksgivings looks to December’s greater drama, when God enters history as a baby born in a stable on a starry night in Bethlehem of Judea. He enters our hearts and minds and souls. And we give thanks.

Fighting Fires

FireThe fierce firestorms that have devoured our beautiful North Bay counties and blanketed the Bay Area with smoke remind us of our helplessness in the face of the natural world.

Since man first discovered fire by rubbing stones together, he has tried to tame the wildebeest called nature. We are a part of nature, yet somehow apart. We think, reason, argue, debate. We create and we protect others with our creations. We are masters of nature, if not the universe, or so we believe, at least until hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and fire remind us of our helplessness, and our huge hubris.

Why did this happen? we ask. Indeed, the fires in the North Bay feasted on forest, protected open space. Unlike the East Bay, where a few oaks survive the parched grassy hills, the North Bay has many trees, protected, as though saved to feed the next firestorm. Because we loved the natural world – its beauty, its tranquility, even its so-called spirituality – we safeguarded it from humans, but could not safeguard nature from nature.

We are reminded that the world is a wilderness, tamed in places by human civilization, by communities of people banded together to safeguard one another from the wilds. But if we let down our guard, we are no longer safe. We are not as powerful as we think.

So we seek meaning in the face of natural disasters, asking, Why?  Is this the end of the world?

All week I was reminded of the prophet Elijah and the “still small voice” of God. Elijah had retreated to a cave for safety:

“And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice… And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?” (I Kings 19:11-13, KJV)

We are still, small creatures with a few tools, some shelter, and smartphones. Yet we do listen to God’s voice of love.

For it is love that makes us different from this violent natural world surrounding us. And it is freedom, the freedom to choose love, that breathes into us that divine spark. The voice of God is not in the redwoods or the vineyards, so beautiful at harvest. The voice of God is in his words to us, his words to us in Scripture, Sacrament, and prayer. We hear the voice of God when we see how small we are, and from this place of humility, confession, and repentance, we learn to love one another better.

While there is no God in the firestorm or in the hurricanes or in the floods, we hear his voice and see his love in the many who care for one another in these times of crisis. They knock on doors. They carry the elderly to safety. They feed, clothe, and shelter.

They fight these fires that rage according to nature’s rules, not ours. As they quench the torched earth with water, they show they are different from nature. Creatures spurred by love, they hear the still, small voice within.

We bury our dead. We rebuild. We make a wider firebreak around our homes. We restore civilization and civility. Do we remember what we have learned? If we do, if we have learned a lesson, we turn to God, to his still, small voice in Scripture, Sacrament, and prayer. We follow his law of love – the Ten Commandments – and know he will drench the wildfires in our hearts. Only then can his own fire be lit within, his own controlled burning of love. Two of the disciples knew this divine fire as they walked to Emmaus with Christ. “Did not your heart burn within you?” they later asked one another.

We tame our own fires, until we burn with the love of God. God’s fire gives life; it doesn’t consume. God’s fire clears the air of smoke and debris. We can see and we can breathe deeply. We no longer feel quite so helpless in the wilderness of this world.

Touching the Untouchable

Michelangelo CreationBerkeley was quiet as we drove through its leafy streets to St. Joseph’s Collegiate Chapel on the corner of Durant and Bowditch, one block from campus. Once more, we would join others to pray for peace and freedom in Berkeley.

We parked, and I carried red roses from my garden to freshen the vase beneath St. Vladimir’s icon of Our Lady. I replaced the candles and lit a few, saying a prayer of thanksgiving for the week. I opened the front door and set out a foam-board sign announcing the Mass. I replaced a small notice, missing, announcing, “Singers Wanted.”

Our organist warmed up, the altar candles were lit, and the pews filled. A procession entered as we sang from our hymnals, incense swirling, tapers tall and flaming, crucifix carried by a young acolyte. The Mass began, weaving song and sacrament and prayer through the vaulted dome, through our hearts and minds, settling in. My own heart was grateful for the last few weeks. My friend, who had lay dying, had entered Paradise, carried by Jesus; I witnessed two bishops consecrated in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in a setting of beauty and promise and pageantry; our little chapel had survived the Free Speech Week, peaceful speakers stonewalled, freedom denied by cowardice.

So much had happened in three weeks. It seemed that if we blink, our lives pass by and we are gone. We must not blink, but watch and wait and pray each minute of each day, eyes wide open to truth, our hearts bravely seeking. We guard our time, so that our time is not stolen by the darkness of the night. We offer this time to God, so that it is sanctified by the light of the day. Some say “be present” and it is good advice, that in all of our hurrying and worrying we forget who we are, that we are holy children of God. We are loved by the Infinite One, touched by the Eternal.

My thoughts wove through the dance of the liturgy, and when our preacher spoke of the healing miracles of Christ, how he brought the dead to life, gave sight to the blind, healed the lepers, all with his touch, I saw how the Christian’s time is also touched by God. The Christian’s time, those days on this good earth, is reborn in the present moment, weaving past and future, creating a fine cloth. We look to our past to repent. We offer our leprous hearts to Christ, in confession and Eucharist. Only then can we freely look to our future.

Arms outstretched, our preacher explained how Christ lay his hands on the ravaged flesh of the lepers. He touched the untouchables. We, too, he said, are untouchables, for our hearts are cancerous and in need of healing. Yet, here, in this chapel, before this altar, Christ touches our hearts and makes them whole. The Lord of Life breathes life into us and resets our heartbeats.

Michelangelo’s famous painting of Creation that covers the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome shows the finger of God reaching to touch Adam to give him life. Whether this is myth, allegory, or literally true is of no matter. It explains the truth of our beginnings, our holy beginnings, the sacred nature of our humanity. We are touched in the womb, enlivened, quickened. We are touched in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, with water and with wine, with the bread of Heaven in the Mass.

My friend who lay dying three weeks ago has been touched and reborn to new life in Paradise. Each one of us awaits that touching, in the meantime biding this time of redeeming. For in this mean-time, this middle time between birth and death, between the womb and the grave, we touch the precious, present time given to us. We hold it in our palms. We finger its seconds. We listen. We pray. We pay attention to God’s voice in Scripture and Sacrament, his voice spoken by others in the Body of Christ who are also touched and listening. And we go to church to be touched by Christ, to be cleansed, to no longer be untouchable.

In Tulsa, four bishops “laid their hands” upon the heads of the two priests. The priests had risen from a prostrate position on the carpet before the altar, where they formed crosses, their fingers touching one another, gravity pushing their bodies into the carpet that touched them. We sang a litany, invoking the Holy Ghost to touch these men, to fill them with discernment, humility, and holiness. The Holy Ghost came, and through the fingers of the bishops, through this laying on of hands, the Spirit pulsed through the centuries, from Jerusalem to Tulsa on this twenty-first day of September, touching them. Holy oils touched their heads through the hands, rings encircled their fingers, and pectoral crosses pushed against their hearts. They were touched by God.

And our chapel, during this week of Free Speech in which there was little speech and freedom, and a great cost to the community, was untouched by trouble, touched and protected by the love of God, and by the stalwart presence of police.

This morning, in church, St. Paul touched me as I listened to the Epistle for today, with these beautiful words, written in a letter to the Church in Ephesus (today in Turkey):           

I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ… that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. (Ephesians 3:14+)

Rooted and grounded in love, strengthened by the Spirit, touched so tenderly with such power and beauty and truth, knowing the breadth, length, depth, height, love of Christ beyond knowing, filled with the fullness of God. These are no small things. These things tell us who we are and who we are meant to be. These are indeed, wondrous touchings, the hands of God touching our hearts and making them whole.

Someone touched the little sign asking for singers in our chapel porch. What did they do with it? Will they touch the one we put up today? Will these bits of paper and print float down Durant to Telegraph, or perhaps over to Bancroft and Sproul Plaza? Will someone else wonder? Will they touch the scrap from our chapel? Will this touch their heart and soul?

Today, after the service ended, we locked the chapel doors securely. I knew as I switched off the lights, the Sanctus Lamp burning steadfast, that this morning, like every Sunday morning, our songs and prayers and incense and processions had spilled out onto Durant Avenue to the passersby. We, having been touched, touched Berkeley with peace and freedom, with the unsurpassed fullness of the love of God.