Tag Archives: Christianity

Easter Lilies

Easter LiliesIt is a rich and glorious season, this time of Eastertide. 

As I plucked wilting blossoms off my Easter lilies near our front door I inhaled the sweetness of those remaining, taking care to avoid the staining powder of the yellow stamens. I then attended the roses that once sat on my dining table and now are over the kitchen sink. Five buds are left with shorter stems clustered together in a small pitcher between sculpted figures of Mary Magdalene and an angel. As I gaze at these reminders of the season, and especially of Easter Day, I wonder at it all.

The season of Eastertide, the fifty days linking Easter and Pentecost, provide a joyful time of quiet reflection on the meaning of the Resurrection. The immense implications of this historical event, when eternity intersected time, continues to stun me. And the scripture readings assigned for these days reflect as well, considering the meaning of this new world that was created by the empty tomb.

And indeed a new world was created with the death and resurrection of Christ. It is a revolution changing everything. In one of his first resurrection appearances to the disciples Jesus gently explains what has happened. As our preacher said this morning, Christ appears to them in an upper room where the doors have been locked. He has passed through material barriers to be in their midst. He has power over the world of matter in which we live. Is he a ghost? A vision?

St. John’s eyewitness account describes how Christ points to his wounds in his hands and his side as proof he is no ghost or vision. The disciples can see and touch him. He has a material body of flesh and blood. He is real. And yet he has the power to pass through matter.

In much the same way he seeks to enter our hearts, our own bodily chambers, to dwell in us. How does he do this? He gives the apostles power to forgive sins by breathing his spirit upon them. From this time on, the apostles, who give life to the Church, act for God in the forgiveness of sins. Why?

Christ desires clean-swept hearts, hearts of light that have expelled the dark. He can only enter a heart that is full of light, enlightened, clean of sin.

It is a profound mystery and yet it is profoundly simple, just as each of us is a profound mystery and yet profoundly simple. All creation teems with intricate complexity yet delightful simplicity. The day turns to night. The rain falls on the earth. The sun shines. And the layered meanings and conclusions of learned theologians can be summed in one sentence: God is love.

Just as I pluck the dying trumpet blossoms with their staining stamens, I pluck out my own selfishness, greed, envy, pride, my own staining sin. I trundle to Mass and confess. I repent and am forgiven. I can now enter the open doors of the Eucharist through prayer and praise, Creed and Scripture, to meet Christ in the bread and the wine. He enters my body, heart, and soul. I am given life and light and joy, having partaken of the divine.

All this Christ Jesus taught and showed in his life on earth, as he walked among us. The week before his death he gave us the Holy Supper and showed how he would return among us again and again with each Eucharist. After his resurrection, he gave us the Church and the way to forgiveness. After his ascension he gave us his Holy Spirit to strengthen, to comfort us. All told, Christ Jesus gave us himself, the only path to Heaven – the Way, the Truth, and the Life for, as St. John writes in today’s Epistle,

 “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” (I John 5:4)

Flowered by Christ

Easter St. Peter's  with family (2)We have a lovely tradition in our local parish church. The Sunday School children and staff “Flower the Cross.” Shortly before the sermon in our Anglican liturgy, during the “sermon hymn,” we process up the central aisle carrying flowers to the chancel steps where a thick white cross, about six feet tall awaits us. The cross has deep holes that penetrate the beams and we insert the stems into the holes. Soon the white cross is covered in brilliant color.

This year as I helped small hands reach for the cross to add another flower, I thought how each of us was like those flowers and stems and bits of green. We each had our own colors and characteristics and we carried them to the cross. We each had our own talents and treasures and we offered them to the cross. We each had our own joys and sorrows and we slipped them into the deep holes of that wooden cross.

The white cross welcomed us, pulling us into its wood, and in some way we became part of that cross of Christ. And with the flowering we were flowered too, changed, reborn into new life.

For Easter celebrates new life, not only spring and its seeds bursting into blossoms, but our own new resurrected life. For forty days and nights we have been dormant seeds buried in the dark soil of Lent. We waited and we watched and we prayed for this glorious Easter morning when death dies and life lives, rising from the tomb, Christ’s tomb, our own tombs.

There is no point to Christianity if one does not believe in the resurrection of Christ and its revolutionary effect upon us all. In the resurrection, suffering and sorrow change into love and joy. Darkness becomes light, and the words of the psalmist are fulfilled: 

“If I say, peradventure the darkness shall cover me; then shall my night be turned to day. Yea, the darkness is no darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day; the darkness and light to thee are both alike.” (139:10-11)

Today we are covered by darkness. We hear of wars and rumors of wars, of new horrors, new terrors. Brussels, Paris, London, San Bernardino, Boston, New York, Fort Hood. Evil robs youth of innocence, prompting massacres in schoolyards or classrooms. Darkness spreads across the face of the earth.

And so we reach for the light in the darkness that enshrouds our world, entombs our people. We look to God, the author of love and life. We look to the only man who claimed to be God, who rose from the dead, the one whom St. John describes as “the true Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (KJV, 1:9)

Why I believe in the resurrection and its challenge and others do not, I do not understand. For the evidence is there, clear as the light of day. But I suppose one must seek it, desire it, even long for such belief. For believing costs us. Believing means turning toward the light of love and away from the darkness of self. My bishop often said, “all doubt is moral.” I’m not sure if all doubt is moral, but I’m beginning to agree that belief requires a change of heart, an honorable discipline, a code of ethics that challenges us to change our ways. It is sometimes tempting to doubt, when belief accuses and demands our time, talent, and treasure. Demands our hearts and souls and bodies.

And so Easter’s resurrection message is a radical one. It says to our world, as Father James Martin writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Listen!” Listen to what the resurrection means for us! For the resurrection demands that attention be paid to a man who conquered death. Attention must be paid to his words, his deeds, his miracles of healing and feeding and calming storms and walking on water. Attention must be paid to his claims to be God, and to his Church’s claims after his ascension to Heaven. For the Church he founded, a stepchild of the Jewish temple, witnessed to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, again and again, in word and deed. Christians died tortuous deaths for their belief in Jesus Christ and who he was. They did not invent him. They knew him. And the witness continues.

Today Christians die daily for their belief in this God-made-man. They cannot deny Christ, cannot deny his light, his joy, his glory. They have been changed, reborn. They cannot go back to the darkness of self.

On Easter morning I thought of these things as I handed a flower to one of the children and helped her shove the moist green stem into the deep dry hole, into the wood of the cross. In that moment, she was part of the cross. She stood back and smiled, satisfied, and reached for another. Our baskets empty, we recessed out to the Sunday School.

We had given ourselves to Easter’s resurrection cross, and Christ had returned the gift a thousand fold. The dead wood had been reborn. So had we. For each of us had been flowered by and with Christ.

All Hallows

all saintsHallowe’en comes from the contraction of All Hallows Eve. To hallow is to make holy, and October 31 was (and is) the eve before All Hallows Day, or the All the Holy Ones Day, All Saints, honoring Christian saints. The celebration is followed by Allhallowstide, in which all of the Christian dead are remembered. This coming week churches all over world will remember their dead, their loved ones, calling out their names on All Souls Day and, in this ceremony of love, hallowing them. The evening before, Halloween, sees the last of the unfriendly spirits roaming the night, for they are vanquished by the light of Christ in the morning, and fear is vanquished by joy.

Sometimes fear is good. It is an intuitive instinct that signals danger. Gavin de Becker, an expert who evaluates potential threats to famous people, titled his invaluable book on safety, The Gift of Fear. And in this sense, fear is a gift, a survival signal, a warning that lights the dark.

Children are afraid of the dark. And we should be too. Novelist Jake Halpern writes in the Wall Street Journal about fear of the dark:

“Since the dawn of man, night has been a time when we were in danger, when we were vulnerable – to lions, club-toting men and giant chasms into which we could fall… it was evolutionarily advantageous for us to be afraid of the dark. Those of us who feared the night and cowered from its dangers, survived. Those who went for strolls in the dark ended up as snacks for lions.”

Today with electric light we laugh such fears away. Yet we are ambivalent about fear itself, sometimes denying it, sometimes welcoming it. We flirt with it, tease it, to see what happens when it draws near, for we have banished most survival fears from long ago such as hunger, shelter, wild animals. We are curious, enticed by darkness.

A friend of mine once claimed that she liked the feeling of fear, of being on the edge of danger, secondhand fear experienced in a book or movie. There are many words for this feeling of excitement. We shudder and shiver, chilled to the bone. A frisson gives us goosebumps. A ghost walks over our grave. We are on the edge of our seats, waiting to be safe again. What is the lure? Why flirt with the dark, with falling into the abyss? Are we rehearsing our future? Our death?

Halloween has in many ways become a rehearsal as well, as children (and adults) don costumes and pretend to be someone or something else and venture into the dark. For some the choice is innocent role playing, choosing to be princes and princesses, musicians or athletes. Still, others choose to be witches and goblins. Some choose the light and some the dark. Some choose life and some choose death: skeletons, ghosts, and grim reapers, desiring to scare.

Our nation too seems on the edge of darkness, in the dusk of its day, playing dangerous games with life and death, slaughtering generations of unborn innocents. We survivors look away, pass on the other side of the road, just as we do in the world theater of wars and rumors of wars, withdrawing and allowing the dark to swallow the light, whether in Moscow or Tehran or the borderlands of the West.

Light and darkness, life and death. The line between them is not often clear, sometimes smudged into dusk and dawn. And so it is in our hearts, where good sheds light and evil darkens.

And so I’m grateful that the dark of All Hallows’ Eve is banished by the light of All Hallows’ Day and the light of Sunday resurrection. This morning I gazed upon six thick white candles on the stone altar of St. Joseph’s Chapel near U.C. Berkeley. The candles flamed brightly, the fiery wicks drinking in the air above, flickering their tips toward heaven. A roughly carved crucifix rose above the tabernacle, beyond the suspended Sanctus light. We stood and turned toward the entry as five student acolytes processed in, carrying torches and crucifix, followed by the white-robed clergy. The organ bellowed through the vaulted domed space and echoed over the russet-tiled floor as we joined in songs of praise to God for his saints.

Halloween would not exist if it were not for All Saints, the holy-day that gives the costumed evening its name. After the night of darkness, a weak sun broke through this morning and bathed our world in light. We sang as one people, giving thanks for those men and women who chose the light and turned away from the dark. Martyred for their choice, and today still being martyred, we honor them. History has known a world without Christ, a world of impenetrable darkness, one rightly feared. We peer through the dusk of our days, keeping our candles lit, sharing the love of God, the light of Christ, looking to the morning of resurrection.

The Human Search for Meaning

IMG_0044One of the many reasons I like going to church each Sunday is that I am reminded regularly of what it means to be fully human and to live life to the fullest, within a human community, a society.

For I do not live alone. What I do affects others. What others do affects me. With the creed of self, of rampant individualism birthed in the sixties and nurtured by the sexual revolution, one needs reminding regularly what it means to be human, that we are a human community.

And the community is not only a horizontal one in present time, but one which extends back in time and forward in the future. What I do today affects future generations. What my ancestors did, my parents, my grandparents did, has affected me.

So in church I come face to face with the fact that not only do I bear some degree of responsibility for others, that it’s “not all about me,” but that my life has real meaning.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the Wall Street Journal writes of the vital role of religion in society:

“No society has survived for long without either a religion or a substitute for religion… Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but refuses, on principle, to guide us as to how to choose… the twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.”

We are creatures who  seek meaning. We are recognizing today that generations have been raised in a largely secular society that has sought to strip serious meaning from the public square, substituting causes, grievances and movements that gather around likes or dislikes. These politically correct “isms” do not tell me who I am, why I am here, how I should live, where I have been and where I am going. There may be meaning on some level in decrying global warming or GMO’s or political candidates but not meaningful enough to ward off depression and it’s offspring, despair.

And there is plenty of depression and despair that has filled the void. Pharmaceuticals and other feel-good drugs have followed suit, re-enforcing the divine monarchy of self and isolating us more and more from one another. The vicious spiral continues downward into darkness.

And so I go to Church where I am told that, as a matter of fact, it is not all about me. Mary Wakefield writes in The British Spectator, “In my twenties… full of self-pity…. I dropped in to see a priest… and poured out my woes. (He) listened quietly, then said: ‘The point of being a Christian is not to feel better, it is so God can use you to serve others.’ Others? It wasn’t all about me! I actually laughed with the relief of it.”

Yes, the relief. And we end up feeling better by serving others. Instead of contemplating my own needs, worship and service pulls me out of myself, towards God and my fellows, and life becomes deeply and beautifully meaningful. Depression and despair will ever be nearby, waiting to fill the void, so I make sure there is no void to fill. I make sure I am full to the brim with meaning, with God, by going to church regularly.

Our preacher today spoke of his heartrending experience as a social counselor to prisoners being released in California. He has come to see that their broken lives do not exist in a vacuum, but were influenced by earlier generations – their parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents. And so the “sins of the father” were indeed visited upon the children. He works to stop the cycle.

Our preacher said how science has given us proof of that legacy in the way drug use is biologically passed on to offspring, so that newborns must undergo a detoxing, shattering the air with their screams.

We are not alone in our actions. No man is an island, as the priest-poet John Donne said.  We are affected by those who have gone before us and we will in turn affect those who come after. We affect one another today.

Douglas Murray writes of the slippery slope of euthanasia, assisted suicide, a topic debated in Britain, passed into law in Holland and Oregon, and recently signed into law by the governor of  California. Mr. Murray traces the acceptance of this shift in our culture to the baby-boomer generation desiring the “full panoply of rights”:

“The right to education and welfare were followed by sexual liberation, which… came with the idea of having total rights over one’s own body, including the right to abort unwanted fetuses… the baby-boomers (are) awarding themselves one last right – the ‘right to die.’ “

The ownership of one’s body is a powerful idea. The fallacy lies in the fact that we are communal beings, with responsibilities to one another today and to the future. In terms of abortion, the fallacy also lies in the right to own another human being by virtue of that person residing within one’s body.

We fought slavery and won, but society will always know the anguish that we allowed it to happen at all. So too, as we kill our children because we own our bodies and claim ownership of the life growing within, we will grieve far into the future. We shall wake up and see the greatest genocide of all, generations of Americans lost, our own children, our own grandchildren, and now our own great-grandchildren, all fellow human beings on this good earth. We know already the grief of Rachel weeping for her children that were no more, the slaughter of the innocents. We are linked together in our humanity.

It has been observed that where euthanasia has become legal, palliative care has lessened. Those in favor of assisted suicide using the euphemism “death with dignity,” point out that I don’t have to choose death by injection. But others choosing assisted suicide may mean that my end-of-life care, my palliative care, will diminish in quality, availability, and affordability. A slippery slope. We are linked together.

There are ways to care for one another that reflect our Creator’s love for us. When we choose death instead of life, at either end of our numbered days, we withdraw from our common bonds, our humanity. Christianity and Judaism has taught for centuries to choose life over death. Doctors have sworn an oath to do so; what do they swear to uphold today? Can I trust my doctor?

I recently watched a good friend meet a good death. I pray, when my time comes, that I die as well as he did. He knew who he was, why he was here, and where he was going. He knew he was passing through a gateway into eternal life, eternal love, eternal joy. Shedding the corrupted body is not easy, but we have many means to palliate and soften the journey.

When I go to church I am reminded of these things, these “higher” things, the difference between truly living life to the fullest, as our Creator intends for each one of us to do (he should know) and slowly dying by degree, inch by inch, slipping into myself, into depression, despair, and eternal death, even while living.

And when I come home from church I come home full of meaning, full of God, nourished and ready to brave the six days until the next Sunday.

Incarnations Among Us

Michelangelo CreationThe link between God and man has always been sacred. The glory of the Creator permeates his creation. His life pulses through us, from conception to death, and into eternity. God, our preacher reminded us yesterday, is incarnate within us.

Such incarnation – in the flesh – is the heart of Christianity. This mystery was revealed two thousand years ago, made perfect in God’s incarnation as Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. As St. John writes: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not… 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)

This moment in history revealed to a barbaric world the innate natural law to honor the dignity of all human beings, regardless of gender, race, handicap, age, born and unborn. To be sure, before Christ, God led his Chosen People to this moment by giving them laws and judgments that taught the same respect, belief, and charity for one another and set them apart from other communities. But when God the Son entered humanity to live among us, he gave us incarnational means, sacramental means, to take part in his divinity through God the Holy Spirit.

The Church through the centuries has worked to make incarnation understood and experienced. Doctrines and dogma explain in words. Sacraments provide incarnate ways for God to enter his creation again and again in human time, hourly, daily, weekly. We receive his body into our body. We pray and praise, and his Spirit weaves among us, entering our hearts and minds. We, the created, are called to converse with our Creator, and he descends upon us, within us, filling us with his life and love. This is incarnation. This God in our own flesh.

Recently, at a concert at St. Peter’s, Oakland, “Bach Vespers, Cantata 199, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” with soprano Juliana Snapper and organist Jonathan Dimmock of the San Francisco Symphony, I knew I was experiencing a kind of incarnation. For music c0mposed for the worship of God, as this was composed, is prayerful praise. It links us with God through our hearing and our singing. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), church organist, wrote this stunning cantata for a Lutheran Evening Prayer service (Vespers), weaving music through Scripture readings and prayers. The audience of varying beliefs sang hymns with the rest of us. The music danced around us, in, and through us.

I have often called for the return of the Judeo-Christian tradition to the public square, not as theocracy but to remind our culture of the roots of our historic belief in human dignity founded on the belief that God indwells in each of us. Here, in the nave of this Oakland church, the public square came to us, for it was a public concert reminding ordinary citizens of the roots of freedom, this God of revelation. It was a powerful moment.

And when I saw Pope Francis address Congress this weekend, the first pope to do so, I was encouraged to see that Christianity had entered the public square for a short hearing. The pope, to be sure, appeals to a broad spectrum. As Peggy Noonan writes, Pope Francis has two sides, a lovable one, preaching the dignity of human life, and a not-so-lovable one, preaching an economic theory long ago discredited as helping the poor, one that hurts the poor. He is a pope, she writes, who “endorses secular political agendas, who castigates capitalism in language that is both imprecise and heavily loaded… he doesn’t, actually, seem to know a lot about capitalism or markets, or even what economic freedom has given – and is giving – his own church.” Indeed, his own Argentina has fallen into poverty through socialist ideology. Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell weighed in this week: “The official poverty level in the United States is the upper middle class in Mexico. The much criticized market economy of the United States has done far more for the poor than the ideology of the left.”

But even with the two sides of this lovable Pope Francis, I rejoice in his presence, for he has brought the Church into America’s public square, and many are listening to his words spoken from a loving heart. He has reminded us of our Judeo-Christian roots simply by his white-robed incarnate presence among us, for he represents historic Christianity through the ages. His visit, in this sense, has been a sacramental journey, to America but in time as well, as all true pilgrimages are.

Saturday night, at my fiftieth high school reunion, I saw  schoolmates I had not seen since high school. I tried to match names and faces. I studied the class photos on the wall. And as we linked with one another, searching for recognition and trying to read name tags with our reading glasses, I thought how unique each one of us was, how we had all moved through our given time changed and yet unchanged. Each one of us, created in the image of our Creator, carried his life within, in varying degrees. We are neither God nor gods, but we carry God’s spark within us, and those who had fanned it into a flame with prayer and praise and Scripture and sacrament shone brighter than those who hadn’t. They lit the room with their quiet glow.

Incarnations of God are all around us, in every person we meet. We are born to love and praise God, and this is the good, the wondrous news of salvation. We need not despair, for he is with us if we desire him. But we must desire.

I look forward to more public square incarnations, to the fusing of our culture with the Judeo-Christian belief in a loving God who proclaims the dignity of each one of us, no matter what, no matter who.

Ash Wednesday

Ash WednesdayMy computer crashed during the week so I’m climbing the mountain called Steep Learning Curve. I’ve been introduced to Windows 8.1 and need say no more.

It was time for a new laptop anyway I told myself as I listened to the young man explain all the wonderful features on the one he was recommending, features that I would surely need and want. I tried to sort out what was true, exaggerated, and simply unnecessary. I prayed my angels were helping me along and I think they did and I’m so very grateful.

How did the crash happen, some have asked, their eyes wide. (Could it happen to them?) I was foolish, I said. As I was reading an online magazine article (John Yoo, National Review,  highly recommended), industriously researching a project for my bishop, I succumbed to a pop-up that insisted, in a seemingly sane manner, that I needed what they were offering in order to view the page I was reading. A few minutes after I downloaded it, I sensed something wasn’t right and exited. It wasn’t until the following morning when I turned on my computer that I realized what had happened. A blank blue Windows screen greeted me.

I’ll find out later if my files are salvageable, and a lovely lady at church this morning who knows something about all these mysteries said they usually are. We’ll see tomorrow. Fortunately, I had saved key files onto discs. But it’s all a distraction and hugely time consuming.

The deception of the hacker and the resulting theft of my time reminded me of the darkness of the human heart. Timely, I considered this Quinquagesima Sunday morning, to be so reminded as we near Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. For Lent is a time when we look into our own hearts and consider our own dark corners, where we have grown inward and not outward, where we have not loved enough, been self-less enough. For self-ishness prevents God entering.

Christianity, and Judaism as well, tell us to be good. They give us ideals and laws, churches and synagogues, to help us and say it is better to fail at trying to be good than not to try, not to have the ideals. But that makes us hypocrites, some say, so let’s not have ideals at all. We’ll be honest and throw them out. There is nothing worse than hypocrisy, they judge. Christians reply that in addition to the ideals,  we offer a way forward, an escape from the ashen heap of failure (and hypocrisy charges) and a way toward redemption. Christianity offers confession and repentance, ongoing change, again and again, turning toward the light, banishing the dark.

Sacramental Christianity, liturgical Christianity, offers certain seasons when these cleansings are highlighted in case we forget to confess and repent again and again, in case we think we are just fine as we are and draw into our selves away from love. So as we approach Lent we consider what we should be sorry for, measuring our lives against the Ten Commandments, the Cardinal Sins and Virtues, the many gentle promptings of our consciences.

Christianity, the child of Judaism, is radically different than other religions in this sense. For God is teaching us to love one another by loving us enough to walk among us two thousand years ago. To be sure, there were times when Christians failed to live up to the ideals God revealed in Christ, but there is no comparison between these times (i.e., the Crusades, the Inquisition) and Islamic terrorism, as President Obama stunningly stated at the recent National Prayer Breakfast. There is no comparison either, it should be added, between these dark “hypocritical” times and the secular horrors of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. A secular world without Judaic-Christian foundations, without Western ideals of tolerance and liberty and law, is just as dangerous as a world of terrorism.

Michael J. Ortiz writes recently in the Wall Street Journal:

“While we celebrate our freedoms, such freedoms also give us rampant abortion, commercialized eroticism and laws that make marriage anything one wishes it to mean. If we want the Muslim world to emulate our institutions of democracy, perhaps we should give them reasons for believing that democracy doesn’t automatically have to jettison publicly held moralities that actually ensure those freedoms in the first place.” (emphasis mine)

Indeed. Publicly held moralities. One such ideal we recently celebrated, the romantic love of Saint Valentine’s Day. Amidst the carnage of marriage, deep within, we know we can be better, can love better, that ideals are important even if we can’t attain them. We yearn to truly love and be truly loved so we look to Saint Valentine, a third-century Christian martyr.

Saint Valentine was a bishop. Fifth-century accounts as well as a history compiled by the Diocese of Terni, Italy claim that Bishop Valentine was born in Interamna (today Terni) and imprisoned and tortured in Rome on February 14, 273, beheaded for refusing to deny Christ. He was buried on the Via Flaminia. Over time February 14 became associated with romantic love as well (early spring pairings in nature) and colored the original history.

True love, sacrificial love, is one of the many Christian contributions to the West. Such ideals ensure our freedoms. We must not forget these pillars, and it is good to recall them as a hard-drive becomes corrupted and crashes. I do not want to become corrupted, for I do not want to crash. Just so, I do not want my country to be corrupted, for it will surely crash.

It is good to remember we are creatures of Adam, that we are but dust, and it is good to have an ashen cross drawn upon our foreheads this coming Wednesday. It is good to say, I’m sorry, I repent. I will try and be better. I will repent and be forgiven. For only then will my dust one day rise from the ashes, from death to life eternal.

A French Country Wedding

domaine_evis_idx2

We witnessed my niece’s wedding this weekend in the French countryside. 

The wedding was held outdoors at Domain des Evis, a fifteenth-century fortified farmhouse set in the rural landscape of the Perche region, not far from Verneuil-sur-Avre on the Normandy border. The few days before, unseasonable torrential rains poured upon the land, nearly flooding the narrow roads, but a Saturday sun worked its way mightily through dark billowing clouds.

We took our places on benches under the suddenly bright sun and watched the bridesmaids step up the aisle, followed by the bride, arm in arm between her father and her brother. It was a curious blend of old and new, and the secular ceremony, while never mentioning God, spoke of love and commitment and how-we-met. Poems were read and vows exchanged, hearts were touched, and eyes were moist with tears. The wedding reflected the beliefs of the bride and groom, as it surely should, for they are poised on the edge of a dying culture in a France tragically beautiful in its diminished faith.

Later, during the dinner, since they had asked me to speak as my niece’s godmother, I mentioned God who, while not invited to the wedding, was ever-present, loving them anyway:

As godmother I made my own vows for my niece at her baptism, and as her godmother I said a few extra prayers each evening, asking God to bless her. The prayers clearly worked, for she has found her prince charming who is now added to my list of intercessions each evening. And now two families have been united…

Weddings are rites of passage. The philosopher Roger Scruton notes that “rites of passage are the vows that bind generation to generation across the chasm of our appetites.” In this rite of passage we call marriage, family and friends of many generations witness the vows of love between a man and a woman. The vows are made in a public ceremony, before a community that gives assent and approval by their presence. When the bride walks up the aisle, alongside a member or members of her family, the journey through the gathered witnesses reflects her journey from one family into another, as well as the creation of a new family. This is the “giving away” of the bride and as archaic as it may sound in today’s world, it represents a giving over to the groom certain responsibilities, that of loving, protecting, and sheltering the future mother of his children.

The wedding ceremony in our Anglican Book of Common Prayer states that matrimony is a holy estate. Indeed, it is considered one of the seven sacraments, for it is sacred. Matrimony produces life, and all of life is holy, sacred. With marriage comes the blessing of children, and those children will step through their own rites of passage…

I thank my niece and her new husband for sharing this sacred day with us. Love and cherish one another, comfort one another, honor one another. Have and hold one another, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health. Be true to one another…

It is curious, I now reflect, that as the Judeo-Christian roots of Western Civilization shrivel, folks cling to these shadowy memories of faith. They hold on to the symbols and ceremonies that speak truth even though they don’t believe in the author of those truths, he who designed our marvel-ous natures, he who created us to love. For without belief in the source of love, the symbols and ceremonies will wither and disappear. How many generations will it take for nihilism to eclipse Christianity? And how many generations will it take for the religions of death to fill the void left behind?

We are entering a new Dark Age, for we take for granted the inheritance bequeathed by Judaism and Christianity, the values that birthed our culture of freedom. It is this heritage of liberty protected by law, rights birthed by responsibility, marriage and family ordained by sacraments, governance authorized by democracy, that has defined the Western world and has given hope to peoples living in poverty and tyranny. It is this Judeo-Christian culture of the West, planted and watered for millennia, that is envied the world over by refugees, regardless of their own beliefs. Immigrants flood our borders for they understand what and who we are. We all know the Western world is not perfect, for it is shaped by humans, but it is our best and brightest hope for the future and for peace.

So on Saturday we heard good words in this elegant and sweetly beautiful marriage ceremony beneath stone towers and alongside dry moats of medieval stone. We saw love blossom, taking root in the garden of marriage whether the lovers believed in the sacrament or not. Their love was watered by the words and the vows and the faux-rituals. One day they will hopefully bear children so that another generation will water the roots of our culture, if they can remember this day and others like it. Perhaps, in the future, they shall recognize the God who loves them so, reflected in the leaves.

I’m glad I was able to attend the wedding of my sister’s daughter, who I held in my arms the first week of her life. I’m glad I was present to see our two families intertwined, one French and one American. My prayer list is longer, and I rejoice in this binding of generations.

Watering Seeds

flowersThe sunflowers that the children planted last Sunday, pressing the seeds into the loamy soil in miniature clay pots, sprouted during the week. This morning we gathered around the shiny yellow table and marveled at the green shoots. Natalie, age four, carried the teapot (our pitcher) to the bathroom next door. She stood on the step-stool and turned the faucet, then watched the water gush into the pot. With great attention and care she grasped it with both hands, balancing her walk back to the yellow table with its new life. Together we tilted the spout and watered some sprouts, then passed the chrome pot to Luisa, age two, to give it a try with another teacher’s helping hand.

Earlier we had tied bright colored balloons to our welcome sign outside. We filled a basket with animal crackers. Soon we would read the story of creation with its many hued watercolors of rainbows and rivers and flowers, yellows and blues and greens and reds, and all things bright and beautiful. I was looking forward to singing this hymn – “All Things Bright and Beautiful” – together. 

As I watched the children and the teachers in this precious hour in the back of our parish church I thought how this scene had become and would become a part of my history. I have been involved in teaching children in church for thirty-seven years now, and as I share with them the creation of the world, I know that even in this small way I am contributing a few drops to the great stream of Western civilization. For the children will grow up believing in a rational God who not only created order out of chaos, life and light out of death and darkness, but loved, and continues to love, his creation. This is marvel-ous news.

There has been much outcry in the last few years about the loss of Western Civilization courses in major universities. How will we understand who we are? How will we move forward, creating and inventing and ordering the chaos around us if we do not understand how we created in the past? As many have written recently, this creating and inventing and ordering – this steady progress, was the product of belief in a rational God. Without the Judeo-Christian civilizing stream none of this would have happened. Progress happens within a linear view of history, not cyclical. When Abraham left Ur, at the command of the One True God, he left the pagan cycles of fatalism and reincarnation. He gathered his people and stepped forward in time to a destination. One action built upon another. Prophecies encouraged the journey, angelic visitors explained the future. He and his tribe were a part of something far greater, even in his old age, something building and progressing, something sacred led by God. Abraham looked up to the stars and found a God who cared, and he looked forward to the path he would follow to his destination.

So as I watched the children, I considered how my own history, my country’s history, my culture’s history, that of the Western world – all the past that has brought me here – is vital to the next generation. And values of freedom, democracy, respect for one another, heroism and sacrifice, personal responsibility, the sacredness of life itself, must all be cultivated just like these Sunday School seeds in order to flower.

This last week I signed up as a contributing “Creator” to a newly launched website, LibertyIslandMag.com, founded by Adam Bellow. Here “conservative, libertarian, and contrarian” authors of fiction may post their pieces and excerpts, blogs and comments, adding to a growing national conversation. I know I’m conservative, probably libertarian to a degree, and most likely considered contrarian by major publishers (and some of my family) so I was glad to find this island of sanity. 

I’ve also recently had the privilege of being part of the first steps taken to establish in Berkeley a Center for Western Civilization – library, faculty residence, lecture hall – one block from the U. C. campus. The St. Joseph of Arimathea Foundation sees this as a means to plant more seeds in the fertile ground of this major university area, to teach founding principles of Western Civilization to this coming generation. Joseph of Arimathea was the trader who provided the tomb for Christ’s burial; he sailed to Glastonbury to plant the seeds of Christianity in Britain. It is said that he planted his staff and the staff flowered. This same thorn tree, replanted over the years, still flowers in winter.

Many folks across our land are cultivating Western ideals, planting seeds for the future generations. They need our support, both financial and spiritual, to rebuild our broken culture and reap a good harvest.

Rejoice Sunday

I continue to be astounded by the richness of our Anglican liturgy, the way the colors and seasons weave into one another to create a fascinating and beautiful tapestry of time. 

It is a liturgy shared, of course, with Roman Catholics and to an extent Eastern Orthodox: the love of symbols, saints, and sacraments; the dramatization of deep and joyous beliefs; the pleasure taken in incense, song, chant, processions, and common prayers we know by heart so we can pray in common together. 

We call our sixteenth-century prayer book The Book of Common Prayer, for it provides prayers learned by rote for those of us in the pews so that we can pray as one voice. It also provides assurance that the prayers prayed at the altar are theologically true, for they reflect words chosen carefully through the centuries. We call this catholic in the sense that it represents what is true for all time in all places for all people. 

I read recently that new education studies show that children are better prepared to succeed in life if they learn the old fashioned way, that is, by rote, by memory work and drill. I learned the old fashioned way and while it took effort and patience, I was rewarded with a strong sense of accomplishment. We learned poems and times tables and history dates. Often boring, but usually productive. I think I also learned how to accept boredom, how to not expect constant entertainment, how to go the distance, how to, in essence, work. I learned how to meet goals set by teachers so that later I would learn how to meet goals set by myself or employers. 

Our liturgy is full of these small and large milestones. It is not meant to entertain (although it often does in a glorious way, suddenly, unexpectedly), but rather it is meant to meet certain goals. “Liturgy” is the “work of the people.” We call the Holy Eucharist an action in the phrase the “Action of the Mass.” Something truly happens, and we, with God’s help, help to make it happen. We add our unified, voiced prayers, memorized (eventually through repetition), to those of the priest who celebrates the Mass. As the priest stands before the altar he stands before God, representing us. But during the Action, he represents Christ, consecrating the bread and wine into body and blood; Christ is made manifest in the “creatures” of bread and wine through this action.

To be worthy of receiving Almighty God into our hearts and bodies, we examine our lives for deeds done and undone, those things separating us from God. We need to be perfect, washed clean, to meet him at the altar rail. And so we confess together, as one and as many, and are absolved. We are made perfect in that moment.

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. It is called Laetare Sunday, meaning “Rejoice,” named for the traditional Introit, “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem; and be ye glad for her…”. It lands midway in Lent, and is meant to be a lighter brighter more joyful Sunday than the others in Lent. Rose vestments and altar cloths sometimes replace the somber purple, and flowers are allowed on the altar (not so the other Sundays in Lent).

We draw closer to Passiontide, the two weeks before Easter, and so it is as though we are refreshed today, before we return to the road to Jerusalem and the way of the Cross. We consider our Lenten rules – our self-discipline of time and desire. I for one am not midway through my memory work: First Corinthians 13. I have the first few verses down, sort of, but it has been a struggle, as is anything worth doing. It may take Lent and Advent and another Lent for this old soul to learn it by heart. Nevertheless, I keep at it, the passage printed out, handy for the odd moment of time. Perhaps it is discipline that, in the end, forms disciples.

Today’s Gospel is the account of the feeding of the five thousand, the multiplying of the loaves and fishes, one of many feeding miracles recorded in Holy Scripture. But John’s Chapter Six account is followed by Christ’s stunning announcement that one must eat his flesh and drink his blood to attain eternal life. It is not surprising that many followers left him after that statement, confused and probably overwhelmed at the very least.

Christianity is not a religion for the faint of heart, although our God mends broken hearts. It is not for the lazy, although our God empowers us with his own life. It is definitely a faith for those who admit helplessness in these matters, for with steady slugging along, we are rewarded with stunning joy. Not a bad exchange. It is an exciting journey with God to God, full of miracles and happiness. I’ve had more Road-to-Damascus moments than I could possibly count. 

So it is with great delight that I am certain that all I have to do is show up at church on Sundays. All I have to do is pray with the Body of Christ, the Church, and be part of the great Action of the Mass. All I have to do is repent and be forgiven. I do these things every Sunday and everything else falls into place, as though angels rain grace upon my life. I don’t need to see and understand everything all the time. All I need to do is go to my little parish church and be faithful.

Thanksgiving for Families

It has been said that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. We don’t always get along with our siblings, our parents, our children. But we know they will always be our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Family bonds, however fragile, bear stress better than other bonds, but even these can break when hearts are broken.

Just so, we speak of our parish family, using similar words. Here too, the bonds are stronger than friendship, or perhaps different than friendship, more like family bonds. Common beliefs run deep like underground rivers, not always seen, but necessary to the watering of roots. As sacramental Christians, we believe that when we partake of God at his altar, he unites us with one another, past and future. God joins us, and he enjoins us to love one another in a special way. He enjoins us to invite all and everyone into this holy family. All are invited to his table; we are siblings, with one God the Father and one Mother the Church.

And like biological families, we do not always get along. Sometimes I think that because the belief and altar bonds are so deep we trespass on kindness, we assume assent and approval. We might push one another too far, for we sense things will all sort themselves out in time. I hear many such stories of other parishes, and witness such events in our own parish life. Because we love one another, we are close, and because we are close we have more to gain and more to lose, just like a natural family. Our hearts and souls are exposed for all to see.

We are all in training for Heaven, to sing with the family of God and the angels, the white-robed martyrs and the great prophets and apostles, with our ordinary, extraordinary brothers and sisters who have made the journey ahead of us. Our time on earth is a testing time, a time of trial and formation, of growth, of sanctification.

Ideally, within the natural family we learn discipline and delayed gratification. We learn to look out for one another. We learn work habits – beginnings, middles, and finishings. We learn to pass the potatoes and share a meal with one another. We learn to converse, to lace words into phrases so that we can touch the person alongside, to bring our minds and hearts together for a brief moment, like dancing. We learn the liturgy of the family, the morning rising and breakfasting and heading out for work and school, the coming together in the evening, lighting a supper candle, holding hands and saying grace, the washing up, the struggling through homework, the shared moments of recreation in the time left, the evening prayers, the slipping into sleep. It is a dance in which we never lose touch never let go of one another, as we follow the notes and the rhythm of family life. We learn to love by learning the law of love – the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt not murder, lie, steal, covet; thou shalt honor God, honor parents, honor husband and wife. The law of love is straightforward, simple. The law of love is crucial, the center of the Cross.

In this daily dance we may not always get along, but the rituals pull us through anger and frustration, through selfishness, greed, envy, and other mishaps of our souls. We might fight with one another, spar, test, lash out or “vent” as is said today (as though we were machines), but with God’s grace, we apologize, we make amends by amending ourselves in humility, by repenting and reforming, by turning around. The family, hopefully, teaches us how to do this, or tries to, and in this daily hymn of life, we school our children to be part of larger families: the community, the town, the nation, the world. 

So we give thanks this Thanksgiving not only for families but for our national family, for the United States of America. We give thanks for this incredible experiment in democracy. Earlier this month we gave thanks for those who fought for our country to preserve her freedoms. Now we give thanks for those who founded her, who birthed her. 

Will America need to be re-found, re-born? Will she survive these challenging times? Will she crumble as the family crumbles under the weight of easy divorce, easy sex, easy abortion, easy love? Without the school of the family, this remarkable training ground in the law of love, will we find ourselves in a wilderness, a wild-ness, a human jungle in which an elderly woman is punched out by a heartless teen or a tourist is shot for the fun of it, a jungle in which girls and boys die from binge drinking, drugs, and Internet bullying, in which babies are slaughtered, thrown out, before they breathe their first breath?

As Americans, our beliefs in freedom run deep like a river, unseen, assumed and unquestioned. Do we take these freedoms for granted? Do we exercise our rights without considering the accompanying responsibilities that support those rights? Are our American roots in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, roots that tap the deep waters of freedom of speech and religion – are these roots shriveling underground and unseen? Are we paying attention to their dying?

This Thanksgiving week, as we gather together the fragments of of our families, those from near and far, those members whom we like and those whom we don’t, we give thanks for this a-gathering, in church and at home, before altars and hearths. We give thanks for our freedom to gather in the squares and legislatures of our land. We give thanks for law and order, such as it is. We give thanks for family life that trains us for participation in a greater American life. 

And we pray that we, a nation founded under God, will preserve and protect those institutions that water liberty and a love for one another: the family and the church.