Tag Archives: Christianity

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.

Friends

I am often struck by how unique each of one of us is, and the miracle of this truth occurring again and again and again…. into infinity. 

It is like the prism of color we find in light, the colors that aren’t actually colors, but merging into those on either side. Where is green? Where is red? Where is blue? And yet every shade is there, to an infinite degree. It is like the perfect note soaring into a blend with other perfect notes in a string quartet, notes creating melody creating song, a song that echoes in your minutes and hours and days. It is like beauty, this unique person in a unique body. 

And so when I gaze at my friends, ordinary folks chatting around tables and milling in our undercroft after church I am often stunned by the glory of God’s creative power. I heard in a sermon once that each person is like a universe with its own planets and suns and moons revolving around one another. And yet the universes come together at times to form society, to gather in gatherings, to befriend in friendship. 

Friendship, our preacher said today, is something one works on. It is also a key and valued component of a good marriage. In friendship we look after one another, we sacrifice for one another, we celebrate and mourn with one another. We are not alone when we have friends, and to have friends one must be a friend, one must be-friend.

In our Gospel reading today Christ heals the man with palsy, who is dropped through the roof on a pallet into the crowd. His friends organized this operation, having faith that the Galilean prophet would heal their sick friend. Somehow, they open up the roof of the house and lower him in. They have faith. 

They have faith that the Prophet will respect their friend’s presence, lying on the pallet. They know that Christ will see this man as beloved and unique. They know that Christ will, in effect, see him. They are right.

Christ does see him. He sees inside of him, all of him, every shadowy corner. He says, Your sins are forgiven. He sees the man fully for who he is, good and bad. He loves him. He redeems him.

I have a number of friends who are crippled, or palsied, or maimed in some way. For that matter, everyone I know is maimed in some way, be it spiritual or physical, including myself. Yet the love of God sees us and holds us close, each of us. For we are created in his image, unique and miraculous beings placed in our moment in time. And we are given the power to love as he loves, respecting and cherishing all human life, from the womb to the grave.

I have been watching the video, War and Remembrance, a TV drama which reenacts the horrible holocaust of World War II. Here we see individuals who did not respect human life, who did not cherish each and every person created by God. It is a chilling reminder of a slippery slope.

To say we are part of the human race is not enough. We are much more than that. We are brothers and sisters, befriended and cherished by God Almighty, and we go through our time on earth breathing his breath, the power of his Holy Spirit.

My sister, the poet Barbara Budrovich, sent me one of her delightful poems, which, while this one is about punctuation, it is also about friendship, for our language reflects our deepest desires:

Who Am I?
Barbara Budrovich
 
I’m Comma’s identical twin.
 
With s by my side
I make others multiply.
 
Like our Ellipses
I stand for the missing.
 
I dwell in the sky
And bring–to the lonely–companions
Worth holding.

On Angels and Devils and Holy Confirmation

I recently finished a book called Raising a Modern Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood, by Robert Lewis. One of the many valuable suggestions in this unique and compelling work is the creation of ceremonies that celebrate stages of maturity. These ceremonies are not merely for father and son, but for communities of fathers and sons. They serve to give the young man self-knowledge, ideals, and support.

Ceremonies marking rites of passages are not new to mankind, but with the disintegration of American culture, ceremonies are often overlooked. It seems that there was a time when the many cultures that formed our union melted into the pot we called America. Not so much anymore, as we shift to encourage multi-culturism, which whether intended or not, affirms division rather than union. It is true that our many ethnic threads strengthen us and richly texture our nation. But being a naturally inclusive and friendly people, we have chosen a celebration of division, so that what defines America – both internationally and domestically – has become increasingly difficult to state.

This morning when we celebrated Holy Confirmation in our parish church, I was thankful for this moment of definition. The bishop laid his hands upon the heads of the confirmands as they knelt on the steps leading to the altar. As Anglican-Catholics, we believe that Confirmation marks publicly the moment when children become adults in the Church. For adult confirmands it marks a new adulthood in the Church, as they witness to their beliefs. The younger confirmands are asked to confirm the promises that were made for them as infants in Baptism. They are of an age of reason, no longer children, and they can promise with understanding. “Do  you promise to follow Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” the bishop asks them. The bishop then prays that they be strengthened by the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, and that they be given the Holy Ghost’s gifts of grace: wisdom and understanding, counsel and ghostly strength, knowledge and godliness, and lastly, holy fear.

They will need these knightly gifts, I thought, as they live out their faith in a world often hostile to Christianity. They shall don the shield of faith and the armor of righteousness, and the Church, the Body of Christ, shall comfort and nurture them throughout their lives, through marriage, childbirth, sickness, even in their dying. God shall never abandon them. As a shepherd he shall lead them beside still waters. He shall restore their souls.

It was particularly fitting, on this bright Sunday morning as September gives way to October, that we celebrated these Confirmations, these confirmings of faith and receivings of the Holy Ghost, on the feast day of St. Michael and All Angels. As the lector read from Holy Scripture, we heard the account of the great war in heaven when Michael the Archangel threw out Lucifer and his angels. “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… And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony… Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” (Revelation 12:7+)

Angels and devils are not common beliefs today. We might speak of angels whimsically as though reliving the fairy tales of our childhood. But devils are definitely not the stuff of acceptable conversation. Yet Scripture affirms their existence. Demons are said to be angels – pure spirits created separately from mankind – who have rebelled against God and now are given a span of time to scurry among the people of the earth, wreaking havoc where they can and undoing the good that is being done.

The good angels, however, are with us too, and we can call upon them. They are all around us, if welcome. And Confirmation – that affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ – welcomes them. These angels help us to be modern-day knights. They guide us on our journey on earth as we head to heaven. At times, I believe, they protect us from bodily harm. Dear friends of mine recently survived a rear-end collision, emerging from their totaled sedan shaken but, it turns out, having suffered only minor wounds. Angels were there, I am sure, as the drunk driver slammed into their car, stopped at a red light. Angels took some of the brunt of that crash.

So with ceremony and prayer and song, with ritual and the dance of the Eucharist, we re-affirm who we are, what we are, where we are going. We re-affirm to whom we belong, and with the company of the angelic host we are given our own wings to heaven. With the gifts of the Holy Ghost we are embraced by the Body of Christ.

Shattering Time

An elderly member of our parish journeyed to Heaven this last week. Her photograph was in our church’s narthex this morning – bright eyes, red hair, full of life.  It had been many years since I had seen her like that, for she had been weakening for a good and Godly while, and I smiled in recognition. She was younger then. (So was I.) 

I carried her image in my mind as I entered the nave and took a seat alongside my husband in the long oak pew. Now, thinking over the morning and my friend’s celestial journey, I am grateful for this great ark of the church that cradles each of us in this world. We the faithful sit in the nave, a word derived from the Latin navis or ship, and our own church is shaped rather like a boat, this one sailing the seas of Oakland, California. One day I too, like my friend, will journey out of this world and into the next, but for the time being I am protected by the Church. And not only protected, but in this womb I am fed by the Church, until reborn in Heaven. And what is the heavenly food that I feed upon in this womb of an ark?  I feed upon prayer, worship, scripture, and God himself in the Mass.

Today was fittingly a day of rebirth in our parish, celebrating the opening of the new Sunday School year with our annual Ice Cream Social. The children trooped up the red-carpeted aisle for their blessings and trooped out to their class. Soon they skipped downstairs for ice cream and home-made hot fudge. There were many smiles as we indulged, and more smiles as we were quizzed on Bible story facts and figures. There were prizes too.

Our children represent a new generation being raised up that replaces those, like my friend, that have journeyed on. So we teach (and show) our children the love of God. We tell them the stories of his great acts among us, those great acts that led up to the Incarnation in Nazareth two thousand years ago and those great acts since the Incarnation. Our preacher said today (and now I paraphrase, reaching into my rough memory) that the Cross intersected time and space; the Cross made past and future all new, re-newed. It shattered time. And I saw in my mind as he spoke the fissures of an earthquake crackling and cracking through time and space, in every direction. The Cross and the Resurrection changed everything. The Cross vanquished time by vanquishing death, giving us eternity.

We teach our children these stories of before the Cross (B.C., Before Christ) and after the Cross (A.D., After Christ, the Year of Our Lord). We call these eras Old Testament and New Testament (literally the old and the new testimony or witness or history) and we cradle our children in the ark of these stories, each account true in different degrees and ways, so that the new generation may know and be protected by the love of God. We teach our children God’s commandments so that they may experience God’s loving forgiveness. We teach them to sing and celebrate and offer themselves to God in the great liturgy of the Mass, so that they may receive God back in the bread and wine, and so be inspired, full of the Spirit, as they travel through the hours and days of the week ahead.

We cradle our children in the Church, just as my friend had been nourished and cradled by the Church in her earthly life. Through the Church God holds us close to him, and we sail on the waves of our sea of earthly time, the way clearly charted and the destination in sight. The bow of our ark cleaves cleanly through the waters, whether stormy or still, our ship directed and driven by the words of consecration before the altar within, where in the glorious song and silence of each Sunday morning (and sometimes during the week), God’s priest re-members (pulls into the present) the action of the Cross and  shatters time in the mystery of the Mass.

Dear Dwan, may your soul rest in peace and may light perpetual shine upon you.

Meaningful Work

My sixty-seventh summer has passed. My sixty-seventh autumn is upon me. And linking summer and autumn is Labor Day. While instituted in 1887 to honor union labor, Labor Day has come to be a celebration of all kinds of work, whether organized into unions or not. 

I believe human beings are wired to work, to produce, to create in some fashion. The Midwest killing over the summer by someone who said he was bored reveals the despairing numbness that comes from lack of purpose, lack of work.

Purpose. Rick Warren speaks of The Purpose Driven Life. We ask one another, what is the purpose of man? What is the purpose of life? We seek meaning, and work is an expression of the meaning we have found.

Of course there are many jobs that seem mindless, meaningless. I filed and typed for long hours and longer days as I cobbled my may through college, and later, as a single parent, as I supported myself and my young son. Not all work is meaningful, but most work is productive, if at least for the boss or the company worked for. At the end of each day, the file cabinet was plump with the filings from my inbox, and my inbox was empty. I had been productive. And when I received my paycheck it felt good to have earned it.

And in a sense every job, including sitting here at my computer in the comfort of my office lined with icons and books, with my cat nearby and my husband’s ballgame heard in the distance, has long periods of routine work, of slugging along. But I have been blessed with meaning in my life, so that no matter what work I do, it is offered to God. I am secure in the knowledge that I have tried to listen to God’s voice, I have tried to understand the next step to take, the next turn in the next crossroads (no pun intended).

Christians are or should be purpose-driven people. They know who they are and why they are and how they came to be. They know where they are going and they know the way. Sometimes we take wrong turns, more than we confess, but God brings us back. Through his Church he gives us road signs and we finally get back on the main highway, the way to home.

This morning we witnessed two young adult baptisms in church. The young ladies, one finishing high school this coming year, the other in the middle of her college years, had been brought home to the Church by their grandparents. I thought how wonderful it was that at this moment in their lives, when so many crossroads would soon appear before them – choices of classes, schools, careers, dating, marriage, family – they would have the grace of God empowering them, nudging them along. They would see signs that would steer them in the right direction. And as they make these choices, they would have a reference point – God’s will, his design for them, as expressed through the Church.

We are forever wandering and forever coming home, every one of us. And the nature of what we do with our lives, how we spend our time each day – our work as children of God on Planet Earth – matters. It matters because everything matters, everything counts. We may not always get it right, but as a member of the Body of Christ, we have signposts helping us along, helping us choose. 

Many baby-boomers will be retiring in the next decade, and they will face these choices, how they will spend the rest of their lives, their hours, their days, their weeks, their years. Some will volunteer at local hospitals. Some will take another job to supplement their income. Some will spend precious time with children and grandchildren, or neighbors and friends. Some will volunteer at church or temple. Some will give their time to spas and saunas, fitness clubs and golf courses. Whatever the trade-off that is made for the remainder of their days, they will choose activity that brackets and organizes their time, and this choice will shape them in the last leg of their journey through time. 

For me, I have the Church, and through the Church I have God. With the Church as my home, with the family of God surrounding me, with the sacraments and hymns and joyful Sunday worship, I have signposts along the way. I need only watch for them. Without the Church I should wander aimlessly, bored, purposeless, without meaning to my work. With the Church I can see; I am given productive years as I travel the last leg of my journey to Heaven. In the Church I am home, and when I stray I know the way back. A good exchange for my working life.

In today’s Gospel, Christ tells of the ten lepers he healed, but only one returned to give thanks. Today, this Labor Day weekend, I give thanks for the meaningful work God offers us, and I return each Sunday to give thanks again and again.

New Israel Baptism

Our rector is Jewish. A number of years ago he converted to Christianity while a student at Cal Berkeley. Last year he accepted our call to become our parish priest. For us, he brings a rich Old Testament background to our community of faithful and we are grateful for his fiery and brilliant sermons. For him, I believe, he finds in our Anglican worship a rich liturgy flowering from Jewish roots in both word and action.

We have other Jewish converts in our midst, folks that came to believe the long awaited Messiah was indeed born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, lived, died, and was resurrected so that we might be resurrected too. But they also are drawn here by incense, chants, bells, and soaring worship, by the beauty of holiness lauded in the singing of the Psalms.

I was thinking about this as I witnessed baby Joshua being baptized in church this morning. One of Joshua’s grandparents is Jewish, so his baptism added another Hebraic stream to our river of faithful. Through water and Spirit, through the words of the priest and the vows of the godparents, Joshua became one with the Body of Christ, our New Israel.

Our New Israel. For in spite of the horrific conflicts between Jews and Christians over two millennia, orthodox Christianity holds that Christ did not found a new church but was the fulfillment of the old, promised by God to Israel through the prophets. As Christians, we are an extension, as it were, of Judaism. And in baptism those outside the New Israel, outside the Church, are brought inside; those not a part of the Body become one with the Body of Christ. When Joshua is twelve (or so), he will be confirmed by the bishop. He will receive the Holy Eucharist and become one with Christ in an even deeper and more fulfilling way.

The Good Shepherd finds his sheep, no matter how scattered they may be. They may be from older traditions, different traditions, or no traditions at all. They may be clinging to a mountainside of doubt, fleeing a burning forest of anger, lost in a desert of despair and loneliness. The shepherd finds them and brings them home to safety, to love.

Our preacher said today that Christianity provides the map to Heaven, both in this life and the next. Some parents say they want their children to grow up with no faith so that they can choose when they are adults. But why wouldn’t we want to give our children maps to Heaven? our preacher asked. Why wouldn’t we want to give them directions, signposts, lights to light the path? If we know how to get there, shouldn’t we show them the way? 

God gave the Old Israel a map. God’s people journeyed from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses to Joshua, from the kings through the prophets, through wars and persecutions and slavery. They drew close to God and drew away from God, but God always brought them back to him. His people were clearly chosen, clearly set apart. And Christians too, as the New Israel, are chosen. They are sanctified, set apart. This happens in baptism in the miracle of water and Spirit. This happens when the Children of Israel, or any of us who are wandering in the desert, are baptized into the Body of Christ, and we are set on the road to Heaven. We are given a map.

The Gospel today was the story of the Good Samaritan, a parable reaching beyond one’s own people, one’s own tradition. While the story is about love, about caring for a man beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road, it is also about prejudice and fear. Two Jews – a priest and a Levite – pass by on the other side, ignoring the victim, whose blood would make them unclean. A Samaritan, considered outcast by the Jews, stops, binds his wounds, brings him to an inn, cares for him, and even pays the innkeeper to continue the care.

This morning, our Jewish priest poured water on the head of Joshua, saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”  Another sheep was brought into our fold. Another child of Israel was made one with God in the Body of Christ through water and Spirit.

And as for me, I am thankful that I too have a map to Heaven.

Sunday Surprises

It’s been a day of pleasant surprises.

As I checked my email this morning, before leaving for church, my picture flashed up on Catholic.Ink, a newsletter of CatholicFiction.net and Tuscany Press showcasing Catholic authors and books. The interview was a while back, and I had forgotten it. What a surprise! I read it with fear and trembling, thinking occasionally, is that really me? It was one of many seeds planted in the last year. Many seeds I plant never sprout, let alone flower. So it was a pleasant surprise. 

I had forgotten about it by the time we arrived at church in a bitter, numbing fog. I turned on the heat in the Sunday School rooms (heat in August? I asked myself, shivering). The balloons and welcome sign were already by the entrance and I set out the materials for the crafts, the cloth for our circle time, the storybook, the snack, and the poster board attendance chart waiting for its sticky stars to shine like a rainbow. Our sunflower plants had emerged from the black loamy soil in their little pails and there were even some green leaves. Natalie (3 ½) will be happy with that, I thought. 

Summer Sundays are often quiet and predictable, for folks go on vacation, attendance is lower, and today our rector was gone as well, and it, well, it just seemed like it would be quiet, slow. 

The children arrived and we stuck our sticky stars on the chart and gathered together around the circle, praying, talking, and singing about the saints of God. We worked on our crafts and watered the plants and lined up in the narthex for our blessing, then stepped solemnly up the red-carpeted aisle to the altar rail where our senior priest blessed us and gave the teachers Holy Communion. We padded back to our classroom and finished our projects.

We were beginning to put things away when I saw, standing in the doorway, a gentleman from the past whose uncle had been a dear friend, now in Heaven, probably one of those saints we were singing about. What joy it gave my husband and me to chat with Tim, mid-forties I guessed but looking much younger as he spoke of God in his life (“I’ve been reborn,” he cried at one point), what memories he brought back, as though Father Gilman were right there with us, chuckling and rubbing his chin, and saying I told you so. 

Happy with this turn of events, we headed toward the stairs to go down to the hall for coffee. Swimming in a current of memories of Father Gilman, I was surprised by the approach of my good friend Edwina. She introduced me to her pretty granddaughters, seventeen and eighteen. “They want to be baptized,” she announced quietly, her face alight as though she had discovered a great secret or was planning a coup. “When can we do it?” she asked me. I led them to the baptismal font in the back of the nave and we spoke a bit about baptism, the action of God through water and the Holy Spirit, the becoming part of the family of God, the Body of Christ. I gave them some materials to look over and promised that the rector would call them soon. By the time we all trundled down to have our coffee, we had become family, soon to become God’s family, a close connection indeed.

Downstairs in the parish hall I rejoined my husband and Tim. We chatted about Father Gilman, the old times, sharing the many stories of this robust man of God. Father Gilman was tall, a hefty man, once an engineer (he built tunnels through the Rocky Mountains, he told me), who had found his priestly vocation upon retirement. He loved to laugh, but what many recalled was his discipline. He ran the Bishop’s office like a Marine another once said (I for one appreciated this aspect, working in the office from time to time). He barked at acolytes who were late to Mass. He was a practical man and a spiritual man too, an effective combination. He knew when to be quiet and he knew when to act. He was thoughtful and watchful. He wasn’t afraid of warning people they were going to step off a cliff. As we chatted with Tim, I thought how the past linked us together like a great fishing net, or wove us into a huge tapestry. Seeds sprouted, full-flowered, within minutes in my soul. “As you get older,” Tim said, shaking his head and smiling (just as his uncle once did), “you look back and see connections.” How true, I thought, and how good it was to have such blessings travel with us as we age. 

Looking back in my own life I see patterns form, remarkable connections made, and I often think the saints in Heaven pull the strings this way and that as though we were part of a great drama, but of course it’s so much more than that. I do wonder, though, at times, if one day from my Heavenly perch I might be able to nudge or prod those I love who are still on earth, nudge them toward God, since I would be surrounded by the power and glory of the Father, Christ would be beside me, the wind of the Holy Spirit would be at my back, the angels would be whispering and fluttering. The temptation, it seems, would be to forget those on earth when one is so transfixed with God himself. One day I shall see; one day I shall know.

In the meantime I watch and wait for these amazing surprises, these moments of sudden joy, of the sun coming out. C.S. Lewis once said (and Father Raymond Raynes said this as well, so I’m not sure who was first; they were contemporaries, both saintly men) that belief in Christianity was like belief in the sun rising. When the sun rises, we know it has risen not because we can see the sun clearly, but because we can see everything else. Just so, God lights up the world and we can see.

I suppose the greatest surprise of all is that I’m still surprised, surprised by joy, way more than pleasantly surprised, but stunningly, excruciatingly, sweetly surprised. Today I have added a few more bright sticky stars to my own chart of Sundays. My chart is sprouting color like crazy, this sudden Sunday, the Tenth after Trinity in the year 2013, with all these rainbows weaving through my time, here and in eternity.

Patient and Brave and True

My husband and I drove from one micro-climate to another this morning as we headed to our local church, from valley sun to coastal fog. I entered the Sunday School rooms, switched on the lights, and leaned the welcome sign against the front door.

I inflated balloons – red, blue, yellow, green – and tied them to white ribbon, making a Sunday School bouquet, and hung them next to the sign outside. The sign read, “Summer Sunday School, Saints of God, All Welcome.” I left the door ajar in spite of a cold breeze that had found its way through the July fog and into our church.

All was ready – the Attendance Chart with its stickers, the circular rug for Circle Time, the organ accompaniment downloaded into my smart phone for “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Small pails, pink and blue, waited for seeds and soil, the beginnings of new life, one of our summer projects.

I Sing a Song of the Saints of GodThe teachers arrived, followed by the children. We sat around the circle and read the story about the Saints of God (based on the hymn).  I tapped my phone and the organ accompaniment began. We stood, singing and illustrating the words with hand movements and twirls. As we sang (and twirled) I pondered the words of this classic hymn (243):

I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
 
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green:
They were all of them saints of God – and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.
 
They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right, for Jesus’ sake,
The whole of their good lives long.
 
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast:
And there’s not any reason – no, not the least –
Why I shouldn’t be one too.
 
They lived not only in ages past,
There are hundreds of thousands still,
The world is bright with the joyous saints
Who love to do Jesus’ will.
 
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
For the saints of God are just folk like me,
And I mean to be one too. (Lesbia Scott)
 

I love this hymn for it defines a saint as practicing ordinary virtues. Saints are patient, brave, and true. Saints simply love God and because they love him, they try to do his will. They are “just folk like me.” They may not always succeed (saints are not perfect) but they try.

Patience and bravery are clear enough. But true? The saints were true to the truth. They believed God became man and died for us, rising again. And they were martyred, rather than deny this vital truth. They were martyred for witnessing to it, for telling folks the good news.

Mary MagdaleneMy recent novel, The Magdalene Mystery, is about truth and its telling in the media, in academia, and in the Church. It is about the truth of Saint Mary Magdalene, who she was and who she wasn’t. It is about how we know what we know about the stunning events of that first century, events that changed our world, indeed, saved our world.

Tomorrow, July 22, is the Magdalene’s feast day, and we celebrate this woman who knew Christ Jesus, was the first to see the risen Christ, and preached his resurrection in Provence. With Bishop Maximin, she traveled the roads east of Marseilles, sharing the good news with this Greco-Roman culture. Some years later, she died and was buried in the area of Aix-en-Provence. Today, some of her relics rest in the cathedral in St. Maximin and some in the Grotto of La Sainte-Baume nearby, where legend says she lived her last years. Other relics are venerated in the Vézelay cathedral and some relics rest in her Paris basilica, La Madeleine. 

A group of American pilgrims are traveling to La Sainte-Baume for the annual Dominican pilgrimage from the town to the cave (Dominicans care for the grotto). They will pray for blessings, for patience, for bravery, for truth, and continue praying a novena, a nine-day prayer cycle. And, according to many, Mary Magdalene is a powerful saint and will hear these prayers. Paula Lawlor, a mother of seven from San Diego whose intercessory petition was answered some years ago, is leading the pilgrimage. She believes Mary Magdalene saved the life of her son, pulling him from an abyss. She believes this was a true miracle, and is now committed to witnessing for this saint. It is clear that Mary Magdalene changed Paula’s life.

Our Gospel today told of Christ’s warning against false prophets, “Ye shall know them by their fruits…”. We know the saints by their good fruits, by the lives they led, and lead among us today. As I sang with the children this morning, I knew Mary Magdalene would have done the same, teaching the next generation the truth about God and his mighty acts among men. She would have shared her love of God. She would have encouraged them to be saints too, to bring forth good fruit. Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection, and she witnessed throughout her life, just as we do today.

This morning at church, after coffee and conversation, my husband and I stepped outside. The fog was gone, the sun shone brightly, radiantly burning away the mist, allowing us to see the leafy greens and the blues of the sky. A dim curtain had been parted, lifted, burned away, just as it was parted two thousand years ago in that Easter tomb-garden when Mary Magdalene saw her risen Lord.

(To follow Paula’s pilgrimage, visit http://magdalenepublishing.org/blog/.)

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Magdalene and the Search for Truth

A summer fog rolled in early this morning, blanketing the Bay Area and threatening misty rain to the north. Temperatures plummeted. The gray damp seeps into the skin and the spirit, and, as we entered the Caldecott tunnel on the way to church this morning, the white swirls slipped alongside the highway, creeping on little cat feet as the poet Carl Sandberg once wrote. The sun is hidden up and away – still there, I’m told, but hidden.

There are many things we cannot see from our vantage on the edge of this tumbling planet we call Earth. Yet we wake in the morning and go about our business of life as though we can see, trusting. We trust that gravity will keep us from flying off the edge and into orbit. We trust that if we eat we shall not be hungry. We trust that the vehicle we enter, start, and maneuver, will obey our commands, although we cannot see the engine or predict the oncoming traffic or crazies who lose control of the wheel. We trust without seeing. We trust and act as though we can see. If we didn’t do this we would be paralyzed, would remain under the covers, perhaps under the bed. (And we would starve.) 

In our daily lives we learn to trust greater authorities than ourselves, and we learn to trust the authority of experience. I use both authorities when I act as though gravity will keep me attached to the planet – the authority of science and the authority of experience, for I have never flown into orbit (yet). I trust both authorities with regards to eating and hunger. And also, I trust both authorities when I drive my car. Even when I pass through foggy patches and dark tunnels buried inside a mountain, I trust I will come out on the other side. Tunnel engineers tell me I will. My experience tells me I will.

This is a theme of my newly released novel, The Magdalene Mystery, which I am happy to say is now in print and available at Amazon and the OakTara Store. It is a mystery, a love story, a cliffhanger. But it is also about truth and trust and how we know what is true and whom to trust. It is about choosing which authorities to believe. It is about the manipulation of truth for profit, for power and the devastating effects of such manipulation in art, the media, the world at large.

Since Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a story alleging the marriage of Christ and Mary Magdalene, writers and composers have hopped onto his lucrative money train. Did these authors consider whether the claims were true? Did they see themselves as authorities? Were they New Testament scholars? But audiences believe these claims simply because they are in print, or in a movie or opera. The works are reviewed by media, after all!

The blind lead the blind. We live in a fallen world and much is at stake in this propaganda war. Propaganda is not a word one hears anymore, for twisting the truth to one’s own benefit has become common practice, and propaganda has negative overtones. Truth, propaganda says, is relative. But is it? 

Truth is truth. I for one choose the authority of the Church and two thousand years of debate and prayer and councils and scholarly exegesis. I do not have two thousand years to do this, and I am grateful that this is one wheel I do not need to re-invent. We do have expert authorities, at least as expert and as trustworthy as we will see in this world. There will always be fallen authorities, men and women who veer intentionally or unintentionally from what is real, embracing the false. There is simple incompetency. But we also have that vast consensus of history and tradition, Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead.” 

There has been a trend in the last century to profit from attacking large institutions. Big government and organized religion provide giant antagonists, becoming the new dragons to slay. The underdog rises from oppression; the prisoner throws off his chains. This trend developed naturally from the cult of the anti-hero, the folk hero with no princely powers who slays the dragon. The anti-heroes, ordinary folks like you and I, defeat or laud their ordinariness. They are lovable and inspiring. But when such trends cross into lies about the profound nature of life, death, love, God, and misstate the truth about man – who he is, where he came from, and where he is going – the trends become dangerous.

 “It’s just fiction,” I’m told. “It’s just a book, an opera…”

Ah, art, it’s subtle power! And it’s stretchy, flexible boundaries. And this, too, is a theme in The Magdalene Mystery. Is it okay – in art – to mislead, misrepresent, twist history? To rewrite what  has been said to be true for two millennia? To assume that because some don’t believe the Messiah came that the Messiah didn’t come? These are large leaps in logic, and dangerous ones. 

Like the sun behind the fog, God is not always seen, felt, experienced. Does this mean he is not there? We look to our authorities for belief that he is – philosophers, historians, theologians, our own experience. 

How do we know the New Testament claims are true? Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead? If he did not rise from the dead, the Church offers me nothing. If he did rise from the dead, the Church offers me everything. If the Resurrection is true, all falls into place, for all the whys are answered. The fog burns away, the sun comes out. I see it all. I see Mary Magdalene reaching to touch the risen Christ, this Son of God with a resurrected body. I see God. I feel his great love for me.

So I’m celebrating my novel’s birthday. My characters  finally live and breathe, and can speak to you directly, after being cooped up in my brain and in my laptop’s memory. Perhaps they will stop nagging me, trying to escape. Now they join the characters in my other novels, a large family that keeps me sweet company even in the fog. This I know from experience.