Tag Archives: God

Birthday Blessings

birthday candlesI celebrated my sixty-ninth birthday yesterday, and so I was particularly happy that today I found myself singing with the children in Sunday School, “I sing a song of the saints of God…”

We all love birthdays, ours or others, for they are celebrations of life. Birthdays are markers in time, signposts on our journey from birth to death. Birthdays proclaim birth-years, a twelve month unit man has created to organize his life on earth. When we are young birthdays mean cake and presents. In this way we are taught to celebrate them. As we age, birthdays say, hooray, I’m alive, I made it another year. Birthdays are one way man faces the reality of his existence, life’s transitory span, the fact that our bodies will, no matter what we do, one day turn to dust.

We are creatures bound in time, yet we yearn for eternity. And so we ignore, even deny, that our time is limited with a beginning and an end. We live as though we will live forever, and this denial of our mortality is not only a protection against facing our death, but evidence that eternity lives within us, our very Creator.

There was a time in Western Christendom when days were not divided into hours, and hours not divided into minutes. There were no clocks ticking, no watches with hands counting seconds. Days were observed by sunrise and sunset, and by the ringing of church bells at matins and vespers. In earlier times sundials prefigured clocks, the pointer casting a shadow, and the shadow revealing the movement of the day’s time by the movement of the sun. The longer the shadow, the lower the sun and the coming of darkness, its drawing near, nightfall and nighttime and all that that meant. Night falls, drops upon us with the setting of the sun, blanketing the earth in the sun’s giant and forbidding shadow.

We light the dark with fiery candles, so we can see. Just so eternity intersected time with the coming of Christ, a light in the darkness, gifting temporal creatures with God’s glorious present, Christ, who fills past and present and future with eternal presence, turning we mortals into immortals. But in our journey in this life we are still bound by time.

There are times when I forget time, when I am outside of time in a blessed way. They are moments of devotion, concentration, living outside myself, absorbed by others. Stories, songs, and children pull me out of time, pull me out of being aware of the minutes slip-sliding away, disappearing. Love does this too, with the touch of friendship, the eyes of the beloved. The mysterious bond of marriage that, with grace, time strengthens, is a bond forged in mutual selflessness and sacrifice birthed by vows blessed by God. The love of mothers and fathers for their children opens a door to the eternal. The mystery of love, moving away from self toward the other, pulls us to the shores of eternity so that we can dip our toes in its waters. These mysteries tell us eternity is now.

On the annual remembrance of the day of birth we light birthday candles. We sing to the honoree. We give gifts to bind us together with love. The ritual teaches our children that life is good, to be celebrated, that life shines light upon the world, and that we are thankful for life, every year, day, minute, second. We show our thanks by our love. We sing joyously, triumphantly, carrying a blazing cake into a darkened room. The birthday honoree makes a wish and blows out the candles. In the light we wish for our heart’s desire, and the wishing itself (and all those fairy tales about wishes) reflects our yearning for eternity, our longing for the flames on the cake to never go out. The child blows and the light is gone. We sigh, seeing our future.

The colored wax drips, drowned by the frosting. The cake is cut, and we break bread together. We take part in our common humanity in this celebration of another year of life.

Last night, I dipped my fork into the chocolate brownie cake, with its gooey frosting and melting ice cream alongside. I tasted the dark richness and briefly wondered whether chocolate itself might be a bit of eternity. Thinking back, I’m sure it is.

We are given so many tastes of eternity in life: through our senses, through scripture, sacrament, and song, through the glory of the earth, through our life with one another.

But we are also given tastes of no-eternity, darkness, that other state of being, often called Hell. The two streams, the river of Heaven and the river of Hell, flow through our own time in this world. One stream is love and the other unlove; one selfless, the other self-ish; one sacrifice, the other indulgence; one freedom, the other slavery; one life, the other death. We can choose which stream to follow.

My old bishop loved the hymn, “Shall we gather at the river”:

“Shall we gather at the river/Where bright angel feet have trod,/With its crystal tide forever/Flowing by the throne of God?”

And the refrain:

“Yes, we’ll gather at the river,/The beautiful, the beautiful river;/Gather with the saints at the river/That flows by the throne of God.”

And so my sixty-nine birthdays have flowed like a river through my time on this earth, and I now sail into my seventieth year. There will be swirling currents, still-waters, waterfalls, undertows, risings and floods. But through the Church, and with the grace of God, the stream will lead to the river that flows by his throne. I shall then celebrate a rebirth-day in a timeless time, marked by the singing of saints and angels.

The children this morning sang with gusto, twirling and pointing and folding their hands, showing and telling about the saints of God. It was a perfect birthday gift, a grace-filled birthday blessing and I grinned as we sang the last verse:

“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.”

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)

All the Difference

star of bethlehem.jpgThomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution recently wrote about political lies of the last few years: 

“Lies are a wall between us and reality… Reality does not disappear because we don’t see it. It just hits us like a ton of bricks when we least expect it.”

Lies encourage us to deny reality, to “put our heads in the sand” and thus are dangerous. To say the Benghazi terrorist attacks (2012) were a demonstration over an inflammatory video, is a lie told to calm fear. But it invites complacency and so emboldens terrorists, both domestic and international. We have mourned lives lost in subsequent attacks because of this lie. This lie ensured the election of the current president, and a wall rose between our national defense and reality. 

And so too, as individuals, we might choose to believe lies for reasons of comfort. But such lies are dangerous as well, inviting greater suffering and confusion when reality “hits like a ton of bricks.” 

Reality has a way of eventually hitting us, and so too, belief in God and the claims of Christ are worthy of examination as to their truth, their reality. “What difference does it make?” many say, imbibing the lie of our culture that all beliefs are equal, all faiths equally true. While all believers are worthy of respect, how can all faiths be equally true, when one denies the claims of another? Alas, it makes a great deal of difference what a person believes. Living a true life means seeking the truth, embracing reality, sorting fact from fiction and avoiding the ton of bricks. One of the greatest lies of our age is that there is no truth. The truth exists apart from us, whether or not we can grasp it at any particular moment. 

I have long suspected the lie of “closure” in regards to mourning. Stephen J. Forman, a cancer doctor, writes in the Wall Street Journal “how the loss of a loved one is a part of each person’s life forever…. the reality is that closure is a myth.” Grief changes over time, but grief is woven into the weave of our souls, giving us greater compassion, understanding, and empathy. It makes us “wise” or “deep” or simply “good.” Suffering and grief helps us see. To remember at sudden moments, even with tears, those whom we have lost is a good thing, not one to be suppressed: 

“The danger of the idea of closure is that it heightens aloneness, by giving us a false expectation that these experiences should and will at some point end. They won’t… To deny (memories) is to deny precious moments of love, fellowship, gratitude and inspiration… To close the memory does not sustain the healing or help in proceeding with life. Such echoes from the past are voices in the present and are sometimes warmly felt.” 

This can be said of nations as well. To close echoes from the past is to deny who we are, forged by the past in this moment in time. To live only in the present is to force closure on the past, to live a lie, to disavow our nature. Our history is our life story, our identity as Americans. It is a cloak we cannot afford to shed, one our nation must wear in order to survive. 

To find closure after terrorism may for a time ease our national life. We pretend it didn’t happen and we carry on. But it is a lie to say it makes no difference. Of course it makes a difference. Those who died for our country must remind us continually what is real, what is true and what is false in our national narrative, how we face our future and defend our freedoms. 

Children long for boundaries. They beg for limits so that they can see the truth about their world, what is good and what is bad. Good parenting sets limits and teaches the truth, the reality, of forbidden territory. In this way they become responsible adults, for they have learned what is real. They can search for truth and face it. 

And so as we worshiped in church this morning on this First Sunday after Epiphany I gazed at our bishop’s chair, empty. He left us for Heaven, and now, seven months after his parting, his wife has joined him. As I looked upon the chair, I was gifted with a flashing memory of the bishop and his wife, as I knelt on the russet tiles, in the filtered light streaming from clerestory windows, in the singing together the Creed, the Gloria, the Our Father. The bishop and his wife were epiphanies that graced my life and I knew that they would continue to grace my life through the opening of my memory, the refusal of memory’s closure. Their lives were woven into mine, as mine was into theirs, through love, through the grace of God. I consider those memories, even in the depths of loss, to be precious piercings of my heart. These epiphanies, these openings, reweave my heart and soul, adding to the texture. I do not desire or need closure. 

In the Church, the Feast of Epiphany celebrates the coming of the Wise Men from the East who brought the Christ Child gifts. Epiphany means manifestation, the revealing of God in human form in Jesus in Bethlehem. With Epiphany, Christ is now manifested to the world, not just to Israel, not just to God’s chosen ones. The Wise Men follow a star so that the heavens as well take part in this epiphany, this revealing of God. They follow the star to a stable, a hillside cave. The universe shines a beam of light onto a newborn baby in the hay. The Magi, scientists of their time who studied the heavens, kneel before this child. They bring him gold for his kingship, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh for his burial. After this epiphany in their lives, they will never be the same. 

And we will never be the same. Like the Magi, we kneel before Our Lord in our local church. We gather before his tabernacle, his stable, just as the Magi did two thousand years ago. We pray that we be made worthy to receive him through confession and absolution. As we pray, we are changed by the prayer itself, for we enter moments of epiphany, dwelling in time woven with eternity, knowing that God himself is with us and within us. 

To kneel before the manger or before the altar, experiencing such love, and to say it didn’t happen is to deny reality. It is to lie about the greatest truth of all, the greatest reality of all, God dwelling among us. For if God loves us and lives among us and within us, it makes all the difference to our own lives, and to all the world. We can now look truth in the face, even search for it boldly, knowing that we will be wiser, like the Magi on that holy night two thousand years ago. Our lives will never be about closure, but about opening. We will travel, epiphany by epiphany, into the open heart of God.

 

A Light in Time

Advent St. JIt is a season of renewal, a time when we review the old year and make resolutions for the new one. We judge our time, our spending of time, our use or abuse of the year 2015. Each year is a gift. It is a unique segment of our lives, a year we cannot retrieve and a year that will never be repeated. We are given only one chance with our lives, only one chance with the time given.

And so we look back and consider what habits to discard and what to keep, what to repent and what to repeat, what to affirm and what to deny. Sometimes confusion reigns even in hindsight, and the better path not obvious even from this vista point, perched as we are on the cliff at the end of the year, getting ready to jump into 2016, a new segment of time granted to us, this new year. 

“She had the time of her life.” We say this to emphasize a moment of great exuberance and joy, a peak time amidst the other valleys. But all time is of our lives. All time is holy.

As I look back on my year, I do indeed see confusion and chaos. A good friend and mentor left our earthly time and entered eternity, leaving us behind. Another friend is getting ready to leave, in hospice care. Her bags are nearly packed and she is peacefully waiting the chariot.

In the past year there have been many risings to occasions and putting best feet forward and keeping stiff upper lips. There have been duties and responsibilities not always heartfelt, actions ordered by God’s law of love. There have been dark times in shadowy valleys where answers could not be seen, where the fork in the road had no signpost, or the sign had been lost, thrown into the bushes.

And yet looking back at 2015 I also see clarity and order. My good friend and mentor in Heaven left me many gifts that live on bridging our separation, gifts of wisdom and love, ways to see and believe, the necessity of humility and its fruit, repentance. My friend waiting for her journey to Heaven continues to gift me in her last days, but I can see clearly now that her friendship itself was given to me to make sense of my own time.

The risings to occasions, the duties and responsibilities not eagerly engaged, rewove my own heart to be of stronger stuff, not so easily thwarted by dismay and danger, informing my soul again with God’s law of love. The dark times through the journey of 2015 led me to the altar of my local church, pushing me to my knees in penitence and prayer, and when I re-entered the world I found myself on the top of a mountain of light with a clear view of the surrounding countryside.

We do indeed live behind the veil of eternity. Some of us glimpse the brilliant color and catch the fragrance and sensory delight on the other side. Some of us hear the music, the choirs of angels and the songs of the saints. Some of us don’t know how to lift the curtain or even believe that it can be lifted or that it is there at all, thinking this world is all there is.

And so as I stepped through the dark days of Advent, those short wintry days, I watched and I prayed and I worshiped God in his Church, calling for Christ’s coming, singing with his people. Slowly, a light shined in the darkness, revealing my place in the world, my place in my moment of time. I observed the rituals and rites of Christmas with their sacramental signs, knowing they would lead me to the light to see again.

I garlanded the evergreen in our bowed window and strung twinkling lights through the branches. Ornaments from the years of my life were resurrected from tissue nests in boxes, where they had lived since last Christmas. The figurines and balls and tassels hanging from bits of wire released memories from the prison of my mind, giving them air, and a stained-glass gathering of family and children and loved ones crowded happily with one another in my heart.

In the days before Christmas – after the parish pageant on Advent IV – I set up our large crèche figures on the hearth and dangled a golden star from the mantel. Fresh white candles found holders in all the rooms so that I would not forget the great light coming soon to the world to banish the dark, the darkness of winter, the darkness of my soul.

So the confusion of life, after all, I learned once again, can be cleared. There is a way to lighten the darkness, as described by St. John whose feast we celebrate today:

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

John 1+, Gospel reading for Christmas Day

And in one of John’s letters to an early church:

“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”             I John 1+

And so, as my good friend in Heaven taught me, one must walk in the light – that is, penitently – in order to see in the darkness. He also gave me the gift of the Church, the Body of Christ, that leads me to the light. For only by entering the doors of Christ’s Body can we experience clarity amidst confusion. Only by walking up the aisle to kneel at the altar can we know the love of God and his forgiveness. Only by observing our time, each day, hour, minute, within the seasons of the life of the Church, can we find our way forward into the New Year that awaits each of us.

I look back upon 2015 and see a map of love through time. I want to follow that path that journeys with Love incarnate. I look forward to 2016, every minute, every hour, every step of the way, lit by the light and love of Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us.

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.

A Dry Season

hills2It’s a dry season here in the Bay Area. Brown hills holding their gnarly oaks roll east from the Pacific toward the Sierras. “We need rain,” a friend said. “As always,” I said. “Tahoe was down fifteen feet,” someone else told me. “No snow pack I guess,” I lamented.

Man has always battled the natural world, has always been subject to “Mother Nature,” a fickle mother. When we are dry, she doesn’t always give us rain, and we have learned to store water in great basins carved from our mountains and valleys. We do not want to be prodigal with the gift of rain; we must ration it for the future.

And as Joseph instructed the Egyptian pharaoh, we build storehouses for our grain. We use our intellect to breed better crops to feed not just ourselves, but the world. We invent better machinery to deliver food from farm to table. But even so, we can’t control the weather. We still do rain dances; we pray and plan in the full years to be ready for the lean ones. We have savings accounts, or wish we had. We buy insurance or wish we had. “A penny saved is a penny earned.” “See a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck.”

We are little people doing battle with the the great universe. And yet we have these huge egos, believing we can fly close to the sun with waxen wings. We are the boy David facing the cosmic Goliath with a sling and a stone. We are full of hubris, pride that goes before the fall, the Greek nemesis. We want to be our own gods. We do not see our wings melting.

I sometimes wonder how these great contrasts between reality and unreality, between who we are and who we imagine we are, live together in our souls. I suppose such pride can be good, for it propels us forward, encourages us to create as God creates, drives us to better our world and its peoples using a mind that reflects God’s own, made in his image. Somewhere deep inside, beyond politically correct and cool and longing for acceptance, we want to be good and true. There is a kernel of humility in each of us, a mustard seed that we want to water to grow to be fully good.

Christians explain this dynamic between good and evil, humility and pride by pointing to our innate goodness having come from our very creation, being made in God’s image, birthed by his love. We point to our sinfulness – our desire to disobey God – as having come from our fallen nature. Somewhere deep within our human beginnings, deep within the garden we call Eden, so long ago, we made a wrong turn, and that turn led to other wrong turns, which led to others.

The saints are those who try to correct those wrong turns, those who try to re-turn onto the right path. We want to learn from them for they know the way, opening themselves to God through prayer and sacrament. They scour their hearts through confession and repentance, re-turning. They prepare a place for God to live, to dwell within. We tell the stories of the saints to one another and to our children. We tell of saints from the past and the present, yes even some who live among us, so that we might touch the hem of their garment, so that we might learn how to re-turn onto the right path as they have done.

As Christians, we have a way, a path out of the jungle into the light into God himself. When we are thirsty, we have sacramental fountains and scriptural rivers of water and life that make sense of all the dry seasons. We store our water and grain in the heart of the Church, so that we will not thirst or hunger.

We have a way forward as we move among one another, healing and loving as God heals and loves, allowing him to work in and through us. So that the natural world – with its storms or lack of storms, with its heat and its cold, with its lions that devour and bears that maul – is set in perspective. It is a good world, but a not-always-friendly world. Yet its goodness lies at the heart of each seed sprouting to the light. We know this is true. So it is good for us to use our talents as best we can to be good caretakers, producing foods and storing water for a hungry and thirsty world.

We are in the dry season. Fall is coming soon. The leaves will die and turn and drop to the earth in glorious color. We too will die and turn and drop to the earth, our ashen flesh becoming dust, our souls bursting in their own glorious color as they wing to the light. We watch and we pray and we give thanks for it all, for the goodness of even the dry times, for the harvest of God is always plentiful.

Celebrating the Seasons

Holy_TrinityI love the Church Year, the seasons of our faith moving from Advent through Trinity,  traveling from December into next year’s November. The story of Christ – birth, death, and life – is reflected in the nine seasons or “tides”: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pre-Lent, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and Trinity. Colors are assigned to these times: purple, white, green, purple, purple, white, red, green.

So when we sing the song in Sunday School with the children, “Advent Tells Us Christ is Near,” I am especially happy, for in the verses we summarize our faith, what God did and does for us, out of his great love.

Songs are poetry set to music, two arts entwined. And poetry is man’s way of expressing truth. Christian truths can never be celebrated enough: that our lives are important, that they have meaning and purpose and direction, that God exists and loves each of us, that he has provided a pathway for us to be with him in eternal glory.

Living the Church Year within the Church gives our faith richness and depth and allows these truths to intersect our real lives, day to day, week to week. We are now in the long green Trinity season, that time that stretches from Trinity Sunday in June to the First Sunday in Advent in December. It is a green season for it is a quiet growing time in the faith, celebrating the parables and healings and miracles of Our Lord as he walked among us.

In Advent we prepare for Christmas, the glorious celebration of the Incarnation. In Epiphany we celebrate the epiphany of Christ, his manifestation or revealing to the world with the visit of the three kings, the wise men, to worship him. In Lent we prepare for Easter, the glorious celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord. Soon we celebrate his Ascension and the coming of the Holy Ghost upon the disciples, or Pentecost Sunday. Trinity follows soon after, bracketing this seven month life history of the Son of God, and sending us into the green seasons of summer and fall.

Living out the Church Year brings God into our everyday lives so that he truly inhabits our time alongside us. When we are betrayed, slandered, accused falsely, or whatever hurt we may be feeling, whatever abuse or disappointment, we have this ultimate standard of truth to hold onto, Christ himself. And that truth holds us up and keeps us from falling in our journey. And best of all, that truth is love without limits, a God with a sacred heart full of divine mercy.

As Christians, we travel through the Church Year, enriched and protected by the life and love of Christ intersecting our own lives and loves, and so we must in turn enrich our world with these true intersections. It is easy to hold on to our faithful truths, to keep them for ourselves, our own parish, but the light under the bushel will go out without air to breathe. As our world draws away from truth of any kind, and in so doing denies true love as well, we must be the beacon on the hill, the guiding star. We must share this intersection of the eternal in time with our world, our nation, our communities.

As the children sang and raised their arms in joy, as they twirled and clapped and grinned, I realized how simple it all really is to share eternity with time. All I need do is be faithful in prayer, scripture, and sacrament. The road may not always be painless – suffering is a part of love – but it will always end in joy.

So, “Last of all we humbly sing/Glory to our God and King/Glory to the one in three/On the Feast of Trinity.”

Birthday Pilgrimage

Path to S_ Baume-provence2010In 1947 in the July heat of the Fresno valley I took my first breaths, released from my mother’s watery womb, having been created in the heart of God. Being the firstborn, my parents named me traditionally after my great-grandmothers, Christine (Norwegian) and Gertrude (French-Irish). 

We didn’t have much, but we lived in an America that honored family, faith, and hard work. We were rich in all three. 

Two years before my birth, my father, William Carl Thomas, discharged from the Navy as a chaplain on the USS Phoenix in World War II, had married my mother, Helen Martha Martin, in a church near her home in Inglewood, Los Angeles. They didn’t have photos taken, so they dressed up later for a picture in a garden. That was 1945. 

My journeys in time through my sixty-eight years have known everyday miracles, full of twists and turns, ups and downs, rarely along the road I had chosen, but, by grace, pulled along a better one. As I look back it seems I traveled many paths that wove in and out of one another, forming a cloth of many colors. 

My body traveled with me, naturally, housing my soul, growing, aging in sickness and in health, knowing the pains and pleasures of each day granted. My flesh has changed on this journey as cells have rearranged. Its waywardness has been partially tamed through habit and inconsistent discipline, exercise and diet. Hopefully, my body has grown to know its proper place in my life, subject to my soul and not its dictator. But the two don’t always agree on this; it is a work in progress, a journey ongoing. 

My soul traveled through these years, discovering the rich fullness of Christ at twenty and beginning that bright pilgrimage to God in God, as St. Benedict said. I traveled into the Eucharist, uniquely encountering Christ, and I traveled into his Body, the Church, learning to love and forgive, and most blessedly, being loved and forgiven in return.   

My soul learned in its journey how to wash itself clean with confession. All that I have done wrong and all that I have left undone can thus be seen in the light of Christ, purged by my penitence, my re-penting, changing. Such washing grants me the joy of waking each morning with a clean heart and soul, one open and honest and loving and unafraid. This is Christ’s healing tonic, forgiveness through his Church, His Body. And in this way we set out on the right path, at least for that day. 

I traveled as well into my own little gifts, such as they were and are, that grew tentatively, surprising me like green shoots sprouting from the earth, as experience sculpted memory, hopes, and fears. A student of history, I’ve learned how little I know, and it is humbling. But I’ve grown to know the face of freedom, its nature and its challenges, when it is threatened, and when it is nourished. I can recognize freedom’s enemies, hidden or disguised as friends. I am beginning to understand the difference between liberty and license. 

I also traveled in and through words on the printed page, blessed to grow up surrounded by books and book lovers. We poured over encyclopedias and dictionaries to answer our questions. We carried home stacks from the library. We listened to stories read aloud at bedtime, that borderland between listening and dreaming, wakefulness and sleep, when the heart and mind are open to the imagination and words are savored. This was our entertainment in an age when TV was limited, even (in our home) suspect. But reading aloud made language sing and dance. Meghan Cox Gurdon writes: “To curl up with children and a good book has long been one of the great civilizing practices of domestic life, an almost magical means of cultivating warm fellow feeling…and a common cultural understanding.” Today more than ever reading aloud together is an antidote to reading screens alone. We thus personalize our shared stories, joining the generations and renewing our culture. 

I traveled with others along the way, gathering together, working together, healing and helping: brothers and sisters in the Church, family and friends now scattered. These many and varied people of God are so unique that their differences complement rather than copy one another, forming an infinite rainbow, an eternal spectrum of type and color. There were mothers who mothered and fathers who shepherded. These many stars in a firmament of folks twinkled their way into my heart, lighting my path. I shall see them again one day when we gather at the river that runs by the throne of God. 

I’m still traveling through my time, glad and thankful that my destination is clear, the pathway well marked. I need merely read the signposts found in the forest of sacrament, scripture, and prayer. I began in the mind of God, swam in my mother’s watery womb, breathed my first air in a farming town called Fresno. As I begin my sixty-ninth year, I watch and listen, waiting for the words to see and hear, praying without ceasing, thy will be done within my free will, so that I choose the right path, home to God.  

Summer Sundays

Sunday SchoolOur children’s Summer Sundays program in our local parish this year, “I Believe,” revolves around the Apostles’ Creed and the Church Year, those “tides” or seasons that teach us the creeds. We sing “Advent Tells Us Christ is Near,” we read a story about the creed, we plant sunflowers in bright pails, we blow big balloons, we color and we craft. We make fridge magnets with the verses of our hymn to take home. 

As we dropped seeds into the dark soil, pushing each one deeper into its loamy home, to one day shoot into the bright light and flower, I thought about belief and faith and the Apostles’ Creed, our statement of belief. Would these children be allowed to practice their beliefs? Would the state intervene and silence them, force them underground? 

american-flag-2a2Some say believers are already underground, for belief in Christianity is not fashionable, even considered radical and strange. We are called bigots, narrow minded, living in a fantasyland, stuck in the past. And yet, for many of us, there is ample historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ and his divinity and the authority of Holy Scripture. We have known the Almighty God through prayer and met him in the Eucharist. We have seen his Holy Spirit working through others, nudging and guiding. We have opened our hearts and experienced the glory of God’s grace. These are no small things. This is good news, worthy to be published and proclaimed and protected, news to give hope to our world, news to tell our children, unafraid, with thanksgiving. This good news, gospel, deserves proclamation – and defense – in the public square. 

And yet such proclamations are increasingly discouraged. To be faithful to traditional marriage and family, clear Scriptural mandates, is considered unfeeling of those who view marriage differently. Rational debate, healthy debate, is pressured into silence.

The recent Supreme Court decision redefining marriage cites the “right to dignity,” a right not found in the Constitution. The judiciary has legislated law, a prerogative of Congress, the people’s representatives. And if we object to this massive assumption of power by five appointed lawyers from elite schools we are branded “bigots” and deemed “intolerant.” And yet, who are the new intolerant? 

The decision itself is based on dubious logic, seemingly seeded in emotion and a desire to restructure society according to personal agenda. Since the argument claims the “right to dignity” of gay and lesbian partners, one must conclude that polygamous unions and incestuous partners also have such a right. Bestiality as well. If the definition of marriage is not limited as it has been since the world began – a committed union of a man and a woman, producers of the next generation, and thus of interest to the state – then any relationship could be deemed marriage as long as it consensual. After all every relationship has “the right to dignity.”

I believe in freedom of religion, and that our nation still believes in this fragile and threatened freedom. We were founded on this principle; it is who we are. I have no desire to impose my beliefs on others, but I have a sincere desire, even a mandate, to live according to those beliefs, and to teach my children those beliefs. Our stars and stripes and our fireworks, our hot dogs and chips and beer, our parades and our picnics every Fourth of July proclaim our diversity of race and religion. Our flags wave proudly reminding us that we are a peaceful people who debate our differences with respect for one another’s beliefs.

And so, this fifth of July I pray for peace within our diverse peoples. I pray that this Supreme Court decision does not give license to the silencing of our conversation. I pray that we may worship in our local churches and temples without fear, that we may keep God’s law, writing it on our hearts and in our deeds. I pray that we will be respected and not slandered for our witness to the truth of God and man and woman.

The Court decision has divided us, not unified us. It has harmed us. It has encouraged a sudden silence across our exceptional land, and lining that silence is fear. 

starThe Bethlehem Star returned last week, not seen since 2-3 A.D. This conjunction of Venus and Jupiter occurred within the constellation Leo and its king star, Regulus, creating the Bethlehem Star. What does this mean? Is Christ returning soon to judge the living and the dead? The appearance in the night sky of this “star” is curious and wondrous. We watch and wait, ever vigilant over our own hearts, ready for Christ’s second coming. And as we watch and wait, we sing with the children about the first Star of Bethlehem. The children twirl, raising their arms in praise. They remind me of the joy of being a Christian and living out the Church Year with other faithful: 

Advent tells us Christ is near: Christmas tells us Christ is here./In Epiphany we trace/All the glory of His grace.

Then three Sundays will prepare/For the time of fast and prayer,/That, with hearts made penitent,/We may keep a faithful Lent.

Holy Week and Easter, then,/Tell who died and rose again:/ O that happy Easter day! “Christ is risen indeed,” we say.

Yes, and Christ ascended, too,/ To prepare a place for you;/ So we give him special praise,/ After those great forty days.

Then he sent the Holy Ghost, /On the day of Pentecost,/ With us ever to abide:/Well may we keep Whitsuntide.

Last of all, we humbly sing/ Glory to our God and king,/ Glory to the One in three,/ On the Feast of Trinity.

(Hymn #235, The Hymnal, 1940. Words by Katherine Hankey,1888, for the Sunday School of St. Peter’s, Eaton Square, London)

Next week in Sunday School life will sprout through the dark soil in the bright pails. We will learn about God the Father and how he created the heavens and earth, the trillions of stars he named, how he made you and me, mothers and fathers and children. 

And God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good.

The Fire Trail in Our Hearts

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My good friend Bishop Morse often said, “God wins in the end.” As I age, my years and my tears tell me the same thing, for I see darkness exposed by light more and more often. 

Each of us has a border that runs though our hearts, dividing the dark and the light, the evil and the good. Only when we illuminate that dark side can we become whole as we are meant to be. It takes courage to shine light on the cancer growing in those corners, the red raw wounds of deeds and misdeeds, that done and that left undone. It takes God’s spirit to embolden us to confess our sins. 

And so as I write and rewrite The Fire Trail, a novel in many ways about that line running through each of us, between the uncivil and the civil, I am reminded that I am not immune to the dark encroaching on the light, to the barbaric crossing that border in my heart. None of us are. 

Our culture does not encourage us to be humble, since humility lowers self-esteem. But true humility allows God to wash our hearts clean, and even if the soap stings, only then can we begin to heal. C.S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” And what a relief it is to think of others and not oneself, to turn outward and not inward, to dwell on the miracle of each of us, of all creation, and not just the miracle of me. Such turning toward the light strengthens us, doesn’t weaken us, as our culture claims mistakenly. Turning toward the light, toward the commands of God and the demands of true sacrificial love, makes us larger and more real, pulls us toward certainty and sanity. 

And so when I repeat the forceful and almost-embarrassing words of the General Confession in our Book of Common Prayer each Sunday, I am encouraged to admit I have not loved enough this last week. I have withdrawn my heart when I should have opened it wide. I have forgotten my prayers, and particularly my intercessory prayers. I have squandered time, that precious gift on loan to each of us, the gift of life itself: 

“We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable.”

Is the burden truly intolerable? Must I bewail my wickedness? The dark part of me says no, I didn’t really do anything wicked this week. The light part, on the other side of that fire trail through my heart, says that because I know God and have the benefit of scripture and sacraments and the Church I am held to a closer accounting, a higher mark. To whom much is given, much is required. God is, indeed, wrathful and indignant because I did not say my prayers, because I squandered my time and treasure, because I know better. They may be venial and not mortal sins (no murder involved), but even these “little” sins allow festering in the dark corners of my heart. And one sin leads to another, like cancer. 

A terrible crime is committed in my novel, The Fire Trail, near the Berkeley hills Fire Trail, the wide break that protects the town from wildfires. Other crimes cross the trail and hurt the townspeople, destroying the peace and setting fires in neighborhoods once safe. And we hear of worldwide breaches, of wars and rumors of wars, of beheadings and bombings and massacres, of eruptions of lava and ash spilling into our communities. 

Humanity will always carry that scar, that jagged line running through its heart; it will always need to tend the firebreak so that the wild will not devour the tame, so that the fires do not breach the lines, do not leap into our towns, countries, and world. 

I suppose my little novel is merely a reminder that this is true, that we must not fall asleep on this crucial watch. The guards in our towers must be awake and alert so that they can spot the first flames coming over the hill, before our people are engulfed. 

And so it is with the making of laws, good law that builds upon good law, laws that our children may in turn build upon. We in the present carry this great burden, responsibility, and honor, to watch – even demand – that this happens. We must weave the good and the true of the past into the present, so that our children may one day do the same with their inheritance. What we do, how we vote (each one of us), matters. History matters. Liberty matters. The Constitution, the rule of law, our three branches of government, all matter. Who we are as a free people in a world of unfree peoples matters. 

We will be answerable for our inheritance, whether we have squandered it, whether we have hidden it, or whether we have increased it with goodness and wisdom. 

One of my characters seeks goodness, beauty, truth, and transcendence. A reader of my manuscript, The Fire Trail, an Anglican priest, explained this week to me (forgive my paraphrasing, Father) that goodness (virtue) can only come from truth (veritas), truth being God, that without God goodness denies itself, for it becomes self-serving and proud, no longer good. It is union with God that allows the fruits of virtue to grow and flourish. St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) wrote about this. 

This is the question of our time. Can we be good, virtuous, civilized, without God? Or if all of us cannot manage belief in God, can those who do not believe see the need to respect those who do, support those institutions that will bear virtuous fruit through the building of schools, hospitals, and other endeavors devoted to the common good? 

In the early 1980’s Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book called The Naked Public Square, pointing out this great need in our nation’s public conversation. Os Guinness has written The Global Public Square, pointing out the need for such conversation in the world, the need for the Judeo-Christian perspective on culture creation.

But it begins with and in our own hearts. It starts with that line dividing the dark and the light. It begins with Sunday worship and confession and union with God. Only then can we turn to our communities and countries and world and shine the light in the dark corners. 

And, as Bishop Morse reminded me, God wins in the end. We need merely be faith-ful.