Tag Archives: God

Waving Our Palms

palmsundayWe sat in the front pew, the children and the teachers, waiting and watching. The purple-draped altar, the purple-draped candlesticks, the purple-draped medieval crucifix all stood solid and royal and richly beautiful.

We have been waiting throughout Lent, waiting for this momentous week, considering our hearts and our lives and our habits of love or un-love. Yet Palm Sunday is the day we end our waiting and begin our acting. As Christ entered the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, so we enter Jerusalem too, as we take part in the stupendous drama of the Son of God’s last week before his crucifixion, the week that Christians, all over the world, call Holy Week. 

Holy Week marks the days leading to Easter. The last three days, the Tridium, begin with Maundy (commandment) Thursday when we remember the Last Supper and Christ’s commandment to “love one another” as he gave himself to us in the Holy Eucharist. That same evening we strip the altar and turn out the lights, reflecting Christ’s arrest and abandonment in the Garden of Gethsemane. We even create a garden of flaming candles to honor the reserved Sacrament that has been removed, and some of us will “keep the watch” all Thursday night, undoing that desertion in Gethsemane.

On Good Friday, remembering God’s good death that saves us from ourselves, we watch as eternity intersects time and the earth quakes. The Son of God is crucified; the tree of Eden becomes the tree of Calvary, reversing Eden.

Some of us keep the Holy Saturday vigil, entering a darkened church and lighting it with flaming candles as the new day of Easter approaches. Some of us, like Mary Magdalene, will rise on Easter morning to find the tomb empty and to celebrate the risen Christ – and our own resurrections – with colorful flowers on a white cross and lots of happy singing.

But today, Palm Sunday, we waited and we watched in our pew, for soon, soon, we knew we would be given our blessed palms. As the Gospel was read, describing what we were soon going to act out, I entered into the liturgy, this moment of meaning created by time and tradition and creedal belief over two thousand years. I entered the story and walked alongside that colt carrying Our Lord through the gates of Jerusalem. 

So this morning, the children and the teachers stepped to the altar rail and received their palms, then stepped back to their pew. Soon all those in the rows behind us received theirs too. “We’ll follow the cross,” I whispered to the children, and we waited for the clergy and acolytes to step into the nave and begin the procession. The choir sang joyfully the resonant hymn, “All Glory Laud and Honor…” and we followed the cross, leading the congregation, waving our palms and singing too. 

Ritual is an art-form, and art is mankind’s way of expressing the great truths of his existence. Liturgy uses many art-forms: poetry and prose, music and drama, songs and prayers, symbols and settings richly textured with meaning. Ritual is a deeply satisfying way to express who we are, why we are here, where we have been and where we are going. It expresses what God, in his immense love for his creation, has done for us, and continues to do for us. 

The dramas of Holy Week and Easter are part of the greater drama of the entire Church Year found in Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox traditions, and to a lesser degree in other Christian bodies. But Easter is the culmination of that year. Since Advent and our waiting for Christmas, we have been preparing for Easter’s Resurrection. Christmas means nothing without Easter, for it is the Resurrection that marks Christ as the Son of God. It is Easter that makes us sit up and take notice and ask, “If he did rise from the dead, then who did he claim to be, and what did he command? What does he command today? Who exactly is he? Does he really love us that much to die for us?” 

As someone once said, Christianity is all about the Resurrection. If you believe in the resurrection of Christ from the dead – and there is ample historical evidence to support such belief – then the rest follows easily. And the rest is, oh my, a glorious journey, full of color, meaning, certainty, and the love of God singing to you at night. 

But I am ahead of the story and the week opening before us – we are still at the gates of Jerusalem. The children and the teachers followed the cross around the church, and the congregation followed us. Today being a fine sunny morning, we followed the cross outside into the neighborhood and around the front and back to the narthex doors. Our priest pounded on these gates: Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem! The doors opened and we entered the heart of the ark of the church, stepping up the red carpet toward our front pew. 

And so now we step into Holy Week, prayerfully, awe-fully, watching, waiting, and acting out this grand drama of the love of God, as once again, eternity intersects time.

Time Turning and Returning

PassiontideThe altar was draped this morning in purple – purple covered everything, it seemed – the tabernacle, the giant candlesticks, the huge medieval crucifix, the Lady Altar, the lecterns. We were drowning in purple. And so I considered my purple, penitent past, one which I revisited recently. 

I returned to a place I had not visited in thirty years, a city in which I had lived in the 1970’s, for the funeral of an old friend gone to Heaven. He was a devout Christian; he knew where he was going and he knew the way. He was eight-two, my son’s godfather. We had been in touch by phone and through Christmas cards, but not much else. 

So my son (42) and I (67) flew north to Vancouver, Canada. And as we flew above the clouds, I traveled back in time to a younger version of myself. The younger version, a girl in her twenties, peered over my shoulder that day of the funeral as though watching and taking stock of who she would become one day. 

I considered from time to time, as we prayed the prayers over the ashes in the Anglican Church, sitting with old friends in the pews, the unique journeys we each had made to this place and this day in this year 2015. I learned more about journeys, those stories, later over coffee and sandwiches. My friends had suffered death, illness, and loss. But we were joyful in spite of it. Children had grown to be parents, just like my son, and I marveled at these children now in their forties who once played together and flew kites on the green lawns of Stanley Park. Our children had grown up. And of course I noticed other graduations: retirement, gray hair, silvery beards. 

IMG_0437 (2)My son’s godfather, Frits Jacobsen, whose ashes we placed reverently in the square space in the cemetery grass, was a rare creature, a Christian bohemian. Born in 1933, he emigrated from Holland to Toronto with his young family after the war. Many years later he resettled in Vancouver and made a humble living as a book illustrator. He devoted countless hours to his church, his community, and the poor. He was self-supporting with his pen-and-ink drawings. He might have been confused with the hippies, a generation later, but he was far nobler. He lived in a garret in Shanghai Alley, Chinatown, in old Vancouver. Today the building is adjacent to the newly redeveloped Olympics and World’s Fair district, but back in the 1970’s it was a poor, albeit quaint, neighborhood, with soup kitchens and lines of homeless. 

IMG_0425My son, with the help of his miraculous IPhone, found the address. I recognized the door, with the 522 painted over it. We took photos from all angles. It was when we headed back to the car, time telling us it was time to leave for the funeral, that a lovely young lady came through 522. We asked what floor she lived on. The top, she said, curious. Could we come up? we asked. My son explained our connection with the former inhabitant (Frits had moved with the area’s redevelopment). When she learned that an artist had lived there, she was delighted to invite us in. And once again, as I climbed the familiar stairs to Frits’ studio and smelled the same musty stairway smells, that other girl I was, so many years ago, smiled from behind my shoulder. I pinched myself as I watched my grown son climb the stairs ahead of me, for I could see the four-year-old blond towhead clambering up behind him to visit his Uncle Frits. 

Frits, opining in his heavy Dutch accent, with his beret and his trim beard, was both gregariously joyful and astutely serious. He brooked no compromise with his Christian beliefs and would follow those who pledged the same. He was sure the Apocalypse was imminent. He judged his culture and he judged rightly, I believe, although he was a bit too harsh, to my way of thinking, on other denominations within the Body of Christ. Frits had his opinions and wasn’t shy about voicing them. And we loved him for it. He was a breath of fresh air. 

After the graveside service last week we gathered again to recall Frits and how he would love our gathering. We looked at his artwork, shared plates of fruit and salad. We laughed a good deal, and we knew Frits would have liked that. We remembered how we had found one another at church, our glorious Anglo-Catholic St. James, and how we had formed friendships including singles, couples, and young families. We didn’t have much, but we liked to talk about faith, about Lewis and Tolkien, about books, about theology, and we would gather together over wine and cheese and pineapple upside-down-cake. We picnicked at Stanley Park and dreamed where our lives would take us. For we were young then, and our future spread before us. We were fearless, undaunted. We embraced living. 

And so as I revisited my earlier life, more battle weary but also more wise, I guessed my friends felt the same. We looked different and yet the same, and we wove together the years we were apart in our conversations, asking, remembering, wondering why this and how that and where was so and so and what happened then. Each of us carried a universe within us; we had lived most of the universe already, and the stories, like planets, revolved around one another once again. 

I realize now as I write this, how rich we all are to have lived so long, to have so many stories texturing us and coloring our lives. Some are painful tales to be sure, but some are joyful. The threads of the weaving are both dark and light, drab and colorful. 

And also, as I now think back on this morning, Passion Sunday, when we enter the heart of Christ’s story – who he was, who he is, how he saved us from death to be with him – I understand a bit more than I did last year at this time. For my own passio – my story of moving through time, suffering the wounds of life and celebrating the healings – is fuller than it was even then, one year ago. For each of us, as Christians, are not only a part of God’s great creative project for his creation, but are also part of God’s great creative project for each of us individually, if we say yes, if we say, “be it unto me according to thy word.”

And so as we enter Passiontide, we look to Palm Sunday and Holy Week. We consider what it all means, our lives and the lives of those we love, weaving them together in our prayers and offering our new coat of many colors to God. We look to Palm Sunday and Our Lord’s entrance through the gates of Jerusalem. As the children waved the palms, just so we wave our lives woven by each minute, hour, day. We lay down this fabric of our lives before the Son of God who rides on a donkey through the holy gates. We lay them down alongside the children’s palms.

And we look forward to the glories of Easter.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

The Nativity of Our Lord

I was thinking about the weaknesses of the flesh, especially the aging flesh, as I realized I had driven off to church and the Christmas pageant, without my glasses. I turned around and retrieved them, so all was well, and I could read my lines and music, gold halo on head, white robe donned, even wings yearning to fly. After all I was an angel, a key role in the Heavenly Host.

But now, this afternoon, reflecting on this morning’s beautiful Fourth Sunday in Advent, it is fitting to consider our decaying bodies. It is fitting to tell the story of Christmas with every generation present, to tell the story of the glorious Incarnation. It is fitting to include the prequel of Adam and Eve and their tragic decision about that apple long ago. Our flesh, after all, is what incarnation is, a word meaning literally, in the flesh. The Incarnation itself, that moment in history two thousand years ago when God took on our mortal flesh to reverse that choice in the Garden of Eden, is an event we have come to know as Christmas, derived from the Old English Cristes moeses, “the Mass of the festival of Christ.” 

The Incarnation of God in human flesh, Christmas, while certainly overladen and hopefully not disguised with modern excess, still celebrates the kernel of this festival of love. Gift-giving is about love. Hospitality is about love. Christmas concerts celebrate love. The story of Saint Nicholas, fourth-century Bishop of Myrna known today as Santa Claus, is particularly about love. We delight in love when we light the fir tree to honor the Tree of Life, the Cross, for indeed, the tree that bore the tragic fruit becomes the wood that holds the loving sacrifice for mankind. Mary is the new Eve, Christ the new Adam and the bearer of the fruit of salvation, the giver of incarnate love.

So the other day, when the huge fir tree worked its way through the small backdoor of our home and the needles flooded our living room, making quite a mess, I embroidered the event into my tapestry of Christmas. When I climbed the ladder to string the lights and run the garlands glittering and dancing through the greens, I embroidered the moment into my tapestry. When I crouched under the lower branches and poured two jugs of water into the bowl (a thirsty tree) I wove this action, which has become over the years its own ritual, into my Christmas tapestry. These are the small ones, the blessed ones. There are so many other rituals and symbols, far more famous: the evergreen wreath with its symbols of life, the candles with their flames of light and hope, the glorious music (Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, to name a few) and the charming carols that retell the story again and again. So rich a season! So rich a tapestry! The beauty may be too great to bear.

But I shall wait for Christmas Eve for the ornaments, collected over the years, to be hung by one of our grandsons. And I shall wait for many more moments like this, this week of Christmas, and shall weave them into my life. 

All the rituals of Christmas, and they vary from family to family in details but not essentials, express this stupendous miracle, one we can’t find words for: love come down among us. C.S. Lewis said that there is a difference between believing in a god and believing in this God. This God, this specific God, makes it clear that there is nothing vague about Christian belief, and who this God is, what he is like, what he does for us. It is as though the sensory details of our physical world, our bodies, are part of this God, this Creator. He knows us; we reflect him in some mysterious way. He became one of us to know us better. And since that moment outside Bethlehem when eternity intersected time, the world has been changed. We saw love incarnate. We saw truth and we saw beauty and and we saw goodness. 

Christ, the Son of God, taught us how to be changed. He gave us ways to heal our corrupt flesh, our destructive selfishness, our hurtful pride. Love one another, he said, as I have loved you. 

But, many ask, how do we know this child in Bethlehem, this carpenter from Galilee, is the Son of God? Wasn’t this all made up by fanatics? 

We know this because of the resurrection stories that refused to die. Because Jesus the Christ (Greek for the anointed one, messiah in Hebrew) conquered death, and thus he was divine, outside mortal time, with power over mortal flesh. Because he did these things, and we trust the accounts, we listen to him. His words speak deeply to us about our lives, our world, and how to love one another. He perfects us through simple belief, repentance, and intention to follow him. He raises us with him through his own death and resurrection, for that wood of the Cross bridges Heaven and Earth, God and Man, Love and Un-love. But we must experience our own “little deaths” of self to find our true and beautiful and good selves. 

We know this carpenter was the Second Person of God because of the foolhardy yet loving behavior of his followers, the first Church. These were ordinary folk who changed dramatically, caring for the poor, protecting human life, irrespective of age, gender, race, born and unborn. He preached that the poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, the mournful will be comforted, the meek will inherit the earth, those who hunger for righteousness will be filled, the merciful will be shown mercy, the pure-in-heart will see God, the peacemakers will be called the children of God. The two “Beatitudes” that follow are warnings to his followers about their future martyrdoms. And it is these martyrdoms, beginning with Nero in 67 A.D., that powerfully witness to this Galilean carpenter being the Son of God. These saints believed he was divine, and in this sense were in love with him, and they died painful deaths to witness to their belief, and to their love. They changed our world forever. 

And so, as I took my little place with the other angels and shepherds in the chancel of our parish church, and as I gazed upon Mary and Joseph and the baby (we had a real baby this year, three months old), I gave thanks. I gave thanks for another year of life, but more importantly, another year as a Christian. For my Christmas tapestry is growing, as I added another pageant to my weave. My fellow Christians dance among the threads, singing and praising God, Gloria, Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo, the heavenly angels’ song to the earthly shepherds that starry night, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to men.

Deo gratias and Merry Christmas!

Giving Thanks

prayerToday is the last Sunday of the Church Year and the Sunday before our national Day of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the best antidote to selfishness and the best prescription for selflessness and thus leads naturally to the First Sunday in Advent.

Melanie McDonagh in the November 1 issue of The British Spectator makes the profound observation that the “cult of mindfulness” is largely a cult of self. It may or may not bring peace, alleviate stress, even heal depression, but it is an isolated lonely cult in which the focus is on one’s inner self. She is correct that the idea of living in the moment is pure Buddhism, and like Buddhism, the idea encourages us to escape suffering rather than face it, wrestle with it, and create meaning from it.

I have found that Christianity and Judaism pull the believer out of himself. It is through being self-less not self-ish that we find peace, and indeed, it is an inner peace that we find. How does this strange contradiction work? It works because in prayer we are focusing on the God who made us, and yet who also lives within us. Without belief in this objectively real God, we are merely wallowing in our own selves. Christianity brings the believer into community with all sorts of folks unlike him or her, different in age, gender, race, class, interests. We rub shoulders, we share tea, we are solicitous of one another. Most of all, we worship God (not ourselves) together, sharing this common outward vision, as we act out and re-present the great liturgical drama of church or temple.

And so Christianity and Judaism urge the believer to look around and, yes, smell the roses and live in the minute, for every minute is a precious gift. But these religions do far more. They urge the believer to face and interact with the real world. We call this interaction love, brotherly love. It is the sacrifice of that precious minute given by God, for the minutes are numbered, in order to give that minute to another, a stranger, someone unlike us. We pray for others; we visit the sick, shut-in, and lonely; we support charities that support life in all its facets, joyful and sorrowful. The history of the West is the history of this urge to better our world, to care for our communities.

Within this urge, this still small voice directing us to love, lies judgment. Judgment is not popular today; we are told we must not point fingers. And yet if we do not see clearly the true nature of what is happening around us and within us, we cannot better the world, and we cannot better ourselves.

God has spoken to his creation through his chosen people over many centuries. He has clearly marked the path to glory. The path takes us outside of ourselves so that God can enter those same selves. By shedding “me,” I miraculously find “me.”

One of the ways God has shown us how to do this is through simple thankfulness. The psalms are full of thanksgiving to God. To pray the psalms is to leave no room for depression. To offer oneself up is to know joy. It’s as simple as that. The Lord’s Prayer opens with praise that pulls us heavenward: Our Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come… Thanksgiving lives inside every word of praise.

And so this Thanksgiving Day, I look around me at my world, my nation, my community, my own heart. I try to see honestly, and I see generations of children raised in the cult of mindfulness. I see them highly mindful of their self-esteem, prone to take offense, demanding and self-righteous. They have lost themselves in themselves, as though whirling downwards, pulled into a vortex where depression imprisons them.

But on this Sunday before Advent and before Thanksgiving, I also look around me and see churches and temples where true thanksgiving is offered to a very real and loving Creator. I see voices raised together, not always in tune, singing thanksgiving and praise. I see love weaving among these communities of true believers who thank, not the stars, but the living and Almighty God for their very breath. I see islands of faith that show us how to be free from ourselves, not enslaved by ourselves. We do this by giving thanks to God for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Today is called in our Anglican tradition “Stir-up Sunday,” named after Thomas Cranmer’s powerful Collect, the collecting or gathering prayer for this day, written in the sixteenth century:

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

This is one of the many prayers that have formed the Western tradition. In this prayer we are called to act, to care for those around us, and through the caring itself we are interiorly rewarded. We will be changed.

And so, we look to the season of Advent, the four weeks that proclaim the advent of God becoming man, the Incarnation, the Christ child born in a stable. How do we prepare ourselves for this great coming? We give thanks, and in the giving thanks we receive God, we know joy. It is his chosen path. The way is clear.

Crossing the Courtyard

St. Peter's, 1913

St. Peter’s, 1913

Our parish church, St. Peter’s Anglican in Oakland, is building a new courtyard. Over the summer we have entered the church through side doors and back doors. We have peered over broken-down walls and into churned-up soil and rock. Along the way we unearthed our original cornerstone, laid in 1913. Somehow it was buried when a new church was built alongside the old in 1957. 

There has been much discussion, weighing in, rethinking this and deciding on that, in the process of executing the architect’s vision for our courtyard. Are the colors compatible with the existing buildings? Should there be a lych-gate or just a gate? How high will the brick walls be exactly? Did we really have to remove the palm tree? When will it be finished? In time for our organ concert? When will the elevators for the handicapped be done?

There has been much sighing and wringing of hands and raising of brows, then chuckling and open palms and leaving it all to God. Somehow we have weathered the great questions and agreed upon sensible answers. God has been good.

Today, finally, we could see how it all might turn out. Planting beds are marked. The brick wall (not too high) is finished, an inviting border. Soon the patio will be laid. Soon the front doors will be opened, their chains broken, and soon we will once again cross the threshold of our church, leave the secular behind and enter the sacred.

The sun came out this morning as we peered over the low brick wall. The heavy fog that settles upon the Bay Area this time of year had burned away. The earth, its gravity holding our church fast on its rim, was turning slowly, away from summer into autumn in this part of the world, away from winter into spring in other parts. For us here, on this part of the planet, daylight shrinks as the dark of night expands.

I’m glad to have a sacred space hugging the edge of the earth so firmly, and I’m glad to have a courtyard that links the secular with the sacred, that points to the light in the darkness.  Crossing such a space is a preparation, a time to quiet the mind and heart before kneeling in a pew to worship God. It is a time to bridge two worlds – that of God and that of man.

In the end, that is what Christians do, or are called to do. Each of us is a kind of courtyard, a linking and a joining of the secular and the sacred, of earth and heaven. We have experienced the transcendent, God become man, God giving himself to man in the Eucharist, God living within man through Eucharist and Spirit. But we are all only partly finished courtyards, I fear, for each of us has a long way to go for our gardens to flower, for our patios to be solid enough to bear much weight.

But we open our gates, and we invite those outside to come inside, to leave the noise and enter the quiet. We say, come, look and see what we have seen! Come, know the peace of God. Come, be healed. We witness to transcendence, here in our earthy world, an increasingly dangerous and barbaric world.

The Gospel for today was the healing of the man who cannot hear and cannot speak. He was deaf and dumb. Christ charges him and the witnesses to tell no one, but they do anyway, “beyond measure astonished, saying, ‘He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.’ ” I too am beyond measure astonished when I enter our holy space and gaze at the altar and its tented tabernacle resting in its garden of fiery tapers. I too want to tell about it, for my ears have been opened and my tongue loosed. I too have been healed of apathy, despair, depression, heartbreak, fear… to name just a few demons. I too have been forgiven my sins. Once, long ago, I was invited to enter through a gate by someone, like me today, grinning and beckoning from a courtyard, calling me to cross the threshold and enter the church. And once I entered, I knew, from the beauty that engulfed me, that I had left the secular and stepped into the sacred. And I was beyond measure astonished.

Soon our courtyard will be finished. Soon it will invite the halt, the lame, and the blind to enter this holy home of God and be healed. Soon it will witness to the world the incarnation of God, to Emmanuel, God with us. For the 1913 church and the 1957 church are now joined by the 2014 garden court, the child of a century of worship, a century of incense, candles, and song, a century of transcendent beauty.

http://www.saintpetersoakland.com

Traditions and Arrangements

Writing ImageIt is Labor Day, a time to honor work, the working man and woman, those who contribute to our world with their time, talent, and the sweat of their brow. It is appropriately also a time to send our children to school to learn how to do this, how to use their lives productively, how to work and to become responsible for their hours and days. So I turn to one of my many labors, my novel-in-progress, hoping to one day carry it to full term and allow it to breathe.

In creating the back-story for one of my characters, I have revisited the huge topic, Western Civilization: what it is and do we want to preserve it, and if we do, how do we go about it?

I am a saver of cogent words, powerful words in print. I snip bits from newspapers and magazines. I file them, where they sleep until resurrected in a moment like this when I am constructing a novel, drawing the blueprint that will become a huge house of many rooms. I am an architect, I suppose, in the planning stages, building inch by inch, word by word, scribble by scribble. Each room is a character, and they meet from time to time in the house, rub shoulders, touch one another’s minds and hearts and souls with their hopes and fears and regrets. Some rooms are dark, some light, some warm, some cold. They are all under the roof of my little novel, linked by halls and doorways and stairs.

The bits and pieces snipped and saved, ideas that will flow into these rooms are expressed by many ponderers from the English-speaking world. They voice concern, and rightly so, that without the Judeo-Christian underpinning of Western culture, the free world will collapse. One doesn’t have to be religious to worry about this… one merely has to face the reality of such a loss and how it would affect, at the very least, our ideas of liberty, law, and democracy.

Thomas Jefferson’s words decorate his memorial in Washington, D.C.:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Jefferson, a skeptic, is referring to slavery, but these words could have been written today. We all wonder, believers and skeptics, whether our liberties can be secure when we remove the author of the liberties, and when we remove the idea that these freedoms are gifts not rights.

Peggy Noonan writes that there are reasons for traditions and arrangements, some are good, some not so good, ways of doing things learned from experience. These ways have also risen from religious roots. Through the centuries since the birth of Christ, the West, under the influence of the Judeo-Christian social philosophy, has organized life based on the belief that God exists, that he loves and desires us to love, that he made man to be a free, thinking, creative being that would respond to him in turn, freely, thinking, and creatively. Behind the rule of law, behind our institutions of family, church, government, and free press, supporting our right to organize our workers, to gather in peaceful assembly, even behind our table manners and Robert’s Rules of Order, lies the Judeo-Christian definition of man and his purpose. So there are reasons for our traditions and arrangements in the Western world; there are reasons we labor to protect them.

The traditions and arrangements have changed from time to time, tweaked here and there, discarded here and restored there, fought over, around, and within, in word and in deed. Slavery challenges and condemns us, in the Classical world, among African tribes, and on American plantations. Today a child in the womb is seen by some to be owned by the mother, the unborn having no rights. Across the world, children are bought and sold, trafficked for labor, sex, surrogacy. Women are in bondage, jailed, beheaded. Believers are martyred. We see these things, we judge them to be right or wrong, and we labor to change them. So there are times when we need to alter traditions and arrangements to better reflect the Judeo-Christian definition of man and his congress with one another. But without the ideal, the standard by which to judge, how can we decide, act, affect the real world?

It is a conundrum, for our ideals of respect and liberty prevent coerced belief, even if belief may be necessary to uphold that liberty. So folks speak of a public square where we honor these ideals and seek common ground to move forward. They say we must reflect before deserting traditional definitions of marriage and family, that is, a man and a woman raising their own children. These arrangements have held and continue to hold society together. Studies show that the father is more committed, the mother more protected, the child more loved, when this traditional view is encouraged by government representing society. There is less delinquency and fewer single parent households.

I believe in the author of this code of life, this Judeo-Christian God, so it is easy for me to believe in these traditions and arrangements. I believe there will be a judgment (perhaps it’s ongoing) – a reckoning not only I will face but the world as well. We reap what we sow.

But I also pray that those who do not share my belief in that God, consider embracing his traditions and arrangements that have been honed through the centuries. If skeptics value liberty and the rule of law, respect for gender and race, care for the poor and handicapped, the unborn and the aged, if they desire freedom of thought, speech and worship, they would be wise to support the institutions that uphold these Western ideals.

I suppose the world is much like my blueprint for the mansion with the many rooms. Every person is different, unique, but together we have a common humanity. We share the earth and we share a long history. We live under the same roof of suns and moons and stars. We meet in common areas to agree upon traditions and arrangements, but we must build on those of the past, rather than begin anew each time. We nail and we hammer, we add here and pull away there, but we must consider why we do what we do and what we shall lose if we don’t. We must not forget how we arrived at this place, in this time, and why the rooms were decorated and arranged just so, before we tear them down. We must recall, if we are graced with belief, who labored to create this great house, our world, and that he calls us to love one another as he has arranged for us to love.

And it’s good to remember President Jefferson’s words, that our liberties are gifts from God our creator, and be thankful.

A French Country Wedding

domaine_evis_idx2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a Song

035“Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh.” So writes Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton in his beautifully written memoir, Gentle Regrets. The first reference is, of course, to Psalm 100, O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song… Dr. Scruton’s second reference, that to sighing, is to the sadness that seems to permeate our culture of unbelief, the most prosperous and “advanced” culture in recorded history.

Psalm 100, also called the Jubilate Deo, is part of our Office of Morning Prayer, in the Book of Common Prayer prayed by Anglicans worldwide for centuries. I wondered, what happens to a person’s attitude toward life if he or she repeats this prayer psalm every morning upon rising? Is there a change in the way he sees the world, or even a gradual restructuring of the soul?

I’ve been thinking about this the last few days, having dipped deeply into Dr. Scruton’s words of wisdom. He rightly values the Prayer Book with its Elizabethan English, so suitable to worship God. We sing the words of these prayers, sometimes in melodies, sometimes in chants, sometimes in our hearts and minds, following the rhythm of the phrases like a dance.

I first crossed the threshold of an Anglican Church (then Episcopalian) in 1966, at the age of 19: St. Matthew’s, Burlingame, California. Raised Presbyterian, turned collegiate agnostic, I was unfamiliar with the ritual, the set prayers, the kneeling, the making of the Sign of the Cross, the processions, the candles, the incense. Yet I felt as though I had entered Heaven. I was sure I had; I was totally smitten. I sat in the back pew and drank in the liturgy like a traveler in the desert. I was thirsty and didn’t know how parched I really was until then, didn’t fully understand what I deeply longed for, but here it was, all around me, the sights, the sounds, the smells of Heaven.  It was as though I was being held in the palm of a loving God, one who had created me in great joy and was so glad I had come home.

I wasn’t instructed and Confirmed until the following year, but in the meantime I entered, knelt, imitated the others. Since many of the prayers were the same each week, and there were Prayer Books in all the pews, I learned the words quickly and was soon part of the miracle happening around me. I learned how to dance with the Church, a universal dance stretching back two thousand years and celebrated all over the world. Since then, I have come to understand the meaning behind the rituals and the prayers, the Scriptures that ordained the words, the actions, the steps in this dance of worship. I came to understand what happened in what was called the great Sacrifice of the Mass, when the wine became blood and the bread became body in the Real Presence of Christ. I understood how the Liturgy of the Word led to this pivotal moment of bell-ringing and happy holiness – the Collects, the Scriptures, the Creed, the Confession and Absolution, the Sermon. And since then, I have traveled deeper and deeper into the mystery of worship and into the heart of God.

So it was with great joy that I discovered this Anglican philosopher who is also in love with the Book of Common Prayer, who “gets it,” as is said today. And he is right when he profoundly observes that our culture, having trouble finding God, has become sad, “morose.” Many no longer sing to the Lord a joyful song with gladness for they have lost him in a kind of slippery sophistry. Instead, they look to one another, and to themselves, to create gods from their own kind, longing for but not finding true worship. The resulting attitude is one of un-thankfulness, of grievance and complaint, of never having enough, of striving, of racing, of consuming, all in hopes of finding. The old adage, “Count your blessings,” is just that, an old adage and rarely practiced. Today curses are counted rather than blessings.

And so it was that this morning when I entered our parish church I was especially thankful for the words of our Prayer Book, the poetry of the prayers and psalms and liturgy, and most of all for the belief that backs and binds it. I addressed some “proofs” for the historicity of the Resurrection in my recent novel, The Magdalene Mystery, arguments of the mind if not the heart. And in the end, if one can argue the Resurrection, the rest falls into place, at least for me. But here, this morning, in my parish church and recently in the words of my new philosopher mentor, I find argument for the heart and soul. Human beings long to sing to God because we know deep down he exists, that he loves us, and that he has provided a path on earth to Heaven, to one day, see him face to face, no longer through a glass darkly. We long to experience what we suspect is waiting for us, true joy.

And as we sang with the children in Sunday School “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” prayed an “Our Father” together, and led them up the central aisle to kneel at the altar rail for their blessing during the Mass, I knew we had taught them well this day. They had experienced the bright and the beautiful, to be sure, when they entered that hushed space, as they padded up the red carpet toward the tabernacle set amid the flaming candles, as the robed clerics drifted by. “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be upon you, Natalie, this day and always” the priest said, touching her head lightly with blessing. We each made the Sign of the Cross, and with folded hands we processed out, back to the Sunday School, where we made more animals from paper plates.

It is good for us to pray, to develop an attitude of thankfulness for what we have been given, beginning with life itself, another day on this earth. I recommend an “Our Father” followed by the “Jubilate Deo” each morning, even if it’s in the rush of the early hours, driving to work, waiting for the bus, readying the children for school. Say it regularly and your life will be filled with joy, the jubilate of God, and far less sighing. I know mine has.

On Shame and Shakedowns

Writing ImageI just counted the tabs that appear across the top of my computer screen, those websites that I check regularly, and I seem to have fourteen, not counting OakTara (my publisher), Amazon, and Goodreads. Seven are websites I maintain, adding new content on a regular basis, and seven are sites to which I occasionally submit. 

My latest addition is Liberty Island (www.LibertyIslandmag.com), a site supporting conservative fiction authors. I recently posted the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail. Last night I read a short story that so closely mirrored my own family experience (my husband and I are way outnumbered by vocal leftists), I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry with relief: “Caravaggio’s Isaac” by Scott Steward Smith. The story therapeutically re-enacted some of my own life trauma.

Words matter. Ideas matter. Words and ideas drive and form culture.

I haven’t seen Dinesh D’Souza’s movies yet, but I am looking forward to them. Jay Nordlinger recently wrote about D’Souza in National Review (July 21, 2014), saying that D’Souza contends that “the shaming of America is related to the shakedown of America.” Many liberals, with the power of the media to pummel conservatives, accuse and judge America, exaggerating the dark side of our history and twisting the truth, not telling the full story. They say we steal, we commit genocide, we enslave, we conquer, we degrade. This is the one-sided “narrative” told again and again in our schools and our news outlets and our books and our movies. Many generations have been raised on this self-loathing. Many are ashamed to be Americans.

The dictionary defines “shakedown” as the act of taking or restructuring through threats or deception. Accuse Americans even falsely and they feel guilty, regardless of the injustice of the accusation. When they feel guilty, they open their wallets. They vote the ticket that absolves their guilt, regardless of unwise policy, regardless of harm to our country. Many wealthy find the shaming and shakedown of America agreeable. They feel guilty also, but it is the guilt of the rich, and their guilt is absolved. They use their play money to support those who tell the story they want to hear, regardless of what works to grow our country, protect our country, or advance world peace and prosperity.

So through this shaming, America is deceptively taken and restructured.

And in this restructuring, the creation of a culture without free speech, without the institutions of family and church, will, ironically, eventually silence even the press that now appears to support the shakedown. And they don’t seem to see it coming.

Words matter. Story matters. When an unborn baby is called a fetus it is easier to kill it. It is an it not a he or a her and has no rights greater than the mother’s convenience. Other words make it easier to submit. Her “convenience” becomes an issue of “health.” She is making a “choice.” One could also say a murderer makes a “choice.” But the right to choose resonates with our desire for freedom. It sounds good. Words matter. We feel for the woman with an unplanned pregnancy. It might limit her options in life. That’s one side. But the child might open new worlds to her. That’s the other side we don’t hear. We want to absolve her of her guilt, soon to be grief, by saying it is her “choice.” We are a caring people. The liberals accuse, “For shame, pro-lifers, you do not care enough. You are warring against women.” Warring? When a new life is created and protected? Sounds like pro-lifers are defending women. Shakedown. Threats and deception. Words matter.

We should not be ashamed of America. We aren’t perfect, no nation is, no person is. But we must acknowledge what is good about our country in order to preserve it and water and feed it, in order to survive even flourish in a world that could quite possibly destroy our freedom and our way of life. We must be respectful and honorable, law-abiding, law-giving, law-enforcing. We must practice courtesy, return manners to our discourse, whether personal or national. We must wait our turn, not cut in line, share from love and not coercion. We must care for one another, giving generously to charity. We must encourage creative enterprise, inspire the next generation to use the minds and hearts God has given them to make a better world. We must vote, armed with knowledge of the issues and the candidates. We must be responsible to our nation, to our communities, to our families. We must support religious institutions that provide the myriad of services we take for granted in a democracy, from hospitals to schools to soup kitchens.

And most importantly we must be unashamed to speak, to use words and tell stories while we can, tell the truth about our country, our people, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God.

Watering Seeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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