Tag Archives: public square

Incarnations Among Us

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

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

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” (KJV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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.

Saints and Heroes

With the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII this Sunday morning, many have written about sanctity and what it means not only to the Church but to the world, both secular and sacred.

As Peggy Noonan wrote in her Saturday “Declarations” (Wall Street Journal, April 26-27, 2014):

Saints are not perfect, they’re human. A saint is recognized for heroic virtue in the service of Christ, but saints have flaws, failings and eccentricities. It is because they are not perfect that they are inspiring (italics mine). They remind you what you could become.

So these two priests, elevated to the papacy, had their failings like all of us. But they impacted our world in powerful ways, good ways, ways that made the world safer, better. Pope John presided over Vatican II, saying he “wanted to throw open the windows of the Church,” and soon reform followed, freshening spirits and opening hearts. Pope John Paul presided over the fall of communism embodied in the Soviet regime responsible for the slaughter of over twenty million people of faith and freedom.

Daniel Henninger, also in the Wall Street Journal, observed that institutions are the pillars of society, holding the parts together. These institutions, I would add, such as the Catholic Church, are able to raise up and nurture heroes, men and women who become the face of social goodness, cultural cohesion. We ordinary folks need tangible images, icons, to understand our world and our place in it, who we are, who we are meant to be. The Church gives us those images in her saints. We learn through the saints how to practice our faith, how to be truly human.

Other institutions – governments and schools – once gave us heroes to emulate; not so much today with the decline of the study of history, the decline in the ideal of charity, the decline in giving of oneself for another. Despair works to replace hope, nihilism tries to destroy faith, selfishness seeks to banish selflessness. Anarchy threatens the rule of law as every man looks out for number one and the resulting disorder trumps order. When we lose the stories of goodness, these good icons, these holy heroes, these great men and women of the past, we become smaller for it, we slowly lose ourselves. As W. B. Yeats wrote after the horrors of World War I, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” What would this great poet write today?

This is not to say that there are not islands of faith and practice, of law and order, communities of belief where heroes sacrifice for others.  It is good when our world recognizes these lives of love, and even better when we do not forget these saints as we travel in our own journeys through time.

And so history holds civilization in its palm, protecting it by telling its stories again and again to its children, stories about who we are and who we are meant to be. It is difficult but hopefully not impossible to put things back together in a world disdainful of Judeo-Christian belief, faith, and freedom. It is difficult but hopefully not impossible to create a public square where the pillars of civilization may once again hold things together, may once again rise from strong historical foundations to build a house not of sand but of stone, build a strong future together as a free and good society.

So I am so very thankful for the sanctity of these two popes. I am thankful for their heroic contributions to our time and culture. I am thankful that millions streamed into St. Peter’s Square this morning to witness this event, to this island of sanity in Rome, in Italy, in Europe, in the world. I am thankful that the center is still  holding.

To see some ring-side photos of the canonization, visit the Facebook page of my friend in Rome, Sister Emanuela of the Missionaries of Divine Revelation: https://www.facebook.com/missionariesdivine.revelation?fref=photo