Thursday, August 26, 2010

Eucharist: An Anniversary Love Poem

Sometime tomorrow afternoon, Brenda and I will have been married 38 years. "Growing old together" is no longer an abstraction, but a present experience. I've never been happier in my life than I am now, and I've never been happier with Brenda than I am now, and I don't mind saying so publicly. Since I didn't make it to the store for a card, here's my little gift.


good gift

we give ourselves to each other
one coincidence at a time,
in the peripheral vision of dailiness
catalyzed on occasion
     with a burst of intentionality

we are given to one another
as hands and clay
as chisel and granite
as river and limestone
the result revealed only over time
     and after no small irritation

and in all our becoming
we are the gift of us
a semiotic herald
of wholeness trumping brokenness
of Hope snarling to Despair,

good gift

Singing Hopefully

What follows is cross-posted from my parish’s website and newsletter, where I maintain a monthly reflection on one of the hymns we will be singing in our worship.

Hope is one of the traditional "cardinal" Christian virtues (along with Faith and Love). It is something to which we are invited to aspire, to cultivate. Hope is a habit of the heart that is perhaps well illustrated by Yogi Berra's famous quote, "It ain't over till it's over." Hope is the fruit of a deep inner conviction, that, in the end, God wins. Creation is redeemed, and all is well for those who are reconciled with God. Our Prayer Book catechism puts it this way: "The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purposes for the world." 

The Scriptures give us several images of the fulfillment of our hope in Christ, especially in the Revelation to St John. It would probably be inadvisable to take them with exact literalness; they are, rather, compelling poetic symbols that point to a reality much grander than anything human language could describe. One of these images is "Jerusalem," which is, of course, literally a city on this earth that has been intimately bound up in the sacred story of God's dealings with humankind, but which is also a sign of something greater, something yet to come.

Peter Abelard was a 12th century theologian and poet who lived in a place and time in which it was arguably much more difficult to cultivate the virtue of Hope than it is for us here and now, much more difficult to see "Jerusalem" descending from the clouds as a bride adorned for her bridegroom. It was a time of widespread violence, epidemic disease, and corruption at all levels of church and state in Europe. It was in such an environment that Peter Abelard penned the lines of this Latin hymn, drawing on the biblical imagery of Jerusalem, and painting a vivid picture of the realization of the Christian hope.

O what their joy and their glory must be, those endless Sabbaths the bless├Ęd ones see; crown for the valiant, to weary ones rest: God shall be all, and in all ever blest.

The notion of Sabbath denotes rest, and rest is part of the symbolic vocabulary of our hope (as when we pray for the departed that they may "rest in peace"). When we come to our eternal Sabbath rest, we know God to "be all, and in all."

Truly “Jerusalem” name we that shore, city of peace that brings joy evermore; wish and fulfillment are not severed there, nor do things prayed for come short of the prayer.

Indeed, "Jerusalem" literally (and, it would seem, somewhat ironically much of the time) means "city of peace." The second half of this stanza is perhaps the most poetically and spiritually profound part of the entire hymn. In the realization of our hope in Christ, there is no longer a gap between wish and fulfillment, between what we pray for and what we receive from God.

There, where no troubles distraction can bring,we the sweet anthems of Zion shall sing; while for thy grace, Lord, their voices of praise thy blessed people eternally raise.

Of all the poetic images of what goes on in the heavenly Jerusalem, "singing" is the most prolific. Perhaps this is what lies behind St Augustine's aphorism to the effect that "those who sing pray twice." The importance of singing in our earthly worship can probably not be overstated; it is evidently in some way a preparation for what will become a consuming occupation when our hope comes to fruition.

Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high, we for that country must yearn and must sigh, seeking Jerusalem, dear native land, through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

Of course, while our hope is assured (because it is founded on God's victory manifested in Jesus rising from the dead), it is something we yet wait for. We live in a time "in between." We are in the ironic position of citizens of a country they have never seen, who live in exile, awaiting their arrival in their "dear native land."

Low before him with our praises we fall, of whom, and in whom, and through whom are all; of whom, the Father; and in whom, the Son; through whom, the Spirit, with them ever One.

Latin hymns from the Middle Ages invariably close with a trinitarian doxology, a final outburst of praise and adoration toward the Triune God.

This text was rendered into English by the great John Mason Neale, a Church of England priest from the 19th century who is singularly responsible for brining innumerable treasures of Greek and Latin hymnody into the experience of English-speaking Christians. It has been married to the tune O Quanta Qualia (the opening words of the Latin text) since its first appearance in the 1868 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern. The tune is somewhat older, however; it appears in several 17th century French sources.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lost in Translation

I've been doing a good bit of reading and reflecting lately on poverty, particularly poverty that is not situational (i.e. middle class folks who suffer job loss, divorce, or disability and end up broke), but generational (I’m poor, my parents were poor, and my children will be poor). I’ve been very impressed by the work of Dr Ruby Payne on this subject, particularly the book she co-authored, What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty. The drum she keeps beating is that generational poverty is not so much a circumstance as it is a culture, a system of assumptions and thought and behavior that conspire together to keep people in poverty from one generation to the next. I’ve been paying attention to these things because of some people that the Lord seems to have “sent” to my parish—not only, I’m convinced, for their benefit, but for the benefit of the good-hearted middle-class majority, to enable us to learn to bridge the cultural—indeed, veritably linguistic—gap between between the middle-class mainstream and generational poverty.

So I’m sitting in the tire store yesterday, on my day off, waiting for a new set of tires to be mounted on the vehicle I drive, feeling depressed about what I’m having to pay, and reading a book while I wait. A family walks in and sits down in the waiting area with me—apparently a husband, wife, their grown daughter, and their grown daughter’s daughter, who is about three. I don’t know whether they’re actually “poor”—certainly not if they’re paying what I’m paying for tires—but they give off all the signals. They are a walking bundle of stereotypes that one associates with that nasty label, “poor white trash.” I begin to feel subliminally uncomfortable, and subliminally guilty for feeling subliminally uncomfortable.

Then the older female in the group asks me, out of the blue, “What are you reading.” Well, what I’m reading is a volume entitled If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him: Radically Rethinking Priestly Ministry, by a Church of England priest named Justin Lewis-Anthony.

OK. Talk about a deer-in-the-headlights moment. My mind raced over possible responses. I could simply show her the book title and let her draw her own conclusions. But somehow that didn’t seem charitable. I could try to paraphrase the subject of the book, but it made my brain hurt to think of just how to do that. So, after a few seconds, what came out of my mouth was, “It’s not a story. It’s non-fiction.”

Oh, really? I sometimes like to read books like that.”

What are some of your favorite books like that?” I’m an introvert, and wouldn’t choose to ask a stranger an open-ended question, all else being equal, but my subliminal guilt over the way I had “profiled” this family was asserting itself.

She proceeded to not be able to remember either an author or a title, but from her description I surmised that she was talking about The Shack, which is, of course, fiction, but I didn’t go there.

I’m still pondering the meaning of this encounter. But the fact remains that I was reading a book that makes eminent sense to me and to most of my first-world middle class colleagues in Anglican parish ministry, but may as well be written in Klingon as far as many of the people I drive and walk and look past in my daily life are concerned—people whom I would like to find ways to reach with the gospel of Christ in the tradition that has formed me.

As they say, “food for thought.”

Friday, August 13, 2010

Another Nugget from the Hymnal 1940

If you stop by here from time to time, you know that I like to dig around once in awhile in the detritus of the Hymnal 1940—items that were passed over when the “new” hymnal for the Episcopal Church was compiled … thirty years ago (!).

Today’s treasure is #348, a text penned by Frederick William Faber in 1854, nine years after his conversion from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism.

Jesus, gentlest Savior, God of might and power, Thou thyself art dwelling With us at this hour.

Nature cannot hold thee, Heav’n is all too strait For thine endless glory And thy royal state.

Out beyond the shining of the farthest star, Thou art ever stretching Infinitely far.

Yet the hearts of children Hold what worlds cannot, And the God of wonders Loves the lowly spot.

No, it’s not on the level of the ineffable early 17th century metaphysical poets (Herbert, Donne, Herrick, et al), or even Wordsworth (to choose a contemporary of Faber’s whom he admired). But there’s something quite affecting about how he lays out the paradox of the Incarnation, with subtle gestures toward New Testament imagery (say, Colossians 1): The universe itself is too small to “hold” Christ, yet that same Christ can dwell in the heart of a child.

I guess what I like about it is that it’s not only Victorian schmaltz (which it indeed is), but has both literary and theological integrity as well.

The tune, Eudoxia, by Sabine Baring-Gould (who wrote the text, but not the music, to Onward, Christian Soldiers), is one that I find quite charming, but I fear my tastes are so rarified as to be eccentric. Most would find it … well … stodgy.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

An Alternative Collect for the Feast of St Laurence

To appreciate this, you have to a) know something about how St Laurence left this world, and b) have a secure sense of humor, slightly twisted.
O GOD, unto whom the martyrdom of thy blessed deacon Laurence amid the raging flames and upon the searing  iron of the grill was received as a sweet smelling savor in thy nostrils, mercifully grant that we, by the yearly keeping of this feast, may be so nourished in our faith that we pass from the spiritual hunger  of this world, where we do but recieve rare portions of thy grace, unto the fullness of thy heavenly table, where we shall hear those blessed words, "Well done, good and faithful servant"; through  . . . 

Monday, August 09, 2010

Guaranteed Agony

The Diocese of Springfield (Illinois) will be electing its eleventh bishop on September 18. Two days ago, I learned that my name will be among the three that appear on the ballot at that election. This is a great honor, and I am still taking it in.

It is also a place of some risk and vulnerability. Whatever transpires over the next six weeks, I am aware that one of the results--not the only result, of course, but one of them--will be agony, agony for me and agony for others. No, not life-shattering or even gut-wrenching agony; it will hardly be the torment of the damned. But it will be more than just the prick of a needle to draw blood; it will be a wound, a wound that leaves a scar. The scar will fade into nothingness rather quickly, I expect, but it will be there.

The election of a bishop is a dynamic process. It is a simultaneously holy and unholy alliance between faithful spiritual discernment, raw power politics, unintended consequences, deep and worthy aspirations, hedging of bets, the operation of the collective unconscious on a scale that would impress even Dr Jung, and, one hopes, a generous dollop of the sovereign action of the Holy Spirit. I'm not entirely persuaded that the Church would be any less well-served if we just threw dice, or had each candidate pull the lever of a consecrated slot machine. Nonetheless, the process we have is the process we have.

The process in Springfield began with some 24 priests, I am given to understand, having had their names submitted to the Election Committee. Fifteen then opted to fulfill the rather demanding requests that the diocese asked them to comply with. These included reading and digesting a lengthy profile of the diocese, a large number of statistical data compiled from a survey of clergy and communicants there, and writing nine 500-word essays in response to specific questions, each of which had to then be rendered as a video presentation. This required a considerable investment of time, initiative, intellectual energy, and prayer. One of the fifteen subsequently dropped out along the way.

Then the poor clergy and lay delegates in the Diocese of Springfield had to deal with dossiers that I have not seen but could only have made War and Peace seem like the Sunday comics! They all got together last Saturday at their cathedral church with the intention of winnowing the list of fourteen down to four. Three "selections"--your humble blogger among them--were made relatively quickly. But they then ran into a snag, with one of the remaining nominees showing strong support among the clergy and the other showing strong support among the laity, but clearly there was not going to be any significant movement. It was getting late, and some the delegates had long drives ahead of them, so they opted to stick with the three birds they had in hand rather than continue to pursue one more of the two in the bush.

A process of this sort is one of discernment. For me, at least, discernment requires imaginatively "trying on" the role under consideration. This is psychically and spiritually costly--worth it, one hopes, but costly. I have found no other way to faithfully do the job. I have to make myself totally available, in an interior way, to the possibility that is being discerned. I can only assume that my two colleagues who are in the same place in the process also have to do the same. Sometime on September 18, two of us are going to be invited to suddenly close the book on that work (as eleven others had to do last Saturday). I imagine they (or should I say "we"?) will wince, at least, as we do that. A moment of agony. It isn't that my self-esteem is tied up with becoming Bishop of Springfield (or bishop of anything else, for that matter). The pain will be in the sheer suddenness of the conclusion.

If I am elected, there will be the joy and excitement of taking up new work, but the challenges of being a bishop are legion. It will not be a walk in the park. I have served as a Rural Dean and a member of Standing Committees long enough to be familiar with the sorts of very un-fun issues bishops have to deal with. There is agony in that. But the greater agony, I think, flowing from my election, should it occur, will be that of taking leave once again of a congregation and a community that Brenda and I have come to love a great deal. We like our life in Warsaw. We have been at St Anne's only three years, but it's long enough to have put down some roots and form relationships that are quite precious to us. We have dreamed big dreams together at St Anne's, and I remain energized and joyful in my ministry. It would be not only agonizing, but wrenching indeed, to leave it all.

The point, of course, is that agony, of whatever scale, is not something to be avoided, but embraced. It is the way of the cross, and only by taking up the cross do we find it to be "the way of life and peace." Of your charity, do pray for me--as well as for Father Gunter and Canon Stevenson, and for the clergy and delegates of the Diocese of Springfield--that we will be courageously faithful in taking up the cross of guaranteed agony in the time between now and the election, and that the wind of the Holy Spirit will permeate St Paul's Cathedral on that day.