A prayer of thanks for the fullness

Inspired by Ephesians 1: 3-14

O God of all,

There is nothing lacking in you.  I was taught this from the time I could take in words with their meaning.  There is nothing lacking in you.

But here, in this ancient letter, you speak a fantastic festival of gifts that make it so clear that it is also true (thanks to your fullness) that there is nothing lacking for me, nothing lacking to my sisters and brothers with whom I live this life. Help me to speak of these gifts now, and to rejoice in them. 

One after another you name gifts already given (and some on the way) in such abundance that these few verses should be read one verse at a time over a number of days.  First day: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.  

Lord, I have such a tendency to read your word as if it is a news report or a text or an email.  But it is so much more.  If I can slow myself down to the speed you created us to live at, I should spend a lifetime of prayerful thanks for this first verse.

It says (can this be true?) that you have gifted us in Jesus Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens.  Every one.  Every one in heaven.  I cannot even know in this life what that means, except to know that it is more than I could take in, understand, appreciate, rejoice in for all eternity.  In fact, this is your desired destiny for me and for my brothers and sisters: to rejoice in those heavenly blessings for time without end.  And here, today, you are telling me that I already possess in Jesus all those blessings.  Every single one.  

Lord, you chose us, you say, from time before time, before there was a universe, when there was only You, to live a holiness that is called love.  Sometimes, a lot of times, I get nervous around talk of being holy.  It sounds to me like it’s for someone else, and sometimes it sounds like the same as being stuck-up and thinking myself better than other people, but in a word you tell me today that it only means this.  Holiness means being a person in love.  It means being a person who loves.  First, last, and always.  And you have chosen us, and given us the ability to be that person, from before creation.  When no one knew my name.  When no one knew what a human being would be.  When no one had yet seen light or the sea or a growing plant or a horse running through a meadow, you already had chosen us and given us the call and the capacity to be centers of love in this time and place.

Every gift you have given us, this letter says again and again, you have given us in Christ.  Every good thing we have has come through him, and comes through him today, and will beyond all time.  In Christ, you have adopted us.  We aren’t only your creation.  We are your children.  We are your daughters and sons.  Everything that you have, everything that it means to be You, is our legacy.

So all that is yours you have promised us as our inheritance.  So that when I feel poor, or lacking in any way; when I feel alone or lonely, when any of us feel misunderstood or unwanted, You whisper into our hearts words beyond words that sound something like this, Everything I have is yours.  You lack nothing.  You never could.  You are able for any challenge.  

In Christ you have redeemed us, bought us back from the Enemy, at any cost.

In Christ, you have forgiven us our trespasses.  There’ s not a sin that I could imagine that you have not already forgiven, from your heart which is a furnace of love, melting away anything that could hurt me or separate me from you.  

You have placed within us knowledge of your own plan in Christ. You have provided us wisdom and insight into the meaning of everything that is and everything that will be.  You have shown us your plan in Christ, a plan  that does not fail or falter, a plan made good the moment you first spoke it. It is your plan to reunite all that is divided in heaven or on earth.  Anything I can think of in me or in the world that is broken, that is wanting, that is hurting is already being put back together in a fullness beyond pain, better than it was before the breaking came.  

In your loving plan, nothing and no one is unknown or left out or left alone.  In your plan the sight and hearing of all are made perfect, the ones whose limbs are hurting are dancing now, the ones whose minds are clouded remember again all the good and rejoice in it, the ones who have grown old are being restored even beyond what their hearts recall as the best moments of their lives.  

You remind me that our hope, our best hope, our final hope, our only hope is Christ Jesus.  You write on the surface of my heart that I and everyone with me, that we each and all live for one reason, for the praise of his glory.  In that praise, in that worship, and nowhere else, does the sum total of my life with all its sin and confusions and broken promises and painful memories fall together without effort on my part as perfect, as exactly what you in your eternal generosity will it to be.  Suddenly I reach my goal, without even knowing that it has been that near all along.

Here, in this place of light and darkness, of color and glass and stone, of silence and of song, of generations of human hearts that beat here and still do, both in memory and in your reality beyond time; between these walls the word of life has been spoken (imperfectly, but truly), here the good news of salvation has been told for generations, from father to daughter, from mother to son, from father to son, and mother to daughter.  In that telling, faith has been born – right here or in the kitchen at home or in the bedroom or the office, in the garage or on the ballfield – and with that faith-birth your promise of the Spirit has come to be.

Your Spirit.  You God, desire to live in me, and in us all.  That’s how it all comes together.  Every gift is there and shining. There is the energy that moves us inevitably – through years of war, through depression (both economic and emotional), through great trials of killing disease, through our long times of forgetting you – to this moment.  To the invitation, renewed ever more, to allow our hearts to recognize your gifts, to know that they are the answer to all we could ever want or need; the fulfillment I never would have dared to ask.  

And I don’t have to ask.  It has all already been given.  Underneath the everyday, underneath all the pieces of my life, this is the reality of who I am and who you are, and what is meant to be.

All this moves me to think Lord of a holy woman shrouded now in centuries past, who lived her entire life in a time darkened seemingly without end by violence and sickness and death, she who received from you visions and words confirming all that this letter says to us today.  

In the middle of her life, herself and her world on the very edge of death, you spoke words to that woman (she heard them as truly as a child hears the voice of her mother, without fail) words filled with an assurance of hope that nothing can shake and no darkness cover.  I hear those words now, and I know they are meant for us as well.

“AND thus our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts that I might make, saying full comfortably:

I may make all thing well, 

I can make all thing well, 

I will make all thing well, 

and I shall make all thing well; 

and thou shalt see thyself that all manner of thing shall be well.”

Lord, this is the fullness in which I live, and my sisters and brothers with me.  For this I can spend my whole life, my every hour and every breath giving thanks to you Lord.  

May you be praised by all humanity for all your good gifts, given each one in Christ, whom we are about to meet here again at this altar.

In Christ we pray. Amen.

Hold it gently.

June 30 was my birthday. It marked the date on which I became two years older than my father was when he retired in 1990. Two years older than when he retired.

Some years back, I used to choose a kind of theme for each new year of my life, summed up in a few syllables. I always consider everyone’s anniversary of birth to be their own personal new year’s day. I decided to choose a theme for this new year. It is three simple words: hold it gently.

The it is all of it. Life. Health. Work. Hopes. Expectations. Fears. Time. Faith. Love. Memory. Today and tomorrow. You name it. That’s the it.

To hold it is to respect it, to take it seriously, to care for it, to be grateful for it. All of it is gift. As the Apostle Paul wisely wrote more than a few days back, “Everything you have was given to you. So, if everything you have was given to you, why do you act as if you got it all by your own power” (1 Corinthians 4:7 ERV).

Everything (see that list of its a couple of paragraphs back and add anything more you can think of) has been given to you and me. The origin of it all is found in the One who is the Origin of all. You know who that is.

So I want my basic stance to all of it day to day, moment by moment, to be gratitude. I am constantly receiving the sustaining and the renewal of all these fundamental gifts that are given me as graces, not one of them earned. (And not one of them can be earned). I have never held in my hands the currency that could buy any of these gifts. Simply because such a currency does not exist – not US dollar, not bitcoin, not anything else.

So I hold my life, and all that is of it, in thanksgiving, always.

For me this means that my basic job, always and everywhere, is not operation, it is cooperation. (Very un-American). I am not the initiator the vast majority of the time. Even if I am allowed to think that I am. My job is to cooperate with the loving and gentle Hand that is in fact in charge of the whole shebang (https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/shebang). And that is some of the best news I’ve heard over the last 64 years.

Gently. As I celebrate my birthday this year, in this neck of God’s woods we are returning to ‘normal.’ I have said it before and I will say it again: I’m deadset against that move. Normal as we live it in first world nations in the 21st century is sheer inhuman madness, and the best thing to do is to leave as much of it as possible in the rear view mirror. It pushes, demands, cold calls, scams, exhausts and undoes us. That’s normal‘s job description, and he has been pretty damned good at it. Time to retire, old buddy normal. Buy a farm, put a rocker on the wrap-around porch and sit still.

In other words friends, hold it gently. Hold it all gently. Picture yourself, in memory, the first time you held a newborn infant precious to you. With what gentle loving care did you hold that little one? How fully did time stop and that moment be revealed as all that mattered? This year, and beyond, I desire deeply to hold the it that God has lovingly given to me in just that way. How precious it all is. How beautifully precious.

The pandemic has taught me (and you too?) to take seriously something I really already knew. The universe doesn’t owe me another day of life. It didn’t owe me the first one. Or any of the 23,377 days I have lived since. Again, it is all grace. I love the memory of all those days. And this one, and the ones to come, I will hold them gently.

7.1.21

Socially Mediated

Tomorrow my month-long hiatus from Facebook is complete. I am beginning to assess what it has meant. This work will continue after I am on FB again.

The last sentence confirms that I do intend to return to using FB. The key question is: How to use it to the benefit of life and connectedness and not allow it (as powerful as it is) to ‘use’ me/us instead.

Human institutions, as they grow in power and influence, become eventually vitally interested in maintaining their own good and protecting their own assets, rather than in the good and the human growth of the individual human being. This can be and has been true for governments, for charitable non-profits, for news organizations, and yes even for churches. It takes a real vigilance over time in order to make sure this does no in fact happen. That’s why the Roman Catholic Church in the 60’s and the church reformers of the 16th (and other centuries) were wise in speaking of the church as being (and needing to be) semper reformanda – always in the state of being reformed. Without cessation. As soon as an institution rests on its laurels in this regard, those laurels wilt. {Note to self: never sit on laurels].

The same is so true of the mega-social media entities that have been born and grown exponentially over these last years. I want to use them with wide-open eyes, from a critical stance something like Ronald Reagan’s attitude to the Soviet Union’s leadership: “Trust, but verify.” [I have just quoted Reagan approvingly; consequently hell has frozen over. You’re welcome. Also, pigs are flying, and for this, I apologize].

So Facebook, here I come my Frenemy. Be ready, as I intend to be.

Digging a hole

My father, who remains for me one of the best human beings I have ever been privileged to know, said to me one day when I was in early adolescence, “For a smart kid, you don’t have a practical bone in your body.”

Now to you dear reader this may sound harsh, but I will tell you that even at that time, as I heard those words, I recognized two truths there. First, that he was correct. And secondly, that Dad was stating it actually in a gentle way, one which recognized what one might term the ‘non-street smarts’ that I did possess, while it warned me – in helpful fashion – that my future ‘relations’ with practicality, with the ways of the world, with material realities, might not be the easiest. And that being so, it was better to know that, to admit it, to work with it.

Time has proven my wise and caring father prophetic. I might pull thousands of examples out of my memory. And the longer I live in – as Madonna sang of it decades ago this material world – the more obvious it becomes.

The past two occasions on which I have changed my particular place and work in the life of the church, serving as a priest in the Episcopal Church, I have knowingly taken a cut in pay. Together. those two pay cuts equal a lessening of some 60% annual of income. I did so in two stages, both times for reasons I tried to think through well. I wanted first to return to parish ministry from academic and administrative responsibilities. And later, I wanted to return from New York state to my native state of Massachusetts after a decade away.

Both decisions have had wonderful results in terms of the meeting of extraordinary people of faith and love. Both have offered new experiences and challenges that I have not had before. Each, I believe, has deepened and matured me as a person and as a disciple of Jesus.

Somehow, without setting out to do so, I had chosen what is sometimes termed the downward mobility of the Gospel life. And inasmuch as it is linked to the way of Christ, it is good.

But it is a goodness which comes into stressful conflict with the ways of the world. Jesus’ parables, many have noted, overturn the ways of the world and offer a glimpse and more into a kingdom and a way of living that it is the reversal of much of what we here on earth consider worth our striving.

I need to take full responsibility for the decisions I have made in borrowing and spending that have been foolish and not only ill-advised, but unadvised.

And it gets very practical. These days I am considering how to live honestly, honorably and well, when I find that I have unwittingly (impractically, as Dad might put it) painted myself into a corner that demonstrates what it can feel like to live at the intersection of the expectations of the world and the hopes of the Gospel.

I will not rehearse it all here, as it would sound over-stated and invite me to a sense of embarrassment, where what I need instead is naked honesty. I find myself in the process of filing for bankruptcy, having had to reckon with a number of credit cards and loans I had taken for too long a time and season in living the life the culture might recommend, without attention to the consequences. There is nothing virtuous in that part of the story. Beyond that, I find myself owing the IRS some $8000; hearing from NY state two years later that I owe a further $600 in state taxes, and a bill coming from EZ-Pass for $500. However that system works, paying $100 toward it within the month I find myself with the new EZ-Pass bill owing $497 and change again, due to piling up late fees and the like. And the penalty is coming in July of my being unable, unless it is paid in full, to keep the car inspected and registered and on-the-road. The first Catholic bishops in New England reached those in need of their pastoral care by horseback. I may be needing to think up something in that heritage within a few weeks.

I need to take full responsibility for the decisions I have made in borrowing and spending that have been foolish and not only ill-advised, but unadvised. I do take that responsibility. And now, suspended between a desire to get it right and the inability to do so, I wonder about positive next steps.

I remember my Dad sitting at a card table alone once a month for hours, parsing out the dollars he had from his principal job as a custodian in the Lynn Public Schools, augmented from his night job several nights a week at Lynnway Liquors, and his other part-time and occasional jobs (would they be part of the gig economy now?), delivering for a florist shop in West Lynn, cutting an elderly woman’s lawn, and more. Much more. I remember his distress some months, working out what he could do for the bills he had. All of it – quite obviously – undertaken for the loving care of our Mom and all of us, their six children.

I take Dad now as a kind of patron saint in this moment in my living. Like him, aside from the monetary angst, there is so much good, so many recognized blessings, and more I am more than likely missing, in my life. I give thanks for each and every one of them. Most of them are represented by human faces – of both joy and sorrow, sickness and health – whom I have been privileged to know, and in some measure (poorly often) to serve over the years.

Dad, look on your impractical son. Inspire in me the desire to work this out and the insight to do so. My desire is to get free of the bonds I have allowed to wrap around me so that I might know the freedom that Christ wills for all of us.

One blazingly positive effect of all this has been a profound recognition of the billions of the earth whose relationship with the ‘things’ of the world – from food to housing to medicine – make me rightly look like the richest of the rich. They truly suffer and they witness that suffering in their children’s lives. When I get anxious, I am moved to pray for them and, I hope, to pray with them.

Dad, join us in that prayer. And thank you for your early warning that I might have taken more seriously – to my benefit. I hope it’s not too late to say, thank you.