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Meeting Jesus

Today has been your typical American pastoral day, in some ways. It has been full. There were significant encounters with a few people, and passing meetings with more. There were two many minutes spent staring at a screen and communicating in a way that the Evangelists might have less-than-approved. Who knows?

Two moments stood out.

One was a conversation with the son of one of the finest priests of the diocese who has served all his priesthood here, and now lies in his home, cared for gently by hospice. He did not move or open his eyes while his son and I stood around him and spoke, but his spirit of caring love and pastoral intelligence filled the space. Big hearts do that, even when they are low.

The second was a visit to a parishioner. She is a wonderful lady in her mid-80’s who, as I told her today, is more active in these years though limited by age and illness than are many of us who are younger and more able to get around. She has just come home from a week in the hospital; a week by the way, in which she and her roommate became good friends and by the end of which the other woman was expressing a wish to join us at Saint Anselm’s. File that under true and natural evangelism/evangelization.

This morning I brought this dear lady communion at home. We heard Sunday’s Gospel, stopped to converse (!), prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and then she received Christ where he must feel very much at home. Then the most extraordinary and yet seamless thing happened.

My hostess told me that she belongs to the Order of Saint Luke the Physician and asked if I would mind if she prayed for me, laid hands on me, and anointed me? I replied that I would not mind at all. Her question grew from the fact of my ‘bum’ knee, currently awaiting the healing hand of one of Luke’s heirs in the trade.

With this, she opened her prayerbook and prayed. I leaned in and she laid hands on my head and prayed. I lifted my brow and she prayed and anointed me with a fragrant oil, apologizing then that she had applied too much. Instead, I would applaud her sacramental sense: let the sign speak!

All this from start to finish took maybe two minutes, two of the most moving minutes of 35 years of ordained ministry. I can put it this way, and then leave it there: I brought Jesus, as I am ordained to do. And lo, I found him already there, in prayer, and aching to heal.

Can I hear an Amen?

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After the Election

A meditation on the worth of meditation in a big-world moment like the US election – offered by an English (I believe) Benedictine priest and worth a few moments of your time.

The immediate post-election comments by the President, the President-elect and the defeated candidate were more gracious and civilised than anything during the campaign over the past eighteen month…

Source: After the Election

Posted in Images, Music/Video, Preaching, Words!

Receiving Christmas

Merry Christmas to all this day!

Light and fog are having morning-long conversation over the surface of Job’s Pond this morning.  Directly across the water there  is a rounding of the land where it presses out toward the water.  There, every morning, there seems more light than elsewhere.  The light appears to congregate there.

Christmas2015

(Job’s Pond, Portland CT 12/25/15)

It is, perhaps, a ‘thin place,’as the Celts would describe it.  As travel writer Eric Weiner described his recognition of such places in a New York Times piece in 2012, “They are locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent or, as I like to think of it, the Infinite Whatever” (March 9, 2012 Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer).

Weiner on finding ‘thin places’ around the world.

Whatever one might call it, I am blessed to look out directly at such a place as the light is reborn each morning I am here.  And today, today is such a thin place as well, a thin moment? Christmas Day is a thin memory of a time and place long ago whose import for every other time and place cannot be overstated, nor over-sung, nor over-felt (though I will not rule out over-thinking or over-preaching :-).

The preacher I heard last night* made a point that is saving and true.  We do an awful lot to ‘prepare’ for Christmas.  We all know what those various activities are.  There is never enough time to do them all, and at last we collapse into the day, this day, itself.  Among the most laudable things many of us do is to give.  We give to charities.  We give to relief organizations.  We give to churches.  We give to one another.  All this we do, and rightly so the preacher noted, to honor the Christ.

But there is something amiss even within this best of what we do. Ultimately this thin place is about receiving first of all.  Before anything can be given, we must receive.  As the old theological dictum has it, “Nemo dat quod non habet” | “No one can give what they do not have.”  And what we receive is not given by human hands or mind or heart.  What we receive at this thin place comes directly from the hand and heart and mind and will of God, from the Center of all that is, from the beating Heart of Love that is what is.  Yes, it comes by the cooperation and the courage, the faith and the openness of a young woman.  Praise God for her.

Bethlehem-Palestine-Milk-Grotto-Mary-Jesus

(Painting of Baby Jesus nursing from Mary in the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem)

But there would be nothing to accept, nothing to receive, were it not for the initiative of the Divine.  “All is grace,” murmurs Bernanos’ Country Priest as he breathes his last.  Therese of Lisieux’ last words were “Grace is everywhere.”  But that doesn’t mean any of this is easy.  It does mean that at any and every moment, at the thinnest places and the ‘thickest’ as well, all that is needed is being provided.

Quite often we need to redistribute what is received, as the food doesn’t often come first to the plate of the hungriest, nor the saving therapy first to the body of the one whose health insurance is inadequate.  But still, enough is given freely, in profligate fashion, at every moment this old universe rolls on.  We have enough.

Not only in preparation for Christmas Day, but across our majority culture, this at first apparently comforting truth is an affront and a challenge.  We speak and act and work and run for office as if there were no grace at all, as if all things were done by our hands.  As if we can accomplish whatever we will.

We establish borders so that, if there might be grace after all, we can receive it here and prevent its flowing over to ‘them.’  We strengthen those borders to render a clear boundary as to who is deserving of whatever gifts might be received, if any there are.  We send bombs and missiles and ships and drones to accomplish our will far away.  Even in terms of violence we are too busy giving to ever imagine that we are sowing the seeds of violence to be received as well.

This Day, as comfortable as we have rendered its point of arrival, is meant to be a point of departure.  Every year on this Day, as we stand on the brink of the year’s ending and beginning we need a radical restart.  We need a rebirth.  And every year the need becomes more painfully clear.

Our instinct, if we accept that assertion, is to begin to plan how we will begin again.  And again, we have missed the point.  The beginning point is not to begin again to do.  The beginning is to be.  The beginning is to receive.  The beginning is to accept the gift of rebirth on this day of birth. The beginning is to let go of what we have believed we ‘know,’ and to open to the possibility of knowing something else.  Something ever old and every new.  Something hidden in plain sight in the Gospels.  Pick up one of them (Mark is a quick read!) and let it enter you tonight in the waning hours of this Christmas Day, as if you had never heard it before.

This is as real, or moreso, than the campaign for the presidency or the latest efforts to protect ourselves from terror or anything else the news cycle will bring us even today.  Once you look for it, you see it and hear it everywhere.  One example came last week in the words of Martin Sheen in conversation with Krista Tippett at “On Being.”  Deep into their dialogue, when the heart of the matter in his life and faith is revealed as love, as community, as belonging, he speaks these words:

It’s like giving back. But just that embrace — it is so overwhelming, at times, this reality of loving because one is loved that it just brings you up short. You just sit and stare sometimes into a vacuum and say, where did this come from, and why is it so clear, and why is it so simple, and so powerful? And one of the great mysteries that I experience at mass is the reception at communion. How do we embrace that? How can we possibly, consciously understand what that is? And I don’t have a clue. I just stand on line and say, “I’m Ramón, called Martin, your friend, you’re welcome here. And I’m with them.” [laughs] Whoever the crowd is, I’m getting on line with, you just look at the people who are on that line, that community, that is the greatest and simplest expression of overtly trying to explain this mystery I’m talking about, because it is a mystery. It is probably the most profound mystery in all of the universe, this love. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed just watching people on line to embrace that sacrament. It is the most profound thing. I never ever can get over it. It’s just something you have to surrender to. And just saying yeah, I’m with them. That’s the community of saints.

They are on line, together, to receive.  To receive first, so that later, transformed over a lifetime of Christmas Days, changed by their travel past thin places throughout life’s geography, they may finally give.

And even then, the only gift to give is grace.  Pass it on.  Pass on the invitation.

“All Is Grace,” by Shaun Groves, from Third World Symphony

  • At Trinity Episcopal Church, Hartford CT
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Fire Island Diary (II): Solitude and Community

“The easiest practice of reverence I know is simply to sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and pay attention for at least twenty minutes. It is not necessary to take on the whole world at first, Just take the three square feet on which you are sitting, paying close attention to everything that lives within that small estate, You might even decide not to kill anything for twenty minutes, including the saltmarsh mosquito that lands on your arm. Just blow her away and ask her to please go find someone else to eat.”

These words come from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, in the chapter on Reverence. Being here so near water wherever I look, or indeed refuse to look, I set out at sunset last evening to take on Brown Taylor’s “easiest practice of reverence.”

Several things happened, none of them intended. Well, that’s not quite right. I gathered up Gracie the Tiny Hound and myself, and we walked a few yards to the end of Marine Walk accompanied by the best intentions. There’s a bench there near the Saltaire tennis club. We sat down, or rather, I sat down and the dog scrambled to disappear from view for safety’s sake. She believes that both the visible and invisible worlds are principally venues of constant and tremendous danger, and that therefore one can never be too careful. I have struggled all my life to reject the same view as it seemed to be native to me from childhood. As a result, when Gracie and I walk or sit or pass in some fashion through the world together, it is often a fundamental philosophical dispute being fought between the tugging, pulling, canine flesh and the hapless human at the other end of the line.

So it was last evening. She made for the under-bench area. I pulled her out. I invited her to sit next to me on the bench. She demurred. I sat her in front of me and instructed her to stay. She stayed.

In the meantime, there was a breeze gusting between 10 and 20 miles per hour right in our faces. The water was choppy and into it, at the western horizon, old Sol was spectacularly setting. A group of six men and women, with several children and four little dogs among them, approached us on Bay Walk, greeted and passed by.

The combination of all of this motion, distraction, and interaction was that my attention was drawn immediately and continually far beyond the three square feet of earthly territory right around me. I was unable to find the needed psychic space and attentiveness to bear reverence toward that tiny area, though this might be – discouragingly for the moment – the ‘easiest’ route to the practice of reverence.

Instead though, the passage of those fellow travelers and their dogged companions gave birth to inner musings about the relation of solitude and community. I love to be in communication with people, in every sense of the term ‘communicate.’ I love to engage them, to listen, to seek understanding and a common place from which to stand together, if only for a moment, and survey the world and the life we live within it.

On the other hand, solitude affords me the inner space to really think, to deeply contemplate, and to find the more profound meaning of those more social moments in ways that I, at least, cannot do in company. I find that I cannot do living without either of these, solitude and community. I need to be with you. And I need to be alone. Both are fully true.

Balance between these is probably the key. By that I mean, both balance between community and solitude during a given hour or day, and balance between them over the space of a lifetime. That balance is necessary. That balance is life-giving, and reveals the best of me and of those with whom I interact,

And yet. Yet the moments of perceived or felt balance, in any sustained sense, have been few thus far, throughout life. I am often drawn by demands of ministry and of tasks, ‘aided’ by the communication devices of this day, into a maelstrom of activity and supposed cooperation. I say ‘supposed,’ because the longer such a period endures and the more frenetic it becomes without the refreshment of quiet solitude, the less effective such cooperation actually becomes, at least for me.

On the other hand, if I am plunged into full solitude for long, unrelieved periods of time then the initial relief ultimately gives way to the desire to move back toward and into community where – inevitably it seems in this 21st century – the pace and noise quickly descend again into the abyss of over-stimulation.

This desired balance may be, to return to Barbara Brown Taylor’s invitation, a kind of reverence. Reverence for others. Reverence for self. Reverence for the deeper truths that do not lie on the very surface of the waters of life.

(9/23/13)