The longest Lent

I wonder if it was like that in the wilderness: a few days of fasting, hunger and thirst. The rasp of a throat full of sand singing aimlessly aloud to stave off the fear of aloneness, uniqueness, isolation. A moment of panic, a dream of clarity, then the morning filled with terrifying sunlight and an endless, empty horizon, without so much as a mirage to offer direction. The day he knew he was in it for the long haul.

After forty days, he was tempted to give it up: the faith, the fast, the body, lay down among the dry bones. But after that defeat, how much longer did he stay, licked over by the wild beasts for the salt of his skin, loved by the angels for the breath of his spirit? One does not dare to say.

By the time he returned to the river it might look like life or death: slaking and cleansing, cooling and roiling, submerging and subduing. He might have been tempted to stay there three whole days, lying on the river bed, the water winding him in weeds, drinking in the opposite of desert.

Instead, he returned to Galilee and its green hills, its grounded fishermen, their families and their fevers, their foolish hillside hunger, their desolation, and their devotion. He loved their humanity, his humanity, after all, even after his longest trial yet.

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Sermon from the edge of a pandemic

This morning we gathered for one last Communion before retreating from in-person meetings for a time – hopefully a short time, global pandemic permitting. The Church of the Epiphany will meet virtually for worship during the coming weeks. A decision about Holy Week and Easter services will be made after March 29th. The Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday of Lent was Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well.

Jesus was not great at social distancing. Wherever he went he attracted crowds that pressed against the lake shore, against one another, against him and the hem of his garments. Once, he filled a house so full that they had to take the roof off to fit one more person in.

Even out in the sticks, he managed to find the one woman next to a well, and asked her for a drink. His disciples were shocked that he got so close to her. She was surprised herself. And lo and behold, after their meeting, she went back to her town and spread the gospel like a virus to all who came into contact with her. She transmitted Jesus all over.

No, Jesus was not such a great model for social distancing. Except when he was – when he withdrew into the wilderness, or to the mountaintop, even the middle of the lake, seeking space, seeking silence, seeking time to rest and recoup his spirits. Once, after a long desert retreat, the tempter came and suggested that it would not matter if he threw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple – if he took no safety measures for himself – since the guardian angels would catch his fall. Jesus told the devil to go socially distance himself for that one.

More often, he spent time in the company of his friends, of his disciples. Like them, we long to draw near to him, to spend time with him, to touch him, to be with one another. The distance between us hurts, our separation is painful.

Our separation is painful.

We are faced with a time of withdrawal, of wilderness, in our own spiritual journey. In the face of a public health emergency, emergency measures present themselves. After this morning’s service, we will continue to meet for prayer remotely for a time, using technology to cover the distance between us. There will be opportunities to call in and hear the service, to log in and see the service, to answer in the echo of our own hearts, Amen, amen.

We will continue to take care of one another, making sure to check in by phone, by email, by notecards, by any means necessary to continue to share our love, God’s love, Christ’s love with one another through this wilderness fast, to heal the distance that hurts.

Because yes, the distance between us hurts.

Yesterday morning, I woke to the news that Barbara Harris, the first woman to be ordained and consecrated a Bishop in the entire Anglican Communion had died, and I wept. I never met the woman, to my profound regret; but her death brought me to tears. The distance between us hurts.

I remember seeing film footage of her consecration on the BBC. It was February 1989. I must have been visiting my parents the weekend after my birthday, because I distinctly remember watching the news on their tv. I was in the final year of a theology degree, under the supervision of a man who was unfailingly gracious to his female students, but adamantly opposed to their ordination. I was in a country, in a church that would not ordain women as priests until well into the next decade, nor as bishops until safely into the next millennium. And here was Barbara Harris, in my parents’ living room, a Bishop in Christ’s holy, catholic, and apostolic church, Episcopal division.

She was surely one of the great cloud of saints and witnesses that led me here, although I never met her. The technology that bridged the Atlantic and brought her into my parents’ home played its part in healing the distance between us, and even the distance between my priestly vocation and my college supervisor’s Synod vote.

The distance between us hurts. My father still lives in that home where I saw Bishop Harris ordained. I know that I will need to postpone my post-Easter visit to see him. There is something hard, but there is something hopeful, too, in postponing a trip to visit an octogenarian with chronic asthma. This, too, shall pass, and we will be reunited.

Christ can and does heal the distance between us. We will fast for a little while here from meeting together in person. We will retreat, but we will not remain separated for too long. In the meantime, we will talk, we will pray together, we will share our joys and sorrows by all means. In Christ, there is no east nor west, no social distance. We will not be too far apart.

At the well, the woman asked for living water so that she would no longer need to care about the chores of daily living, the drawing and the drinking, but that was not what Jesus meant. Whether we receive his body and blood today as physical food and drink, or whether we make our spiritual Communion, receiving him in spirit and in truth, as God allows us, we are not released from the obligations of everyday living, everyday love of God and our neighbour. We are reminded of them, and strengthened for them.

Look, the woman told her neighbours. He knows everything about me – my hopes, my fears, my preexisting conditions, the state of my heart. Could it be that he is God with us, even here, even now? And her story spread mouth to mouth, person to person, throughout the town; and the good news, the gospel of Christ went viral.


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Pray as though nobody’s listening

Counter-intuitive prayer advice from this morning’s Speaking to the Soul at the Episcopal Cafe

You know the signs, pale blue paint on distressed wood, neon pink on black vinyl, affirming and uplifting:

Dance like nobody’s watching, Love like you’ll never get hurt …

There are many variations on the theme (paraphrased from a country song by Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh, “Come from the Heart”, according to

So if we are free to play along, how about, “Pray as though nobody’s listening”?

As Lent began, we read from the Gospel according to Matthew the advice to, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). In his book, The Word is Very Near You, Martin L. Smith discusses this strange instruction to secrecy, and concludes that,

“Prayer in private is prayer which can give God undivided attention and in which we can be wholly ourselves without the inhibitions imposed by the presence of others. … If we cry the tears may flow without disconcerting others or arousing their curiosity. … Privacy makes undistracted stillness possible and encourages exuberant expressiveness meant for God’s ears and eyes alone.” (Smith, 72)

Oh, but what about those things that “our Father who is in secret” will see? And what will be their just reward? What is behind that other door, the one within our hearts and souls, which attempts to guard my guilt and my ungraceful, unpaintable, distressed and unfading mantras even from the sight of God, let alone myself?

To pray as though no one is listening is not, I am suggesting, to pray without hope, but to pray without fear. To pray as though there will be no judgement, since mercy is too often beyond imagination. To pray as though there will be no memory, since we cannot face the regret. To pray as honestly and unreservedly, uncensored, as though there will be no answer, but only the blessed silence of that still, small voice; the unspoken, unseen, unanswerable glory that drowns out my feeble cries, translates them into the Spirit’s sighs, breathed away into eternity, so that their echoes no longer haunt me, and I am free to look into the mirror again, without a stranger looking back.

Richard C Leigh / Susanna Wallis Clark, Come From the Heart lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Martin L. Smith, The Word Is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying with Scripture (Cowley Publications, 1989)

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Naming the idols

A Lenten devotion for the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, based on Isaiah 42:8: “I am the LORD that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.”

Naming the idols

Some are easy to spot, sporting colourful plumage;
they make fast promises they cannot keep.

Others clothe themselves with humility,
always doing good,
sheep in sheep’s clothing,
seducing the innocent with promises of righteousness.

The nameless ones are dangerous,
inserting themselves into side thoughts
by sleight of spirit.

But the Lord is jealous for your hunger,
appealing to your thirst with names like
mercy, repentance, forgiveness, life;
recalling the parts of your spirit 
borrowed by idols, 
redeeming and restoring that 
which was Lent.

(This is the time of Lent when “new year resolution syndrome” sets in for me. It threatens to divert my attention onto self-imposed restrictions and tempt me to quantify my spiritual success through them, instead of reinforcing the reality that all of my pious practices count for nothing if the process, the journey becomes more important than the Companion: Jesus, in the way of the cross. Please pray for me, a sinner.)

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Living and dying

A sermon for Lent 1

A few hours after our services ended on Ash Wednesday, we got up in the dark and travelled to Georgia to see our son. Flying home last night, I was at first nervous that we’d miss our connection – our plane was late due to an earlier maintenance issue – and that we’d have to drive home from Dulles through the night. But by the time we approached the lights of the capital, we’d made up a lot of time. As the plane began to descend, it picked up some crosswinds. By the time the ground reached out to greet us, it was rocking like a boat on the wide ocean. I braced myself for a hard landing; but instead the plane pulled up sharply and we found ourselves once more climbing over the city, going around to try again.

We began Lent on Ash Wednesday with a stark reminder of our mortality: the grit and dust of ash smeared on our faces to remind us that we have been formed from dust by the One in whose image we are made – that we will one day crumble away with all of our monuments and memories. Yet we were made by One who never crumbles or stumbles, whose life-giving love endures forever. We are a shadow of what sustains us – a smudge of ashes forming part of a picture of glory.

There are many ways to die. Modern plagues continue to disturb our peaceful denial and threaten to isolate us even further from one another. Xenophobia and racism have gone viral along with the fear of the virus itself. We owe it to one another, to our communities and our families, to practice safe living – washing hands, staying home when we are sick, the sensible stuff – but we owe it to one another also not to care only for our own health, but for the welfare of those most vulnerable to disease, to economic distress. Without one another, our way of life cannot continue. We are held up by the arms of others – the face of the pilot emerging from the cockpit once we finally made landfall said it all – and how heavy a burden will we place on them?

There are many ways to die. On two Ash Wednesdays two years apart now, mass shootings have claimed the lives of the innocent, adults and children alike. How many of them wore ashes to school or to work that day, never dreaming that the end would come so soon? How has our temptation to the idolatry of violence and its tools, for protection and revenge, our insistence on our rights and our firepower over the commandment to love played into the hands of death and the devil?

Through the displacement of war and terror, through famine and unfair economic practices, too many still die of hunger in a world that is destroying its own environment for food production. The irony is crushing.

In addition to all of the little means of death that haunt us daily, there are the dramatic and the tragic, the unnatural and the unnecessary, the chaotic and deadly fruits of the Fall.

What would have happened if Jesus had chosen to take Satan’s suggestion, turn stone into bread? It could have been the beginning and the end of his feeding miracles. His compassion for the hungry crowds on the hillside would have been disrupted and damaged by the memory of how easy it is to fill one’s own stomach, and forget to pray for the hungry.

What would have happened if Jesus had consented to bow down before the devil, in order to harness his power and take over the principalities of the world? It would have been the end of the Cross and the Resurrection. It would have been the end of humility. It would have been the end of the Prince of Peace.

What would have happened if Jesus had chosen to take Satan’s suggestion, in front of festival crowds, and tossed himself from the pinnacle of the Temple? Whether or not the angels materialized, the divine experiment of the Incarnation would be over.

Jesus chose to be mortal, to be hungry, to be powerless. God chose humanity, so that we would have a new chance to choose life, to recognize the difference between good and evil.

There are many ways to die, and the Cross might be one of the worst of them; but Jesus came to show us life, the way to live.

His way of living is not grasping, nor self-satisfied. It is not death-denying, but it stands in solidarity with those who live in the valley of its shadow. It makes no deals with the devil. It is the way of love.

In the sacred story of our ancestors, the serpent told the woman that she would not die if she disobeyed God; she would, in fact, become more like a god herself. And it’s true that she didn’t fall like a fairytale character after one bite of the apple. But we die a little bit every time we turn away from the providence and mercy of the God, from our source of life and love. We die a little, we become a little less fully human, a little less connected to God and to one another, when anything less than love for God, love for our neighbour and our enemy made in the image of God guides our choices.

We do not become more godlike by striving for more power or satisfaction. Jesus showed us that in the wilderness.

And at the end of his fast, unbidden, the angels who would have broken his fall, had he needed them, came and ministered to him anyway.

We began Lent with the gritty reminder of our mortality, and we will end it with the glorious remembrance that God became mortal so that we might be raised to eternity. In the meantime, through the trials and temptations of the wilderness of life, may we be sustained and encouraged by the steadfastness of Jesus, and remember our common source and journey, and may angels come and minister to us when we need them the most.

Featured image: Jesus and Angel by Ary Scheffer (public domain), via wikimedia commons

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Ash Wednesday: grace is not in vain

What a curious thing for Paul to write to the Corinthians: “We urge you … not to accept the grace of God in vain.”

How could God’s grace ever become vain, or be wasted in vanity?

God’s grace cannot be diminished, nor wasted, nor diverted because it is in all and sustains all of creation and the entirety of eternity.

But our response to God’s grace – well, that’s another matter. We are all too capable of wasting and diverting and diminishing and completely missing the point of God’s love for us and all whom God has made. We are barely capable of appreciating the magnitude of Christ’s love – its height and breadth and depth. And isn’t that the point of a season like Lent, to remind us and restore us and reconcile us to the remembrance of God’s grace, God’s love, God’s steadfast mercy towards us mortals?

Last summer, we put out the lawn chairs in front of the church so that we could sit out and meet some of our neighbours going by. On the very first day a strange encounter occurred.

Someone else got to the church parking lot before me that morning. As they were getting out of their car, a stranger approached, looking for the priest and some prayer. “The priest isn’t here yet,” our member said, “but I can pray with you.” Perfect.

They went to the chairs, and that’s how I found them when I arrived, heads bent together in prayer.

Before he left, the stranger asked if we could spare some bus fare, which we found that we could. He left with a blessing and blessed us in return. We turned back towards the church.

While we had been talking, it seems, a police car had arrived and pulled into the lot. The officer was watching us. He wanted to know what the stranger wanted, and how we had responded. He was not wild about the way our encounter ended, but we pointed out that this is a church, and sometimes people come here looking for help of one sort or another, and sometimes they find it, in one kind or another.

There were a few things about that morning that stuck with me, and that stuck in me. Our member behaved beautifully toward our passing visitor, but I noticed that when I was confronted by the police officer, I became a little defensive. I think that it was quite right to point out that sometimes, when people are looking for it, they find help here, of one sort or another, and I do not want anyone hindered or deterred who is looking here for the grace of God.

But while I was making that point, I forgot to add to the officer that he, too, was welcome to find help here, should he need it: prayers for peace, and for protection; the grace and healing of confession, the mercy of reconciliation.

Even while we were doing some good, I failed to do all the good that I could with the grace of God that I had to hand.

That does not mean that the grace of God to me, to him, to them, to anyone in the story is in vain. It might mean that my ego, my defensiveness, my vanity interrupted my full acceptance and recognition of all the grace that was available in that moment.

This is why Lent is a good discipline for me. The soul-searching, the self-denial, the study of God’s grace is something that I need constantly if I am to recognize the enormity, the ridiculous span and spread of God’s mercy.

But constantly is hard to do. Setting aside a time, a season, a time of day to pray, a day of the week to fast, a pattern in which to remember that God who made us from the dust of the earth loves us, and redeems us helps me to remember that God who made us in God’s image will restore us one day so that we may look upon the true image, the face of the Divine.

In the meantime, in this mortal life, in which one thing comes after another and there are barely enough moments in the day to remember how to breathe, let alone how God breathed life into the human creature made out of dust and earth; in this mortal life, to set a moment apart to remember God’s grace seems essential, if we are not to accept it in vain, and squander our opportunities to live as those in love with God and loved by Christ, that we might learn to love one another.

But there is help for us here, wretched as we may be. There is the grace of confession and the mercy of reconciliation. There is the bread of life and the cup of salvation. There is the remembrance, once more, that Jesus loved us enough to become mortal with us, to enter the tomb and the realm of the dead, so that we need not fear our mortality, but recognize God’s mercy in returning us, at last, to the hands of our Creator.

As I pray for each of us a holy Lent, and a season of penitence and grace such that our fast shall not be in vain, I ask that you would in turn pray for me, a sinner. Amen.

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Words matter

A sermon at St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

Words matter. Language matters. Throughout our history, human communication has taken place increasingly through language, through words. Since God paraded the animals before Adam so that the human could give them names, we have named and labelled every new idea and thought and sub-creation that has sprung from our inspired imaginations.

Words have power: God’s words spoke creation into being. On the other hand, our language fell apart and lost itself to translation among the crumbling ruins of our original vanity project, the tower of Babel. But then, the Word of God, Jesus Christ spoke salvation into a fallen world.

Words are not the only means that we have of communication, of course. A wise man once told me that while humans have acquired more and more language, our communication skills have not necessarily increased in proportion. We see that whenever diplomacy devolves into war, wherever walls are created in place of bridges. We see that in the caveats around online conversations: that it’s hard to read tone through a backlit screen; that when the softening effects of body language are lost, words meant to unite us can devolve into division.

Maybe you, as I, grew up with the rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We all knew it wasn’t true; the ones with bravely trembling lips and the bullies who drew the lie out of us. Words have power.

The language we use between ourselves and God matters. The language we use for one another speaks volumes about our ability to love our neighbour, our enemy, to recognize the image of God, the dignity of every human being. The language we use for God speaks comfort, or judgement, or awe, or longing, or all of the above. As James wrote elsewhere, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5b-6a) Where it has scalded, Jesus says, go and heal the hurt with soothing words. While at its best, we may cry out, “O for a thousand tongues to sing, My great Redeemer’s praise” (Charles Wesley).

Language matters, Jesus agrees: If you insult or defame your brother or sister or sibling, you are wounding the image of God within them, you are destroying something important and potentially irretrievable.

Even reading Jesus’ words, through layers and levels of translation, interpretation, copying and curation, miles and millennia away from the originals, we find ourselves brought up short, wondering what in heaven and on earth he might have meant.

He cannot, we feel, have really been recommending the removal of eyes and limbs (or tongues) for the good of the soul. Becoming less than whole for the sake of holiness just doesn’t ring true. When one of my children was in third grade, several centuries ago, their teacher threatened the class that if he caught them penning words except in cursive, he would cut off their arms at the elbow with a rusty pair of scissors. It took a while to convince an eight-year-old with a very active imagination that the teacher was not telling the absolute truth, even though it seemed obvious among adults; but if even wicked teachers would not chop off their students’ lazy or clumsy or undeveloped hands, how much more will your Father in heaven, or Jesus, the good teacher, have mercy on your wandering eye, your hasty mouth, your itchy hand, to paraphrase something Jesus said elsewhere?

But if we are able to extend the grace of hyperbole, exaggeration to those instructions, why have we, as a church, in other times drawn that grace back when it comes to the instruction about divorce? How do we decide what is hyperbolic and what to take as the letter of the law? Always we are making choices about interpretation, how we hear the words that are cast our way; and the less context, the less human contact we have around them, the easier it is to lose in their translation the undercurrent, Jesus’ underlying love, the tone that tunes all of his gospel to us, for us.

Jesus, at the end of this portion of his sermon, argues ironically for simplicity of expression: Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No;” but we can hardly leave it there and sit for the rest of our service in silence, can we?

You asked me here today to talk about Jesus, but also to talk about liturgy, and especially its language. The language of our common prayer, like any other, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is interpreted and echoed by ritual and response, by the experiences and echoes that we bring with us from the breadth of our lives. It is run through the simultaneous translator device of our memory, of conversations we have had with those whom we love and with whom we argue. It runs up against the fences of our tradition, and the open gates of our imagination.

R.S. Thomas, twentieth-century Anglican priest and poet, said once in an interview that,

… in any case, poetry is religion, religion is poetry. The message of the New Testament is poetry. Christ was a poet …; and when I preach poetry I am preaching Christianity, and when one discusses Christianity one is discussing poetry in its imaginative aspects. [1]

John Keble, nineteenth-century priest, professor, and poet wrote a century or so earlier that,

If we suppose Poetry in general to mean the expression of an overflowing mind, relieving itself more or less indirectly and reservedly, of the thoughts and passions which most oppress it: … – if this be so, what follows will not perhaps be thought altogether an unwarrantable conjecture; proposed, as it ought, and is wished to be, with all fear and religious reverence. May it not, then, be so, that our Blessed LORD, in union and communion with all his members… may it not be affirmed that He condescends … to have a Poetry of His own, a set of holy and divine associations and meanings, wherewith it is His will to invest all material things,” [2]

Material things, that is, such as words spoken by tongue and teeth, breath made solid by meaning, Word incarnate.

Words are not the only way that we communicate or pray, but words do give shape and structure to our prayer, to our knowledge of God and of one another. Words name reality and shape our imaginations. We cannot use them as idols, nor can they bring us all the way to the realm of God – the Babel story taught us that. Where words fail us, may the Spirit intervene with sighs too deep for words. Where they have hurt, may we be given words to heal. Where we find the words to worship in spirit and in truth, may we join with a thousand thousand tongues to sing our Redeemer’s praise. But our words are not only one concrete way that we speak to one another and to God in love; they are at least one instrument of God’s creating and saving grace to us. Jesus, the very Word of God, has taught us that much.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. (John 1:1-4)

[1] A 1972 BBC interview with John Ormond was broadcast April 1972, and its transcript published in Poetry Wales; accessed here as quoted by William V. Davis, in R.S. Thomas, Poetry and Theology (Baylor University Press, 2007), p. 43

[2] John Keble, On the mysticism attributed to the early fathers of the Church, “Tracts for the Times” Vol. 6, no. 89, p. 144, accessed via Google Books 2/13-15/2020

Image: “Adam Naming the Animals,” from the Haggadah for Passover (the ‘Sister Haggadah’), 14th century, British Library collection via wikimedia commons. Public domain.

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