Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Holistic Collect

This week's collect had been my favorite Lenten collect from last year. One of my housemates didn't like it for some reason that I don't recall right now, but I remember being comforted by the holistic plea for God's help: not just physically as if the practical is all that matters, and not just spiritually as if the body does not matter at all. Last year that same housemate succeeded in a sneaky scheme to teach me that my body did need sleep, and in the year that has passed since I last heard this prayer I have learned my dire need to take better care of my soul. Hopefully I am more in the position to take this request before my Heavenly Father, and more in the position to receive his answering of this prayer.

Third Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Alleluias on my Lent

One of the ways that the liturgical Church weaves the spirit of repentance into the fabric of the service is by refraining from saying the word Alleluia for the six weeks of Lent. When the liturgy incorporates the word at various regular key moments, its absence is loud. The songs that are selected during this time are for the most part somber, and they avoid the word Alleluia.

This Sunday as I practiced singing with the worship team, a fluxuateing group of people in my church that recently lost its worship leader, I noticed that the songs chosen for this third Sunday in Lent were more joyful than I would have anticipated. Since we are grateful these days for anyone who is willing to lead worship, I was prepared to let that slide. But at some point after we were done practicing and before communion began, a more liturgically-grounded member of the church brought to our attention that we could not sing three of the songs selected: they not only contained, but emphasized and repeated the word Alleluia.

In a brief time of panic during announcements, right before the offering in which we would sing the first of the Alleluia-songs, our scrounging worship team tried to come up with a solution. The musicians did not feel able to play songs we had not prepared, and our selection was greatly dwindled by omitting the three songs on the chopping-block. The keyboardist was frazzled by the suggestion of changing orders and transitions of the songs we had prepared, and we had about two minutes to whisper through the dilemma.

I’m sure to people who come from a more Evangelical background, this sounds like a comedic example of the ridiculousness of allowing tradition to reign its tyrannical forces over a worship service. But before you dismiss the liturgists completely, let me say this much: I was on their side. Since I was introduced to the Anglican Church five years ago, I have been blessed by the rhythm that the Church calendar provides, forcing me to mourn when it is a time to mourn and to rejoice when it is a time to rejoice. The structures built into the Church seasons allow us to enact the story of the people of God together, and allow me as an individual to follow that story in my own life.

And it is definitely Lent right now, and Lord knows there is plenty about which I need to be in a spirit of repentance.

One of the deacons was on the worship team, and he whispered to our frazzled group to continue as originally planned. I was disappointed to be deprived of a somber Lenten service to remind me of my brokenness before a Holy God, but knew it was not an appropriate time for theological qualms.

“Before we move into this next song,” the deacon announced when the offering began, “I want to take a moment to remember that Lent is a season of repentance and mourning. The Church has many ways of reminding us of that, and one of them is refraining from singing the word Alleluia during this season.

“But we also remember that Sunday is still considered a feast day in which we celebrate the Resurrection, and many people commemorate this by a brief remission of their personal fasts. Please experience this service as a feast of Alleluias here in the middle of Lent. Remember to rejoice, even in a time of grief.”

One might imagine that my behind-the-scenes look at this “Feast of Alleluias” would have made me cynical, calling it a rhetorical cover-up of the mistake we made in our planning. On the contrary, it invited me to feast all the more so (especially after a week of at least four hugely significant and equally unexpected Alleluias in my own life). Our own botched bunglings led to a celebratory “feast” during Lent. That sounds a lot like Grace to me, especially if it is out of season. And I, who have spent months laboring to listen to the voices that call me to repentance, was thereby in the right posture to listen to the voice of celebration.

God is declaring Alleluias on my Lent.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Collect for the week

This collect got me today at church. I love the Book of Common Prayer!!!
Second Sunday of Lent

O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
It is God's glory always to have mercy...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The holy god of Cynicism, reposted

I happened to remember that today is Valentine's Day (my nephew asked in the middle of dinner last night, as he reflected on a quip I had made twenty minutes earlier, "Auntie Em, why do you not have a Valentine's Day?"). Rather than ignore the holliday's existence as I normally do or bitterly oppose it as some of my undergrad friends did, I thought I would repost an old blog-post from last semester that seemed a more healthy attitude than either apathy or protest. Enjoy, and happy Valentine's Day.

* * *

Of the few simple love-poems that the cynic in me is not able to dislike, Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd to His Love” is pretty near the top.
Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
He goes on to describe all the lovely things he and his beloved will do in the British countryside: sitting on rocks as they watch shepherds, rivers and melodious birds; laying on beds of roses; and wearing clothing made from the wool they pluck from their own sheep.
The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love.
Evidently Marlowe plays my tune; those delights my mind do move.

But unfortunately, Sir Walter Raleigh ruined the poem to the study of English literature by publishing a reply that the young Marlowe died before he could answer. Raleigh’s “Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” is what the cynic in me should praise as being realistic and practical.
If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd's tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.
He goes on to describe the cares that prevent lovers from sitting on rocks, the wilting of the flowers, and the wearing out of the clothing. Every literature class I have ever had that looks at Marlowe’s poem (high school, undergrad and graduate) immediately follows it with Raleigh’s reply. Cynicism has the final word.

But cynicism is not a place to stand nor a momentous finish line. We are a culture that worships the holy god of Cynicism but has little to replace the things we criticize.

What if there are high virtues to strive for, despite the frailty of our attempts to reach them? What if the love that Marlowe’s shepherd sang of is worth dreaming of, even if his posies “soon wither”? Perhaps our call to listen involves some counter-cultural release of our cynicism.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Misquoting Pogo

It may go without saying for most people, but one cannot be in the attitude of confession until one is conscious that he has sinned.

Somehow, I have missed this point over the years. This is not to suggest that I have been void of apologies, but they are always apologies for not being good enough, like a juggler who keeps 15 balls in the air until he lamentably drops one. I would be genuinely sorry about dropping that ball, especially if it was a particularly important one whose loss was irrecoverable, but for crying out loud I was juggling fifteen! I did a pretty damn good job it; I was just not quite good enough.

Among the most valuable gifts of 2007 was an experience of being genuinely humbled, to realize that I had been genuinely bad, not just not good enough. After years of searching for an illusive enemy that kept fowling up my interactions with the world around me, I learned that the enemy had been me all along.

The shocking part of that realization was that it was a relief. I went from being a superhero who was called to save the world to a frail sinner whom Christ had come to save. If Christ is the redeemer he claims to be, the position of the sinner is not a bad place to be.

To misquote Pogo, I have met the enemy and it is me.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Lent by Niggle

Things might have been different, but they could not have been better.
Leaf by Niggle” is an allegory in which Catholic Tolkien extends a healthy understanding of a life’s work beyond the bounds of death. It describes a Purgatory so beautiful that I hope God lets me slide in even if I always remain Protestant. If you wanna get a feel for why, I recommend reading it.

But Catholics don’t necessarily have to have all the fun. I once described what I liked about Purgatory to a Protestant friend of mine—the hope that our lifelong process of sanctification doesn’t have the enormously anticlimactic ending of dying feebly unsanctified and waking up completely finished, as if the whole process of life had meant nothing—and he mused, “Maybe I do believe in Purgatory; I just think we’re already in it.”

I don’t mean to tackle issues of theological controversy; that was just my attempt to explain a quote taken from a Purgatory allegory to introduce a Lenten post. But when I accidentally read Tolkien’s story this afternoon, I was comforted to remember that the fumbles which I am wont to replay in my endless cycle of regret have been caught up in a greater story that I could not make any better even if I could undo my errors. Reverse Entropy strikes again.

That is why, I suppose, taking 40 days to humble oneself in the light of sin is actually healthy enough to be written into the Church calendar. I should have handled that relationship differently. I should not have sent that email. I should have listened. But in six weeks when Christ goes and defeats sin on its own turf, my sin will become part of the story of its own redemption.

…But who wants to ruin a really great story by reading the last page?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sitting with Solomon

Last night as the Church calendar was preparing to enter into Lent, we began reading Ecclesiastes in the regular Tuesday night Bible study that meets at my house (in which we remembered to commemorate Fat Tuesday with plenty of beer… Dead Guy Ale was the hit for the night).
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
I was struck by the fact that most people in the room of 21st-century grad students connected with the author’s lamentation so many centuries later, yet we tried to bypass the point in the light of the Incarnation. When struck by the vanity and weariness of the cyclical world, the constant ocean that we like streams pout into with out ever being able to fill, we want to immediately jump to “Jesus changes that!”

But before such a hasty dismissal, let us remember that the author, who obviously knew nothing about the Incarnation, certainly has a message that we have not learned and a Faith we have never had to attain (our Bible study got into a big discussion about whether or not we could see ourselves obeying God just because he’s God rather than because we know things will be better for us if we do). We would do well to learn from him, to let his faith instruct ours before we instruct him with our knowledge of later history.

Rarely are we forced to sit with difficult truths about human existence as the author of Ecclesiastes invites us to do, and as the Church calendar writes into two out of the six seasons. But unlike Advent, Lent is not about sitting with our longing for redemption as we wait for Christ’s coming; we sit with our sin as we wait for his death. I am accustomed to thinking I can identify sin, confess it and change it in the same fell swoop; Lent invites me to simply sit with it.

I can’t end this post with a pithy glimpse of hope about the redemption we will celebrate in 40 days. I am not ready to look to the conclusion until I have sat with Solomon here in Ecclesiastes 1 for a while.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Ashes of last year

Last year I took a four-mile walk to church for the Ash Wednesday service. As I was walking on the sidewalk that ran along a fairly major highway, a car approached on a residential cross-street and decided to run the stop-sign and cut the corner to merge into the rush-hour traffic. The driver failed to notice that I was already crossing the street in front of her. Had I not seen her, I might not have lived to tell the tale; as it was, I was almost able to get out of the way. The car ran over my toe and threw my body backwards; later bruises revealed that it had hit my leg.

I brushed the dirt off and continued my walk to church. During the service, I knelt on my freshly-bruised knee as my priest applied ash to my forehead and said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

A couple weeks later, a friend of mine got hit by a car as he was walking along a highway in New Jersey, lingered in a coma, and died.

I wonder how the lesson of mortality is supposed to affect me. I used to collect near-death experiences like some people collect antiques—each a trophy with its own story—and as a teenager I kept a file on my computer desktop giving instructions for the treatment of my writings after my hypothetical death. One would think that such a melancholy kid like me would not have needed additional lessons of mortality.

But now we approach Ash Wednesday a year later, and the concept of mortality feels different. In the past year, I struggled while living in a community I desperately wanted to work, I felt agonizingly alone in a life packed full of people I loved, I actively damaged a friendship I claimed to value, I surrendered a life-goal I had maintained for seven years, and I nearly lost my sister (a couple weeks before a friend of hers died). The lesson I have learned about my mortality between the ashes of last year and those coming up next week is not one of death; it is one of finitude. I have been revealed to be finite.

I am surprised to learn that there is a grace in being giving limitations. I was reading the 15th-century drama Everyman yesterday, an allegory in which God summons Death to go retrieve Everyman. Everyman pleads
Now, gentle Death, spare me till to-morrow,
That I may amend me
With good advisement.
…and I was pondering the grace given in the fact that Death denies us that chance. The agonized struggles of my past year revealed to me not simply that my best efforts were not good enough but that they were actually bad—that they could create a monstrosity. If God gave me the chance to try to bring about my own sanctification, I would create myself a hell.

This year I am approaching Lent much more aware of my frailty, which I am surprised to learn is a lesson of Grace. Just as Moses’ frailty prevented him from leading the people into the Promised Land—a victory that would give the false impression that the journey was over and the Kingdom had come—I have been shown unable to complete the task ahead of me. Just as Moses eventually stood on the soil of Israel beside the transfigured Christ, I know that my frailty will not be the last word of the story.

But for now, it is a word of Grace.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.