Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Half Way There

Well here we are – about half way through Lent.  I’ve learned something again for the umpteenth time – some thing I have always known – I am a sinner.  On Ash Wednesday, I wrote about how Lent can be like a mirror in an unavoidable place that shows us an image of who we really are.  As of today, Lent 2011 has succeeded. 

As I set out on my Lenten journey, I promised to write a reflection for this blog each day.  In that, I have failed.  I promised myself that I would exercise each day to improve my health.  In that, I have failed.  I promised not to take sweets.  In that, I have failed.  Without going into much more detail, I can safely say that in every discipline that I undertook for this Lent, I have failed. 

That might be cause for great discouragement. 

However, the opposite is true.  My failures at these undertakings is only the mirror showing me that on my own, with my own strength, I cannot attain the life that God calls me to live.  My failures starkly remind me that without grace, I can do nothing well. 

It took three weeks to get here.  Now I can get to the business of letting God be God in my life.  I can finally put away the fantasy that I can do all these things on my own.  Am I throwing in the towel on my Lenten disciplines?  No way.  Only now, I have learned again that I can only succeed by the grace of God.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Hail, Mary, full of grace!

The prayer, "Hail Mary," is more than the cry of desparation of a quarterback on the football field as he lets loose a high, long pass that may or may not result is tremendous gain. "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee" recalls the greeting of the angel Gabriel when announcing the plan of God to make Mary of Nazareth the vessel that would bear the world its Savior. This announcement, or "Annuciation," is recounted for us in the Gospel of Luke. On this day, exectly nine months before the celebration of Christmas, marks the conception of Christ in the womb of a simple Jewish girl from Nazareth. It recalls not only the announcement (which may have been quite startling to a young maiden) but also the deep confidence and trust that this woman had in the God of her ancestors. With confidence, she responds, "I am the handmaiden of the Lord, let it be done to me as you say."

We celebrate this day to call to mind that sense of confidence. It couldn't have been easy for Mary to contemplate what lay ahead for her. She was not yet married, yet she would be with child in a culture that looked on such events with great disdain. Having apparently violated the terms of her betrothal to Joseph, she would have been an embarassment and grave disappointment to her parents. Joseph would walk away from her. She would be shunned by her community. She would be labeled a "loose woman" for the rest of her life.

Still her answer was clear and unequival, "Let it be done." Interesting, too, is the fact that God did not foist his will upon her. He had chosen her and it would remain with her to decide whether this momentous action would take place. God had placed the salvation of the world in the hands of this youngster. What inner character enabled her to undertake this tremendous work. Bearing and rearing children is not easy in any age and is daunting even for adults that have planned for it. Having been betrothed to Joseph, Mary certainly knew that having children was in her future. But now? Even before she was married?
How many others did Gabriel approach but said, "No. Not me. That's not for me. Go away." Was Mary the only one? We will never know. But it is interesting to think about how special this particular woman was. She is the model for faith, like her ancestor Abraham, who had confidence and trust in God so total that he risked absoultely everything to answer God's call.

Today, the Church asks us to examine our own reponse to the call of God. Each of us, though not asked to become the God-bearer to a broken world, is called to accomplish something for God. Lent is the time when we take the time to search our hearts for what that might be. How willing will we be to say, "Let it be done to me as you say" when we discover what that is?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

How Suffering Can Teach

For many years, the well-known Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen pastored the residents and staff of the Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. Daybreak is a residential facility for the mentally challenged. The residents face many difficulties: savage inner voices, physical paralysis, epileptic seizures, disordered speech and thinking. The residence is filled with what many of us would conceive as frightening, even repellent, conditions.

Nouwen knew about revulsion. But he also came to know something important: those whose illness is visible teach us about our own brokenness. The residents of Daybreak might have been visily limited, but all of us are limited in one way or another. Often limited by invisible disabilities, we are bound by our secrets every bit as firmly as Nouwen's parishioners were bound by obvious weaknesses. "After years of living with people with mental disabilities," he wrote, "I hae become deeply aware of my own sorrow-filled heart."

Suffering can do one of two things: It can cause us to close down, or it can help us to open up. We close down in a vain attempt to protect ourselves from further pain, but it is a useless attempt. The way of human life is not the avoidance of pain. The way of a truly human life is to move through pain into love, to see ourselves in the suffering of others and others in our own suffering. This is one reason we reflect so carefully upon the passion and death of Christ during the season of Lent. As Isaiah's "Suffering Servant," Jesus shows us a truly human path.

For more on Henri Nouwen, visit

Friday, March 18, 2011

Caring Listening

I obviously find myself on the road very often. I drive back and forth between my home in Harrisburg and the parish in Lewistown. Add to that an occasional trip to our second home in Delaware and you see why I leasing a car will never make financial sense to me. When the weather is nice, I often drive with my windows down and my music playing very loudly. Music and listening to music is one of my favorite activities. I am especially fond of classical music and having added satellite radio to the mix has helped to broaden what I actually listen to.

I’m used to driving alone with my music as my company. Even with others in the car, I’m mostly silent. Being used to silence is a very important thing. Talking all the time means you never spend any time listening. Listening, in my opinion, is a lost art in our society. We spend too much time talking and not enough time listening. While I was in seminary, I had to attend mandatory formation sessions that centered on "active listening." Actually, I thought having sessions on active listening was ridiculous. Who would need such a lesson in the first place? Weren’t we all capable of listening? As we were taught about the importance of eye contact, nodding your head, and other actions, I found myself being agitated more and more by the sessions. One time, when it came time for questions from the seminarians, I indignantly raised my hand and asked whether all this wasn merely a trick to convince someone that you care about what is being said? In my mind, all these tactics were just fixes to what the initial element needed to be: caring.

Spending your time listening to just figure out what you’re going to say next is really not listening. Even those who engage in forensic debates will tell you that to succeed you need to carefully listen to and then assess your opponent’s argument. Caring about what is being said can be the root of change: wth friends who need advice, with parents trying to help adult children, with political discourse. It’s not just about giving your opinion. It's about caring listening.

Caring listening is also how I’ve come to see prayer. A lot of people pray out loud or silently to God, but how many of us really listen to what God has to say? I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have much patience when it comes to listening for what God has to say. I, like other people (and many important figures in the Scriptures), would like a more timely answer. "What exactly is it that you want me to learn?" "What exactly is your idea of becoming better through this situation?"

It’s especially hard to listen to God when I think that God is just not paying attention. Transitions associated with becoming the new rector to St. Mark's provides plenty of opportunity for me to spend time praying, "Just tell me what to do." I do believe God is paying attention, and in the spirit of active listening, I guess I should start paying more attention.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

He descended into hell.

At our midweek healing services here at St. Mark’s, we use the Apostles’ Creed during the Eucharist.  For some reason today, the phrase “he descended into hell” struck me with particular force.  At the same time, I had just been praying for an individual who has been struggling mightily with multiple addictions.  I am no expert, but I would say he has an addictive personality and is need of great healing. 

Countless thousands of people are making the journey through recovery.  I believe that these people truly experience hell in a way that few of us ever will.  They have lost homes, marriages, careers, the respect of their children and friends, and sometimes almost life itself. 

During recovery, most programs teach their clients to pray.  The model prayer is a simple one.  We know it as the Serenity Prayer.  The prayer is meant to remind the person in recovery that they need to abandon the fiction that they are in control of their behavior and that, in reality, they may actually be being controlled by their behavior.  People become convinced that t only a higher power can save them.  Many of these people come to discover that this higher power is, for them, the God they came to know as part of their own religious heritage.  Many individuals rediscover their Church or synagogue after a prolonged absence from religious observance of any kind.  More often than not, this follows a bit of healing connected with very old and deep anger at “organized religion.” 

So much of the religious teaching that people absorb as children is intricately interwoven with the stresses and sorrows of their own families.  Like everything else received by children, religious imagination needs to grow and deepen.  You don’t do most of the things now that you did as a child; it stands to reason that one’s faith and those things that support it will change, too.  The knowledge of having been raised from the living death of addiction is as good a place as any to start and a model of resurrection faith. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Finding the time

Almost everybody I know is much too busy, yours truly included. Finding quiet time alone is hard. “I’m just too busy to pray,” I will often hear.  It makes busy people feel guilty, at first, to sit in silence when they could be doing something.  It is important to remember, though, that when you sit in contemplative silence you are doing something: you’re tending your soul.  You’re working on the framework in which you live your life.  You need some time to listen to the Spirit.  In my experience, the time I have taken to do this has never ruined mu schedule.  “Deus providebit” (God will provide) I tell myself when I am worried about time.  And God always does.  Just as a laidback graduate school classmate from the South chided me, “You Northerners need to learn – when God made time, he made lots of it!”

Perhaps you will not be sitting motionless is a quiet room.  It may be that the time God provides will be time that you used to use in another way: staring into the distance while a passenger, or during exercise, or in a waiting room.  Washing dishes. Taking a shower.  It is often true that the mind and soul are quite available while the body is doing something repetitive.  This elegant economy should gratify even the most driven among us: you can put your previously unused spiritual energy into a more focused use while performing mindless tasks.  So even the most mundane activity can become holy, if it is accompanied by prayer. 

If you need a quiet place to pray, St. Mark's Church is open daily from 8 AM until 1 PM for just this purpose.  Stop in.  Take a breath . . . and hear God's voice.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Looking toward new life

"Lent" comes from an Old English word meaning springtime. In societies based in agriculture, such as those of the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe were until recently, early spring was the time when food was in the shortest supply.

Most domestic animals, except for breeding stock were slaughtered in the fall because not enough feed grain could be safely stored for all animals to survive the winter.  By early spring, although fish was still available, supplies of preserved meats (frozen or salted) began to run out, and warmer temperatures threatened to spoil what remained.

As the winter grain crops grew and animals gave birth and raised their young, the time of scarcity started to wane. The end of this period was often celebrated with a feast offering the first fruits of the spring harvest to God. The Jewish Passover incorporates these elements of this festival: a shepherd’s sacrifice and feast of young lambs and a farmer’s feast of unleavened bread made from the spring barley harvest. Because of the connection between the occurrence of the Passover and the resurrection, Easter was set to sprintime (in the northern hemisphere).

In his book, Cleansing the Temple, Theodore Wessling reminds us: “As a period of purification, Lent is not merely a period of bodily fasting. It is a period of general re- adjustment, of thorough renovation from the outer spheres of life down to the roots of its innermost fibers. We have only to glance at the chain of prayers which runs through the Lenten liturgy from Ash Wednesday to Easter to see the meaning of Lent. It is a chastisement of the body in order that the soul may grow. It is purification and liberation. It is a cure, and the fasts are meant to be medicinal. It is a sacred observance, nay, it is direct sanctification. It is the only route to freedom and fulfillment, for it loosens the grip of evil and leads us, worn and weary, to full and wholesome restoration.”

How does will our Lenten observance allow us to give birth to new life - the reason for the season at Easter?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Make or Break

Today is the Friday after Ash Wednesday. It is the third of the forty days we call Lent. To me, the third day is always the hardest. Think of the last time you started a diet. The first day was full of commitment and zeal. The second day was characterized by a little motivational guilt but was successful nonetheless. It was the third day when the temptation to "cheat just a little" became almost overwhelming.

Or when you determined to exercise and work out. The first day again was characterized with a certain zeal. "There, that wasn't so bad was it?" is the way you emerge from your regimen. The second day survuves because of the momentum and good feelings about yourself that the first day produced. Then it hits. The sore muscles emerge on the third day. You suddenly wonder if its worth it. "I'll take today off so I'll feel better tomorrow" becomes a silent mantra in an silent internal dialog. The third day can sometimes be the make or break day for any new discipline we undertake.

It's no different with the spiritual "exercises" we undertake during Lent. The Friday after Ash Wednesday becomes the make or break day for our personal disciplines to which we so zealously subscribed on Tuesday evening.

The beauty of this experience is that today is the ay that confronts us with the necessity of grace. It graphically demonstrate to us that if we set out to save ourselves, we will fail. Only by tapping into the strength that comes from without can we hope to attain the goals we have set for ourselves. In short, we need God's help. That help is ever present and is always freely given. That is the nature of grace, the nature of our relationship with God. All we need to do is to recognize that without that help, we will fall.
Today is a make or break day for Lenten observance. May the Lord help us to recognize that we cannot do it on our own. May we have the wisdom to turn toward the "mountains from whence come help.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


In the Old Testament, God commanded Israel to observe several set times of fasting. In the New Testament fasting was neither commanded nor forbidden. While early Christians were not required to fast, many practiced prayer and fasting regularly.  A spiritual fast involves abstaining from food while focusing on prayer. Practically speaking, this can mean refraining from snacks between meals, skipping one or two meals a day, abstaining only from certain foods, or a total fast from all food for an entire day or longer. For example, one may abstain from eating meat on Fridays. 
While many people fast to lose weight, dieting is not the purpose of a spiritual fast. Instead, fasting provides unique spiritual benefits in the life of the believer.  Fasting requires self-control and discipline as one denies the natural desires of “the flesh.” During spiritual fasting, the believer's focus is removed from the physical things of this world and more intensely concentrated on God. In other words, fasting directs our hunger toward God. It clears the mind and body of earthly attentions and draws us close to God so we can gain spiritual clarity of thought while fasting.
Fasting is not a way to earn God's favor by getting him to do something for us. Rather, the purpose is to produce a transformation in us—a clearer, more focused attention and dependence upon God.  As the Gospel lesson from Ash Wednesday teaches, fasting is never to be a public display of spirituality—it is between the individual and God alone. Contrary to some spiritual disciplines, there is no basis in the Scriptures to see fasting as a means of punishing or harming the body.
One thing is clear: the theology of fasting is a theology of priorities in which believers are given the opportunity to express themselves in an undivided and intensive devotion to the Lord and to the concerns of the spiritual life. This devotion will be expressed by abstaining for a short while from such normal and good things as food and drink, so as to enjoy a time of uninterrupted communion with God.  Our Lenten fasting, then, should help us to “put first things first” in our own lives and in the life of the community in which we live.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


As the years have drawn on, I increasingly avoid looking at myself naked in a mirror.  It’s the same reason I avoid looking at current photographs of myself.  Mirrors and digital cameras have an uncanny ability to reflect back to you what you actually look like.  And if you are like me, you more than likely do not like what you see.  Why?  Because each of us has an image of our self – of what we think we look like – and the mirror or the camera often shatters that image.  When I see a photo of myself in my thirties, I often remark how that man in the picture lives inside of me – somewhere!  I notice how much less hair I now have, how the dreaded “turkey neck” has appeared, how the wrinkles make me look older than I feel. 
The funny thing is that other people see me the way I appear in the mirror all the time.  They have no preconceived idea or image.  They see me and they love me with “added” weight, thinning hair, and wobbly skin under my chin. Funny. That’s the way God sees me – and God loves me nonetheless – loves me more, I dare say, than I love the real me. 

Ash Wednesday begins the liturgical season of Lent.  Lent for me has become a time of standing in front of a mirror, naked – a time of making myself see what is really there so that I can start loving the me that lives, not some fantasy image of myself.  It is a time for aligning the way I see things with the way that God sees things – only then can I begin to experience the love God has for me, a love great enough to sacrifice the life of God’s only Son.

When looking into the mirror, I may see things that I don’t like.  If I really don’t like them, I can set to work to change the things I can, to accept the things I cannot, and to seek the wisdom to know the difference.  This is what Lent is for – seeking that wisdom. 

This Ash Wednesday I resolve to stand naked before God and pray that in the days to follow, I will begin to see as God sees.  

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Shrove Tuesday - Mardi gras

Shrove Tuesday is the term used in the English speaking world to designate the day before Ash Wednesday.  

The word “shrove” is the past participle of the verb to shrive or to obtain absolution for one’s sins by confession and doing penance.  During the week before Ash Wednesday (called Shrovetide), Christians were expected to confess their sins and to receive a penance that they would carry out during the penitential season of Lent.  That way, by Easter, the individual could be assured of forgiveness and so celebrate the full joy of the Resurrection. The popular celebratory aspect of the day developed long before the Reformation and paralleled the celebrations of Carne vale (“good-bye to meat”) or Mardi gras (Fat Tuesday) that developed in areas more commonly associated with Catholicism (latin speaking countries like Spain, Italy, and France).

Regrettably in the United States, the day has been increasingly divorced from its religious roots (like so many other significant days in the calendar) and has become occasion for raucous behavior and, too often, gratuitous drunkenness.  I would probably be less cynical about contemporary celebration of Mardi gras if the spirit of Shrove Tuesday was recaptured, that is, that it was a genuine release of energy so that one could get about the serious business of self-examination and self-discipline so as to result in a genuine change of heart and life. 

Regardless, Shrove Tuesday is upon us.  It is time to let loose for a moment so that we can enter more completely into the heart of Ash Wednesday with a “firm purpose of amendment” that will result in a better us six weeks hence.

For details on Ash Wednesday services and Lenten programs, see our website at

Thursday, March 3, 2011

John and Charles Wesley: The Methodists

For two years when I was in college, I spoke these words almost daily, "Coming to you live from the John and Charles Wesley Chapel on the Campus of Houghton College . . . " As the manager of the campus radio station, it was my task to announce the boradcast of the daily chapel service at exactly 11:45 a.m..
Today, the Epsicopal Church formally commemorates these two towering figures in the life of Anglican Chrisitianity.

John Wesley is considered to be the father of Methodism. His brother, Charles, became one of the most prolific English-speaking poets, composing more than 6,500 hymns. Methodism became a highly successful evangelical movement that encouraged people to experience Jesus Christ personally. But who were these prolific Christians?

The Wesley brothers, John born in 1703 and Charles in 1707, were leaders of the evangelical revival in the Church of England in the eighteenth century. They both attended Oxford University, and there they gathered a few friends with whom they undertook a strict adherence to the worship and discipline of the Book of Common Prayer, from which strict observance they received the nickname, "Methodists."

Having been ordained, they went to the American colony of Georgia in 1735, John as a missionary and Charles as secretary to Governor Oglethorpe. They found the experience disheartening, and returned to Enlgand. There, three days apart, they underwent a conversion experience. John, present with a group of Moravians who were reading Martin Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, received a strong emotional awareness of the love of Christ displayed in freely forgiving his sins and granting him eternal life.

Following this experience, John and Charles, with others, set about to stir up in others a like awareness of and response to the saving love of God. Of the two, John was the more powerful preacher, and averaged 8000 miles of travel a year, mostly on horseback. At the time of his death he was probably the best known and best loved man in England.

Although Wesley found it natural to approach the Gospel with habits of thought formed by a classical education, he was quick to recognize the value of other approaches. The early Methodist meetings were often led by lay preachers with very limited education. On one occasion, such a preacher took as his text Luke 19:21, "Lord, I feared thee, because thou art an austere man." Not knowing the word "austere," he thought that the text spoke of "an oyster man." He spoke about the work of those who retrieve oysters from the sea-bed. The diver plunges down from the surface, cut off from his natural environment, into bone-chilling water. He gropes in the dark, cutting his hands on the sharp edges of the shells. Now he has the oyster, and kicks back up to the surface, up to the warmth and light and air, clutching in his torn and bleeding hands the object of his search. So Christ descended from the glory of heaven into the squalor of earth, into sinful human society, in order to retrieve humans and bring them back up with Him to the glory of heaven, His torn and bleeding hands a sign of the value He has placed on the object of His quest. Twelve men were converted that evening. Afterwards, someone complained to Wesley about the inappropriateness of allowing preachers who were too ignorant to know the meaning of the texts they were preaching on. Wesley, simply said, "Never mind, the Lord got a dozen oysters tonight."

Charles was the better hymn-writer of the two. He wrote over 6000 hymns, including about 600 for the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
Some of the better known are the following:
A charge to keep I have
And can it be that I should gain
Author of life divine
Christ the Lord is risen today
Christ, whose glory fills the skies
Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire
Come, O Thou Traveller unknown
Come, thou long expected Jesus
Forth in Thy name, O Lord, I go
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild
Hail the day that sees Him rise
Hark, the herald angels sing,
Jesus, Lover of my soul
Let saints on earth in concert sing
Lo, He comes with clouds descending
Love Divine, all loves excelling
O Jesus, full of pardoning grace
O Love Divine, how sweet Thou art!
O Thou who camest from above.
Oh for a heart to praise my God
Oh for a thousand tongues to sing
Our Lord is risen from the dead
Rejoice! the Lord is King
Soldiers of Christ, arise!
Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim
John and Charles Wesley are fondly remembered for reuniting the head and the heart when it comes to matters Christian. They put flesh back on to dry bones. In this way they were true prophets and we rejoice in their accomplishments.