Friday, February 16, 2018

Friday (Martyrs of Libya)

  • Task planning and Morning Prayer at home, while I waited for a plumber.
  • Spent the rest of the morning at home waiting for a mold abatement contractor who never showed. But I was not idle:
  • Drafted a formal letter inviting the Bishop of Tabora, his wife, and one other from the diocese to visit us later this year. Sent it by email to Sue, who formatted and printed it on letterhead, affixed my scanned signature, scanned it, and sent it back to me by email. I downlaoded and sent it on the Bishop Elias by email. Isn't technology wonderful?
  • Turned my attention to another large writing project--a pastoral teaching document on sex, sexual behavior, and marriage. Finished drafting a section on basic theological assumptions.
  • Ate a lunch of leftovers.
  • In the office now: Squandered a bunch of time in a technology fiasco (sometimes technology is not wonderful) in a vain attempt to wire money to Tabora using Western Union. We'll develop a Plan B next week.
  • In an ongoing attempt to go as paperless as possible, spent a chunk of quality time with both the network scanner and my desktop scanner. It feels good to be incrementally more organized.
  • Did an Ignatian-style meditation on the gospel reading from the daily office lectionary (from John 17).
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Thursday (Thomas Bray)

  • Out the door earlier than usual, right at 8:00, to run the YFNBmobile to the dealer for a scheduled maintenance appointment. (Short form MP on the way.) Checked it in and headed down Second Street on foot, arriving at the office around 8:30.
  • Immediately logged in on a conference call meeting the the Society of King Charles the Martyr board. I can say that the devotional societies like SKCM do vital work, but they do good work, and I am pleased to be able help. My, oh my, are the meetings ever long! This one was two hours. Don't tell anyone else on the board, but I did get some multi-tasking done. to wit:
  • Finished the reflection on an Advent hymn text that I began yesterday afternoon.
  • Reserved a rental car for week after next when I fly to Florida for a Communion Partners meeting.
  • Began to work on roughed-out notes for a Lenten soup supper teaching presentation I'm set to make at St George's, Belleville next week.
  • The meeting adjourned, I took a bit of a decompression break. (Despite the multi-tasking, there were points when I was very much directly engaged in the conversation, so it was mentally wearing.) Walked across the office and bothered the Archdeacon.
  • Finished the Lenten series prep to the point where I can refine it next week, finishing around 11:40, just in time to walk back up to Isringhausen BMW and retrieve my vehicle.
  • Lunch from KFC, eaten at home.
  • With Brenda alongside me, drove across town to another auto dealer, this time Hyundai, to pick up her car, which has been in in-patient since Monday. It turned out that the one thing that we took it in there for, a burned out headlight bulb, had not been replaced. (The other stuff they did, costing about as much as the car is worth, was discovered after they got the vehicle in hand.) So ... more waiting. To their credit, they comped the parts and labor on the headlight.
  • Back in the office to find a short stack of emails that I took the time to process.
  • Too advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to take a brisk walk down Second to South Grand and back up on Spring St.
  • Wrote an email to the Standing Committee, following up on the face-to-face meeting I had with them last week.
  • Made air travel arrangements for a trip to the Baltimore area that I need to take next month.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

  • Task planning and Morning Prayer at home. (I had to wait for a furnace service technician.)
  • While the furnace was being worked on, I took care (by email) of an administrative chore pertaining to an ordination issue.
  • In the office a bit before 10: Had a long and substantive phone conversation with one of our clergy about some parochial goings-on.
  • Had a series of short meetings with Paige in pursuit of untangling a Gnosis (our database) issue.
  • Worked on another financial/administrative Gordian knot, eventually punting it to somebody else to finish the job. I can do spreadsheets to a point, and then ... not so much.
  • This being a fasting day, I went home for lunch*time,* but not actual lunch. The strength of routine is compelling.
  • This seems to be the day for administrative chores that are not just slam dunks. Much of my earlier afternoon was consumed by stuff pertaining to the scheduled visit of the Bishop of Tabora to the diocese in June.
  • Reviewed a rough cut of the latest catechetical video project that Paige and I have been working on. Much of it needs to be re-recorded. Not her fault, but mine! We talked about a technical fix that might help my performance.
  • Read and marked (I didn't go so far as to learn and inwardly digest) the annual report from the cathedral's parish meeting.
  • Did the same with the same genre of material from St George's, Belleville. 
  • Turned my attention to a long-term writing project, a series a short reflections on liturgical and hymn texts for the season of Advent. Got about halfway through a piece on the hymn "Lo, he comes ...".
  • Headed home at 4:15 to retrieve Brenda, run a short errand, and drive down to St Michael's, O'Fallon, where it was my privilege to preside and preach at their evening Ash Wednesday liturgy. We got back home a little before 10:15.

Ash Wednesday Homily

St Michael’s, O’Fallon

The beginning of Lent, for most of us, triggers a series of associative responses from the past. This chain of associations is rarely the same for any two of us, since we each come with our own unique perspective. I was brought up in a Baptist household, so Lent was something other people did.  But I did live in the suburbs of Chicago, so I went to school with a lot of kids whose last names ended in s-k-i  or w-i-c-z, and whose Roman Catholicism was constantly, if quietly, evident. I remember them showing up at school on Ash Wednesday with curious black smudges on their foreheads and wondering just what that was about. I also distinctly recall looking at the food supplement of the Chicago Daily News and noticing a lead article on “creative ideas for Lenten meals,” and feeling rather out of the cultural mainstream.

If you were raised Roman Catholic, you probably remember a noticeable change in the menu in the school cafeteria and at home, and a fair amount of pressure from various authority figures to identify just what it was you were giving up or taking on as your Lenten discipline.  Now if you're one of the few, the proud, the cradle Episcopalians, then there's no telling for sure what Lent might mean to you. Last week I posted on Facebook my response to a reporter who asked how Episcopalians keep Ash Wednesday, and there were lots of comments from other Episcopalians, clergy even, who said they’d never heard of what I described. But in any case, there's a good chance it meant being in church on Ash Wednesday, though there's an equally good chance that the only ashes to be found were on the wicks of the altar candles after they were snuffed. If nothing else, it meant that church services were a little more somber, with hymns sung more slowly and lugubriously than usual. Whether or not Lent affected your home life depended on the level of churchmanship that your parents and your parish adhered to.

But anyway, here we are, gathered together in St Michael’s Church, in O’Fallon, Illinois, on February 14, 2018—gathered together with our various backgrounds, associations, experiences, and pre-conceptions. Except in years when Easter falls well into April, I usually don’t feel quite ready for Lent—it feels like Christmas was just last week. At times, though, I’ve been more than ready, already in Lenten mood by the time Ash Wednesday rolls around. But time, as we learn sooner or later, waits for none of us, and the rhythm of the year unfolds in glorious ignorance of the rhythms of our personal lives.

For some of you here this evening, Lent could hardly have come at a more appropriate time, for you are truly experiencing desolation in your life. I don’t know who you are, but you do. The tone of your life is dark and austere, and the austerity and restraint of our liturgy this evening is an altogether appropriate expression of the condition you find yourself in.

Others of you come to this service with an acute sense of your own sinfulness. You know exactly what it is that you should justly be feeling remorseful for, precisely what it is that is separating your soul from God this evening. I don’t know who you are, but you do. And when, in a few minutes, we pray the litany of penitence together, and, then, after receiving the ashes, pray the fifty-first psalm, what flows out of your lips will truly fit with the condition of your heart:  "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses."

Others who worship with us this evening, however, find that, while the calendar tells them it's Lent, their hearts tell them it's Christmas or Easter—or at least Valentine’s Day! Maybe life has never been better for you than it is right now. Maybe you've just achieved a long-cherished goal and are still savoring the sweetness of accomplishment. Maybe you're overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude and joy over the many blessings that God has showered upon you.  I don’t know who you are, but you do. You want to cry out "Alleluia!" just when that word is supposed to be banished from our vocabulary for the next several weeks. For you, what we do this evening will be slightly jarring, slightly unsettling. It's not that you'll be able to disagree with anything that's said, but it just won't be from the heart.

And then, there are those who are here, who may not have a very clear idea at all as to why they're here. Perhaps you're a young person and were not given a choice in the matter. Perhaps you were assigned something in particular to do and showed up in fulfillment of your duty. Again, I don’t know who you are, but you do. For you, tonight's liturgy may be confusing and/or boring, something you'll have no trouble forgetting the moment you walk out the door. Then again, maybe you'll have an "Aha!" experience, and see something you've never noticed before. Maybe you'll always look back on this Ash Wednesday as the starting point of a lively and authentic relationship with God. Stranger things have happened.

But what I want to tell you is that, in the larger scheme of things, the way any of us feels about tonight's goings-on is of passing small importance.  What is important, is that we're all here, doing what we're doing. Now I wonder whether it strikes you as a little bit odd to hear me say that?  I know it strikes me as odd! It challenges two of the fundamental presumptions that you and I are conditioned by.

The first of these presumptions is that what we do, we do primarily as individuals. Even when we do something as part of a group, we assume that the group is neither more nor less than the sum of its individual parts. This view doesn't square, however, with the way God seems to deal with mankind. When the world was destroyed by flood, the sure route to salvation was by being on board Noah's ark. The ark escaped the flood, and thereby the individuals who were on it. Under the terms of the Old Covenant, the fundamental basis of one's right standing before God was membership in the community of Israel, the nation with whom the covenant was made. The words of the prophet Joel that we heard read a few minutes ago spoke of the need of the entire nation to repent and return to the Lord. And under the terms of the New Covenant, the covenant we have with God through Christ, we are saved by participation in the body of Christ, which is the community of the church. It is into this body that we are born in the sacrament of baptism.

And, you know, it could not be more appropriate that we are saved as individuals by sharing in the life of a group, because we are also sinners as individuals by virtue of being part of a group. Sure, many of the sins we commit are quite personal and individual, and those are the ones that are likely to make us feel the guiltiest—but, remember, tonight isn't about feelings! Pay close attention to the Litany of Penitence that we are shortly about to pray together.  Most of the sins that we will confess are not offenses that would be of any interest to the vice squad of the O’Fallon PD!  They're sins that we're guilty of as a whole society. Who's responsible for the plight of the hungry and the homeless? No single individual, but all of us as a society. Who's responsible for the pollution of our air and water? No single individual, but all of us as a society. When I first moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana about thirty years ago, I very righteously decided to boycott Exxon in protest over what was then a recent massive oil spill in Alaska. But then it occurred to me that that was the height of hypocrisy! I was biting the hand that fed me! My protest had not a shred of moral authority. I may never have spilled a drop of oil on God's green earth, but as long as I cashed my paycheck twice a month—a paycheck that was as dependent on the Baton Rouge economy as the Baton Rouge economy was on the petroleum-refining industry, then I was just as guilty of environmental pollution as if I personally dumped toxic waste into the Mississippi River. There is such a things as social sin, and it needs to be repented of as surely as does individual sin.

So, the Ash Wednesday liturgy challenges the presumption that the only behavior that counts is individual behavior. But there is another presumption—an even more important one, I believe—that is called into question by what we do here this evening. You and I are conditioned, in a multitude of ways, to perceive the exterior as an expression of the interior. In other words, what I do and say is a reflection of what I think and feel. This is by no means a false assumption, as far as it goes. In fact, it's probably the ideal situation, where our actions and our words are harmonized with our thoughts and feelings. But, it can also work in the opposite direction. Energy can flow from our actions to our beliefs and emotions, from the exterior to the interior. And this is one of the supreme benefits of liturgy, and of the cycle of liturgical time, with its alternation between feasting, fasting, and just ordinary living.

Tonight, the body of Christ, the community of the church, is repenting, expressing corporate remorse for things done and left undone. Any one of the particular cells of the body may or may not "need" to repent in the particular way and for the particular sins of which the body is repenting. But the body still needs the contribution of those cells. There are those weak cells, who, as individuals, need to repent, but are unaware of their need, or lack the ability to do so, and require the assistance of stronger voices confessing and stronger knees kneeling.  For those weak cells of the body, tonight is a school of repentance. They will learn by doing, with the rest of the community acting as spiritual training wheels. In time, by participating in liturgies such as this one, the exterior words and actions of the "weak" cells will transform their thoughts and feelings, so that their outward aspect and their inward aspect will be in harmony.

And the stronger cells, whose, who, as individuals, have no overwhelming need of repentance now, prepare themselves for the time when they will need to turn yet again toward Christ. By "going through the motions" this evening, even though the words spoken may seem to overstate the actual condition of their lives, they maintain their spiritual fitness the way an athlete keeps in shape by running or lifting weights during the off season.

So, join me in this solemn assembly, and let us keep this fast together, regardless of whether we're ready for it, or in the mood for it. Receive, with me, the mark of our mortality on our foreheads, and share with me, once again, in taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the sacred gifts by which this mortality is defeated. Amen.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Shrove Tuesday (Absalom Jones)

  • Weekly and daily task organization at home.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Worked with Paige for a bit ironing out a couple of details in our latest video project.
  • Bothered Sue about some details of my health insurance coverage.
  • Dashed off an email over an administrative issue.
  • Revised, edited, formatted, printed, and scheduled for posting my Ash Wednesday homily (St Michael's, O'Fallon).
  • Stepped out at 11:30 to take my wife and myself to back-to-back dentist appointments. (Fortunately, we see the same dentist.)
  • Lunch from Chick-Fil-A, eaten at home,
  • Back at the office, did the same thing for my Lent 1 sermon (Holy Trinity, Danville) as I had done in the morning for Ash Wednesday.
  • Ducked out early to fetch Brenda and head over to the Hyundai dealer to pick up her car, but it was done yet and they forgot to call. Hmm. Patience and forgiveness. 
  • So ... stopped by HyVee for a couple of things and started on cooking a proper Mardi Gras dinner--fried catfish topped with shrimp etouffe√©. Now bring on Lent.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Last Sunday after the Epiphany

My visitation was to St Paul's, Pekin, where the regular Sunday liturgy at this time of year isn't until 11:00, so it was mercifully reasonable hour before we had to leave home. The roads were not in top condition, with lots of snow and slush mixed with the detritus of last night's freezing rain, but the further north we got, the better the condition of the road. We duly kept the Last Sunday after the Epiphany in all the glory of the transfigured Christ, enjoyed a post-liturgical repast in the parish hall, got to spend quality time with little Martin Dallman, Fr Matthew and Hannah's youngest, and were home a little after 3:00.

Sermon for Last Sunday after the Epiphany

St Paul's, Pekin--Mark 9:2-9, Psalm 27:5-11, II Peter 1:16-21

Some of you may have heard me relate the story of how I entered college in 1969 with the intention of majoring in Political Science, and then going on to law school, and perhaps a career in politics. Instead, as a result of a rather profound interior crisis during the first semester of my freshman year, I switched to music. I realized that music had a grip on my soul, and I may as well relax and go with the flow rather than try to fight it. That act of surrender enabled me to continue a series of encounters with particular composers and particular musical works, each of which touched me at their respective times in ways too deep to express in words. Later that freshmen year, I discovered the symphonies of Johannes Brahms—not just as superficially attractive, but as an experience of connecting with their profound beauty at the level of my innermost being. It was a truly spiritual connection. In time, over a period of years, this experience of falling in love with a particular piece of music replicated itself several times: the symphonies of Beethoven, each of the nine in their turn, the magnificent “Resurrection” symphony of Gustav Mahler, Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s fugues. More recently, most anything by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams just gets me high.

Now, my point in telling you all this is not to impress you with my taste in music. In fact, you are perfectly welcome to think that I have horrible taste in music; it won’t offend me in the least. What I hope I am accomplishing, however, is to induce you to substitute your own taste for mine, and to reflect on how you have had that same sort of soul-stirring spiritual encounter with a song, or a painting, or a poem or a story, the experience of losing yourself in a work of art, and thereby coming to know yourself more deeply and more clearly. A moving encounter with profound beauty, more often than not, comes as a surprise, an unexpected delight. The first moments of looking out over the south rim of the Grand Canyon left me literally breathless; it was more spectacular than I ever could have imagined from seeing pictures. All of us, I’m sure, have had the experience of being struck by the overwhelming beauty of a person’s face at the moment we first see it. We treasure these moments of surprise, these moments of encounter with the transcendently beautiful. We treasure them precisely because they are sublimely unnecessary, completely optional, serving no evidently practical purpose. They don’t feed or clothe or house anyone. They make no contribution to the gross domestic product. Yet, we all know how impoverished our lives would be without beauty. Even amid the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, beautiful music got composed and performed, and in those brief moments, the light of heaven shone in the pits of hell.

We treasure beauty because, much of the time, it seems so rare. We feel inundated by the ugliness of sickness and decay, betrayal and violence, poverty and injustice, suffering caused by natural disasters. And if we are fortunate enough to not be surrounded by overt ugliness, then, in a way, we are not really so fortunate at all, because then we are just suffocated slowly by the repetitively dreary ongoing cycle of daily routine. We work, we eat, we sleep—we work, we eat, we sleep—over and over again, and then we die, and if we’re lucky, it never occurs to us that our lives are meaningless.

So, from inside our dull, if not always overtly ugly, existence, we will grasp at such glimmers of heavenly beauty as may be within our reach. The story of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ is one of those glimmers; it’s something that our imaginations can easily grab hold of. The gospels, of course, only give us the barest outline. As a spiritual exercise, however, we are free to wonder about the details. What did the three disciples and Jesus talk about as they walked up the mountain? Or were they silent? Did the change in Jesus’ appearance occur suddenly or gradually? Did only his clothing glow, or did his skin and hair glow as well? How long did it last? How did the disciples recognize that it was Moses and Elijah who appeared with Jesus? As we ask ourselves questions like these, it’s difficult not to be envious of Peter and James and John. It was obviously an experience of immense importance to them in their path of discipleship—important enough, apparently, for Peter to mention it some decades later in his second epistle. The experience sustained these disciples through some particularly challenging times that lay ahead. It was an encounter with sheer beauty, which drove them to make some response—“Let’s build three monuments, Lord, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—the encounter drove them to make some response, but in fact, no response was adequate, so great was the transfigured splendor of Jesus on that mountaintop.

Among the other inherent attributes of his nature that he has revealed to us, God is beautiful. Yes, God is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and present everywhere. Yes, as St John tells us, “God is love.” But God is also beautiful. “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness…” we read in the twenty-ninth Psalm. Today’s selection from Psalm 27 reinforces the theme:
One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. … You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek.
God’s beauty is made accessible to us, broadly speaking, in the Incarnation, when God took human flesh and “pitched his tent” among us, “moved into the neighborhood,” as one translation puts it, living as one of us. In the face of Christ, we see the face of God. But God’s beauty is made available to us specifically and concretely on occasions such as this, when we come together to re-member, to re-assemble, to re-present, to put back together the Body of Christ—the body of the transfigured Christ—as we celebrate the Eucharist, as we take our places beside Peter and James and John and “behold the fair beauty of the Lord” and respond to that beauty, not by offering to build monuments, but by offering our lives in worship and devotion and service.

In the light of the transfigured Christ, we can take the ugliness of human experience, we can take the mere daily dreariness of human experience, and look at it from an angle that calls forth hope rather than despair, a perspective that call forth health and life rather than decay and death. This is why it is so vitally important that we come back to the Mass, back to the altar, Sunday by Sunday, as often as we are able, to seek the face of God, to behold his fair beauty in his house, his temple. I know it’s my job, and Fr Matthew’s job, to tell you that it’s important to be in church every Sunday, and you know it’s our job to tell you it’s important to be in church every Sunday. But we don’t do that because it’s our job, or because we get an ego boost out of seeing filled pews inside St Paul’s. We do it because it’s the vision of God’s beauty—God’s beauty touching us in the innermost parts of our souls, God’s beauty made available to us in Word and Sacrament, in the liturgy of the church—it’s the vision of God’s beauty that enables all of us to keep on keeping on in the face of the ugliness and blandness that surrounds us. “One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the Lord.” Alleluia and Amen.