Saturday, February 28, 2009

BEN : I died again. . . .

I died again yesterday.
      It’s interesting that you mentioned such an event as an anniversary. I had never thought about it like that. When I think of the marking of an anniversary, I think of weddings and birthdays. I suppose as I get older this will change as more of the people who I have lived and loved and laughed will pass from this world to the next.
      Yesterday was rightfully deemed my anniversary. It marked three years since I dreamed about the doors the Cathedral just down the street and felt a strange need to visit this place I had only passed on foot or by car in the midst of what surely was important business.
      When the bells rang that day, I didn’t have a choice. I stopped what I was doing, and I started walking. The thought never occurred to me that I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing. I had never been a part of an Ash Wednesday service before, but the anxiety that typically surrounds such an event has been purged from my memory if it was ever part of the experience in the first place.
      Yesterday I sat in a different spot, listened to a different sermon, consumed different wine and was marked with different ashes. Yet somehow I felt as if all that was old had become new and all that was new had grown old. It’s strange to find yourself at the intersection of time and eternity, an intersection that surely has been the location of every Christian who has ever willingly paused to mark the historic journey to death preserved for us in the season of Lent as the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is spoken into our lives once again.
      It is good to be reminded of death. There was a period of time in my development as a man when I believed I was invincible. One might argue that little has changed given my incessant need to occupy myself with important matters of this world that will surely crumble under the weight of eternity.
      I used to give people directions around town using the Cathedral as a landmark. I remember being impressed with its old world design and imposing presence on the corner of 9th and Broad. Now I know it is a holy place where ordinary people come to die.
      For a brief period of time – forty days to be exact – I will make my journey through the wilderness of my own sin to face my own demons so that I might participate in the triumphal entry and then the passion only to end up at the resurrection where I will find myself at another holy intersection and marking another anniversary.
      The good news is that I didn’t die alone.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

ROBERT : When you wandered . . . .

When you wandered your way into the cathedral and into the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, you wandered your way into what a friend of mine once called “the great river of prayer” that has been prayed by the faithful over the centuries. There is something about such a thing, about getting your feet wet, so to speak, that never really leaves you.
      Your story reminded me of when it happened to me, it being my stumbling into the liturgy and into the river and into the arms of all those saints known and unknown who have offered up the prayer and worship that has sustained the Church. And still does. Otherwise there is no Church for us to wander into, and there is no long pew for us to travel, and there is no place to hear the Story of us all.
      My long ago first steps in the world of the liturgy came during Advent when we were all slouching toward Bethlehem to be born — as opposed to Lent when we are all slouching our way toward Jerusalem to be killed. But your story reminded me of mine and for that I am grateful.
      The stories also reminded me of one of my favorites in The Book of Common Prayer —  “You have made us one with Your saints in heaven and in earth : Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to Your power and mercy.”

Ash Wednesday is only a few days away. 
      Happy Anniversary to you kind sir. Bring on the ashes, let us celebrate.
      And let us be reminded of the power and the mercy that will surely come upon us, no matter where and what we are slouching toward these days.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

BEN : I remember a preaching professor. . . .

I remember a preaching professor telling us one day as we plowed through the development of liturgy through church history that all churches have and possess a liturgy. Even if they don't think they do. The unfortunate reality, he explained, is that some practice a very bad liturgy.
     Liturgy is linguistically related to the words ritual and pattern. And every church has a pattern it follows — a way of doing things that is comfortable and fits the community in which it is practiced.
      I share the same group of people your Dad did. Those who start Worship with announcements and end with every available stanza of "Just As I Am." These same people observed what they called the Lord's Supper infrequently at best. And when it was time, a lengthy explanation stripping this sacrament of any mystery contributed to an arm's length approach to anything that might seem too "Catholic."
      I always thought it was strange that so much pomp and circumstance surrounded something that they were convinced only had a memorial-type significance. These people administered the Lord's Supper with a sense of holy reverence yet were sure it was completely void of any spiritual power. It was a time when the pastor and deacons dressed in their best suits, and we had to be very, very quiet. 
      And clear instructions were given as to who could participate and who couldn't. I remember the first time I was able to join my parents and everyone else sitting on the pew in taking a plastic cup of grape juice and what seemed to me at the time an usually small unsalted cracker. I felt as though I had made it "in." I was special and part of something bigger than myself. Yet it would be many years before I would plunge into the depths of this event and begin to see it as an opportunity to love, serve and receive.
      I remember the day I was called to the Cathedral that sat down the street from where I worked downtown. I use the word called carefully and in every part of its meaning in the spiritual sense. There was something in me that led me to this place on Ash Wednesday. I couldn't ignore this feeling and even remember waking that morning with a sense that I must go. A holy push if you will.
      I had never celebrated Ash Wednesday before. That would have definitely fallen into that "Catholic" category. And Catholics were bad; worse they were sinners in need of a Savior. At least that's what my peers believed. Of course I always struggled with this because I knew that the Catholic tradition historically preceded my own. So in a way, just as all Christian share in the tradition of the Hebrew people so all Christians share in the tradition of the Catholics. 
      When I entered the building, a holy rush came over me. I knew that the presence of God was there. And I was aware of my sin and reminded of the sacrifice of God. As I knelt and stood and recited--all out of step with everyone else — I felt as if I was on a journey. One that would lead me down a path that every Christian had followed before me. And I became keenly aware of the concept often said in Christian circles: the communion of the saints.
      As the priest placed the ashes on my forehead in the sign of the cross, as I knelt to receive the wine and the bread, the presence of Christ became real for me. And the cold, barren place my heart and spirituality had become was softened and given a new sense of longing to know my God and practice the things that had been characteristic of Christians from the beginning.
      It made no difference that I didn't know the people around me except for the two people I had asked to go with me. I didn't need to know their names, their jobs, their addresses or even their favorite investments. For the first time I felt a common bond between everyone there. One that only comes from walking the same paths that countless others had before us. And suddenly I saw a transition take place in my faith--from the Jesus and Me tradition of my past to the Jesus found in the people of faith and their practice. From me and I to us and we.
      I was relieved to say the least because I had found something that hadn't been influenced by musical preference or personality. And I was thirsty for so much more. I wanted nothing more to do with the tradition that I had been born into. I was no longer one of them. I had felt this for some time but now I was convinced.
      A very wise person once told me that no one can ever escape the faith tradition that they were given. I really wanted him to be wrong. Because I no longer found value in the tradition and practice of my past. I wanted the liturgy and process of another way.
      Whether or not he was right remains to be seen. What I do know is that who we are is a compilation of all that we have experienced. And to try to void any prior history removes my ability to hear God calling me to another way of living and practicing my faith. 
      I still don't want him to be right even if he is. Nonetheless, I feel I've been given a gift. To find this other way early in life. And have the opportunity to be molded and shaped through its practice. 
      Your father found joy in the depths and mystery of Christ. So do I. Even though we will never meet in this world, I know that he and the other saints are surrounding me as I live in pursuit of my God. This is the vision the ancients had as they crafted these vehicles to ensure that each generation would continue to see beyond the obvious and into eternity.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

ROBERT : In a liturgical service . . . .

In a liturgical service, just after the sermon and the saying of the creed, after the confession of sin has been said by everyone present and the absolution has been pronounced, the priest will say, ‘The Peace of the Lord be always with you.’
      ‘And also with you,’ the congregation will respond.
      And then we turn to each other in the pews around us and say the same things back and forth to each other, offering Christ’s peace to each other, often with a kiss or a handshake or a hug. It is called the passing of the peace.

When my father passed away, I ended up with some of his books. Some of them, books that were his favorites, have his marks in them, sentences and phrases and passages that caught his eye or his ear. Some of the books are my favorites now as well, and now they have my marks in them too. Something about that is moving to me.
      In the past few days, I having been going through one of those books with the two sets of marks, and I noticed a mark I had not noticed before. The mark is a reference to the passing of the peace in a liturgical service. My father had marked the phrase and the explanation of it. I have no way of knowing for sure, but it was as though he had stumbled upon it for the first time.
      It is possible. He was raised in a part of the Church where the liturgy was not used, and the passing of the peace may well have been new to him.
      I do know that in those days he was beginning to learn and explore and dig around in the ancient traditions and practices of the Church, practices that came from the the liturgical end of this great long pew that is the Church. He was learning some things about the ancient ways that were new to him and they drew him in their direction.
      He never left his end of the pew, the part of the Church from whence he came, I do not expect that he ever would have. He was ordained there as a minister and his friends and his roots were there. But he was very much engaged in and intrigued by trying to bring some of the ancient practice and wisdom to bear within that community. I knew him well enough to know that when he stumbled upon the passing of the peace, he began that very day to look for ways and places and times to incorporate it into the retreats that he led and other settings as well. And I can imagine the grin that would have been on his face as he did so.
      I saw that grin when he started ending his retreats with Holy Communion. I saw that grin when he and my brother developed a breviary of sorts that introduced an ancient way of prayer into their community. I saw that grin when he would quote from saints and monks and nuns and mystics in his talks, people who were rarely mentioned in the community from whence he came. I thought about all of that the other day when I saw his marks again.
      That got me to thinking about the fact that the passing of the peace, the kiss of peace as it used to be called, is a part of the practice of the faithful that goes back all the way to The Apology of Justin the Martyr, the first century letter that first explained what the early Christians did when they gathered up for worship.
      And about the fact that by the time it got to the church where my father grew up and where my father raised me, we no longer even paused for a moment whenever we gathered up to worship to acknowledge our sin and accept the need for God’s forgiveness and Christ’s peace in our lives. Our version of it was something you did after a the first couple of songs and it began with, ‘Now everybody turn to your neighbor and tell them that you are glad they are in church today.’ Which is not a bad thing to say to people, but it is not the same somehow.
      And I was thinking about how sad it is that so many of the great traditions and practices and habits and rituals of the Church were set aside in the Protestant West and that so many of us had to leave home, so to speak, to even get a glimpse of them.
      Finally I was thinking about my father some more. And how sad it was that he could have given his whole life to the Church and have never been taught about these things at all. And how he was just beginning to discover these things when he died.
      And how they might have made him grin.