Ash Wednesday: Switching Stories

crossAsh Wednesday comes as a diagnostic moment for those who choose to observe it.  We remember our limits, our contingency, the shortness and uncertainty of human life: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

This is a hard truth, one that should help us live with greater engagement and gratitude for the present.  Very early this morning, at the first Eucharist of Ash Wednesday, I shared in my homily that the season of Lent is a way of making a new beginning and an opportunity to relive the story of God’s longing for us and our longing for God.  What else would cause us to gather before dawn in a dimly lit chapel other than our longing for the one relationship that helps us make sense of human life?

The wisdom, passion, and brilliant life that is the story of Jesus, is also our story—the means by which our lives take on greater meaning and significance.  The alternative stories of the world—stories of appearance, achievement, and affluence—have worn achingly thin in light of the historic times we live in.  That is why Jesus’ announcement of the existence and availability of another dimension of life, the announcement that the Kingdom of God has drawn near in time and place, strikes us as good news.  It is this story, God’s story of healing and reconciliation, of sufficiency and grace, that we are invited to enter with willing receptivity in this Season of Lent.

Todd Hunter defines repentance as “the implementation process of switching stories.”  That’s a new twist on repentance for me, and one that illumines the journey of Lent in a fresh way.  What overarching story is currently defining my life?  In practical terms, how does that story shape my thoughts, judgments and actions?  Maybe it’s time to switch stories once again.


transOn this Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, we tell the story of Jesus with Peter, James, and John and their experience of transfiguration. On that mountaintop, the disciples are permitted a glimpse of God’s transcendent glory on the face of Jesus, and so are shown the point of it all. For a brief moment, the veil which separates the invisible from the visible, the future from the present, is lifted, and as an old friend of mine used to say, their lives were re-figured.

I have always believed that moments of transfiguration need not be as magnificent as the one recorded in the synoptic gospels, though when such moments happen to us, we may perceive them magnificent as well.  I think more often than not, what we see in “transfiguration” is some aspect of God’s full world which we do not normally see or some quality of a person’s unique spirit which breaks through in a way we have not noticed before.  In the Gospel description of the transfiguration we have just such a “breaking through.”  It is Christ’s unique relationship with the divine, and the ultimate destiny of his life that is brought forth on that holy mountain.  The glory of God shines through his humanity.  We behold it and we are strengthened—there is light we can trust no matter the hardship before us.

Pray for the grace this week to see “not with the eye, but through the eye,” as William Blake so eloquently put it, that with such vision, we live into the gifts and challenges that life presents.

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen

— Collect for Last Sunday after the Epiphany, BCP, p. 217.

A New Harmonic

jbellThis past weekend, Tom Ehrich, a church wellness consultant and Director of Church Growth and Development at St. Bartholomew’s in New York, visited Holy Comforter for a series of meetings on the topic of “best practices” in congregational development.

Tom was our preacher on Sunday, and his sermon moved me and many others deeply.  Speaking on the Gospel text from Mark 1:40-45, where a leper is cleansed and made whole by the gentle and willing touch of Jesus, Tom related a story about attending a recent concert by the famed violinist Joshua Bell at Avery Fisher Hall in New York.

After an ovation from the packed house at the end of the program, Bell offered his rendition of Massenet’s “Meditation” from “Thaïs” as an encore.  You could just hear the intake of breath, not only because people recognized it, but because it was so extraordinarily gracious, beautiful and soft.  People were sitting forward in their chairs, there was a hush in the hall.  Everybody stopped coughing if you could imagine that.   Bell gets to the very end and plays a final series of ascending notes which ends with a suspended harmonic, the finger just barely touching the string.  The harmonic was ethereal, as if you had climbed the stairway to the angels.  It was stunning.  I was in tears.  And I turned to my wife and said, “How can a human being do such a thing?”

Before Jesus became the centerpiece of an institution, the alleged source of doctrine, rules, boundaries and walls, he came into a world of desperation, a world of oppression, a world of brokenness, a world in need of healing.  He came to all people—the sick, the sorrowful, the excluded, and he also came to the proper, the establishment, and the winners. He came to all of them and rested his finger lightly over their lives—not the heavy hand of Caesar, not the heavy hand of the religious establishment, not the heavy hand of right opinion and doctrine, but the light, almost not-quite-there touch of grace.  He put his fingers on their lives, and he played a harmonic, he played a note in their lives that no one had every played before.  He took the common stuff of their instruments, which in the eyes of the world was nothing, and he touched them so gracefully that they produced a sound, a love, a community, a life, that was like a new harmonic and they became a thing of beauty.

How can we as the body of Christ, the People of God, be present in times like these? How do we turn around a long 45 year decline in membership attendance [in the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations], and how can we turn around the moral drift of these historic times and the bitterness that is so prevalent in our land right now?  How do we take all that we’ve been given, which is good, and how do we make it beautiful?  How do we make it sing?

I believe that we can do it.  God want’s us to do it.  And the world desperately needs us to do it.  And we will do it not with the heavy hand of a prideful institution.  We will not do it with the pride of Caesar or the wealth of Caesar.  We will not do it with wonderfully organized hierarchies of power.  We will not do it with careful allocation of privileges.  We will not do it with right opinion or impenetrable doctrine.  We will do it by placing our fingers on people’s lives and just barely touching them, playing a note that is not a note that anyone has heard in those lives before. God working through us can give us the capacity to touch and to make music, to take our common stuff and play it higher and more beautifully than its ever been played and make of us a song.

And if we can get out of our own way and let go of all the things that stand between us, people will turn to each other as I turned to my wife, and they will say, “How can this be?  How can people do this?”  And the answer will be, “It’s by the grace and mercy and love, and power, of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Tom rightly reminded our congregation that “church wellness” is not a state that a congregation reaches and then maintains.  It is a dynamic of receiving and giving, of opening our hearts in compassion, of one beggar leading another to find bread, of letting the song of our lives be played in generous and trusting ways by the Master Musician who has raised us to newness of life.

Visit Tom’s excellent web portal here: Morning Walk Media

Sermon: Real Faith in a Real World – Part I

Snippets from part one of a three sermon series I’m offering at Church of the Holy Comforter in Vienna, Virginia.

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, published a book in 2008 called “unChristian.” And in the book he outlines the results of a survey of some 400 young adults ages 16-29 “outside” of the church and the results are pretty unsettling, at least they were to me.  Today 40% of persons age 16-29 have opted out of the church.  20% consider themselves atheists, or agnostic, the rest are spiritual just not interested in the Church or the Christian faith. What these kids are saying is “We reject Christianity. We don’t necessarily reject Jesus—we reject Christianity.” When they are asked why, the primary reason they cite isn’t a theological reason; it has to do with the Christians they meet.

Now, I happen to believe that we are a congregation that offers a gracious welcome to all people, that we are, and can certainly be more so, honest and transparent about our own flaws and shortcomings, that we are all sinners learning a new and life-giving way.  But the terrible perceptions that people have of the Church and Christianity are definite obstacles to our future as a congregation.  What needs to change?  How can we live a real and authentic faith in a real and challenging world?

That’s a question I’ll be seeking to answer in this sermon series I’m offering before the season of Lent.  But as we learn today in today’s Gospel reading, we must respond in the authority of Jesus’ compassion and love.  We must not avoid those who are on the outside of the Church but meet them as they are and where they are.

“Nothing that we despise in the other person is entirely absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

[MARK 1:21-28] Sermon audio below:

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Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘Churches must not be too busy.’

egyptIn his sermon at St. Mark’s pro-Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt, where he is chairing the meeting of the Primates of the Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury raised the issue of busyness in congregations today.  Is prayer a substitute for activity, or an activity for which there is no substitute?  From the sermon:

Many years ago I lived in a town where there was a very active church indeed. Outside this church was an enormous noticeboard. It must have been about 6 ft sq. It seemed every moment of the week was taken up by activity. But I’ve no doubt indeed it was a very good church and very careful and loving parish. And yet that noticeboard used to worry me and it still does. It seems to me it speaks of an idea of the church which supposes that the church is about human beings doing things. When you looked at that church you would have thought, what a lot of things they do there. But I’m still wondering if anyone ever asked, does God do things here? It seemed to be just a slight risk that there was hardly any room in the week for God to find his way in among all these activities.

(Ruth Gledhill has transcribed the sermon here).

HT to my brother Rob for this story.

Spirit/Wind – Classical Guitar

One of the places where I find significant creative and prayerful expression is in my relationship to the classical guitar—and yes, it is a relationship. I’ve been passionate about the guitar since I first laid my hands on my father’s inexpensive “Hijos de Vicente Tatay” Spanish model he brought home after a summer of missionary work in Puerto Rico. I was about ten years old, and since that time I have never ceased to be fascinated by and in love with the guitar. In college, I earned a music performance degree in classical guitar at Catholic University in Washington, DC. Those were the days!

Several years ago, at the urging of my good friend Kevin Hassett, I purchased a handmade 1985 J. Marzal “Conservatorio” model from Valencia, Spain. Marzal learned his craft in the famed Barcelona shop of Master Luthier Jose’ Ramirez. The back and the sides of the guitar are Indian Rosewood and the top is Red Cedar. Of all the guitars I have owned in my life, none compare to the warm and dynamic tones of this instrument.

I wrote a piece entitled “Spirit/Wind” and submitted it for my senior recital and degree at Catholic University (1976). It captures for me the significant transition I was undergoing in my faith journey at that time, hence the title. Not too long ago, I worked it up and recorded it on my Logic Pro 8 set up. I added a string ensemble track to give it a more atmospheric feel (at least that’s what I’d like to think).

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