On The Feast Day of Thomas Merton

“We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time. God manifests Himself everywhere, in everything – in people and in things and in nature and in events.  The only thing is we don’t see it. I have no program for this seeing.  It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.” –Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton died 45 years ago today.  Born on January 31, 1915, Merton became a famous 20th century Catholic writer. He was a Trappist monk from the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, but at the same time he was also a poet, faithful activist, and a student of comparative religion. At General Convention 2009, Merton was added to our Calendar of Saints in the Episcopal Church to be commemorated on December 10.

Among the many lasting themes of Merton’s writing was the call to see God at work in the ordinary arenas of daily life. Merton was concerned that people carry their experience of God out from their communities of faith into their everyday lives. Do we look for God in the ordinary arenas of home and work, economics and politics? Can we imagine that God is using us in our various roles as employee, parent, spouse, friend, citizen, and volunteer, to extend God’s love, blessing, and steadfast care of all creation? Can we, in short, see God at work outside the familiar environment of the Church?

This question is one I’m pondering as I prepare to preach this Sunday on the story of John the Baptist, isolated and disillusioned in Herod’s prison.  He asks a common question of the human heart, “Are you then the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus does not give John a direct answer.  He says in effect, “I cannot answer for you. You have to decide on your own whether I am for real.  Look at the evidence.  What do you see?” (see Matthew 11:2-6).

Advent is a time to “open the eyes of our heart” to discern how each day unfolds against the background of God’s loving design. Where will you see God’s transforming presence manifest today? In what person will you see and hear the wisdom and compassion of Christ?  In what actions of your own will you perceive the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?  I appreciate the honest way Merton ends the quote above: “I have no program for this seeing. It is only given.  But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

Be hopeful and watchful in Christ.

On the 50th Anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s Death

IMG_0087_1I was only ten years old when Lewis, then 64, died at his home outside Oxford in November of 1963, the same day and just an hour before President Kennedy was killed by a sniper’s bullet in Dallas, Texas. On a sabbatical trip to Oxford in the summer of 2002, my appreciation for Lewis’s life story and the legacy of his published works greatly intensified.

During my stay in Oxford, I had an opportunity to visit some of Lewis’s favorite places, from pubs such as the Eagle and Child and the Trout on the River Thames to Addison’s Walk behind Magdalen College, the Bodlien Library, and the University Church.  Oxford is a beautiful and captivating city.  The cloistered colleges of medieval style buildings, are adorned with gargoyles and spires, cobblestone walks and vast green courtyards trimmed to perfection.

But the place where I most felt Jack’s unique spirit, was at his home four miles east of Oxford in Headington Quarry, known as “the Kilns” where he lived from 1930, until his death in 1963. Going through the house was nothing less than a spiritual experience for me.  At one point in the tour, I had a few minutes alone in Lewis’s bedroom and was taken by a black and white photograph of him that hangs over a fireplace. I remember looking at him in that photo, quill pen in his right hand and cigarette in his left, and feeling the spirit and person of Jack Lewis taking greater intensity in that moment, as if a window through time was open. I was able to photograph the picture at close range with my camera. In the picture, you can see a dim reflection of the left side of my face which was caught by the light on the glass frame of the photograph, like a mirror (just above his hand).  The picture is something that I will treasure because it captures an encounter, albeit in two separate dimensions of space and time, that I’ll never forget. I am sure countless pilgrims to Oxford and “the Kilns” have shared similar experiences.

Today, November 22, 2013, is a powerful day of remembrance of two iconic figures who continue to fire our intellect and imagination toward higher aspirations of faith, compassion, and service to the world.  May they rest in peace and rise in glory.

P.S.  The New York Times reports that C.S. Lewis will receive the honor of a memorial stone in the floor of Poets’ Corner, a portion of Westminster Abbey’s South Transept commemorating today’s anniversary.


Advancing in Love

From Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton

God is asking me, the unworthy, to forget my unworthiness and that of my brothers and sisters and dare to advance in the love that has redeemed us all in God’s likeness. And to laugh, after all, at the preposterous idea of “unworthiness.”

“The Sound Of Our Own Breathing” – A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

In my sermon for Pentecost Sunday I recounted a story about taking an introductory course in the Hebrew language in my first year of seminary.

We spent a good deal of time reflecting on the story of Moses and the Burning Bush in the Book of Exodus.  You remember that this was the moment when Moses had the nerve to ask God what God’s true name is. God was gracious enough to answer, and the name God gave is recorded in the original Hebrew as the four letters, Y-H-W-H, which most scholars agree originate from verb form meaning, “I am that I am.”  The name appears over 6000 times in the Bible.

Over time we’ve arbitrarily added two vowels, an “a” and an “e” in there to get YaHWeH because we are a people who like to use vowels. But  rabbinical scholars often note that the letters Y-H-W-H represent breathing sounds, or aspirated consonants, suggesting that ultimately God’s name may be simply unpronounceable in the terms we might like it to be. In Hebrew the four consonants Y-H-W-H are pronounced this way: “Yohd, Hah, Vey, Hah.” 

The author and innovative communicator Rob Bell suggests that the aspirated consonants of the Hebrew name for God raise provocative questions for our imaginations:

 “What if the name of God is the sound of our breathing, and what if another way of thinking about the gift of the Holy Spirit is as God breathing life, beauty, and purpose into our ordinary lives so that we might be given courage and inspiration to share in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in the world?

That question offered a helpful way for me to enter the season of Pentecost this year and it seemed to resonate with a lot of folks gathered last Sunday as well.

The audio of my sermon can be found here.

Like An Irresistible Wind

This weekend we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, our “name day” Feast, marking the day when the early followers of Jesus experienced God’s Spirit as something like the rush of life-giving wind, inspired speech, and tongues of fire alive in each person. (Acts 2:1-13).

The aftermath of that event was the formation of a community, animated by the love of Christ at its center, sharing God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in the world. The Holy Spirit moved them to unite, to join together, to connect what had been torn apart. And seeking to make these vital connections between people and nations might simply be another of saying that the work of the Holy Spirit is the work of love.

In that light, we might more sensitively understand why many people today describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”  What many experience in some religious corners of the world today seems closer to the opposite of love (I pointed out an example of this in remarks made by a certain “evangelist” in my sermon last Sunday).

These “spiritual but not religious,” folks experience some forms of religion as promoting conflict and rigid certainty, rather than generosity and helpful dialogue. My friend, Brian McLaren has said that such exclusive communities might actually be practicing “de-religion” instead of “religion.” In other words, some religious groups can actually become “anti-religious,” in the sense that they tear at the bonds of our common humanity rather than strengthen them (Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words).

That’s why the Feast of Pentecost is such a helpful event to celebrate on a yearly basis. We are reminded by the energizing and creative presence of the Holy Spirit that life has a sacred dimension that cannot be reduced to formulas, rules, performance, or religious locations. The Holy Spirit breathes aliveness, meaning, beauty and sacredness into the world. We only have to look at the human face of God that we see in Jesus, and indeed to people who remind us of him, to understand that truth.

Is it time for a renewal of aliveness, beauty, and purpose in your life? Would you like to reflect on some habits or practices that can help you live with a greater sensitivity to the sacredness of your life and of those around you?  Would you like to hear the sound of a rushing, irresistible wind once again?  If your heart says, “yes,” to those possibilities, then we’re in good company. Join us for an exploration of this theme on Pentecost Sunday at Church of the Holy Comforter.

Preparing for Pentecost

Preparing for Pentecost

Pentecost10Life with the Holy Spirit is different from life without the Holy Spirit. Think of the Holy Spirit as God breathing life into us and into all we do. This is what Metropolitan Ignatios of Latakia observed in an address to the World Council of Churches (Uppsala in 1968) some years ago:

Without the Holy Spirit, God is far away,
Christ stays in the past,
The Gospel is a dead letter,
The Church is simply an organization,
Authority is a matter of domination
Mission a matter of propaganda
The liturgy is no more than an evocation
Christian living a slave morality.

But in the Holy Spirit:

The cosmos is resurrected and groans with the birth pangs of
The Kingdom,
The risen Christ is there,
The Gospel is the power of life,
The Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
Authority is a liberating service,
Mission is a Pentecost
The liturgy is both memorial and anticipation, and
Human action is deified.

Breathe on us breath of God. Fill us with life anew!  Amen+

Epiphany: The Magi Call Us Forward

The final day of Christmas, and we must move on. The Magi at Epiphany beckon us forward. They represent that part of us that yearns for understanding, for confidence and hope, for life as we sense it was meant to be.  They are willing to take some risk, to stretch their horizons, to take the next step of faith even though they are not given a clear-cut plan.

The Magi looked to a new horizon and eventually they found horizons that were not merely physical or geographical.  Their journey did not end with the experience of finding the child born a king but continued long after. T.S. Eliot captures this thought with the Magi reflecting, “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.”

As we journey into the year 2012 may our steps lead us to encounter the mystery of Christ in the ordinary and unlikely places of our lives.  Like the Magi, we can move beyond the well trodden paths of the ordinary and choose to pay attention to the sacred dimension of the world around us, to the hope that stirs within our own hearts, to the joy of making a small difference in the lives of others.

Ruth Haley Barton features this lovely poem on her website today.  It captures Epiphany with eloquence.

Beckoning God—
who called the rich to travel toward poverty,

the wise to embrace your folly,
and the powerful to know their own frailty;
who gave strangers
a sense of homecoming in an alien land
and to stargazers
true light and vision as they bowed to earth—
we lay ourselves open to your signs for us…

Rise within us, like a star,
And make us restless
Till we journey forth
To seek our rest in you.

Kate Compston, Bread of Tomorrow

On Christmas Day

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

© Brian Wren, as quoted in An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor (Harper One).

Joy Runs Deep

The fourth week of Advent (this year a full seven days, thank God), promises to be active with preparations, last minute purchases, and social engagements. In my parish office, we are busy getting ready for the Festival of the Nativity and the many guests we expect on Christmas Eve.

Spiritually, the goal is the same: getting ready. We must try to find a way to turn activity inward as we approach the last few days before Christmas and become centered, open to the tremendous mystery at hand. Our model is Mary. Despite what must have been a stressful late-pregnancy, rough travel, and the uncertainty of where she would actually deliver, she is ready. Since that surprising day when her cousin Elizabeth told here she was blessed in her believing, Mary has been waiting expectantly. For us too, the time draws close. We believe and wait for the fulfillment of God’s promise.

I think of my own daughter Rebecca, in her late pregnancy, and her unborn child expected in late December or early January. The waiting is nearly over for her and her husband Nate. Beyond the labor there will be fullness of joy, though perhaps initially, joyful exhaustion!

It’s important to realize as we turn toward Christmas, that joy runs deeper than happiness, which is so often predicated on favorable life circumstances. Joy is the quiet, confident assurance of God’s love and presence at work within us–no matter the challenges that life presents. Coupled with this conviction, I find the practice of gratitude helps to re-direct negative cycles of thinking toward positive things, especially in times of adversity. There must have been times in Mary’s life when her circumstances left her feeling discouraged and unhappy. Yet there can be no doubt of her deep joy and assurance whenever we hear or sing her wonderful Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

This distinction between happy circumstances and confident joy can help us enter into the mystery of Christmas as we are and where we are, without trying to achieve our own or someone else’s expectations. We cherish the story of Christmas precisely because it is such a human story and because in that story, we find inspiration and hope for our own lives and for the world. May the story of God’s coming as a child of blessing and peace find a home in all of us once again.

Sent for these “Mean Times”

Photo by Sarah Bartenstein

At the Ordination of Priests for the Diocese of Virginia on Saturday, those gathered witnessed an extraordinary sermon by The Rev. Dr. Roger Ferlo of Virginia Theological Seminary.

Dr. Ferlo reminded us that,

“Jesus dwells among us in what Scripture and our Eucharistic Prayer describe as ‘these last days,’ the ‘meantime,’ the time between Christ’s first coming and his second coming in fulfillment of God’s dream for the world. These are also ‘mean times,’ a time when fear and violence are rampant across the globe, a time when rhetoric is hot and hatreds are worn on the sleeve, a time shadowed by war and by sin, by environmental degradation, by racial intolerance by fanaticism and sheer terror. These ten ordinands are being ordained to serve Christ in these mean times.”

Dr. Ferlo then offered this poignant observation:

“In this liturgy we pray, ‘Let you priests be clothed with righteousness and let your people sing with joy’. But I wonder if our prayer this morning should really be, ‘Give these ten poor fools the wit to duck for cover.’ It’s not just these ordinands who need to duck for cover, for we are all in this together.”

We are now deep into the season of Advent.  On the Third Sunday of Advent we are simply told that “there was a man sent from God whose name was John.”  I wonder if that also true of each of one us?  There is about the life of each and everyone of us a reality of being “sent,” of having a certain purpose and meaning for existence. As we reflect on the path our lives have taken and what has happened to us so far, we can see a thread of meaning weaving through our lives like rhyme.  Noticing that unfolding pattern of meaning and direction gives us an inkling of what it means to be sent by God.  The good news I hear in the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent is that each of us is truly meant to be here.

Like John the Baptist, we have an alternative story for these “mean times,” one in which every human life matters, and is created for loving relationship with the source of all life. In this story your worth is given, not earned.  In this alternative story, we are offered forgiveness for our faults and errors, for the harm we’ve done to others and this earth, and so are freed to forgive others and break the cycle of harm and retribution. In this story we learn that we are claimed by a love and power beyond our own. We have good news to share.

As we approach the final rush to Christmas, don’t forget what it means to be living in these “mean times.” In simple, loving, and yet prophetic ways, be a witness to the light of Jesus the Christ.

My sermon for Advent III can be found here.