Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Modern Parable

In recent weeks, the local paper has reported two stories involving area churches.  In thinking about those stories, I wondered what it would be like if Jesus had used them in a parable.  Perhaps it would be something like this.

“There was a church in a city that decided to bring charges against one of its members, a woman, and convene a church trial. She was accused of sowing dissention in the congregation because she had spoken out against the leadership of the church. She had also persisted in nominating women to the governing board of the church, in spite of the fact that women were not allowed to serve.  If she were found guilty, she would be forced to leave the church.”

“Now in that same city, there was another church. This church had a long history of dissention within the congregation. Ministers had been under fire and felt forced to resign. Members left to join other congregations to flee from the backbiting and anger. The people were filled with pain and sorrow, some feeling unnecessarily righteous. Now a certain minister was called to lead the church and believed that the time had come to heal the wounds of the church. He organized a service in which all those who had left and all those who had been hurt and the ministers of the past could come together. This man began by humbling himself before the former ministers, washing their feet. The people in the pews began to reconcile with each other. People were weeping with relief and regret, but most of all, with joy. The following Sunday when the congregation met to worship it was reported that the Spirit filled the place and the people rejoiced.”

“Now which of these groups seemed to best live out my commandment to ‘love one another as I have loved you?’” Having asked this question, Jesus would fall quiet, waiting for his listeners to answer. Perhaps one brave soul would finally say, “Master, the people who forgave and were reconciled.” And Jesus would probably say, “You have said well.  Now go and reconcile yourselves to those who have something against you and call others to reconciliation in my name.”

Some among those who heard this would have walked away determined to renew their commitment to a life of reconciliation, while others would have said, “This is a hard saying,” and simply have walked away. Something to ponder this Lenten season.



Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dirty Foreheads

When did the Church begin to impose ashes at the beginning of Lent? Nobody knows with certainty, but we know some history. We can be reasonably certain that the custom was encouraged by Biblical examples from the Old Testament. While the origin of the practice of linking ashes and repentance is unknown, Jeremiah calls for repentance and tells the people to “...gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.” [Jeremiah 6:26] Isaiah is critical of the practice of using ashes as a symbol of penitence calling it inadequate to please God, indicating that it was common in his time. Daniel used sackcloth and ashes to symbolize Israel’s repentance in Daniel 9:3.  Jonah reports that upon hearing God’s condemnation of Nineveh, the king “...covered himself with sackcloth and sat in the ashes.” [Jonah 3:6]

The first recorded mention of ashes at the beginning of Lent dates from about 960 AD. Prior to that, ashes had been used to acknowledge penitence and that dates to the 6th century in Spain. Persons who had committed serious sins and confessed them to a bishop or priest were the focus. They were given a penance that was to be carried out over time and were considered to be entering the Order of the Penitents to serve during that time.  Once their penance was complete, they could be restored by having the bishop give them absolution in the midst of the congregation.

 Our next reference is from the 11th century when an Abbot mentions that it was customary for all the faithful to take part in a ceremony on the Wednesday before Lent that included the impostion of ashes. Near the end of that century, a pope named Urban II called for the general use of ashes on that day.  Sometime after that, the day came to be call Ash Wednesday. The original practice was for men to have ashes sprinkled on their heads while women had the sign of the cross made on their foreheads.  Eventually everyone had the cross made on their foreheads. In the 12th century the practice of burning the palms used on Palm Sunday for the ashes was institutionalized.

While much more can be said about the origins and meaning of Ash Wednesday, for today, let’s just acknowledge that the practice has a long history and that it represents a believer’s willingness to confess that God isn’t in control of his/her life. I suspect many of my dear readers can identify with that notion.  I know I can.

With that in mind perhaps this prayer can be helpful. “In this holy time, O God, help us turn our hearts, our minds, our wills, and our actions back to you. Lead us to sincere repentance, not just from the day to day folly in our lives, but from the fundamental shift away from your dominion in our lives. As we acknowledge our sin, remind us also of your abundant grace. Amen.”



Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Different Discipline

Last posting I wrote about what may properly be called “Lenten disciplines.” The word “discipline” is not the most popular of words, seeming to connote punishment or deprivation of some kind.  However, that’s a narrow definition. Try this one: “Training expected to produce a specific character or pattern of behavior, especially training that produces moral or mental improvement.” [Free Online Dictionary]  Following that definition, our Lenten “spring cleaning” might take on a very different character.  We might focus on those aspects of our moral or mental lives that need improvement and develop our discipline to encourage that.  Something to think about?

Last posting I suggest several possible Lenten discipline. I’m going to suggest another possible discipline you might introduce into you life to augment them.  This discipline has to do with worship. I’m a long way from Anglo-Catholic in my worship practices, but I am more of a traditionalist than many others I see worshipping.  Here’s a short list of what I mean by that and then I’ll follow that with a rationale.
  • I make the sign of the cross during worship at a number of places in the liturgy, especially at the mention of the Trinity, before private prayer, and before and after receiving the Eucharist.
  • I bow toward the altar as I walk across the nave and as I enter and leave my pew.
  • As crosses pass me in procession, I bow.
  • As the Gospel is announced, I take my thumb and make the sign of the cross on my forehead, my lips and over my heart.  As I do this I say sub-vocally, “The Gospel in my mind, on my lips and in my heart.”
There are others, but these are the major “manual acts” I include in worship.  Why? I do them partly because they have a very long history in the worship practices of Christians. But, it’s not just they have a long history. The first three disciplines remind me of God’s greatness and love, and are a way to show respect and give thanks for the gifts of life, especially the gift of God’s son, Jesus. The fourth bullet point reminds me that the message of the Gospel is something to be heard, but also understood and to be acted upon in daily life. 

Engaging in these acts become another way in which I can involve myself in worship rather than just being a spectator.  After all, the word “liturgy” essentially means “the work of the people.” Using all my senses as well as my body in worship engages me more fully in the experience of this Holy Mystery.  I find it helps keep me anchored and focused and results in my leaving worship with a greater sense of awe and renewal.

Must you do any of these things to worship like an Episcopalian?  No, of course not.  But our worship heritage is a rich one. These practices entered our lives centuries ago to enrich our experience of communion with God as we worship. Additionally they offer a link to those saints who have gone before us as we follow the same disciplines they did.  Such an experience can give a whole new meaning to our creedal phrase “communion of the saints.”

Maybe you could consider adding some of these to your worship during the Sundays of Lent and see what happens.

Peace, Jerry  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It's Not Too Early

Lent is fast approaching and it's not too early to think about our Lenten practices. The historical purpose of Lent is to set aside a time for preparing oneself for the drama of Holy Week, culminating in Easter Sunday.  The traditional means of preparation are prayer, confession, repentance (or penance) charity, and self-denial (often in the form of fasting). Given the last of these two, it’s easy to see where the custom of “giving up” something for Lent originated.
Historically, Lenten observances have been obligations on the believer, but in modern times, the concept of obligation or duty has, at least among Protestants who observe Lent, been replaced with a call for a voluntary observation. The sea change began in the European Reformation. One of the lead reformers, Ulrich Zwingli, along with some of his followers, publicly ate sausages (meat was forbidden) to repudiate the observance of Lent. The English Puritan movement viewed Lent as a “romish” practice with no warrant in Scripture and therefore, rejected observing it. This rejection still appears among many evangelical/conservative Churches today.
So here’s a question for us moderns: is there still value in preparing spiritually for Holy Week and Easter?    Some will answer “no,” Lenten piety not being what it once was among Christians. They will take notice of Lent because the colors are purple and the mood is somber, but it will call for nothing special in their weekday living.  Others will answer “yes” and will engage in what has become the “standard” practice of “giving up something” during Lent.  But will this modest denial really aid in preparing for Holy Week and Easter?  I’m not sure.  I know it hasn’t especially aided me.
If this Lent were to be a “holy Lent” as called for in our Ash Wednesday liturgy, what would it be like?  Here are a few thoughts. 
  • Our Prayer Book allows for a face to face confession to a member of the clergy, even another lay person. [See page 44f6f] Would adopting this practice this Lent cause us to engage in real self examination and a more profound repentance?  Might that lead to living differently?
  • Perhaps our giving up something could be something that has a monetary value and we gave that money to charity.  If we gave up desserts and placed a dollar value on the cost of dessert at home and when we’re out, then maybe giving up sweets, as many do, would have a different meaning. 
  • I suspect for many of us, praying is not as consistent a practice as it might be.  Maybe we’re still stuck in the few mumbled words before we drop off to sleep model we learned as children.  Could we benefit from setting aside even five minutes each day when we’re fully awake to reflect on Jesus’ gift and offer up our thanks? Or maybe we could just sit and listen to see what God might be saying to us.
  • Some people "take on" something during the season rather than giving up something. Changing you Prayer habits would be an example of that, but other things come to mind as well.  Perhaps serving others in a soup kitchen, volunteering a skill for those who need it, polishing the pews in the nave--a little creative thinking or prayerful reflection could suggest many more.
The manner in which we each observe Lent is a private matter.  But for the sake of our spiritual lives, I do believe some really meaningful observation is very important.  I hope you consider the nature of your observation this year, even if you end up doing what you’ve always done.  
By the way, “Lent” is the Anglo-Saxon word replacing the Latin word “quadragesima” meaning forty days.  Lent meant “spring” or “long,” since the days lengthened during the spring.  Until at least the 4th century, there was no set length to Lent.  Some observances were only one, two or three hours long while some were forty hours long.  In the close of the 4th century a translation by Rufinus of a Greek work by the historian Eusebius into Latin was the first mention of forty days, primarily by the way he chose to punctuate a sentence. This seems to have become the standard based on the examples of Moses, Elias and Jesus, all of whom had 40 day periods of something.  In Jesus’ case, 40 days in the wilderness, and by some accounts, 40 hours in the tomb. In Hebrew practice the number 40 was typically used to mean “a long time.”  Finally, did you know that whatever your Lenten discipline is, you are dispensed from following it on Sundays?  Sundays are always days of celebration of the resurrection. However, most keep their vows that day anyway.
May you have a holy Lent

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Brigit Who?

In my formation class, we’ve been looking at Paul in an effort to better understand him, particularly regarding his supposed views of women.  As a tiny part of this work, I pointed out that in the letters scholars are sure he wrote, women play a significant role in the life of the early Christians.  Many are mentioned by name in his letters and often called “fellow workers in the gospel” or similar titles.  In the closing of Romans, for example, he mentions 26 people by name, eight of whom are women.  Perhaps because this was on my mind, I probably noticed that 1 Feb is the feast day of Brigit of Ireland, a saintly woman born in 453 and who died on 1 Feb 524.  I think she has something to say to us today.
Let's give a context to her and then consider why her life is important to us. Brigit is one of the patron saints of Ireland who was a founder of several monasteries for both men and women and served as abbess or head of several monasteries.  In Ireland at this time, it was not unusual for heads of monasteries to function as bishops.  The historical record indicates that Brigit and her successor abbesses held such an office following a practice which continued until the 20th century.  This role has been downplayed over the centuries for obvious reasons, but the abbesses held the power even so. 
Her legend includes her ability to multiply things such as butter, bacon, milk and the like and to be able to control the weather. In one of her biographies, she is said to demonstrate her characteristic generosity by giving away all of her mother’s store of butter and then replenishing it through prayer.  Brigit also was credited with a number of other miracles, including healing.
She is said to have had a pagan chieftain as a father and a Christian woman as mother who was a former slave.  From an early age, Brigit showed interest in helping others as well as in education, especially for women. Brigit’s monasteries were centers of religion, but also of learning. One was eventually developed into a cathedral city. She founded a school of art, including metal work and the art of manuscript illumination.
One early biographer of Brigit wrote in a hymn that Christ was made known to others by her actions.  Perhaps that’s our take away from the life of this singular woman: that just as Brigit in her life and work, sought to make Christ known to others, we too have that same task. 

Without getting too preachy, let me suggest that in our modern world, not many seem to seek to do the same thing.  I’d argue that, on a daily basis, most folks give no thought to how their lives and work reflect on Christ. As a consequence, we see fewer and fewer people considering Christianity as having any meaning for today.  Perhaps that look at how Christians act and wonder if following Jesus is really worth the hassle of getting up on Sunday mornings.

It’s of no little importance that in the first several centuries following Jesus’ death and resurrection, Christian were persecuted for their faith.  During this same time, followers of Jesus grew from a handful to an estimated three million by 316 AD.  Was their witness a contributing factor?  Was how they lived and died drawing others to Jesus?  Something to think about.
Peace, Jerry