This New Year Recall the Light of Christ in Your Life

The Prayer Book defines 7 “principal kinds of prayer” being adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition (BCP, 856). These are all defined on page 857; however, there are two – thanksgiving and penitence – which I would like to focus on as we approach the New Year.

For 4 weeks, the Season of Advent gifted us with John the Baptist’s invitation to repent in order to prepare our hearts for the light of Christ coming into the world at Christmas. Christmas is a season of thanksgiving as we stand thankful for the gift of light within our lives being called (like John) to witness to this light (Jn 1:7,8). This act of thanksgiving is symbolized on Christmas morning when someone gives you a gift to open. You open it; thus acknowledging the gift. Then you thank the person for the gift by actually using the gift – be it a toy, or something practical, or monetary. Again, you use the gift that has been given to you.

Taking these two prayers, thanksgiving and penitence, and thinking about the closing out of one year and the opening up of another, let us recollect, counting our many blessings naming them one by one through prayers of thanksgiving, as well as acknowledging and confessing sin in our lives – not to be condemned, but to be forgiven. This is a great way to not only end a year, but to also live into the next one with grace, mercy, and integrity.

God Moments
When a God Moment occurs, we usually tell somebody about them, or we serve Christ in tangible ways because of all our recognizable moments with God. We are like John the Baptist “testifying to the light” when we participate in these God Moments. Prayers of repentance as well as thanksgiving help to recall those God Moments in our lives, and the church has gifted us with spiritual tools to help recollect both our sins and our thanksgivings. It’s important to balance confession with thanksgiving. Only confessing sin leaves us dull, and boarders on obsessiveness and morbidity. On the other hand, continually thanking God without confessing sin puts us out of touch with the reality of sin, and ignores real problems within our own lives, the lives of others, and even the life of our planet. Having balance with these two types of prayers is a sign of Christian maturity, and spiritual longevity.

Self-Examination & Confession
When there is a God Moment that convicts you of a sin, or sins, in your life this is the Holy Spirit prompting you to pray. Tradition calls this movement of the Spirit, self-examination. We examine our lives in the light of God’s mercy and love, while seeking forgiveness for those thoughts, words, and deeds done and left undone where we fell short. There are multiple manuals within the tradition of Christianity that have helped countless Christians recall and confess their sins. I want to look at 2 of them in the English/Anglican/Episcopal Tradition: The Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.

The Bible
One way to examine our lives is to put it up against Judeo-Christian practices, specifically the moral and aesthetical practices found within the Bible. Within the Old Testament, we could turn to the Decalogue, or The 10 Commandments, meditating on them and observing where we are convicted of sin. From the New Testament, we might consider reading and meditating on the Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel or when Jesus summed up the law. Let’s take this last one (Jesus Summing up the Law) and treat it as an example of self-examination. Jesus said,

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matt. 22:37-39).

During self-examination we might get curious as to how we understand and experience love within our lives (“Thou shalt love”), and how our love extends from our self, to those around us, including God. Reversing this, we might ask how we believe God extends his love to us, those around us, and in fact, to all God’s creation. This love extends out through our “hearts,” “souls,” and “minds.” This gives us pause as we can now recollect the awesome power of God’s love, and where we fall short giving expression of this love to ourselves, neighbors, and the world. What starts out as a broad meditation on God’s love and the feeling of falling short can now turn into specifics: “I didn’t love God with my mind when I…” “I neglected my neighbor just yesterday when I…” Being specific is important when confessing sin, and reveals to God your desire to be forgiven.

The Prayer Book
Self-examination in the prayer book is best expressed in the liturgical Rite of Baptism. Here, we are reminded of our Baptismal Promises made, or someone made on our behalf at our baptism, if one was baptized as an infant or young child. These promises are on page 304-305. Another resource is St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. In it are specific questions for self-examination using the traditional “7 Deadly Sins.” Once a Christian has practiced self-examination using the Bible and the prayer book for a while, and desires to go deeper, this is an excellent resource for doing so. Getting back to the Prayer Book, once sins have been recollected, there are three ways to seek absolution and forgiveness in the Episcopal Tradition. The first is to confess your sins directly to God in private asking for forgiveness, then praying a prayer of Thanksgiving for the forgiveness of sins. Psalm 51 is a classic Psalm of thanksgiving for forgiveness of sins. There are other Psalms that you may wish to say with your own words of thanksgiving as well. The second way is during the General Confession either during Holy Eucharist, or within the Daily Office (morning and evening prayers). The last is a Rite in the Prayer Book called, Reconciliation of a Penitent (BCP, 447). This is confession to God with a priest being present to absolve the penitent through his priestly ministry of absolution. Confession to a priest isn’t in vogue like it used to be; however, this sacramental rite of the church is always available. Persons who use this office of the church today are usually wondering if God truly forgave them, and desire some tangible closure. This isn’t always the case of course as many Christians find confession beneficial at certain seasons of the Church, or at regular times in the calendar where confession to God through the priest is particular important and necessary for further spiritual growth and maturity. Traditional times of self-examination and confession during the liturgical year are during the seasons of Advent and Lent.

Thanksgivings 
Leaving confession and going over to Thanksgiving: Here you Count your blessings. Naming them one-by-one. A sense of gratefulness and thankfulness can suddenly wash over us as we recollect the many wonders of life and being. When this happens we can pause, taking it all in, and simply say, “Thank You.” When we want to be more specific, a great resource found within the Prayer Book is the Thanksgiving section found on page 836 and 837. This section is divided into A General Thanksgiving and A Litany of Thanksgiving. I’ve taken both of these and put them in question format for better recollection and self-examination. Once the questions have been answered, a proper way of closing out the recollection is to simply pray one of the two prayers. This can be done by yourself, in a small group, or within your family as a wonderful way of thanking God for the many blessings of life and light in our lives now as well as thinking upon this past year. The questions are below. Choose as many or as little as you with. I hope you find them helpful; then, using the Prayer Book, either use one of the prayers of thanksgiving on page 836 and 837, or gather up all your thanksgivings and pray The Lord’s Prayer.

God’s creation is beautiful. Where did you seek out beauty and find it this year?

Where did you remember the mystery of love this year? Who helped you remember?

How were you blessed by family? by friends? How were you cared for? How were you caring?

We can be thankful for our disappointments and failures if we faithfully believe that these missteps can lead us to acknowledge our dependence on God. How was this true for you?

 Choose a Gospel story were Jesus is teaching, healing, suffering, being tempted, questioning, being obedient, dying, etc. Place yourself into the story. What do you believe God is showing you today?

 What do you know about Jesus? How do you know him and/or experience him in your own life?

 What gifts did you receive this year? Could any of these gifts be used to “give back” to God?

 Did you travel somewhere beautiful this year? If so, describe it to God.

 Do you pray to God thanking him for the food and drink you are blessed to have, shelter over your head, and friends that support you along the way? Thank God for these now.

 Where did you use your God-given intellect this year? How did it help you or someone else? Did you know thinking critically is a gift?

 How did you serve Christ in “the neighbor, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the lonely” this year? How did they serve you?

 Work gives humanity dignity and respect. Are you satisfied with the work you did this year? Will you remain in this work next year, or are you discerning “a new calling?”

 Where did you take the time to make good use of leisure, rest, and play? Do you have tangible plans for these important things in the coming year?

 How are you brave and courageous? Who is your example – either living or past?

 When you suffer or are experiencing adversity, are you patient? Do you experience God’s presence in these times?

 How do you seek after truth, liberty, and justice? How are these Godly attributes lived out in your life?

 Who is your favorite saint, and why?

Conclusion
As we set aside 2018 looking toward 2019 may these two types of prayer – penitence and thanksgiving – give you pause in your life to recall, recollect, and examine your lives in the light of Christ’s glory and grace.

God bless you, and Happy New Year!

Fully Human. Fully Divine.

John 1:1-14

Last night we remembered together the infancy narrative of Jesus. We listened (yet again) to God coming into the world as a child. This morning, John’s Gospel expands this story adding an element of theological significance: The Word was made flesh. The Greek literally means, “pitched his tent among us.” God pitched his tent among us, and put on flesh. He became an icon, an image, a body for our sake. Today is the Feast of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ Our Lord. We celebrate God becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ – not Spirit as software somehow booting up with the body and hardware of Jesus, but Body and Spirit so intricately connected that Christ can only be described as fully human and fully divine. This is good news for us, and what it means is that our very bodies are sanctified and made holy in and by and through Christ. We are made holy because God (and God’s Body) is holy. This is our Christmas gift, and we are to share it with the world as Christ continually (and intimately) shares his body with us each and every time Holy Communion is celebrated. This Christmas, may we all remember the gift that keeps on giving – that is – Jesus Christ Our Lord who in these holy mysteries feeds us with spiritual food made for holy bodies.

Mary – Mother of God

Luke 1:26-38

An electric anticipation fills the air as we celebrate the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. We can guess what this afternoon, evening, and tomorrow may hold; yet this morning take a deep, collective breath before plunging into Christmas. May I suggest looking to Mary, and observing (with her) how the angelic messenger of God transformed her world from the ordinary into the extraordinary? For a moment, may we too give a loving ‘Yes’ to God, and with Mary stand perplexed and pondering, “What sort of Advent greeting this may be?”

The greeting named Mary “favored one.” This title was such an existential shock to Mary she had no words in that moment. She allowed the angel to proceed with his words while humbleness took over her disposition – Again, “She pondered.” Once the angel finished his divine proclamations, revelations, and prophesies it was Mary who did not let the truth found in these statements overwhelm her. Instead of being called into Heaven, she brought Heaven to Earth with her practicality –  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Didn’t see that one coming, did you angel?) It’s quite possible the angel fumbled a bit, and tried to relate, taking a different approach with his next set of sentences. Perhaps he sat down, took at deep breath, and compared Mary’s miraculous birth with her relative, Elizabeth’s. It may have been a bit of a stretch, but being a good Jewish woman, Mary might have taken the angel’s counsel of her own pregnancy, and compared it to her ancestors Sarah and Hannah. Were impossible pregnancies just something that ran in her family? Again, the answer was ‘Yes’ and in perhaps the most beautiful poetic response to any angel’s musings, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The scripture says that the angel simply went away (possibly relieved). The message was signed, sealed, and delivered. Mary, in that moment gave herself away to something greater than herself. She became a vessel of God – a vessel for God – a vessel to God.

Fun Fact: Mary and Pontius Pilot are the only historical persons besides Jesus who are mentioned in the Creeds of the Church. Where Pontius Pilot would later ask Jesus, “What is Truth,” not knowing that Truth was standing before him, it was Mary who held Divine Truth in her very being, birthing it into a world that desperately needed it. Perhaps this is our calling as well? Sunday after Sunday we gather here on the Lord’s Day proclaiming what we believe (credo).

“We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

What are we to do with this statement?

I think we are to ponder it in our hearts. I think we are to say ‘yes’. I think we are then called to be vessels of the truth. We are to imitate the great saint of Advent – Mary, the Mother of God. When we say Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are reminding ourselves to purify our hearts, minds, and bodies so that God’s Spirit will be revealed through us, dare I say, birthed into being through us. Truth is able to make itself known when we say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” When we don’t do this, truth suffers under Pontius Pilate again and again and again. We hold the truth within us instead of giving it away. We allow States, Caesers, Emperors, Kings, Congress and Presidents to possess so called self-evident truths and realities, when the only reality I know of in Heaven and on Earth is Christ. Put Christ up alongside those brothers above, and they pale in comparison. They just don’t hold up. Mary knew this too. Today, choirs across the world sing her song:

He [Christ] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

No Pontius Pilot in history has ever sung that song!

It is only by the merciful rhythm of Christ that we can even begin to dance to this music, to experience its graceful melodies, to have the eternal laugh of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. What God calls us into during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is none other than history itself. God invites the credo of our hearts to be made manifest in his creation: Spirit with flesh, and flesh with Spirit. When this happens, new music is made. We get to play jazz because we have learned the truth, and the truth has set us free. This is Mary’s eternal song: Playing jazz with a people named Israel, its prophets, and its future apostles all the while Christ is being brought forth, truth is being brought forth, beauty is being brought forth, goodness is being brought forth and we are caught up in the moment, caught up in the history of it all.

As the music of Advent fades, and we turn up the volume on Christmas, may God’s truth reverberate throughout history. The true song is the song of Mary. The true reality is Christ. The true vessel is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We say, proclaim and believe these scandalous things each and every week (for some of us, each and every day). May we use the music of this season to wake us up to these gifts that we have been given so that we may share them with a worn and weary world crying out the eternal question of Pontius Pilate, “What is Truth?” God has an answer to this question. This afternoon, this evening, and for the next 12 days may we celebrate this eternal truth who has come into the world.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Balancing the Bigger Picture of Christmas

And the Word became flesh and lived among us. ~John 1:14 

“Take a step back,” my Dad called out to me. “You’re standing too close. Take a step back, and you can see it better.” We were visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, and what IT turned out to be was Georges Seurat’s famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The painting’s iconic because up close one realizes the whole piece was painted with little dots. Artists call this technique pointillism, and at the time I wasn’t so interested in the bigger picture. I had studied this painting in school, and I wanted to experience the dots myself, so my face was as close to the painting as I could possibly get without making the security guard standing to my left suspiciously nervous. I eventually backed away, marveled at the size and scope of the painting, but for some reason, I kept focusing in on those silly dots.

The dramatic lead up to Jesus’ birth is found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Within Luke’s Gospel, we have the angel, Gabriel, visiting Mary and revealing she is with child; while in Matthew, we take a step back from the pregnancy and begin with the genealogy of Jesus. (Mark’s Gospel has no birth narrative. It begins with the baptism of Jesus as an adult). It is only with the Gospel according to John where the largest step away from the nativity scene happens. From its angle, the bigger picture, the idea, the point, and the revelation all stand revealed. John steps all the way back to the genesis where we discover that God, through the person of Jesus Christ, has always been and always will be. (What a picture John paints for those who believe). And what is this belief? The belief is what theologians call the Incarnation, what the prophets of old named as Emmanuel, and why worshippers celebrate Christmas. God took on flesh and walked among us. This is the Christmas miracle. This is the new beginning.

If we contemplate this theological space of new beginnings, the world opens up its mystery to us. We begin to experience within us and all around us those creative aspects found in God’s creation. A sense of awe, wonder, and imagination pricks the senses as we surrender ourselves to truth, beauty, and love. John’s Gospel reveals that God’s master plan has always been incarnation; and now, with the living breathing person of Jesus his mark on the painting is now complete. It is God’s most important point. The one holding the whole picture together; and yet I find myself torn between wanting to focus my whole attention on the dot that is Jesus Christ while at the same time feel compelled to take a step back and see the bigger picture. In that delicate space of contemplation is where the greatest mystery opens itself up to me. It is in the tension of the manger where I also find the cross of Christ. It is in the details of Jesus’ life where God is fully revealed to me. In this Christmas season, I know that I am called to the one who will feed the hungry, heal the sick, and forgive our sins. I know that I am called to love like Jesus for in doing so I realize the same love God finds within me is found in the other, the stranger, and the neighbor. These are crucial and oftentimes overwhelmingly crushing details where I feel compelled to take a step back and remember the larger picture. I wonder if that is the point of Jesus? That is, to remind us how to love, while at the same time pointing us in the direction of Love itself? I suppose it is a balancing act for us. A discernment. A knowing and an un-knowing all at the same time.

This Christmas, marvel at the point on the picture. Take notice that the security guard standing to your left is supposed to be a bit nervous. After all, institutions and those in charge do get nervous when we all start taking our art, our religion, and our Lord Jesus Christ seriously. Get close to the dots and at the same time don’t forget the picture as a whole. Each dot is important. Dare I say we can find our own dot within the picture, for in doing so, we discover God within us. How humbling it is to know incarnation was part of the plan the whole time. How sobering it is to know we are all part of the bigger story – a story within a story – the art and painting of God.