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!

An Incarnational Faith

**Redacted from my sermon preached on the 1st Sunday after Christmas**

John 1:1-18

I am convinced that the more the Christian immerses herself into the life of the Church, the more freedom she receives. A fidelity to Christ allows those spaces and places within one’s heart to continually make room for his love and grace. St. John said we must “receive him” – a passive act that does not grip or grasp at truth, but accepts truth “as is.” The Christian then has the opportunity to imitate the will of God not only with her lips, but in her life giving up her very self in service to him. Again, putting this theology into the language of John, “[Christ] gave power to become children of God, who were born, not…of the will of man, but of God.” The will of God is like Mary’s song, a passivity that leads to freedom…the freedom to walk in love as Christ loves us, the freedom to love neighbor as self, the freedom to pray for those who persecute you. As Christians, we point to these graces when we give our fidelity to Christ and his Body – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. When we follow the doctrines, disciplines, and life found within the Body, we open ourselves up to a deeper grace that continually gives itself away.

What I am writing the world has never fully accepted, and just a quick look at the latest polls on church attendance and its decline over the past 50 years should give us pause. This is nothing new; however. St. John wrote, “[Christ] was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” When we accept Christ we are receiving the reality that we are not our own. We are accepting the revelation that God is in control, and we are not. These truths are hard to shallow, especially to a materialistic, hedonistic, and individualistic society; however, they are still truths that the church holds up for all the world to see.

The Church holds these theological truths up daily, weekly, and seasonally in its common life. Let’s look at all three of these. As catholic Christians we are gifted with a breviary. A breviary is a fancy word for a prayer book. In our prayer book are structured prayers for morning, noon, evening, and bedtime as well as other contextual prayers, not to mention the Lord’s Prayer and The 10 Commandments for other devotionals and meditations. Outside of the breviary, yet part of the traditional practices within the church, are the Stations of the Cross (formally done as community on Good Friday, but open to anyone during the year) mediations, the rosary, and silent forms of prayer – to name a few. These daily forms and practices of prayer help ground a Christian in an intentional way, that is, a way of communicating with God and further discovering his will for us.

In addition to daily prayer, there is weekly worship and participation in Holy Eucharist. Each Sunday, Christians gather together and receive both Word and Sacrament; that is, the story of God as revealed in scripture, song, and prayer and how we participate in the ongoing history of Christ in the world today. At Holy Communion, we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ within us that gives us strength for the journey outside these walls as well as puts us in communion with the saints of his church.

The Church also participates in theological truths found seasonally. In Advent, we look for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ into the world in the form of a child, and await his coming in glory sometime in the future. Advent is a season of anticipation. At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery of God coming into the world in our own form; thus, sanctifying our very bodies making them holy and acceptable to him. At Epiphany, we acknowledge that the gift of God extends beyond those found on the “inside.” God’s truth is for everyone, and he is constantly calling the world to be united through his son. During Lent, we remember our beloved dustiness, and how these bodies are temporary as we await a participatory resurrection in Christ. During Holy Week, our souls are torn like the curtain in God’s temple. We knew truth, and yet we sacrificed it for our own relative truths. At Easter, we are forgiven for this as God raised Jesus to new life – God has done a new thing and continues to do new things. Finally, on the Day of Pentecost, we further acknowledge that the Church is for all God’s people, and participation in his Church is none other than the participation in Christ’s Body through the Holy Spirit. All of these seasons provide the various moods and colors found on earth as it is in heaven, and when we fully participate in these what we find is a rhythm to life grounded in Christ’s grace and love.

Finally, we have the sacraments and sacramental rites of the church. We have Holy Baptism, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, Reconciliation of a Penitent (a.k.a. Confession), and Ministration at the Time of Death (a.k.a. Last Rites). When we combine a daily life of prayer with the weekly celebration of Holy Eucharist found within the context of the Church’s calendar, and in communion with the sacraments and apostolic teachings of the Church, we are truly letting go and letting God. We are truly entering into the life of the Church as God has revealed it, not egotistically creating it in our own image. All of the above practices are non-rational spiritual technologies, and yet they point to a reality named Christ – the only true reality.

So why am I doing a teaching on the church today instead of talking about Christmas? Well, Christmas reminds us of our incarnational faith. We are spirit mixed in with flesh and flesh with spirit so much so, that they cannot be separated. The above practices use our bodies, minds, and souls to further communicate God’s love within us, and in the world around us. This New Year, accept the invitation Christ has given, and increase in his hope and love within his incarnational faith.

Dust Your Self Off and Try Again

Last year I suggested to the parish I serve not to create New Year’s resolutions. The gentle challenge had a practical application: Most New Year’s resolutions end in failure, and what follows is personal guilt and blame. Instead, I recommended taking on New Year’s experiments. Experiments, by definition, welcome failure in order to learn something new. There is no guilt involved – only an adjustment or tweak here and there to run the experiment again. The message got through to some, and throughout this year I have had several parishioners share with me their various experiments, and what seemed to work or not.

As I ponder 2016, and look towards 2017 I will be running some new experiments of my own as well as continuing some of the experiments I ran this past year. I’d like to share a few of these with you, and challenge you to come up with your own.

My first experiment I will be continuing into 2017 is to read and listen to the “other side”.

Last year during the season of Lent and Easter, I challenged myself to read books on conservative thought, as well as to bend my ear towards many of my politically conservative friends. The immediate result of studying the history of conservative thought in England and America was that my political leanings drifted from the left into the middle. For me, this is a good place to be since my vocation lends its ear to those who wept during the presidential election (Democrats) and those who rejoiced (Republicans). Although the president-elect does not necessarily fit into the traditional mold of American party politics, through my reading and conversation, I have a better grasp of where his proposed policies or political appointments stand on the spectrum of the conservative/liberal spectrum.

Where I will continue this experiment on into the new year is to get my news from newspapers and in-depth books – not social media, or television. For 2017, I have subscribed to two local papers, The Douglas County Sentinel and the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. I have also subscribed to The New York Times and The Washington Post. These newspapers not only hold to the code of sound journalism, but by subscribing to them, I am also supporting this important medium of news reporting. Thus far, my reading and understanding of the issues that are important to my community and our world have been enlightening.

My second continuation of 2016 experiments is to read fiction and poetry.

Reading is a life-long love of mine, so this will probably never change; but as I get older I am realizing more and more the power of novels, poetry, and short-stories on the imagination, the soul, and how they can inform me in totally different ways than a newspaper ever will. I read 28 books this last year. I’m challenging myself to do 30 for 2017.

My final experiment is to continue to practice my vocation of the priesthood.

This means praying the Daily Office everyday, reading and studying the Bible weekly, writing sermons that challenge, loving the parishioners I serve, as well as serving ‘the other,’ ‘the stranger,’ and ‘the neighbor’ outside the walls of the parish. I feel all of this begins at home. I practice my calling to the priesthood by practicing my vocation to marriage and parenting. This translates into all walks of my life; so to be a good father, husband, and son means being a good priest and visa-versa. I thank God for my family (and extended parish family) everyday. This gratitude is something I want God to remind me of more and more in the coming years.

These are simple, yet doable experiments, and please take notice that none of my experiments have anything to do with fear or anxiety. These two vices played roughly in 2016, but will be sidelined in 2017 as far as I’m concerned. I have no time for them.

In closing, these are experiments – not resolutions. I won’t necessarily complete them in the way I may imagine them now, but that’s okay. I will dust myself off and try again. So, here’s to 2017 – another year to dust your self off and try again – And try again we must.