Ritual and Rules of Life

Preached on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost – August 2018 – at St. Julian’s

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my summer, particularly traveling to Martha’s Vineyard in June and to the big island of Hawaii in July, by summer vacation’s end, I was more than ready for the consistency of the school year to begin anew. The school year is a rhythm that brought me comfort as a student for so many years, and now I bear witness to its cadences watching my son, Henry, discover its many layers of melody. Being a parish priest, I am privileged to watch children and young adults get excited (and somewhat anxious) about starting back to school. St. Julian’s parish gifts us with active and retired teachers, school board members, custodians, and bus drivers whose anticipation for new students, classes, and curriculum is contagious to any lover of knowledge and truth. The school year renews rituals forgotten by summer. In August there is a resurgence of carpools and buses, bikers, and walkers. Our streets and neighborhoods are patrolled by crossing guards and parent’s alike. Teenagers who turned sixteen over the summer now not only have driver’s licenses, but parking passes displayed in mirrors evoking their driving legitimacy to anyone who cares to take notice.

All of the hustle and bustle of getting to and from school each day is something my own family experiences first hand. We live a block away from Fernbank Elementary, a K – 5th grade primary school located in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Dekalb County, and each morning I have the privilege of walking (my now 2nd grader) to school. I enjoy accompanying Henry to school immensely. We get to catch up on dreams, wonderings, anticipations, and anxieties. We occasionally join in with other parents and students who walk or ride bikes. Together, we comment on the weather, the recent weekend, or plan out a play date. Once kids are dropped off, pods of parents continue these conversations on our way back to homes, or away to the office until the next morning. For me, the very definition of community and neighborliness are found in these morning rituals as we share a piece of one another’s life journeys. As in all relationships that broaden and deepen, certain vulnerabilities occasionally surface: a parent may disclose a worry about a playground bully, the lack of volunteers for an upcoming PTA event, or more immediate realities like grief over a family member, a recent diagnosis, or expressions of overextensions and a general tiredness every parent knows well. Last week I had one of those meaningful conversations.

While I am mostly known in the walking circle as “Henry’s Dad,” attached to no other vocation but parent, there are a few couples who know I am a minister and they occasionally inquire into what it is -exactly- that an Episcopal priest does – or even is? Last week was one of these occasions. It started out simple enough: a few parents acknowledged my birthday, plans for it, and so on; but then came a reflection back to me. “On my birthday,” this person confessed, “I look back over the year thinking about what I’ve done, but I end up focusing on all the things I’ve left undone. I tend to compare myself to others too much and end up in grief because my life is not theirs.” Another parent who was in on the conversation couldn’t stand the heat (and heart) of this confession and tried to redirect, “Well,” they said a bit awkwardly, “today is Brandon’s birthday and I’m sure he’s going to have a great day.” The confessor, now somewhat humiliated, apologized with words but their facial expression gave them away. In other words, he was glad for his disclosure and confession. It was now out in the open, in the light for all to see. It’s okay not to be okay was written all over his face.

The next day our morning ritual of walking our kids to school brought us together again, this time without the well-intentioned friend who wanted to redirect the conversation, and we simply picked up from where we left off.

“Thanks for the birthday reflection yesterday,” I started.

“Sorry about that. I guess I’ve been searching for answers lately. I’m trying to find some spiritual direction in my life right now.”

“Don’t apologize. Your instincts are good. Many saints of the Church have asked such questions themselves.”

We then discussed his faith journey a bit, his struggle to pray with consistency, and wondering where to turn for such guidance. I was thrilled when he shared with me that their family had recently started attending the Episcopal Church just down the road in Decatur. I left him with some straight forward advice:

* Get a prayer book and read it

* Go to Eucharist every Sunday

* Get into a prayerful rhythm with the community, then talk to one of the two priests about your struggles with individual prayer like you talked with me today. They can help guide and direct you.

“You must get these types of questions all the time, huh,” he wondered?

“Not near as much as you’d think.” We wished one another a good day, and that was that.

Yesterday on my plane ride back to Atlanta, I finished a wonderful book, “Life in Christ: Practicing Christian Spirituality” by Julia Gatta. Julia was one of my dear professors of pastoral care at Sewanee. In this, her new book, she outlines the two main sacraments of the Church – Baptism and Holy Communion – within the context of the Holy Eucharist. Baptism and Holy Eucharist form the first part of the book while the second reveals numerous Christian spiritual practices from the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions that practitioners can do both corporately and individually. In other words, Julia lays out options for what is sometimes referred to as a Rule of Life – something my neighbor was perhaps longing for but didn’t have the words to articulate. A Rule of Life is something our Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Michael Curry, has recently challenged all Episcopalians to uphold and practice. He made this challenge explicit in his opening address to General Convention this year. Bishop Curry titled his sermon, “The Way of Love” and The Episcopal Church’s website has a link to both his inspirational sermon as well as what the church deems are “spiritual practices for a Jesus-centered life.” What Christians – new and mature alike don’t realize – is that many already practice a Rule of Life, but simply don’t call it that. For some, a Rule of Life may be categorized as a ritual, or a hobby, or even a physical activity that brings one into a posture of prayer. What makes these practices Christian is an intention to grow deeper in relationship with Christ, and by faith growing into the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

Starting on Sunday, September 23rd, I will be teaching a class entitled Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry at the 9:30am Sunday School hour. Two books will be required: The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Those interested in a deeper dive into the graces of these two sacraments as well as those who desire a Rule of Life or a Rule of Prayer in one’s life are invited. Also, anyone who seeks to be baptized or confirmed in the Church are invited as well. My hope is that by starting with a deep dive into Baptism and Holy Eucharist this will wet appetites to other intentional ways of praying in Christ that are all very much grounded in our Anglican Tradition. A sign-up sheet will be forthcoming in the narthex starting next week. Just like we prayed in today’s collect: “Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples,” may we always find new and old ways of being gathered together in unity as a Church that prays without ceasing even while our hearts are still searching.

Respond to Evil with Good

Last night in my Ash Wednesday sermon, I challenged us to respond with evil by doing a charitable act. In the Litany of Penitence we prayed to God to, Accept our repentance for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty. In light of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida yesterday, we can live out this prayer in tangible ways.

The first step is to look within asking such questions as,

How are you charitable to yourself, or not?
Who do you rely on to give you grace when you fail to live up to your own standards?

The second step is to look outside with such questions as,

How do I respond/react to things that don’t go my way?
What am I indifferent to? Why?
What do I try to control? Why?

The third step is to ask God for help, praying a prayer like,

“Lord God, I am helpless in this situation/act/addiction. Help me.”
“Lord God, I am overwhelmed. Comfort me.”
“God, let me simply rest in you.”

One of the reasons we are violent and have a violent society is because we are not charitable to ourselves as God has been charitable to us. We forget God’s love and compassion; thereby forgetting to find God’s love and compassion in the “other” the “stranger” the “neighbor, and the “enemy”. We take a short-cut and “label” instead of doing the hard work of building relationship.

Lent is a time to name sin and to name evil. Lent is also a time to admit that we are helpless to counter sin and evil in our lives without God’s help. Today, be kind to others by first being kind to yourself. Give this tragedy to God in order to free yourself up to be charitable to self and other. Above all, “walk in love as Christ loves us.”

A Prayer: In Times of Conflict (BCP, 824)

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us,
in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront
one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work
together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.






Growing in the Faith: The Wisdom of Psalm 146

I sometimes wonder who wrote the individual Psalms that make up The Psalter in our Bibles and prayer books? Who were these people? What were their lives like? What compelled them to write down such intimate things? Tradition has the writer of the Psalms as David, but scholars have sense proven that quaint thought wrong. And good riddance, I say. Why give all the credit to just one man? For the light-hearted, or at least the poetically minded, scholars tend to burst our bubbles with objective fact, reason, and natural sensibilities. Existential worlds are turned upside when it is discovered that George Washington didn’t actually chop down a cherry tree, William Shakespeare might not have written all those brilliant plays, or that there’s actually two versions of The Ten Commandments. So, why do I say, good riddance to a child-like faith while still finding nostalgic value in the stories of our world? I say good riddance because I want to integrate my faith: the deep with the shallow, the hope with the despair, my inner soul with the souls of my feet stepping out on faith and tiptoeing into the light.

The writer of Psalm 146 does this for me. I imagine him to be a man who started out with a child-like faith: Praising the Lord, but categorizing praise and holding it captive to just one designated place – quite possibly the Temple. As he grew in his faith, he not only wrote, “Praise the Lord,” but “Praise the Lord, O my soul!” Now we’re talking. He started to integrate praise, thanksgiving, and devotion to places both within and outside himself where God was made known to him…not exclusively in Temple, but quite possibly in a lover’s eyes, or maybe the smile of a stranger, or the warming touch of a friend who had always shone him dignity.

The author’s been around the block a time or two because he warns us, “Don’t put your trust in princes…there’s no help there. Their policies and procedures will die away with them.” Instead, he says, “Why not put your trust in the one who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them…who keeps faith forever?” This writer’s faith journey is mapped out right before our eyes, and many on the journey tend to stop here. They stop with the awesome awareness that the God they serve, (The God of Jacob for our writer), is the very God who created the cosmos. It’s enough (for some) to look out over nature, see the awesomeness of it…the beauty of it, and to attribute the whole of it to a creator God, and that’s okay. We all have our moments, and those are certainly good and grand moments when we think back on them. But look what happens on this writer’s journey. He doesn’t stop there. His faith continues, and God is not only found in himself; God is not only found in the Temple; God is not only found in nature, but God is found every time justice is served, and every time food is given to the hungry. The Lord (our author says) sets the prisoners free, opens eyes, lifts up, loves, watches over folks, and upholds the outcasts. The Lord is in both the macro and the micro-cosms of our lives, so much so that when we look out over the ocean and feel the presence of God, this same spiritual presence can also be found in human touch, in bread and wine, in musical expression, and in all the nooks and crannies of our lives; as well as in the lives of the stranger, the neighbor, and the other.

For Christians the ultimate faith turned into action came in the form of a person – Jesus Christ, who we call God because his life was lived by doing exactly what the Psalmist says God always does: “executes justice, feeds the hungry, sets prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, and upholds the orphan and the widow.” For Jesus, there was no categorizing and cataloging faith. Faith was one movement: Integrating the body with the soul while experiencing the Spirit moving through it all. This too is our calling: To integrate God’s Spirit into every facet of our lives so much so that one prays and praises God without ceasing. Every act is an act in love because we are simply responding to God’s eternal love towards us.

The Psalmist reminds us that there’s always an open invitation to take our faith deeper, to go beyond the beauty. In fact, seeing God in the beautiful things in life is quite easy. It’s when we can see God in the mundane that we really start to experience God in a different way, in an integrated way, in a way that the Psalmist was able to express and invites us to do the same, “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”