Wednesday, March 06, 2013

This Blog is Moving

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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Praying in the Face of Anxiety

Some years ago, the theologian Paul Tillich suggested that anxiety arises whenever we’re confronted with the possibility of “nonbeing.”  Tillich thought the primary source of anxiety in our age to be spiritual in nature, arising from questions of meaninglessness and emptiness.  Of course, the issues that create anxiety for us show up in immediate ways like budget cuts, governmental dysfunction, a broken healthcare system, increasing inequality in education, income, and opportunity, etc. But I think Tillich is right that underlying all of these is the larger question of “Why bother?” Even if one decides that the goal of life is to create a bubble of safety for oneself or one’s own immediate family and focus on that, any number of things can—and usually will— burst the bubble.      

In the First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul writes, “pray without ceasing.” These words can easily be glossed over or read as glib advice given by someone who’s never had a bad day.  But for those who have taken Paul’s advice and put prayer into practice, such prayer works like an undercurrent to life, bringing a decrease in anxiety, an increase in faith, and a deepening sense of purpose and direction.      

This Lent, I encourage you to adopt a prayer that you can use at any time, in any place.  Pray it over and over again when you’re worried.  Pray it continually when you’re anxious.  Pray it when you’re happy.  Pray it as often as you can and see where it takes you.  You might use the Lord’s Prayer.  Or you might adopt the ancient, Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Another traditional prayer is, the Trisagion, “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.” Generations have found comfort praying, “
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

When we pray, we are not casting spells. Danger and heartache do not immediately disappear.  But through prayer, we are brought closer with Jesus into the love and care of God and given a second wind from the Holy Spirit. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Choosing Well

A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 24, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, and Luke 13:31-35 .

Mae West had her own take on navigating the season of Lent.  In one of her movies, her character puts it bluntly.  “Between two evils,” she says, “I generally like to pick the one I never tried before.” (Klondike Annie, 1936)

Mae West points out the reality of life—we have choices to make, and we make them.  Sometimes it’s between two good options, and sometimes it’s like in the movie Argo when the CIA supervisor explains to the Secretary of State, “Sir, this is our best bad idea.”   Even in the most dire of situations, there are usually still a few choices that we can make. At the very least (or is it “most?”) we can choose how to feel. We can choose how to view our situation. We can choose how we will respond to the consequences of our decision.

Life is full of choices. Faith is full of choices.

We are often confronted with whether to choose God or some other god, as in last week’s Gospel as Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. We’re sometimes presented with the question of whether to choose the way of faithfulness or a sometimes quicker way of safety and comfort. And, finally (practically and personally) we’re often confronted with whether to choose blessing over curses.

In our first reading (from Genesis) Abram has to choose whether he’s going to keep on listening to this God who insists he is the One, True God or whether perhaps it’s time to try some other god. He hasn’t become Abra-ham, yet. He hasn’t come to that point of conversion, marking a decisive change in his following God that even comes with a name change. It’s still early in the game. But God has promised. “Your reward will be very great,” God says. And so, Abram is wondering when the good stuff is going to start rolling in. “Where’s IS that reward, God? You’ve promised me children, where are they?” But just at the point of Abram’s possibly choosing to go a different route, God answers. In this case, God saves him from making a bad choice. God says, stop doubting, stop worrying, just be faithful, hang on a little bit. “I am the Lord who brought from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” (In other words, I am the Lord who brought you out of the middle of nowhere into SOMEwhere. I know you, and you know me.) Lucky for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Abram chooses God.

In today’s Gospel, the choices are subtle and hidden beneath all the action. The religious and secular leaders feel threatened by Jesus and so they try to run him out of town. But Jesus tells them to send a message to the leader.  Jesus chooses to stay, and to stay faithful. But he knows that there are others who will decide to follow a different way. He mourns over the city of Jerusalem, a city that has rejected prophets in the past—a city that represents so much, a city with wealth, power, tradition, sophistication, creativity, diversity—but it seems to be choosing to reject Jesus, and in so doing, rejects the movement of God.

Saint Paul describes this kind of rejection in graphic terms. He speaks of those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” those whose “god is the belly,” … whose “minds are set on earthly things.” But for us, Paul says, we who choose to follow Jesus (whether we follow well or poorly) Paul assures us that “our citizenship is in heaven,” and from there comes our savior Jesus Christ.

That’s a choice for us. We choose that citizenship in heaven. Sometimes our parents choose it for us at baptism, but we grow to a point where we choose Christ for ourselves. The choice may come at some formal occasion, such as a first Communion, or confirmation, a marriage, a funeral, or at some unexpected time. We can find ourselves choosing Christ in the midst of worship, or in the midst of prayer, or in a crisis, or in a time of emotional or spiritual intensity.

Sometimes the choices for being faithful come daily, if not hourly. Robert Morris, an Episcopal priest in New Jersey, describes an insight about this that came when he stubbed his toe. Wrestling with Grace: a Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Nashville: Upper Room, 2003).

He describes something most of us have probably experienced. He remembers walking through his house and accidentally stubbing his toe on a step. With his first breath, he yelled something along the lines of “God…” and he may have even added a few other words. But with his second breath, it occurred to him that the words he had already said were really a kind of prayer. To cry out, “God” – no matter what else may be added on is a kind of prayer.
That’s all in what Morris calls “the first breath.” But then there’s the opportunity of a second breath. In the second breath, we make a decision, we make a choice as to whether the prayer is going to be a blessing or a curse. When Father Morris stumped his toe, he realized that he had begun a prayer, and so he might as well finish it. “God” turned into “God bless,” “God bless my toe, God bless me in my clumsiness, God bless me and have mercy on me.”

Think about all the situations that come up for us daily in which we have the opportunity to turn first breaths into second breath prayers—the person on the other end of the phone, the person across from us at the meeting, the child who is ignoring everything we say or do or ask, the neighbor next door, the boss who can never be pleased, the family member who (after all these years) still doesn’t get it… They all can drive us to frustration and we can respond with a blessing or with a curse.

All deep religious practices, at some point, pay attention to the breath.  Yoga, tai chi, Christian meditation and Centering prayer all teach us to notice our breathing.  Christ invites us to pay attention to our first and second breath prayers.  The first ones are from the gut, they’re reactive.  But the second ones can come from a place of faith and reason and openness to God’s Spirit.  By paying such attention, by choosing blessing over curse, we begin to pray like Jesus prayed. In so doing, we choose to follow Jesus Christ, we choose to turn toward Jerusalem (and even the Cross), and we choose to turn toward God.

Choices surround all of us—but whether it’s about a career, or a special person, or finances; vocation, or how to respond to someone who makes us mad—may the Holy Spirit guide our choices, help us to watch our breath, and to live toward the way of blessing.  Any choice will have consequences as life plays itself out.  But with faith, the only bad choice is the one we make without God.  As long as we chose WITH God, God moves us toward blessing— with Abraham and Sarah, with St. Paul, with the St. John and the Blessed Virgin Mary and the disciples, and with the faithful of every age—into the eternal blessing of Christ’s presence and peace.  Thanks be to God for the gift of choosing.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Living into Virtue

A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 17, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, and Luke 4:1-13.

If asked to name the Seven Deadly Sins, I bet most of us could come up with a good list that was close to, if not exactly, the famous seven.  Just in the past few years there have been essays in magazines, movies, and a beautiful little series of books by Oxford that includes Robert Thurman on anger, Phyllis Tickle on greed, and Wendy Wasserstein on sloth.  So that’s three of them, right there:  anger, greed, and sloth.  Can you think of the others?  I bet you could:  lust, pride, envy, and we can’t possibly forget gluttony. 

Sometimes those preparing to make a formal confession are given the list of the seven deadly sins as a framework for thinking about coming clean and getting honest.  Those in twelve-step recovery programs often think about the seven sins as they make a self-inventory and this can all be helpful information for one wanting to make a change. 

Ash Wednesday began the season of Lent. Repentance was the theme of the day, and in some ways is the theme of the season—repentance, which means “turning.”  Turning away from sin.  Turning towards God.  The Church has succeed at letting society know what to turn from.  But we’re less accomplished at naming the Good to which we invite people.  Even within ourselves, we’re often very good at naming the sin, diagnosing the problem, sometimes getting carried away with just how sinful we may be until our sinfulness becomes a kind of perverse pride.  This kind of pride in being bad sneaks up with the thought that “I’m special in my fallenness.”  There’s no way God would forgive me, no way there’s room for me in God’s mercy, no way God can forget what I’ve done. 

If repentance is about turning away from sin, then it means turning toward something and it seems important we know what that “something” is. 

There are the seven deadly sins, but did you know there are also seven virtues?  These seven can be thought to correspond to the “deadly” seven.  Over time, tradition has developed several versions of the seven virtues.   But typically, there are four cardinal virtues from classical antiquity:  justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude (or courage).  To these are added the three “theological virtues” of St. Paul:  “faith, hope, and charity.” (1 Cor. 13)  Other virtues are sometimes included, such as chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. 

The virtues can be helpful as targets, as goals, as reminders of what we’re turning towards.  If one were turning away from gluttony, one would turn more positively toward temperance.  If one were trying to turn away from pride, one would lean into humility, and so on…

In a way, this is what Jesus does in today’s Gospel when he is confronted by the devil in the desert. 

“Command this stone to become a loaf of bread”….. The devil teases Jesus with food.  If Jesus has been in the desert long, surely he’s getting hungry.  Characterized as one of the seven classic sins, the devil is tempting Jesus with gluttony.  If some is good, then lots must be better.  But Jesus responds calmly, without need.  He responds with the virtue of temperance.

Next, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says, “to you I will give their glory and all this authority…” A more current version of this is in the 1980s movie, “Jesus of Montreal,” in which a promoter/producer type takes the Jesus character to the top of the skyscraper and says, “with your talent, this city could be yours."  This appeals to so many things.  But cast in terms of the seven deadlies, it could be understood as the devil tempting Jesus with greed.  Again, Jesus quotes doesn’t over-react.  He calmly quotes scripture, and puts the devil in his place with the virtue of charity.

Finally, the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem and dares him to jump off the pinnacle of the temple. The devil is mocking Psalm 91 that we said earlier, “He shall give his angels charge over you… they shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”  But Jesus senses the distortion and smells in it the temptation of pride.  Jesus answers with the virtue of humility.

So even though it was probably surprising to Jesus that the devil shows up in the wilderness, Jesus could counter with something positive, something constructive, supported by scripture. 

We might dismiss this Gospel as a kind of miracle story.  This is the Son of God, after all, of course he would know the right thing to say, the right thing to do, in order to resist temptation and dodge sin.  But we can still learn from his technique.  In order to move away from something negative, Jesus focuses on something positive.
That works for us, as well, in very practical ways.  If I want to drink less caffeine, I could chose to focus on the caffeine intake.  I could obsess about it.  I could read about it, talk about it, pray about it.  Or… I could make it a practice to drink more water.  Over time, by drinking more water, I would probably find I was drinking less caffeine.    If I want to eat less junk food, I can eat more apples.  But it works with trickier aspects of ourselves as well.

If I want to be less critical of people, I can make a practice to think of one good thing about each person I see. 

The virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope and charity are good goals for the spiritual life.  We could add in the heavenly virtues of chastity, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.  It could be a Lenten discipline to memorize the virtues. 

But we don’t have to memorize the virtues to benefit from their power and almost magnetic ability to pull us away from sin.  It’s for us to allow faith to remind us that there’s always an alternative to sin.  There’s always some positive force, some better alternative that can move us closer to God.

In the temptation in the desert, Jesus remembers scripture.  He remembers what would later be characterized as virtues.  But even more, Jesus remembers who he is, he remembers his baptism and that he is a child of God. He remembers whose he is, that God is watching, is waiting and is even now, aware and present and offering his love.

Martin Luther writes that he sometimes fought off the devil by shouting at him, “I am baptized.” “Baptizatus sum!”  (LC IV, 44).  He would write this on his desk, he would shout it at a vision, he would sing it to himself. 

That’s what we do when we make the sign of the cross, and when we dip our finger in holy water and place a little on our foreheads: we are reminding ourselves that we are baptized, that we are loved, and that God is in charge.   The sacraments help us fight temptations. 

In the days ahead, as we practice spiritual disciplines, as we notice the symbols of the season, perhaps giving some things up and taking on other things, may God make us alert and awake to temptation, that we might remember our baptism and move toward virtue. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Way of the Cross

Every Friday in Lent at 7 p.m. we pray the Way of the Cross at All Souls.  As we move through the church, we are given an opportunity to hear scripture with new ears and to see visual representations of our Lord with new eyes. We are invited to respond to the Way of the Cross, and indeed, to the Way of Christ, with new hearts.

The devotion known as Stations of the Cross, or the Way of the Cross, is thought to have begun in 4th-century Jerusalem, as pilgrims sought to be close to the places where Jesus walked. The number of stations, or places where Jesus paused on his way to be crucified, has varied with tradition and time. Monks and nuns who visited the Holy Land took the idea of the Way of the Cross back to their monasteries, and so, by the 16th century, a number of monasteries and convents began to have small artistic representations of the Stations of the Cross in their chapels. Prayers would be said at each representation and this practice eventually spread to churches. The number of stations finally became fixed at fourteen. Of these, eight are based directly on events recorded in the Gospels and six (stations three, four, six, seven, nine, and thirteen) are based upon tradition. 

Participating in the Stations of the Cross allows us to pray with our imagination. We imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to walk through the city of Jerusalem carrying his cross. We imagine how we might have reacted or not reacted. And perhaps most of all, we can imagine where God must have been in the midst of that struggle. To recognize God in such times is at the heart of Lent.


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