The Last Supper

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017 || 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

This evening we celebrate two things. First, we celebrate the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us. This new commandment is the “mandatum” that gives Maundy Thursday its name. We wash each other’s feet to remind us of Jesus’ own servanthood and his love displayed through his act of humility. Second, we celebrate what we loftily call the “Institution of the Eucharist.” That is, we remember the Last Supper when Jesus took a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and shared them with his friends and said, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

This meal goes by many names: Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. And they all derive from the event St. Paul recalls for the Corinthians in tonight’s second reading, an event we call the “Last Supper.” Continue reading “The Last Supper”

The Long Prayer

Sermon for Sunday, November 8, 2015 || Proper 27B || Mark 12:38-44

thelongprayerI’ve been preparing recently for Confirmation class, which begins later today. We have four tenth and eleventh graders and their sponsors ready to begin a five-month journey through their faith: learning, discussing, sharing stories. The next time the bishop visits, these four will have the opportunity to make a mature profession of faith if they so desire, and I am really excited to get to walk with them these next several months. Because I’ve had Confirmation on my mind, I’ve been thinking and rethinking some of the “nuts and bolts” of the way we express our faith as Episcopalians. Every once in a while, I like to preach on these “nuts and bolts” because in my job I get asked the same dozen or so questions about our practice all the time, and exploring such questions can help us all deepen our engagement in worship and in mission.

One of these questions has to do with the second half of our Sunday service – Holy Communion in particular. “What is Holy Communion,” I am often asked, “and why do you say such a long prayer right before it?” The second half of this question hit me again this week when I read today’s Gospel lesson, in which Jesus takes the scribes to task for all sorts of things – a few of which struck a little close to home.

“Beware of the scribes,” says Jesus, “who like to walk around in long robes” (looks down at self wearing an alb and chasuble) “and to be greeted with respect in the market-places” (not many people have the definite article at the beginning of their title, but priests do – ‘the Reverend Adam Thomas’) “and to have the best seats in the synagogues” (I guarantee you my chair is more comfortable than yours – look at that cushion!) “and places of honor at banquets” (Okay, okay, finally something that’s not true – as long as I have a lefty seat at the corner of the table, I’m good). “They devour widows’ houses” (All right, moving further away, this is good) “and for the sake of appearance say long prayers” (gulps).

For the sake of appearance say long prayers. We say a lot of long prayers on Sunday morning, and one in particular is longer than all the others put together: the Eucharistic prayer. We haven’t gotten to it yet this morning, since it happens later in the service. You’ll know when we arrive at the Eucharistic prayer because I will be standing behind the altar when we start it. So Jesus indicts the scribes on six different issues, and by my count I’m guilty of three, innocent of two, and the final one is pending. For the sake of appearance, they say long prayers. I can’t dispute that the Eucharistic prayer is long – most graces before a meal don’t last five minutes. So to break even on these six charges, I have to prove that I don’t pray this prayer for “the sake of appearance.”

Before I start my defense, you need to know I’m not the only one implicated in this. You all are co-conspirators. At the beginning of the prayer you and I share a short dialogue, right? (The Lord be with you. And also with you. And so on…). In this dialogue, I ask your permission to pray on your behalf, and you grant it when you say, “It is right to give God thanks and praise.” So that’s the first thing to remember: even though I’m the one talking, we’re all praying this Eucharistic prayer together.

Now that you have joined the defendant’s side of this indictment with me, let’s explore this question: If not for appearance, why then do we pray such a long and involved prayer before receiving Communion? My answer is this: we are part of God’s story. We nurture our faith when we take time each week to locate ourselves in this great story. And when we locate ourselves in the story, we realize that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the story is still being told. And when we have this realization, we give thanks to God for our participation in God’s story through the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

Now I know that was a pretty dense answer, so let’s unpack it a little bit. First, we locate ourselves in the story by praying, “Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us for yourself.” We fell away from you, but you gave us another chance by sending your Son. We and Us. Not They and Them. This story is about us. We don’t deserve mercy, but God doesn’t care one lick whether or not we deserve it. And that’s called grace.

With this grace emboldening us, we then fulfill Jesus’ request made at his last supper with his friends when he took bread and broke it. But notice that when I narrate the breaking of the bread, I don’t actually break it. Not yet. I break the bread later for the utilitarian purpose of sharing it. The reason I don’t break the bread when Jesus does is because I am not standing in for Jesus. And we are not reenacting the Last Supper. This is important, so listen up. We are not reenacting the Last Supper; we are participating in it. There has only been one Last Supper, and we were there. We are there each time we partake of Christ’s Body and Blood. We are there with everyone who has ever received the sacrament. We are there with the great cloud of witnesses that we invoke later in the prayer. We are there as the Body of Christ to receive the Body of Christ. Thus, the broken bread makes us whole: one body in Christ made up of many members, each supporting the others in worship, love, and service.

That’s why we invite the Holy Spirit to fill the bread and wine with the presence of Christ: not simply to remember what Christ did, but to participate in what Christ is doing. The story is not over yet. The Bible might be finished, but the story continues – God’s story of making, redeeming, and sustaining this little Creation of God’s. When you come to the altar rail and put out your hands, you signal your fervent desire to participate in this great story. In the Eucharistic prayer, we tell the story together, and in the telling and in the sharing we take on our role as the characters in the current chapter. We are the people to whom Christ offers his Body and Blood in order that we might both feel closer to him and feel strengthened to serve. We are the people enlivened by this precious nourishment. We are the people with a story to tell.

And that’s why we give thanks. The Eucharistic prayer is a prayer of Great Thanksgiving: thanksgiving for God’s mercy and grace; thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice and sustenance; thanksgiving for the Holy Spirit’s presence and empowerment. We give thanks that we are a part of the story. And it is quite a story. I don’t know about you, but a five-minute praying of the story seems downright short when you realize all that it entails. But of course, we don’t tell the story just once a week for five minutes on a Sunday. We tell the story each day of our lives.

We don’t pray this long prayer just for the sake of appearance. We pray this long prayer to give thanks for our part in God’s great story. And then we receive Holy Communion to strengthen and nourish us to continue telling that story together.

The Box Garden

TheBoxGardenThe ministry intern at St. Mark’s preached yesterday, so I have no sermon to offer to the Internet this morning. Instead, I held on to the following for just such an occasion, and I am glad to share it today. In August, I attended a training event called Living in the Green up in Hartford. It was a lovely training, which paired personal storytelling and deep sharing of convictions, values, hopes, and dreams with some nuts-and-bolts activities designed to move abstract conviction into concrete action. We had some time to journal following a session on the second day, during which I had been caught by the phrase “to pay attention.” That phrase was the genesis of the following poem which I wrote over the course of the hour or so following the session. I shared it with my colleagues at the training and now am happy to share it with you.

The Box Garden (August 20, 2015)

The tomato plants in the box garden
are fruiting right now.
When I walk up the back steps,
I see, peeking among the shoots,
a slippery red – here and there –
and my heart rejoices.
And before I pick the ripe ones,
before I even walk to the box,
I can taste the acidic sweetness
and feel the pulp roll around my tongue.

Each day, I anticipate seeing new ripeness,
and some days I am rewarded.
But not every day.
Some days the tomatoes are there,
but they are still green,
still growing, still emerging.
And from the back steps I can’t see them.
The next day a shock of red arrives,
and I know the tomato was there yesterday, too,
but it wasn’t ready yet.
The tomato was there, but camouflaged,
hidden until its taste blossoms
to meet the bite in my imagination.

Other days I have my head down,
and I trudge up the back steps
with the weight of too many lives
leadening my feet.
On those days, I don’t lift my eyes
to survey the box garden.
The dash of red dances on the periphery
of my vision, but I don’t acknowledge it.
Instead, I go inside and slump down.
And the next day,
the red remains, but its luster is gone.
It has rotted on the vine
like stored up manna.
And all because I was too caught up
to pay attention.

“Pay attention.”
It’s a curious phrase.
There is a transaction at stake,
A cost to be paid.
That cost is my “attention”;
my willingness to engage
Perceive
Embrace
Dwell
Awaken.
If I have paid this cost,
I wonder what I get in return.
A life lived in God, certainly.
But there is no quid pro quo here.
The presence of God abides always –
Awakens in me, awakens me.
And so the goods I receive
and the cost I paid
are one in the same.

My capacity to remain awake to God
is the first gift,
which allows the tasting of all others:
The acidic sweetness, yes,
And also the saltiness of tears,
the meaty savoriness of ragged love,
the bitterness of brokenness,
The broken bread, the cup poured out.
I pay attention when I lift these gifts to God,
or at least I try to.
I smell the flour
stuck to the round loaf
to keep it from sticking to the pan.
I smell the wine, too,
redolent of celebration.
I pay attention to each pair of hands
that receives the bread of heaven,
and I know that as I place it in those hands,
it is the Body of Christ.

But today is not Sunday,
And so I try to pay attention to other things:
The seagulls cartwheeling overhead,
the tangled man asleep
on a stone bench in the town square,
the box garden as I climb the back steps.
And for today, I know the reward
for my paying attention.
Today, it is one ripe tomato.

5 Years: Snapping Turtles

This June is the 5th anniversary of Wherethewind.com, and we are celebrating by looking back at some of the best of the last five years of this website. Today we have the first article in my two year relationship with EpiscopalCafe. Thanks to Jim and everyone else at the Cafe for giving me the chance to be part of the team. (Originally posted August 1, 2009)

Snapping turtles live in the muddy water underneath a dock that extends into Lake Kanuga. I know this because I have been slowly fattening them up with Wonderbread since I was eleven. I’m 26 now, and (while I’ve doubled my body mass in the intervening years) the turtles remain – stubbornly – about the size of my hand. All but one. There is the “Big One” that rises Kraken-like from the depths and that you only ever see out of the corner of your eye.

Misty crossFor years during the last glorious week of July, my friends and I have gone down to the water’s edge to feed the turtles. We used to sprint to the dock. Now we amble. Once there, we untwist our ordnance and pass out the sliced, carbohydrate projectiles. Some employ the patented tear-and-toss approach, which maximizes the number of pieces for the turtles to eat. Others drop whole slices of bread into the water and count the number of bites necessary to consume each piece.

Within seconds of the bread hitting the water, the turtles surface. Plop. Snap. The first breadcrumb disappears, and ripples are the only evidence the turtle was ever there. Plop. Snap. The second piece vanishes. Plop. Snap. We keep a weather eye out for the Kraken. Plop. Snap. There he is, the Big One, the Leviathan that God has made for the sport of it. Plop. Snap. No, it was just the way the light hit the water. Plop. Whoosh. Snap. Missed him again. Maybe next year. Plop. Snap. Plop. Snap. Plop. Snap.

The turtles propel themselves out of the depths, eyes on the dark spots on the surface. They trap the bread in their little, beaky mouths, and they dive again. They stay on the surface just long enough to snap up their sustenance before retreating to the darkness of the brackish shallows underneath the dock. After years of dropping bread to the turtles, I’ve realized that we do the same. We never stay topside in the sun for too long. We prefer the anonymity of the murk. We prefer to focus only on that bit of bread, a floating shadow above us. We prefer to surface only at feeding time, lest the daylight expose us to all the pesky problems of the world.

Now, I’m pretty sure that the above metaphor is thinly veiled enough that my impending addition of the Holy Eucharist to this discussion will seem both appropriate and timely. Here goes. All too often, we approach our worship with a Plop. Snap. mentality. For an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning, we notice the Wonderbread falling from the sky, and we surface to snap up our fill. Then we dive until next week. Same time. Same place.

The trouble is twofold. First, the Wonderbread, heavenly manna, God’s grace – call it what you will – does not descend on us at predetermined times once a week. However, we condition ourselves to notice it only during those times we’ve set aside for God. We kneel at the altar rail. Plop. We lick the bread off our palms. Snap. In seven days time, we’ll commune again. In the six days in between, we are more than a little oblivious to the fact that God wants to commune with us every day. Indeed, we may say “daily,” but too often we mean, “Give us this day our weekly bread.”

Second, the surface is where the action is. The psalmist prays, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” God’s grace pulls us out of these depths, out of the brackish water underneath the dock. We surface in the brightness of day. As our eyes adjust, we notice all the injustice and desperation and fear that the murk makes easy to ignore. And as we share the bread and cup, we remember that the Body we ingest connects us to the greater body of Christ in the world. Jesus says to his disciples, “ If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” Being children of light means remaining on the surface, knowing we share our lives in a larger community, and addressing those inequities that the light throws into sharp relief. We can accomplish none of these if we dive back to the depths – back to anonymity and ignorance – immediately after receiving our nourishment.

When we begin to notice the abundance of God’s grace around us, which pulls us to the light of the surface, we can break out of the cycle of the Plop. Snap. mentality. Silent ripples should not be the only signs that mark our ascent to the surface. Just as God blesses Abraham, God blesses us so we can be blessings in the world. God nourishes us with the bread of heaven so we can nourish others.

At the end of July this year, I will once again amble to the dock to feed the turtles. I will toss the bread into the water. Plop. Ever vigilant for signs of the Big One, I will watch the little, beaky mouths spear the soggy pieces. Snap. And I will pray to God that we can all remain on the surface, paddle there in the light of the sun, and serve our Lord.

First Time, part 2 (Davies Tales #9b)

(For part 1, please click here.)

Aidan Davies and his father walked out of the sacristy. “Wait a moment,” said Alastor. “Let me look at you.”

Aidan stopped and turned in a circle. He had on more layers of clothing than any sane person would wear in the month of June. But he always joked that the psychological testing that candidates went through before becoming priests was done to make sure you were crazy. On top of his suit trousers and black shirt, Aidan wore a white alb, a garment which he used to pretend was a toga when his childhood fantasies built ancient Rome in the churchyard. On top of the alb, he wore a green stole, which more than a handful of people had called a “scarf” when they paid him compliments for its subtle patchwork design. And on top of the stole, he wore a green and gold chasuble, which weighed on his shoulders like a down comforter. Aidan flapped his arms to move the chasuble off of his hands. Of course I’m going to spill wine on it today, he thought. It’s a good thing, then, that it cost more than my first car. Aidan smiled ruefully and gave the chasuble a quick once over, looking for previous stains. There weren’t any.

Alastor stepped to his son and straightened the neckline of the ornate garment. Then his hands suddenly went to Aidan’s shoulders and his father gathered him into a strong embrace. “I remember when you wore a chasuble on Halloween. Your mother had to pin it to keep it from dragging.” He pushed Aidan back to arms length. “Now look at you.”

Alastor choked off the last words, seemingly as surprised as Aidan at his sudden show of emotion. Alastor kept his hand on Aidan’s shoulder as they walked to the back of the church where the early service crowd was trickling in. Churches fill up like movie theaters, Aidan thought.

His father stuck his head outside and clucked good-naturedly at a few stragglers. As they settled in to their pew, Aidan made a quick head count. Two dozen or so. Pretty standard for an early service in the summer. Well, if I do trip and hit my head on the altar only a few people will see it. He glanced at his watch and gave a thumbs up to his father. Alastor led the way as they entered the nave and processed down the center aisle. Aidan had never walked behind his father in procession. This is something new, indeed.

The first half of the service came and went. Aidan kept stealing glances at the altar, wondering how something he used to play under could seem so imposing now. At the Peace, he shook hands with the two-dozen parishioners and embraced his father once again. Then he turned to face the altar and his parents’ advice from earlier that morning came to him. Go to the bathroom before you put your chasuble on. Check. Remember that God’s there too. Aidan looked at the cross and out the window to the misty morning sky. He looked back at the altar and at the people assembled. His mother’s advice had seemed so obvious when he sat perched on the edge of her bed. She might have said, “Remember that gravity will keep you from floating away.” But here in the church, with that special table in front of him, Aidan could not remember, could not see how he could go and stand behind that table and invoke God’s presence.

Aidan pulled his father to one side. “I don’t think I can do this,” he said. He tugged at the collar of his alb. “I don’t think I can consecrate communion.”

Alastor steadied his son with a look. It was the look the veteran paratrooper might give the new recruit before pushing him bodily from the plane. “And what makes you think that you’re the one doing anything,” he said simply.

Aidan stared blankly at his father. “You’re just the hands and the mouth,” said Alastor. “No delusions of grandeur. God’s doing the heavy lifting.” Aidan nodded and turned back to the altar. Alastor stepped up behind him and whispered, “And God does the heavy lifting whether or not you realize God is here.”

Once again Aidan let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. God is here. God is here and that truth has nothing to do with me. No delusions of grandeur. “Okay. I’m really ready this time,” he said.

He mounted the steps to the altar and unwrapped the chalice. He folded the veil and laid it aside. He put the burse on top of the veil. He dumped a few dozen wafers onto the paten. He took the two silver cruets from the credence table and set them next to the chalice. Then he froze and his eyes went wide. He looked at the two containers: they were identical and they were solid metal. One held wine and one held water, but there was no earthly way to tell them apart. He pulled the stopper from one and glanced inside. Too dark. The liquid could have been either. He checked the other. Looks the same. He picked them up to feel the weight, hoping the cruet containing the wine would be fuller. No such luck. He put them down and gave his father a sidelong glance, along with a half grimace that he hoped communicated, “Help me!”

Perhaps, his father didn’t understand his attempt at telepathy. Perhaps, his father was trying to loosen him up some more before the Eucharistic prayer began. Perhaps, his father was getting him back for all those times that Aidan held up his watch to signal that a sermon had gone on too long. Whatever the reason, Alastor Davies gave his son a shrug, and not just any shrug, a comically expansive shrug, like one you might use while playing charades.

Aidan did his best to hide a scowl. Then he did the last thing he could think of. He tipped just a bit out of one cruet. Water. Of course. He switched cruets and poured. A more experienced priest wouldn’t have panicked. A more experienced priest would have known that less than ten percent of the congregation would have any clue that something was amiss at the altar. But Aidan had been a priest for less than twenty-four hours.

And yet, as his panic subsided, Aidan noticed something else filling its place. What is it? Aidan searched within himself before beginning the prayer. Ah, there it is. Peace. And what’s that next to it? Yes. Joy. Aidan lifted his head and smiled at the two-dozen people scattered around the church. “The Lord be with you,” he said.

In the end, he didn’t spill wine on the chasuble. He didn’t trip and bang his head on the altar. He didn’t have a panic attack. All he had to do was jump and pull the ripcord. And the wind caught his chute and brought him safely to ground.

Back at the kitchen table later that day, Aidan paused in the middle of eating his grilled cheese sandwich. Aquinas was curled up on his lap, sleeping soundly. Lucy and Alastor sat across from their son. They hadn’t stopped beaming at him since they arrived home. “So, Dad, I have a question,” he said.

“The Sox have a day game. Starts in about half an hour,” Alastor said.

“No, that’s not it.” He took a bite. The cheese stretched as he pulled the sandwich from his mouth. “How do you tell which cruet holds wine and which holds water?”

Alastor smiled at his wife, who reflected it back at him. He put on his best professorial tone and said to his valedictorian, Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude, Master of Divinity, seminary-trained new priest of a son, “You smell them, of course.”

First Time, part 1 (Davies Tales #9a)

On the third Sunday in June, Aidan Davies woke up in the bed in the guest room of his parents’ house. This was not his room, though it featured several artifacts from his childhood like a haphazardly designed display at the natural history museum. This is where young Aidan struggled to open the broken drawer of his bureau for his entire childhood, he mused, looking at the dingy piece of furniture. If you’ll direct your eyes above the dresser, this is where he simply had to own a poster from each Star Wars film, even The Phantom Menace. And now, if you’ll look to your right…

Davies’s thought trailed off as he examined another cheap piece of furniture that had been in his room for as long as he could remember. Since his contact lenses were bathing in solution in the bathroom, he couldn’t really see the squat shelving unit. But he could tell you exactly how much the middle shelf bowed under the weight of old books and how many CD cases would fit up top. However familiar the furniture was to him, though, the room itself was not his. His parents had moved when he was a junior in college, and he had needed directions to find his own house when he came home for Christmas that year. The move had happened five summers ago, and during that interval, most of Aidan had stopped grieving the loss of his bedroom. But the part of him, the part that would rather root around in the closet under the stairs for his old LEGO sets rather than go through with the events today held in store for him, still cherished the memory of the sky blue walls and beanbag chair reading nook of his old house.

Today. Sunday. He glanced at the clock on the bedside table. He didn’t have to get up for another hour, but he was restless. Today was an important day. He rose, brushed his teeth, and showered. He pulled the dark suit off the hanging bag and laid it on the bed. He donned his black shirt and snapped the white collar in place around his neck. He looked in the mirror. Yesterday morning, he was a deacon; today, he was a priest. A dozen other priests and Davies’s bishop had laid hands on him and prayed to God to make Aidan a priest, too. I suppose it took, he thought as he reached around and touched his left shoulder blade. His father had laid a firm, yet trembling, hand there yesterday, and Aidan could still feel a faint echo of the blessing held in Alastor Davies’s touch. He traced the lines of a cross, imagining he could feel the relief carving of his tattoo through his clothing. Then, picking up his jacket, he padded out of the room.

“Aidan?” The door to his parents’ room was cracked to let the cats in and out and his mother had spotted him.

“Morning,” he said as he poked his head around the doorframe. Lucy Davies was up to her chin in sheets and blankets, despite the early summer warmth rising with the sun. Anselm had annexed most of Lucy’s pillow, while Aquinas staked his claim to the foot of the bed.

Aidan’s father began the tradition of naming the family’s cats after medieval theologians during his time in seminary. Lucy took Aidan and his older sister Brigid to the animal shelter, and they argued all the way home over what to call their new pet. The argument continued inside the house, making Alastor look up from his reading. He tapped the cover of the book: “How about Bernard?” he suggested.

“But it’s a girl kitty, daddy,” Brigid said.

“No problem, dear. Bernard was from Clairvaux, so we can call her “Clair.”

Brigid beamed at him. Aidan, at age three and a half, hadn’t followed the conversation very well, and he thought his father had said “éclair,” which Aidan had recently discovered to his delight, so he beamed too. Clair was with the Davies family until the summer before Davies himself began seminary, but she had succumbed to a combination of old age and fear of the vet’s office. Six months later, Lucy and Alastor brought home two new cats. “Who are you studying in systematic theology right now?” Alastor asked Aidan over the phone.

“Anselm. Aquinas is next,” came his son’s reply. Luckily, the cats were both boys.

Aidan sat on the corner of the bed and scratched Aquinas behind the ears. “Nervous?” his mother asked.

He looked at her. When his mother asked him about his emotional state, she was usually reflecting her own feelings. What does she think is going to happen? Maybe that I’ll trip on my vestments and bang my head on the altar, he thought. Lucy had always had a fairly vivid imagination about how his various sporting engagements could end in brain damage or missing fingers. Perhaps, she’s confusing church with soccer. “Mom, the words are printed, I took a class in this, and I’ve been watching Dad do it my whole life,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

The last three words sounded hollow, even to him. Lucy eyed him appraisingly. “If you say so, dear. Just don’t forget that God is there, too. That’s the whole point.”

She spoke the last words in the middle of a yawn, rolled over, and began rhythmically breathing a little too convincingly to be properly asleep. Aidan took that as his cue and left the room while Anselm resettled himself on Lucy’s pillow. As Aidan shut the door, Lucy’s breathing slowed, and Aidan wondered if anyone in the history of the world had ever feigned realistic sleep. It’s like wondering if the refrigerator light stays on when you close the door, he thought.

He moved down the hallway, passing the collages of his and Brigid’s infancy, of his childhood athletics and Brigid’s recitals, of their prom pictures and graduations. He arrived in the kitchen to find his father sitting down to his ritual bowl of oatmeal. You could set your watch to his Sunday morning routine. Aidan sliced off two thick pieces of the banana bread Lucy had made yesterday and sat down opposite his father. Always the sports section first. “Did the Sox win?” Aidan asked.

“Walk off double in the tenth. Hit the top of the scoreboard just out of reach of the left fielder’s glove,” said Alastor without looking up from the paper. “But they blew the save in the ninth so the extra inning heroics shouldn’t have been needed.”

“So the musical chairs at closer continues,” Aidan said. During the spring and summer (and into autumn if the Red Sox made the playoffs), baseball accounted for about eighty percent of the conversations between Aidan and his father. Even on a day like today we’re talking baseball. Aidan picked up the discarded sports section as Alastor moved on to the comics. I find that oddly comforting. Aidan’s hand strayed once again to his left shoulder blade. Alastor looked up. “Nervous.”

The word wasn’t a question as it had been when Lucy had asked. It was a statement, one that a veteran paratrooper might say to a new recruit before his first jump. It was the kind of statement that gives permission to feel the emotion but withholds permission to remain safely in the aircraft. “A little, I guess.”

“Just remember,” Alastor began.

“I know, I know,” Adain cut him off. “Mom already reminded me. God is there, too.”

“That’s true.” Alastor suppressed a smile, the crinkles around his eyes growing heavy. “But that’s not what I was going to say.” Aidan put down the sports section. “What I was going to say was: don’t forget to go to the bathroom before you put on the chasuble.”

Aidan let out a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding and started laughing, first quietly to himself and then louder and louder. Alastor joined in, and soon they were laughing just for laughter’s own sake.

An hour later, Aidan left the restroom at the church. He thought he might vomit like he had before many a high school soccer game. But he didn’t. His father was waiting for him, an ornate poncho draped over one arm. Aidan took the chasuble, put his head through its hole, and smoothed out the sleeves over his alb. He turned to the mirror in the sacristy. Well, you look like a priest, he told himself. You’re first celebration of Holy Communion. Are you ready?

Aidan put a hand on his father’s shoulder and pushed him toward the doorway. “I’m ready,” he said.

(…to be continued.)

Snapping turtles

The following post appeared Friday, July 31st on Episcopalcafe.com, a website I am very excited now to be a part of. Read the post here or below.

* * *

Snapping turtles live in the muddy water underneath a dock that extends into Lake Kanuga. I know this because I have been slowly fattening them up with Wonderbread since I was eleven. I’m 26 now, and (while I’ve doubled my body mass in the intervening years) the turtles remain – stubbornly – about the size of my hand. Misty crossAll but one. There is the “Big One” that rises Kraken-like from the depths and that you only ever see out of the corner of your eye.

For years during the last glorious week of July, my friends and I have gone down to the water’s edge to feed the turtles. We used to sprint to the dock. Now we amble. Once there, we untwist our ordnance and pass out the sliced, carbohydrate projectiles. Some employ the patented tear-and-toss approach, which maximizes the number of pieces for the turtles to eat. Others drop whole slices of bread into the water and count the number of bites necessary to consume each piece.

Within seconds of the bread hitting the water, the turtles surface. Plop. Snap. The first breadcrumb disappears, and ripples are the only evidence the turtle was ever there. Plop. Snap. The second piece vanishes. Plop. Snap. We keep a weather eye out for the Kraken. Plop. Snap. There he is, the Big One, the Leviathan that God has made for the sport of it. Plop. Snap. No, it was just the way the light hit the water. Plop. Whoosh. Snap. Missed him again. Maybe next year. Plop. Snap. Plop. Snap. Plop. Snap.

The turtles propel themselves out of the depths, eyes on the dark spots on the surface. They trap the bread in their little, beaky mouths, and they dive again. They stay on the surface just long enough to snap up their sustenance before retreating to the darkness of the brackish shallows underneath the dock. After years of dropping bread to the turtles, I’ve realized that we do the same. We never stay topside in the sun for too long. We prefer the anonymity of the murk. We prefer to focus only on that bit of bread, a floating shadow above us. We prefer to surface only at feeding time, lest the daylight expose us to all the pesky problems of the world.

Now, I’m pretty sure that the above metaphor is thinly veiled enough that my impending addition of the Holy Eucharist to this discussion will seem both appropriate and timely. Here goes. All too often, we approach our worship with a Plop. Snap. mentality. For an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning, we notice the Wonderbread falling from the sky, and we surface to snap up our fill. Then we dive until next week. Same time. Same place.

The trouble is twofold. First, the Wonderbread, heavenly manna, God’s grace – call it what you will – does not descend on us at predetermined times once a week. However, we condition ourselves to notice it only during those times we’ve set aside for God. We kneel at the altar rail. Plop. We lick the bread off our palms. Snap. In seven days time, we’ll commune again. In the six days in between, we are more than a little oblivious to the fact that God wants to commune with us every day. Indeed, we may say “daily,” but too often we mean, “Give us this day our weekly bread.”

Second, the surface is where the action is. The psalmist prays, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.” God’s grace pulls us out of these depths, out of the brackish water underneath the dock. We surface in the brightness of day. As our eyes adjust, we notice all the injustice and desperation and fear that the murk makes easy to ignore. And as we share the bread and cup, we remember that the Body we ingest connects us to the greater body of Christ in the world. Jesus says to his disciples, “ If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” Being children of light means remaining on the surface, knowing we share our lives in a larger community, and addressing those inequities that the light throws into sharp relief. We can accomplish none of these if we dive back to the depths – back to anonymity and ignorance – immediately after receiving our nourishment.

When we begin to notice the abundance of God’s grace around us, which pulls us to the light of the surface, we can break out of the cycle of the Plop. Snap. mentality. Silent ripples should not be the only signs that mark our ascent to the surface. Just as God blesses Abraham, God blesses us so we can be blessings in the world. God nourishes us with the bread of heaven so we can nourish others.

At the end of July this year, I will once again amble to the dock to feed the turtles. I will toss the bread into the water. Plop. Ever vigilant for signs of the Big One, I will watch the little, beaky mouths spear the soggy pieces. Snap. And I will pray to God that we can all remain on the surface, paddle there in the light of the sun, and serve our Lord.

Three squares a day

My friend Paula, who writes the blog Welcoming Spirit, recently challenged her readers to take on a discipline for thirty days. I am a week into mine and I’ll tell you, it’s not going so well. You’d think a priest would be better at remembering to pray at meals. I mean, look at the Eucharistic meal — I pray for a solid five minutes before anyone gets to eat anything. But for some reason or other, I’m just not that disciplined at praying before my three squares a day.

Well, not “some reason or other.” Honestly, I know the reasons. When I lived at home with my parents, we had our dinnertime rites. We tried not to answer the phone, though the thirty second pause to listen for the machine made that rule laughably futile. We always put our napkins on our laps and kept our elbows off the table. And we always prayed. (My father usually tapped the person who unsuccessfully failed to make eye contact with him. If everyone succeeded, he led the prayer.)

Now that I live on my own and take most of my meals alone, I have yet to develop the discipline of thanking God for all of God’s blessings, of which the meal is a palpable reminder. I am one week into my intentional practice, and I am doing dreadfully. I’m two for two today, but over the course of the week, I can’t have remembered more than three out of ten. That average would be great if I were a baseball player, since no other job in the universe measures success at thirty percent.

But I’m not a baseball player. I’m a priest. I’m supposed to be the one who remembers to pray — 100% of the time. Prayers should be the first words that spring to my lips in the morning and the last ones to whisper out when I fall asleep. Prayer should be as natural as breathing, should happen with each of my breaths.

It doesn’t, God knows. Too often, I just forget to pray. Not the best example, I know. Neither were the disciples, and from them I take a measure of hope. They follow Jesus around, they hear his words, they cast out demons and heal the sick. But they only get it three out of ten times. They bicker about which is the greatest, they bar people’s access to Jesus, and they abandon him.

I’m not saying that the disciples’ example gives me a free pass. They mess up, they misunderstand, but Jesus stays in relationship with them. He even repairs his relationship with Simon Peter after this most adamant follower denies him three times. Peter, do you love me? You know I do, Lord. Then feed my sheep.*

Jesus has invested way too much time and energy in me to give up now. Indeed, his resurrection shows me that he’ll never give up on me, even after I die. Everyday, he invites me into a deeper relationship with him, and  I usually ignore the invitation. I prefer, instead, to wade in the shallow end, to make sure my feet can touch the bottom.

But there are those days — few and far between — that I acknowledge my apathy and ask God to help me float into the deeper waters. And I find the strength to accept the invitation.

As I write this, one of my favorite songs from my college years is playing on my Itunes. The chorus of Jennifer Knapp’s “Hold Me Now” goes like this: “I’m weak, I’m poor. I’m broken, Lord, but I’m yours. Hold me now.”

My apathy and forgetfulness about praying before meals (among other things) stem from my grasping, prideful illusion that I need not rely on God. Perhaps, deep down, I don’t really believe that God will claim me if I’m weak or poor or broken. But that’s not how God operates. Nothing I do will elevate me past weakness or paucity or brokenness. Only when I allow God to hold me in the palm of God’s hand can I find strength. Only when I take part in the relationship into which Jesus calls me can I find abundance. Only when I let go the illusion can I see the reality of God making me whole.

Praying before meals may seem like a small step, but it is an essential one. It creates a pattern, a practice, a discipline. If I remember to pause even three times a day to thank God for God’s presence in my life, then perhaps my illusory self-reliance will begin to fall away. Perhaps I’ll remember that God has blessed me to be a blessing to others. Perhaps I’ll hear Jesus ask, “Adam, do you love me?”

And I’ll be able to say, “You know I do, Lord.”

Then feed my sheep.

Footnotes

* John 21:15-17

“If we only had a wheelbarrow…”

princessbrideThe situation looks hopeless. The odds are twenty to one against, and one-third of their party has just been revived after being mostly dead all day. Westley, Inigo, and Fezzek peer furtively at the newly improved defenses of the castle gate. They have only Westley’s brain, Inigo’s steel, and Fezzek’s strength against 60 men. “If I had a month to plan I might come up with something,” says Westley. Then, half to himself, “If  we only had a wheelbarrow, that would be something.” It turns out, upon second thought, they do have a wheelbarrow; and, upon third thought, a fire-resistant cloak. With this rather odd pairing of materials, they break into the castle, save the princess, steal the prince’s beautiful horses, and make a daring escape. On the walltop over looking the castle, the three heroes make their plan. Here’s the progression as I see it: they state the problem (breaking into a castle guarded by sixty men); they say what they do not have (a month to plan); they re-examine their assets (a cloak and a wheelbarrow); they overcome the problem even though their assets are meager.*

A similar progression, with an all-important extra step, happens when Jesus feeds the five thousand people (as told in Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John). A large crowd is following Jesus because they like a good spectacle. Jesus has just healed the man at the pool of Bethzatha, so the crowd knows they won’t be disappointed. Jesus goes up the mountain with his disciples and looks down, surveying the vast multitude spread out below him. They could ignore the crowd, and, judging by Philip’s response to Jesus’ question the disciples probably wanted to. But Jesus does not give them that option. Instead, he states the problem: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip (characteristically for this Gospel) answers a different question than the one Jesus asks. He says what they do not have: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Then Andrew re-examines their assets: a little boy has five barley loaves and two fish. Notice how wildly inadequate this amount of food is for so many; I bet Andrew felt foolish even bringing it up.

But Jesus seems to think this very foolishness is just the sort of thing needed to solve such an intractable problem. So he takes the loaves and fish and then adds the all-important extra step in the progression. He gives thanks. He gives thanks even though he has a loaf per thousand people. He gives thanks even though the situation seems impossible. He does not let the apparent meagerness of his resources dictate whether or not he offers thanks to God. He gives thanks, and the crowd eats, and the disciples gather up twelve full baskets. The crowd is looking for a spectacle and they get such a grand one that they try to take Jesus and make him king.

Let’s take another look at the giving thanks. The special word for The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion is “Eucharist.” (N.B. “Eucharist” comprehends the entire Sunday worship experience, but we are focusing here on the second half, the meal.) When we worship God by sharing this meal, we pray to Christ to somehow enter the bread and wine. Then we break the bread and share the cup, thus sharing Christ with each other. And our eyes are opened to the reality that the love of Christ is inside us and is made known in the sharing of community and love with each other.

The fancy word “Eucharist” is a much less fancy word if you happen to be both from Asia Minor and two thousand years old. This strange looking word simply means “to give thanks.” So, when we come together to share the meal, we are coming together to give thanks to God for all the blessings God has bestowed upon us. The fact that this intentional thanksgiving happens in a community reminds us that we must share our blessings just as we share the body and blood of Christ. And it is the very dwelling of Christ in us and we in him that sustains us as we share with others.

When I give thanks to God for the blessings and gifts God has given me, I must remember that thanksgiving is the catalyst for sharing. If I do not share my gifts with others, then I have not truly thanked God for them. Let me say that again, make it plural, and italicize it so you don’t miss it: If we do not share our gifts with others, then we have not truly thanked God for them

Sometimes, these gifts may seem meager or inadequate. But those are the times we must remember that Christ is there with us, giving thanks for us, and breaking us so he can share himself through us.

Footnotes

* The Princess Bride (1987); dir. Rob Reiner. Watch this film ASAP if you’ve never seen it. In fact, just go home right now and watch it. I’ll lend you my DVD.

Sensuous

Episcopalians are often accused of being too brainy, too intellectual. We think too much. We get caught up in the space between our ears and forget about that throbbing muscle in our chests. These accusers are correct up to a point: we do not check our brains at the door. Jesus asks us to love the Lord with all our mind, as well as our heart and strength. But our intellectual engagement with faith is only half the story.

You see, worship in the Episcopal Church is quite sensuous. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about the Harlequin romance definition of the word. Our worship is sensuous in that we employ all our senses to encounter the presence of God. We hear the Word of God read and proclaimed. We see the stained glass and changing seasonal color palates. We smell the incense puffing from the thurible.* We taste the bread and wine. We touch one another in the handshake or embrace of the peace of the Lord.

To engage all of our senses, we use things in our worship. We use candles, books, and bowls. We use bread, wine, and water. These things are all incredibly – laughably – ordinary. Nothing about a loaf of bread is inherently special. Hand me a loaf of bread, and I might feed the birds or save it and make French toast tomorrow morning. (Actually, if you know me, the most likely scenario is that I’ll eat the loaf right then and there.)

breadaisleSo, how does the loaf of bread, which was one of a hundred bar coded loaves at the grocery store, transform from a laughably ordinary carbohydrate delivery system to a holy vessel of Christ’s presence? The bread moves from its ordinary location on the shelf in the store to its new, strange location on a linen-draped table in a church. The bread behaves quite normally, sitting there waiting to be eaten.

But the table and the action done to the bread and the people watching the action are not normal. The table is abnormal because it has several tablecloths covering it, some ornate, some plain. The action is abnormal – whoever talks about a loaf of bread before they start slicing it? And the watching is abnormal – unless you’re in the studio audience for Iron Chef, who joins dozens of others in watching someone prepare a meal?

So the bread is laughably ordinary. But the situation is not. The juxtaposition between the normal loaf of bread and the strange way it is being treated invest the ordinary with new meaning. This new meaning turns the bread into a symbol. Now, before we go any further, I want to dispel from your mind any notion of the phrases “it’s only a symbol” or  “it’s merely symbolic.” Symbols are woefully misunderstood things in American culture – like soccer and irony. A symbol is an object that points beyond itself to a deeper truth. Too often, “sign” and “symbol” are used interchangeably, but they are not synonymous. A stop sign lets you know you are supposed to brake at an intersection, but that’s all it tells you. The red octagon doesn’t compel you to ruminate on why you should stop. But a symbol – the cross, for instance – stirs within us all of the historical and theological and emotional resonances of the truth to which it points.

Okay, so the bread is a symbol. It connotes the bounty of harvest, the fruits of the earth, the goodness of creation, the nourishment of our bodies. And when we put it on that table, and a priest (in the presence of God’s people) asks God to indwell that bread with the Spirit of Christ, the bread becomes a special sort of symbol called sacrament.

God moves within us, spurring us to love, praise, act, pray, serve. Outward connections with our inward spiritual lives are called sacraments. These special symbols take the ordinary things we’ve been discussing – bread, water, even our own actions and personhoods – and set them ablaze with physical and emotive evidence of the presence of God.

When we participate in the sacraments, we ourselves become sacramental symbols of God’s movement. Our service to God points to the deeper truth of God’s creation of and love for the world. Worship nourishes us for our role as bearers of God’s image, as vessels of the light of Christ. We enter church as normal, ordinary people, like the loaves of bread on the grocery store shelves. We leave church transformed by our sharing in the presence of Christ with one another. Over time – months, years, lifetimes – the transformation helps us to realize that what we mistook as “normal” was really quite miraculous and extraordinary.

All of the normal, everyday things we use in church gather new meaning when we employ them to worship God. The candle becomes the light of Christ. The bowl becomes the vessel for the waters of baptism. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood. Likewise, we – as sacramental beings – discover new meaning for our lives when we come together to worship the Lord.

Footnotes

*The metal censer on the chain that you swing to disperse the perfumed smoke; sort of like a liturgical yo-yo.