That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Category: Writings

O ye ice and snow, bless ye the Lord!

We’ve had a snowy couple of days here in Cooperstown! All is well in the Boston household, and I am thinking of and praying for snowed-in parishioners and friends. Be safe and stay warm!

Events and meetings for this week have been cancelled, but we are looking forward to a good third Sunday of Lent, focusing on Commandments 5 and 6 in our Lenten Sermon Series on the Ten Commandments.

In the meantime…

…who says a Florida boy can’t hack it in upstate NY?

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Our Daily Bread

“Furthermore, by this order the curates shall need none other books for their public service, but this book and the Bible…”

From the Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (1549)

It was my privilege and delight last fall to teach an adult Sunday School class called “The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.” The syllabus for the course was nothing more than the Table of Contents found in the BCP, and the stated goal was to explore the ways in which the Prayer Book puts the words of Scripture on our lips, plants the teachings of Scripture deep in our hearts, and conforms the rhythms of our lives to Scripture’s great story.

In sixteen weeks of forty-five minute sessions, we covered a rough history of both the Bible and the Prayer Book, traced the arc of the Calendar of the Church Year, reflected on the roots and resources of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, processed through the Great Litany, and prayerfully analyzed some of the Collects. We walked with Christ in Holy Week through the Proper Liturgies for Special Days, and we considered the two dominical sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist. We confessed with the penitent, prayed with the sick, rejoiced in marriage, and mourned at burials. We even took time to look at the ordination rites and pondered the promises made by bishops, priests, and deacons.

All of these treasures, from the rare and wondrous to the regular and rote, at our fingertips! And all of them, from the simplest said Morning Prayer to the grandest celebration of the Easter Vigil, positively overflowing with Scripture. As my Baptist father always notices whenever he attends an Episcopalian liturgy, the Prayer Book is suffused with Biblical language and ideas.

Looking over the daily, weekly, and yearly rhythms and considering the ways our services include and quote the Bible reminded me again and again of the original intentions of Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformers in developing the BCP in the first place. As the Preface to the first Prayer Book (quoted above, and found on page 866 of the 1979 American BCP) lays it out, the animating principles behind our Anglican liturgical tradition are a wonderful mixture of hopeful idealism and clear-eyed practicality, all focused on regular engagement with Scripture.

Cranmer envisioned a whole nation sanctified by daily encounter with God’s Word. He found inspiration in the traditions of the ancient fathers, who sought that “the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.”

But Cranmer pursued this high-minded goal with a by means of a rigorous example of early modern reason and organization: “And for a readiness in this matter, here is drawn out a Kalendar for that purpose, which is plain and easy to be understood, wherein (so much as may be) the reading of holy Scripture is so set forth, that all things shall be done in order, without breaking one piece thereof from another.”

Intimacy with God’s written Word achieved through a sensible, achievable, liturgical pattern that is consistent with the most ancient traditions of the Church—what a marvelous expression of the reformed catholic ideal!

Subsequent editions of the BCP have modified and edited Cranmer’s original lectionary, of course. Many would argue (some quite convincingly) that those edits have not all been for the better. But the fact is that Anglican worship remains a dialogue between two books: the Bible which speaks in and through the services, and the Book of Common Prayer which organizes the reading of Scripture, quotes Scripture back to itself, and submerges worshipers in Scripture’s depths.

Reflecting on this great gift and heritage, I keep returning to a metaphor I used in the very first session of the Prayer Book class last fall: The Bible is a grocery bag, and the Book of Common Prayer is a cookbook.

The Bible is a big bag full of groceries. It has everything we need to be nourished spiritually. It includes lots of things that can be taken out and eaten raw–things that can feed us with little or no preparation. (In the first session of our class, I noted that the Psalms are like carrots. They’re essential as an ingredient chopped up and worked into recipes, but they’re also a great snack on their own.)

But the Bible also includes things that need some careful preparation before they’ll feed us. Some of the passages are like raw chicken: potentially the center of a delicious, healthful meal, but actually quite dangerous if not handled properly. At the end of the liturgical year and into the season of Advent, the Daily Office Lectionary took us through some of the great passages of Revelation. Much of that powerful book might fall into the raw chicken category. Certainly some of the Old Testament legal and prophetic texts fall into that category. There’s nourishment to be had in all of those things. But there’s also a great risk of spiritual sickness and profoundly unpleasant flavors if they’re not carefully prepared.

And that’s where the Book of Common Prayer comes in. The Prayer Book is our cookbook, taking from Scripture’s grocery bag both the good, simple things we always need (the Psalter, our salad course), and helping us to cook up healthy meals out of ingredients that would be dangerous out of the context of a well-made dish (i.e. the boneless, skinless chicken breast of Revelation, or the pork chop of Leviticus…ok, the metaphor may be breaking down here).

In the daily, weekly, seasonal, and yearly selection and combination of passages, the Prayer Book nourishes us out of Scripture’s abundance. By balancing the steady diet of daily reading with a seasonal return to the “big stories,” the Prayer Book shapes and forms our hearts and imaginations around Scripture’s rich feast. By seasoning even the most challenging passages with the sanctifying salt of the Psalms and the great Canticles, the Prayer Book protects us from interpreting any part of Scripture in a way contrary to God’s purpose and plan.

“Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray each time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Thank God for Scripture’s bounty, a feast that leads us to hunger for and be filled with Jesus, the Bread of Life.

They say “you are what you eat”. So take out your Prayer Book, open your Bible, and get cooking!

“Elementary school-aged theologians”

Here’s a beautiful reflection on choir camp written by my colleague, the Rev’d Canon Emily Hylden:

http://livingchurch.org/covenant/?p=3198

Having enjoyed several years of choir camps with Jamie Hitel and the choristers of Christ Church Greenwich, and after spending a week in Newport, Rhode Island with the wonderful choristers, organists, and leaders of the RSCM Course this summer, I can only add a loud “Amen!” to Emily’s reflections.

The young people singing in the great choral programs of our Church are engaged in some of the best formation imaginable. They are toiling—and “toiling” really is the right word: a good choir demands hard work!—among the great foundation stones of the Christian faith. The Psalms, hymns, anthems, and canticles that they sing go fearlessly into the most wonderful and difficult places of our tradition. Choristers who sing with spirit and understanding grapple with “the deep down things.”

And while grown-ups may sometimes find it a surprise, the kids can handle the hard stuff. Emily puts it best: “Such a mantle is not too heavy for young shoulders—indeed, it is the seed of faithfulness for many choristers.”

Go read Emily’s piece on the Living Church blog. Then go to church, where some of our youngest members are even now leading the prayers and praises of all God’s people—and where God is transforming every worshiper, from the youngest to the oldest, for his service in his kingdom.

Evensong

The Daily Office and “the Fear of the Lord”

In a few hours, I’ll leave Columbia for a week in Newport, Rhode Island. My dear friend The Rev’d Fr Blake Sawicky and I will be serving as chaplains to the 2014 Newport Course of the Royal School of Church Music in America. Blake is the Curate of S Stephen’s Church in Providence, and also serves as Chaplain to both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design—a busy man!

I’m looking forward to a wonderful week of beautiful liturgies and phenomenal music. I’m excited to share teaching duties with Blake, whose knowledge of and passion for the worshipping life of the Church is singular. I’m eager to get to know the other talented members of the course staff.

But most of all, I can’t wait to live the rhythms of daily prayer in company with a great group of choristers, adult singers, and other musicians. We will pray Morning Prayer and Compline each day, in addition to singing two choral Evensongs (on Wednesday and Friday) and a choral Eucharist (on Sunday). This means that all of the good music and thorough training of a very full week will be anchored and oriented by the solid framework of Anglican prayer. What a gift to the participants, and what a privilege to be taking part in it all!

Below is a little blurb I wrote for the inside cover of our Morning Prayer bulletins. The theme of the course this year is “Wisdom,” and my goal was to show how the Daily Offices are the best means the Church has devised for becoming wise—for growing in the knowledge and fear of the Lord.

“But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?”

Those questions were posed many thousands of years ago in the Book of Job. In that same book (in that same chapter, even) they find an answer:

“Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.”

“Fear” is not a word we usually associate with God. But the first thing to realize is that “the fear of the Lord” does not mean the feeling we get from “ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night.” Rather “the fear of the Lord” means reverence and awe: the humble recognition of who God is, coupled with joy and wonder in all his mighty works.

And when we see it that way, we find that our Daily Offices are all about wisdom. At Morning Prayer, Evensong, and Compline, we grow in “the fear of the Lord.” We learn who God is through reading or chanting Psalms and hearing Holy Scripture. We praise him in canticles. We proclaim God’s self-revelation in Jesus our Lord by the words of the Apostles’ Creed. And all this, in turn, leads us to prayers of repentance and petition and thanksgiving—of joy and wonder, of awe and reverence.

So welcome, you who hold this little book in your hand, to the place where wisdom shall be found. Welcome to the place of understanding. As we sing and read and pray and enjoy fellowship together this week, may we find ourselves growing in the love and fear of the Lord. By God’s grace, may we depart from evil and walk before him in holiness and righteousness all our days. “Behold…that is wisdom.”

Drugs and the Power of Darkness

“For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you and desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” -Colossians 1:9-14

Listening to NPR can be a dangerous—at least when there’s a very alert almost-four-year-old listening with you.

Last week, while my daughter and I were out running errands, I left the car radio tuned to our local NPR station and didn’t give much thought to what the sonorous, comfortable talk radio voices were discussing. Then suddenly from the backseat came the startling question, “Daddy, why are the children in danger?”

The reporters had been talking about the thousands of Latin American children fleeing their homelands in hopes of finding asylum in the United States. With the uncanny interest and sympathy that children show for other children, my daughter had been listening intently and with great concern to the stories of little ones making a long and dangerous journey on their own. Now she wanted more information: “Where are their mamas and papas? Why do they have to leave their home?”

Questions are big in our house these days. We’ve recently spent long suppers trying to figure out why the Wicked Witch of the West is green, and why Swiper (chief nemesis of Dora the Explorer) swipes. I can usually spin a passable answer to those questions. But this was something bigger than I’m used to getting. “Why are the children in danger?”

I’d just read a New York Times story that answered my daughter’s question in fairly graphic detail. But every element of the story was so horrifying—criminal organizations pressing elementary school-age children into their service, executing young people who try to escape their grasp, and murdering whole families in order to consolidate their terrible reign over towns and villages and whole regions—I didn’t know where to begin explaining it to her. “There are bad men who want to hurt the children, my love. Their mamas and papas want them to be safe, so they’re trying to send them to America.” (Not my best, but the most I could manage under the circumstances.)

“Why do the men want to hurt the children?” Four-year-olds are the world’s most tenacious journalists. There’s always a follow-up.

“Well…” What could I say? “Because vast and interconnected drug cartels seem to exert complete control over every aspect of life in some places”? “Because criminals made wealthy through the American appetite for narcotics have taken to recruiting and/or murdering children in order to terrorize and dominate entire communities?”

“Because the men want money from selling drugs, and they want the children to help them get the money. But the children don’t want to help the bad men, so the bad men try to hurt the children.” I was floundering.

“What are drugs?” To say that I had lost control of the situation would be a major understatement. I knew how this would play out. The follow-ups would come fast and heavy. My answers would become more desperate and less plausible. The child would recount the conversation to my wife. My wife would be…less than thrilled to hear of us discussing such a topic. Things looked grim.

I was saved by Chick-fil-A. At that very moment we drove past the restaurant’s instantly recognizable sign, and my daughter became much more interested in discussing the relative merits and demerits of individual Chick-fil-A playgrounds. (That specific location’s jungle gym had been closed on our most recent visit because, as she reminded me, “some kid threw up.” My daughter considered this excuse unacceptable.) Car conversation crisis averted!

But while I wasn’t forced to continue our dark and difficult discussion to its conclusion (whatever that might’ve been), I find myself returning again and again to its course. From an NPR report on the problem of child immigration we arrived, in only two or three questions, on the topic of drugs and addiction. And this progression was not a stretch. Each question followed the other in a reasonable way. Each terrible link was obvious, when pursued with the dogged curiosity of a young child.

We don’t often think about these issues in this way. Normally, a story or crisis dominates its own individual news cycle and then quietly recedes into the background. (Yesterday, for the first time in a startlingly long time, I heard about the still-unresolved situation of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.) Each problem seems terrible and insoluble in its time. None seem very closely connected.

But my conversation with my daughter forced me to recognize that the drug problem is different. Where drugs are involved, we really can trace the connection between the misery of the individual addict directly up into the crises facing a family or community or town or city, and then up again into the murky but vast domain of the international narcotics industry. Out of that dark cloud precipitate intractable problems of corruption and lawlessness in Latin American countries, which trickles down into individual regions and cities and towns, which seeps into schools and families and, at last, into the lives of individual children. When we see it in this way, the connections between two major crises—the immigration crisis and the war on drugs—are obvious, even if the tales of individual human misery on either end—of a refugee child and a tormented addict—might not have appeared related at first.

To my mind, these connections and relations and progressions make the whole problem of drugs and addiction one of the most potent metaphors for (and one of the most devastating expressions of) the Biblical understanding of Sin as a power—a reign—a dominion. The passage from Colossians with which I began this post is one particularly striking example, but it’s a concept found all over Paul’s writings. We hear about “the power of darkness,” “the reign of sin,” “the dominion of death.” Sin, for Paul, is not simply a naughty thought or a careless word; a momentary indulgence or a forgotten duty; an instant of weakness or a giving into temptation—in short, Sin is not simply “sins.” Rather in Paul’s writings and throughout the New Testament, Sin—attended by its constant companion Death—is an oppressive tyrant ruling over the human race.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly for modern people and especially for Americans. We don’t want to think of ourselves as under anyone’s thumb—let alone slaves to a cosmic tyranny. We have free will, don’t we? Some people make good choices and some people make bad choices and we all have to live with the consequences of our choices.

But nothing demolishes this boot-strapping sense of self-righteousness faster than the whole messy tangle of drugs and addiction and child refugees. What we see in the current crisis is a whole host of “bad choices” (“As if a person in the throes of  addiction has a choice!” wrote Fleming Rutledge in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death) resulting in horrible consequences for innocents thousands of miles away. Who could pretend that this is just or reasonable or fair? This is misery begetting misery. Hunger begetting violence. Greed begetting pain. My self-loathing begetting another person’s suffering.

This is Sin. Vast systems and pernicious industries perpetuating personal pain and quiet tragedies—and then those same pains and tragedies feeding the systems and industries anew. The hell-mouth envisioned by our medieval forebears may be the best visual representation of it all: a gaping maw with an insatiable appetite, never closing, always gobbling, endlessly consuming without regard for any of the categories or considerations that we use to divide the world into good people and bad.

Hell Mouth

This is what Paul is talking about in the passage from Colossians quoted above. This is what the drug problem makes so horribly, heartrendingly clear. Sin is a force, an authority: the power of darkness. Its roots go deep into every person’s soul, and its branches shed woe over all humankind. Our need as a race is not for certain troubled individuals to put an end to certain troubling behaviors or patterns. (Though to be sure we all need to do that in some corner or other of our individual lives. It’s what the Church means by “repentance.”) Rather, we each and all need to be set free from a power that stretches far beyond what we can imagine and a force that far exceeds the forces we can grapple with.

All of which is why I find such strength and hope in Paul’s announcement. “Giving thanks to the Father…who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

The Gospel message is so much more than a declaration that our sins have been forgiven (though they have!). The Gospel message is so much more than an assurance that we can begin to live a new way (though we can!). The Gospel message is so much more than a call to oppose valiantly all systems of evil and oppression (though it is that!). Over and under and beyond all these things, the Gospel message is the announcement that God has intervened decisively in this world against the powers that bind us. The Gospel message is the announcement that God has changed our citizenship—has been translated from one kingdom to another.

Against everything we fear and dread, God has smashed the great gaping jaws, and has shattered the teeth of hell. Apart from anything we could ask or imagine, God has broken all our former fealties and paid off all our limitless debts. Above what we could expect or even hope, God has claimed us as daughters and sons of his kingdom and is even now making us saints according to his will—joint-heirs with Christ Jesus our brother and our Lord.

And this changes everything. I cannot see a way out of the drug problem. I cannot figure out how to make right the lives that have been ruined by addiction. I don’t know how to comfort and shelter tens of thousands of refugees, or how to combat the power of cartels. I hardly even know how to tell my own sweet child about the grief and suffering there is in this world.

But I know that all of the towering powers and all of the potent principalities that rule in this world now cower in the shadow of the Cross. I know that by the mighty weakness of Jesus’ death, Death itself has been defeated and the reign of darkness is ended. I know that in the glorious power of Jesus’ Resurrection, we are given the promise that all things, even the hopeless things—even the things we cannot see through and cannot solve—will be made new.

In that light, may we look unflinchingly on the problems that confront us. May we see them clearly for what they are: the lingering reign of Sin and the residual power of Death. And may the Church march against them with faithful courage and bold strength, knowing that they have already been conquered.

Our solutions to the world’s great problems may be temporary. At times they will surely be imperfect or misguided. But let us work toward solutions all the same, offering them as merest signs and slightest symbols of the great solution and victory that has already been wrought upon the Cross. Let us pray constantly and in sure and certain hope for the day when at last that victory will be made complete.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.”  -Revelation 21:1-5