This meditation is taken in part from the sermon I preached at the Ordination of Daniel Paul Spors to the Priesthood on January 18, 2017
The hymn, “Come labor on” (The Hymnal 1982, #541) begins with a call to action:
“Come labor on. Who dares stand idle on the harvest plain, while all around us waves the golden grain? And to each servant does the Master say, ‘Go work today.’”
It is a call to action—a call to follow Jesus—to attend to the harvest to which Jesus, the Son of Man calls each and every person who desires to follow him. My favorite verse, however, is the third:
“Come labor on. Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear! No arm so weak but may do service here: by feeblest agents may our God fulfill his righteous will”.
The verse tells of how God takes our feeble efforts and uses them for God’s glory and God’s purposes. How does God do that? We will never know, but thanks be to God, God does it.
Working as a priest in parish ministry has many challenges. One thing is eminently true. You will never be able to please all the people all the time. You can try to “be all things to all people” as St. Paul once wrote, but you will never please everyone. All you can do is to strive to be faithful to God.
And the most wonderful thing about our respective ministries— and you have one whether you are ordained or a layperson —is that God will work in and through you even when you are sure that you have failed—that no one has heard you—that you have not said enough—or done enough. God, mysteriously, will have a way of creating something good out of even the smallest and imperfect fragments of your work. It is a mystery—a wonderful mystery—how God speaks, works, and acts through us, despite ourselves. That is the wondrous work of the Holy Spirit!
It’s true with most jobs that people will rarely tell you that you are doing a good job, but quick to tell you when you are doing something wrong. As a priest, it is no different. We are rarely told that what we have done, or said, or not said made any difference in the lives of those to whom we minister. That is in part because we human beings—all of us— rarely recognize it at the time we are being helped. That recognition only comes later. For that reason, we clergy often do and do, never knowing if what we do makes any difference at all in the lives of those to whom we minister. In ministry, there are times when we will not know if we are doing a good enough job or not. We can only trust that if we are doing all in your power to be faithful to God, that God will use us, even if, despite our very best efforts, we feel that we have failed. All we can do is to be faithful to our call to the priesthood because God will always be faithful to us.
The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, ordained to the priesthood in the church of Wales in 1936, wrote a poem entitled “The Country Clergy” that speaks to the situation I have described in words that transcend my meager words on this topic.
I see them working in old rectories By the sun’s light, by candlelight, Venerable men, their black cloth A little dusty, a little green With holy mildew. And yet their skulls, Ripening over so many prayers, Toppled into the same grave With oafs and yokels. They left no books, Memorial to their lonely thought In grey parishes; rather they wrote On men’s hearts and in the minds Of young children sublime words Too soon forgotten. God in his time Or out of time will correct this.
In the second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says that he does not need a written letter of recommendation to attest to the work of his ministry, because the people to whom he ministered in Corinth, imperfect as they are, in fact, serve as his letter of recommendation. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Cor. 3:2-3).
Other people may not appreciate what you are doing when you do it, or even remember what you have done, but if you put your trust in God, and not in what people think of you, God in God’s time works all things for good. You will “write” on the hearts and minds of men and women, and young children. God takes whatever we have to give and makes the most of it. God is always faithful.
 “The Country Clergy” in R. S. Thomas, Collected Poems: 1945-1990. (London: Orion Books, 1993), 82.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are living under stay-at-home orders to help “flatten the curve” and slow hospital admissions and also to protect the most vulnerable among us. While I continue to work full-time at home, it is easy to forget what day it is. It is in the midst of that confusion someone — and I don’t know who — suggested that we rename the days of the week to Thisday, Thatday, Theotherday, Someday, and Oneday.
While I remain quite busy during the week, I do forget sometimes what day of the week it is, as each day I work in my home office, rarely going outside the house at all, except for a brief walk in the evening with our dog. Each day in that sense is pretty much like any other. I suppose that is because without going out of the house, the days seem more similar to each other than they would were my routine a bit more varied. One thing that still trips me up is that when I am scheduled to preach, I think I have until Sunday to prepare a sermon, but then suddenly somewhere around Tuesday (or Wednesday — who knows?) I realize that I have to finish preparing it and that I need to record it by Thursday morning so that it can be processed in time to put it up on the church YouTube page for viewing on Sunday morning.
In a previous post from September 2019, I reflected on Thomas Mann’s epic 20th century novel, The Magic Mountain, and his perceptive account and analysis of how we humans experience the passing of time. [See, “The Passage of Time,” [https://craigphillips.co/2019/09/17/the-passage-of-time/] At the risk of oversimplification, Mann suggests that the more familiar we are with our setting, the faster time seems to pass. When our setting is entirely new, however, time seems to pass more slowly. That means that at the beginning of the stay-at-home period, when it was something new to us, the days may have seemed to pass more slowly. After a while, when staying home became the new normal, the days may seem to have passed more quickly. What this suggests is that during this time there are opportunities for me do new things, even while at home.
With the increased time at home, I have tried to find new things to do in the evening (when I don’t have church meetings to “attend” on Zoom). I purposely have tried not to watch more TV and movies than I normally do, but rather to take the time when I might have been elsewhere to learn new things right where I am. This week I baked a wonderful loaf of Swedish rye bread. As I write this, I have a loaf of a darker Norwegian rye bread rising in the oven prior to baking. I also plan to bake some sourdough bread over the coming weekend. My wife and I walk our Chocolate Labrador Retriever every evening before bedtime when things are quiet outside and then either watch some television together for a while or we each read something that we enjoy. I am in the middle of five books at the moment, and in the next few weeks I hope that I will finish one or more of these (without beginning to read any others!)
In addition to reading, I am taking advantage of online college courses on computer programming on Coursera and EdX. I have always been interested in computer programming, even though I have absolutely no desire to do it professionally. In the late 1990s, long after I had completed college and graduate studies, I took a college course on Java programming at a local Penn State campus. I never did anything with what I learned in that class, but since high school, when I first learned to program with FORTRAN on an IBM mainframe computer, I have always been interested in computer programming languages. The nice part about auditing a course on one of the online platforms like Coursera and EdX is that I can watch some amazing class lectures, and I don’t have to do the homework or worry about my grades. I can learn as much or as little as I want.
Even though the days right now may seem to be running together and it may seem that “Someday” or “Oneday” may never come, think about how you might spend the time that is given to you in a way that is rewarding to you and the people around you. You are never too old to learn something new! “Carpe diem” — seize the day — enjoy the moment.
I pray that you remain, healthy, safe, and happy during this time of uncertainty and anxiety.
The following meditation is taken from a sermon preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia on March 22, 2020.
The twenty-third psalm is the most beloved of the one hundred and fifty psalms in the Psalter and possibly the best known and most memorized chapter of the Bible.
The KJV version of the Psalm has been read and recited by generations of Christians whose language is English. The Psalm originally was written as a prayer in poetic form in Hebrew. Hebrew poetry does not depend on rhyming, as many poems do in English, but on the rhythms of the verse and the parallel structure of the verses that build upon one another.
The opening verse of the twenty-third Psalm is composed of four words. The Hebrew name of the Lord God of Israel, the “I am who I am”, is the first word. “My shepherd” is the second word. “Not” is the third. And the last word is the verb that means,” I lack.” So literally it reads, “The Lord God is my shepherd. I lack nothing.”
When you look closely at the psalm you will note that it begins with the pronouns “I” and “my.” It switches next to the pronoun “he” when talking about God. Then suddenly and without warning the psalmist addresses God in the second person familiar, “you” (or “thou” in the KJV). Finally, it returns to the first-person pronoun, “I” of the psalmist and the second person familiar, “you,” referring to God.
This is what gives the 23rd Psalm its particular character. It is a poem that is at the same time a prayer and a statement about the faithfulness of God even in the most difficult and trying of times.
The Psalms may be categorized into several categories. It may surprise you to learn that this Psalm is usually categorized by biblical scholars as a “psalm of lament.” It is an individual lament, that is the prayer for help of an individual.
The biblical commentator Jerome Creach offers this helpful analysis of the psalm as a prayer of lament. Psalms of lament or complaint:
“have faith and trust as their cornerstones. Those who are praying feel free to haul all their baggage to God because of their intimate relationship with the Lord. They are certain God will hear and answer. The complaint psalms move swiftly from plea for help and description of enemies to assurance that the Lord will deliver. Though Psalm 23 contains no complaint and is thoroughly a statement of trust, it still belongs to the category of lament. Behind the confession of faith in Psalm 23 are trials that required the psalmist to seek the shepherd’s staff and tent for protection and shelter. All that we have of the psalmist’s experience, however, is the beautiful poetic expression of confidence in the aftermath of threat and danger. That is, surely the psalmist experienced an unspecified threat, survived, and then composed this poem.”[i]
Phillip Keller, a pastor and author, worked for eight years as a shepherd. In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, he illuminates the meaning of the Psalm for us in a more practical way. Sheep, notes do not lie down easily.
“It is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met. Owing to their timidity they refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear. Because of the social behavior within a flock sheep will not lie down unless they are free from friction with others of their kind. If tormented by flies or parasites, sheep will not lie down. Only when free of these pests can they relax. Lastly, sheep will not lie down as long as they feel in need of finding food. They must be free from hunger.”[ii]
“The sheep must be free of fear, friction, flies, and famine to be contented.”[iii] And as Keller notes. The shepherd is the only one who can “provide the trust, peace, deliverance, and pasture that is needed to free the sheep. God is that shepherd. God is our Shepherd. God is your shepherd.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his work and ministry as being the shepherd of God’s new covenant people saying, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Jesus is our Shepherd. Jesus is your shepherd.
Notice that Psalm 23 begins with rest and not with frantic activity.
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
We sometimes assume that our work for God and in response to God depends on our own activity. But here is a reminder that whatever we do for God or in response to God begins with us trusting God so that we might rest. From that deep rest and refreshment comes the energy for us to do the work to which God is calling us.
The biblical commentator J. M Boice observes:
“It is important to note that “the valley of the shadow of death” is as much God’s right path for us as the “green pastures” which lie beside “quiet waters.” That is, the Christian life is not always tranquil nor, as we say, a mountain-top experience. God gives us valleys also. It is in the valleys with their trials and dangers that we develop character.”[iv]
Yet the valley has its own unique problem. The problem is fear. What is the answer to that fear? Clearly, the answer is the shepherd’s close presence, for he is the only one who can protect the sheep and calm their anxieties.
At the beginning of the Psalm, we read, “He makes me lie down … he leads me beside quiet waters … he guides me.” But at the end, we read, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” [v]
“We are never so conscious of the presence of God as when we pass through life’s valleys.”[vi]
We are living in extraordinary times. The normal order of our everyday lives has been disrupted. The social fabric that holds us together is stretched as we keep a certain bodily distance from one another so that we might protect not only ourselves from infection but also those who are the most vulnerable to it.
We are passing through one of life’s valleys. Our shepherd is the one who can protect us, God’s sheep, and calm our anxieties and fears as we traverse that valley full of so many unknown dangers. In this difficult time, may you seek rest and comfort from the good shepherd who is with us always in every circumstance of our lives.
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” (Psa. 23:1–6 KJV)
[i] Jerome F. D. Creach, Psalms. Interpretation Bible Series (Louisville, KN: Geneva Press, 1998), 34.
This meditation is based on a sermon posted online during a Sunday service of Morning Prayer at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2020.
On the first Sunday of Lent it is a custom in the Episcopal Church to chant the Great Litany in procession. In light of the spread of the Covid-19 virus, now officially is designated as a global pandemic, one phrase from the Litany stands out:
Litanist: “[F]rom plague, pestilence, and famine…”
Response: “Good Lord, deliver us.”
These words first appeared in The Great Litany of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, produced by Archbishop Thomas Cramner from earlier Latin rites and other existing liturgies from Germany and England.
The Great Litany appeared in 16th Century when people were ignorant about viruses and bacteria and how they worked. They didn’t know how illness spread. The plague had killed many people in Europe in the centuries prior to the 16th, so people were fearful whenever a disease, cold, or flu began to spread.
Today we know much more about how viruses and bacteria spread, but when we can’t control it or immunize against it, we also are full of fear. That is the case today. Many of us are fearful of what might happen to us, and not knowing what will happen, we feel powerless in the face of it. In the midst of all this fear, we need to remember that our God is still the God who always remains faithful to us. With trust in God as our guiding principle, we need to lift one another up and strengthen one another in community, so that together, we might live as people who are not consumed by fear, but by hope.
The first reading from the Revised Common Lectionary appointed for this 3rd Sunday in Lent comes from the book of Exodus. It tells the story of the people of Israel as they came out of their bondage in Egypt into the wilderness. They left lives that were difficult but now in the wilderness, they faced different sorts of difficulties. In Egypt they may have been slaves to the Egyptians, but at least, they said, they had plenty of food to eat and water to drink. Now in the wilderness there were periods in which they did not have enough food and water. When they did not have enough food to eat, they complained and grumbled. But God graciously gave them manna to eat so that they did not go hungry. But then the Israelites began to face a period in which they did not have enough water to drink. Once again, they began to quarrel amongst themselves and began to blame not only Moses, their leader, for their difficulties, but also began to blame God.
“The people quarreled with Moses and said:”
Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.And there was water enough to drink.”
The passage ends with a very telling sentence. Moses we are told named, “He called the place Massah and Meribah” [Massah means quarreling. Meribah means testing] “because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
“Is the Lord among us or not?”
We Christians are people who have hope. Even in times of gravest difficulty, we are a people of hope. I am reminded of the words of St. Paul from first Thessalonians, chapter 4 in which he is discussing whether the dead will be raised to new life at the resurrection. It is not the content of that passage that interests me, but the word’s Paul uses to frame his discussion. These are words we need to hear: “We do not want you to be uninformed, so that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” “So that you may not grieve as others who have no hope.” We Christians have hope. We are a people who hope and trust in God even in the most difficult of times.
In answer to the question, “Is the Lord among us or not?,” our answer is always an emphatic, “yes“. The Lord is among us even in the most difficult times and circumstances.
When we face difficulties in our lives, we often try to find understanding or meaning in the midst of the things that are happening to us. Last Sunday, during our church service together, we sang the hymn, “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord.” After the service, I found myself reciting the lyrics to the hymn from memory because they give me comfort and remind me to trust in God and not live in fear.
The second verse is particularly relevant and worth reading, praying with, and memorizing. It is based on scriptural passages and references. It puts the promises of Holy Scripture together in a way that reminds us about the hope that we Christians have.
2 “Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed! For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
3 “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow; for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
4 “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply; the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
5 “The soul that to Jesus hath fled for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul, though all hell shall endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.
[Hymn 637 in The Hymnal 1982
These are words of promise taken from the scripture and put in lyrical form.
The verse that I say to myself most often the second one.
2 “Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed! For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
Is the Lord among us or not? Yes. The Lord is among us. But in the midst of all this uncertainty, what can we do as faithful Christians? I have two practical suggestions in this time of difficulty for us today with what we are facing.
So, what can we do?
The first thing we can do is quite simple. It is to Practice Gratitude. Practicing gratitude helps remind us to keep in mind the things with which God has blessed us. When we practice gratitude, it helps us feel better about ourselves and our situation. When we start to do the opposite and we begin to complain like the Israelites, we lose sight of God. It’s so easy to complain. It comes naturally to humans. The story of the wandering of the ancient Israelites in the wilderness, as told in the book of Exodus, shows us that the moment they get away from comforts, they begin to complain and murmur and quarrel. What if they instead had practiced gratitude? “We have been released from Egypt. We are free. Yes, we are facing some difficulties. We don’t have food and water at the moment, but God has always been with us and we will get through this.” What if they had stuck together and worked together in the midst of that? How much stronger they would have been as a community and a people!
The second practical thing is we need to during this time to figure out ways that we can support one another and connect with one another. Religious institutions all over the world are trying to figure out how to connect people with one another during this extraordinary time. Many are turning to video conferencing and other forms of technology that help bring us together even as we self-isolate and keep good social distancing. One tried and true was to keep connected is by telephone. On the telephone you can call your friends, neighbors, and anyone you think might need some assistance or reassurance, and say, “How are you doing?” “What’s going on?” How can I help?”
So what can we do?
Practice Gratitude. Give thanks for what we have. That helps us to remember that we have many, many blessings in our lives. When we practice gratitude, we find it’s much easier to deal with the difficulties we face.
The second thing we need to do is to stay connected. The most important thing for us to do at the moment is to try to stay together as a community – even without being able to worship together. We need to continue to come up with ways to keep us together as a community who will continue to love and praise God and give thanks for God’s many blessings. We all need to help one another as we all go through this time of difficulty and uncertainty.
“Is the Lord among us or not?” The answer is an emphatic yes!
May the words of this old hymn remind you of the faithfulness of God who promises to always be with us even in the times of deepest trial and difficulty.
2 “Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed! For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid; I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
3 “When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow….
4 “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply….
I long have been deeply moved by the wisdom of the desert fathers and mothers who began living in the deserts of Egypt in the third and fourth centuries of the church. The most famous of them was St. Anthony of Egypt (251?-356 AD). His biography, written by St. Athanasius, inspired thousands of young men and women to flee the cities of the Byzantine world for the solitude of the desert. These spiritual warriors, as they saw themselves, had left everything for the sake of Jesus Christ. Now they had arrived in the desert to resist the world, the flesh, and the devil. Many were unprepared for this task and as a result sought out the advice of spiritual elders. This advice was soon collected and widely distributed in the ancient Christian world.
The teachings of the elders were not systematic but rather were a collection of answers to questions from those who came to them for spiritual advice and counsel. A good many of the requests directed to the elders began with these simple words, “Speak to me a word that I may live.” The answers the seekers received most often were not what they expected. Often, they sent the seeker away to re-engage with the very question he or she had hoped the elder would solve.
One elder apparently was asked why it was so difficult to grow in the life of service and prayer to God. He answered: “The reason we do not get anywhere is that we do not know our limits, and we are not patient carrying on the work we have begun. But without any labor at all we want to gain possession of virtue.” The last sentence is telling. The young seeker thought that his radical renunciation of the world should be enough to catapult him to virtue. The only way, however, that we gain virtue is by repeated effort.
Virtue in the ancient world was understood to be something gained by practice. We learn to love as we love, to be a giving person as we give, to be forgiving as we forgive and so forth. None of these virtues can be purchased off the shelf or given to us by God or anyone else. To learn to do these things we have to do them. And we most likely will not learn how to do them unless we fail over and over again. “The reason we do not get anywhere is that we do not know our limits, and we are not patient carrying on the work we have begun. But without any labor at all we want to gain possession of virtue.”
It takes discipline and effort to grow and mature. Lent is the season the church sets aside for particular devotion and dedication, not to burden us with one more thing to do, but as a time in which we can learn more about ourselves and our limits. May you have a blessed and holy Lent.
This Lenten booklet (link below) provides resources to assist you in your daily Lenten devotions and readings. May you be drawn closer to our Savior Jesus Christ in this Lenten season.
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (The Collect for Proper 28 from The Book of Common Prayer)
“…The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).
CREDO is a program devised by the Church Pension Fund of the Episcopal Church to address Clergy Wellness. At week-long conferences, participants examine four areas of their lives – Vocation, Spirituality, Health, and Finances — and come up with a rule of life tailored to their own lives. It is the hope of the Church Pension Fund that every ordained person in the Episcopal Church will be invited to attend a CREDO conference at least every ten years during their active ministry. I have participated in three separate CREDO programs over the past twenty years.
I would like to share a story from my second CREDO conference. We gathered for worship twice each day, meeting in large plenary sessions and in small groups, and had personal consultations in each of the four areas. We got up for breakfast at 7:15AM and worked until 9PM for the first three days and then the pace slackened a bit, giving us some private time to work and prepare our own CREDO plans. Because I had been to CREDO once before, I knew more or less what to expect and I looked forward to the time of personal reflection, prayer, and fellowship with other clergy from dioceses all over the country. It was not a “retreat” in the usual sense of the word because we were so busy, but it was a “retreat” from the familiar world of everyday life in the parish. Here was a place where we clergy could go to worship and not be responsible for making sure that everything went according to plan— a place where we could relax and hear the words of Scripture and take in the reflections of the staff members on those readings.
On the second day—at least that is how I remember it— at morning worship, we read a portion of Psalm 107 together. I knew at once that these were words that would set the tone for what I was going to do that week at CREDO.
Some wandered in desert wastes; they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
They were hungry and thirsty; their spirits languished within them.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
He put their feet on a straight path to go to a city where they might dwell.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his mercy and the wonders he does for his children.
For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.
It would be unusual, I think, if you felt the kind of response I felt when I read these words aloud and simultaneously heard these words read in unison. They were words that spoke to me at that moment and perhaps to no one else in quite the same way. It is difficult and a bit awkward to try to explain it. I knew that I had arrived there hungry and thirsty for revival and renewal. These words hit me as if they were a promise to me of something greater that was yet to happen. My feet would once again be set upon a straight path and God would satisfy my spiritual thirst and hunger. It sounds rather prosaic to write about it, but it was something else to experience the power that these words of scripture had for me at that moment. It was as if I could close the book at that moment with no need to read any further. Perhaps this kind of experience is best described in the book of Hebrews, when it says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).
The history of the Church is full of stories of people whose lives were changed by a single verse of Scripture. St. Augustine picked up a manuscript of Paul’s letter to the Romans and knew at once with absolute certainty that the words “let us therefore cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armor of light” were meant for him. When St. Francis heard the words “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” read in church, it gnawed at him until he responded to the word that he knew the Lord had spoken directly to him. John Wesley heard a portion of Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans and felt “as if his heart had been strangely warmed.”
These are only a few of the well-known stories in which a passage of Scripture spoke directly to a person. When a passage of Scripture speaks to us like that it cuts like a two-edged sword so that we cannot ignore what we have heard or read. This is not the sort of thing that happens only once in a lifetime. If you learn to be attentive to the words of Scripture either when you read them or hear them read in church or in your daily devotions, God will speak to you.
Sometimes it takes a retreat or a place apart for us to find the space within ourselves to truly listen to what God wants to say, or already is saying to us, but because we have been so preoccupied with other things that we have not been able to hear. When you encounter the living God in the “living and active” word of Scripture you will know it. When that happens to you, stop. Read, and re-read what you have just heard. Listen to what it says to your heart. When you revisit it in a few days, it may not have the effect that it had at first, but that is fine. If it is something that is meant for you it will have some lasting effect on you, whether it challenges you and calls you to repentance or nourishes and refreshes you in the face of difficulties and trials. If you share your experience with someone else do not be surprised if they don’t get it. The words were not meant for them but for you. If you are really puzzled, you might want to speak with a trained spiritual director or a member of the clergy.
I am sharing this story with you in the hope that you will be attentive to the word of God as it is revealed to you in Holy Scripture. Remember to take to heart the words of the famous collect from the Book of Common Prayer that remind us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the words of Holy Scripture. These are words that can satisfy the thirsty and fill the hungry with good things.
He is the Way. Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth. Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life. Love Him in the World of the Flesh; And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
W.H. Auden (1907-1973)
“He is the Way,” Hymn #463/464 in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, is the concluding section of W. H. Auden’s Christmas Oratorio, For the Time Being. The poem was written between 1941 and 1942 as a libretto for an unfinished composition by Benjamin Britten.
At the risk of oversimplification, the Christmas Oratorio can be described as Auden’s extended meditation on the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and its meaning for people in the modern world.
In the penultimate section of the Oratorio, Auden turns his attention to the time immediately following the Christmas season, what we in the Episcopal Church call the season of Epiphany and what in the Roman Catholic Church is called “Ordinary Time.” In Epiphany, we are in the meantime between Christmas, the season of the incarnation and Lent, the season of the cross.
Auden begins his reflections on the time between Christmas and Lent with these words:
Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes….
We know what that is like. For those of us who observe the seasons of the church calendar, the act of taking down the decorations, as the twelve days of Christmas ends and Epiphany begins, is a physical, visual, and emotional reminder that we are entering a different space and time from where we have been. Here Auden, looking back to the incarnation of Jesus at Christmastime, suggests that the reality and life-changing implications of the incarnation of God in Jesus may be too much for us to grasp, so we remain unchanged, living life as we have before, remaining “His disobedient servant.” Auden writes:
…Once again As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed To do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility, once again we have sent Him away, Begging though to remain His disobedient servant, The promising child who cannot keep His word for long. The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory, And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now Be very far off….
The theme of the disobedient servant is picked up again near the end of this long poem in the section that comprises the lyrics of Hymns 463 and 464.
Heis the Way. Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
Auden borrowed the phrase “land of Unlikeness” from St. Augustine, who describes the years before he fully embraced the Christian faith as years lived in a “land of Unlikeness”: “I realized I was far away from Thee in a land of Unlikeness” (Confessions, Book 7, Chapter 10).
This “land of Unlikeness” was equated in later monastic literature and scholarship with the “far country” to which the prodigal son journeyed: “the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” (Luke 15:3). Auden understands that the journey of faith aiming to find and follow Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life requires us to journey through this land as we are transformed from disobedient servant to obedient disciple and from untruth to truth. The Way that leads to Jesus takes us on this journey.
Reflecting on Auden’s poem, in light of my reading of the theologian, Karl Barth, I could not help but think of the incarnation itself as the story of God’s journey into a far country for our sakes. This is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In the second chapter of Philippians, St. Paul cites an early Christian hymn to urge his fellow Christians to model their behavior on Jesus Christ,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross Therefore God also highly exalted him… (Phil. 2:5-9).
This is the story of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. God, in Christ, took on human flesh. God, in other words, gave up the authority that goes along with being God and took on the form of a servant. God, then, in Jesus Christ, went on a journey from the realm of eternity into the realm of human existence–that is, our world.
This journey leads from eternity to time, from human birth to human death, from incarnation to death on the cross. It ends with Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation back in eternity once again.
In Volume 4:1 of the Church Dogmatics — perhaps the greatest Christian systematic theological contribution of the 20thcentury — Karl Barth reads the story of the prodigal son in light of this passage from Philippians. He reads this story Christologically, that is, he reads the story of the prodigal son as a metaphor for the journey of Jesus from the realm of pre-existent Godhead to earthly, fleshly, incarnation. Jesus, thus, in a manner similar to that of the prodigal son, goes off into a “far country.”
Where the prodigal son soon after leaving his father got lost in the “land of Unlikeness,” giving himself over to “reckless living,” Jesus, living a real and full human life in our world, the “far country,” remained obedient to his Father. And where we, in Auden’s words, “have sent Him away, begging though to remain His disobedient servant, Jesus “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8)
All this Jesus did “for us and for our salvation.”
Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. “Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness….Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety….Love Him in the World of the Flesh.”
When the Bible comes up in conversation, it is apparent to me that many people view the Bible as a book of lofty otherworldly sayings — all about spirituality and all that kind of stuff. Perhaps it is because of this misconception that when folks actually begin to read the Bible, they often are quickly disillusioned and give up almost before they try. They give up, I venture to say, not because the Bible is boring, but because it does not accord with their own preconceived notions of what they think should be about.
The Bible is not a very heavenly book; it is, in fact, a very worldly book — a this-worldly book. The Bible tells of the rise and fall of kingdoms and of families. It tells of greed, corruption, and sin of every kind. It tells of the horrors of slaughter, military defeat, and tragedy on a mass human scale. The Bible, in short, tells us what it is like to live in a world structured by human pride and insolence, by greed and corruption, and by power gone mad. Our very Christmas story—the story Jesus— is, we proclaim, the story of God’s involvement in our world.
Yet, human beings do not recognize this fact and cruelly execute the one God sent. The story of the Messiah’s birth, while joyous and happy at the outset, comes with ominous signs. The gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday in the Christmas Season tells the story of the travels of the Magi who follow the star to the place of Jesus’ birth. Their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh foreshadow Jesus’s life, ministry, and death. Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh for his burial anointing. The child born to be king is also a child born to die.
“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matt. 2:12).
Immediately following this story, Joseph receives a similar, more ominous, warning. We read:
“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. …When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matthew 2:13-16).
It is this description of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, that I find a particularly good example of the worldliness of the Bible. Shortly after his birth, Jesus becomes a political refugee. Herod, according to the story Matthew relates, undertakes a mad, jealous search for the child who has been born. Joseph and Mary, being warned in a dream, take their newborn child Jesus and flee with haste into Egypt. In his failure to find the child, he orders the execution of all Hebrew infants under two years old.
The story of Jesus’s birth, in other words, is no fairy tale. The harsh realities of the world — its political upheavals and violent repressions — are never far from Jesus. Should we be surprised then that Jesus’ own ministry is cut short by the forces of political repression and power? All of this was foreshadowed by the events of his birth.
When I look at the world we live in today, I see a world that is not much different from that of the time of Jesus’ birth. A number of years ago, we had a “Code Orange” terrorist alert during the Christmas season. I remember thinking at the time how sad and incongruous it seemed to have such an alert during the Christmas season. Reflecting on this gospel reading, I realized that a Code Orange during Christmas is nothing new. It was that way for the children and parents of the Hebrew Innocents at the first Christmas.
This realization alone does not somehow make everything all right. No one wants to live in fear, in any fear, whether from political repression or terrorism. The story of Christmas is that into the world of sins and evil comes God enfleshed — made incarnate in a real human person, the person of Jesus. The joy of Christmas makes its greatest impact when it is juxtaposed to the harsh realities of human existence. Because then, the truly good news of the gospel shines like a single candle burning in the night. Referring to the incarnation of God’s Word into the world, the writer of the Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5 NRSV).
The light of God incarnate in Jesus shines in our world as a candle in the night. Sin and evil still exist in this world, and although God never desires that kind of life for us, we human beings bear the responsibility for our arrogance, pride, avarice, will to power, hatred, and for our wars and aggressions.
God nowhere in the Bible promises us a world without suffering. God never promises — even God’s most faithful servant — a life without pain, suffering, or difficulties. Just look at Jesus, if you want proof of that. What God does is descend to our hurt, our pain, our insecurities, our loneliness, and take it all on, and into, God’s very being. That is the story of Christmas. God became flesh for us and for our salvation.
That is the hope of the Gospel this Christmas season. God is with us. The Hebrew word Emmanuel, which means, “God with us,” encapsulates the meaning of Jesus’ birth for us. Now God is with us. In our deepest hurt and need God is with us. In sorrow or pain, God is with us. In fear and anxiety of every sort, God is with us.
Into our midst, God has come. Come let us adore our Emmanuel and give thanks on this last day of the Christmas Season. God is with us.
“Take delightin the LORD, and he will give you your heart’s desire.” Psalm 37:4
On a recent Sunday morning, I was struck by a phrase, or more precisely a word, from the service of the Holy Eucharist Rite II that I have said thousands and thousands of times before. The word was “delight.” It happened as I prayed the prayer of confession and said “that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways” (BCP, p. 360).
I asked myself, what would it truly mean to “delight” in God’s will? Have you ever stopped to think about what it might mean for you to “delight” in God’s will? In this Advent season, is that a question we should try to answer for ourselves?
In Latin, the words for “love” and “delight” are almost synonyms. This is particularly so when one compares the third person, past tense of the verb love, dilexit, with the third person, present tense of the verb delight, delectat. We derive the English word delectable from that. Dilexit and delectat sound quite similar to each other. In John 3:16, perhaps the most often quoted verse of the Gospel of John, we read that, “God so loved (dilexit) the world that God gave God’s only begotten Son….” What we find delectable, I suppose we could also say, we love. So, I do not think it is beyond any stretch of the imagination to say that God delights in all creation and therefore God delights in you.
Throughout the Old Testament, we read of the delight people have for God’s Torah. Torah is perhaps best translated not as “law” but as “instruction” or “teaching.” God’s Torah sets forth the path on which God’s people walk. The best illustration of this is found in Psalm 119 in which we read that God’s word is “a lampto my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The psalmist also takes particular delight in God’s law or teachings, writing, “I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight (Psalm 119:174) and “Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight” (Psalm 119:77).
Near the end of the Advent season, as we approach Christmas, we focus our attention on the Virgin Mary. What did Mary make of the words of the Angel Gabriel: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus?” (Luke 1:30-31). Was Mary able at that moment to delight in God’s will for her? Her response — her “yes” to God, —“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” (Luke 1:38) indicates that she was. At the time, Mary had no idea what her willing acceptance of God’s will might mean for her. Nonetheless, she said “yes.” Mary chose to delight in God’s will and to walk in God’s ways. Her delight in God’s will serves as a model for all Christians.
As you prepare for the Advent season, keep in mind the opening exhortation of the Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols:
“Beloved in Christ, in this season of Advent, let it be our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the Angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem, to see the Babe lying in the manger.”
May we, like Mary, delight in God’s will and to walk in God’s ways
God so delights in you. In this blessed Advent season may you find your delight in God.
One of the oldest traditions of Christian worship, one that stretches back for centuries, is that of beginning the day with reciting the psalms. This practice strengthened in the 4th century when men and women began to leave the cities of the Byzantine Empire, becoming hermits and monastics, living alone in the “desert,” where they devoted their lives to God. When monastics began to live together (the technical term for a monastic who lives in community is “cenobite”), liturgies were developed for collective prayer at fixed times of the day.
The prologue of the 6th century Rule of Benedict urges the monks living in community “to open our eyes to the light that comes from God, and our ears to the voice from heaven that every day calls out this charge: ‘If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts.’”(Psalm 95:8)
The first service of the day was called Vigils, or “praises.” It occurred in the middle of the night, usually between midnight and 3 A.M. During Vigils, all are reminded that if they hear God’s voice that day, not to harden their hearts. If there ever is a time when one’s heart is hardened, it is just after awakening in the middle of the night to pray.
All of the retreats I have made in the past five years have been to monasteries that lived according to the Rule of Benedict. At the monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, Vigils begins at 4 A.M. At Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, the monks rise at 3 A.M. and begin Vigils at 3:20 A.M. While I was a guest of the monastery, I lived in accordance with this schedule. It is quite a shock, as you might well imagine, to move from a world in which going to bed between 11:30 P.M. and midnight is quite normal to a world in which one retires at 8 P.M. and arises at 3 A.M. But that is how it is in the monastery 365 days a year.
The monastic schedule follows the rhythm of nature more closely than does our modern world of artificial light, endless movement and activity, and of global business and commerce that works relentlessly around the clock. The monastic day is tailored to a more ancient and more natural rhythm of going to bed when the sun goes down and arising before sunrise to work and to pray. It always takes some time for a visitor to adjust to the schedule and pace of life in the monastery. I found it the most difficult to fall asleep shortly after 8 P.M. knowing that I had to rise at 3 A.M.
While I can’t say it was always easy to wake up so early in the morning, there was something exhilarating about the sounds and sights of the middle of the night. The first night I awoke in the high altitudes of northern New Mexico, I was astounded by the vastness of the starry sky. It is one of the few places I have been where light pollution from nearby cities has not blotted out the Milky Way and the numerous stars in the heavens. Each morning I had a five-minute walk with a flashlight from my lodgings to the monastery. On the way, I watched for fire ants and snakes, not really expecting to find one, but just to be safe. One day another person who was also making a retreat at the monastery asked me if I had seen the coyote that was right next to me on my walk through the sagebrush. I hadn’t. I had heard the coyotes but had not seen them. The rest of the week, I kept my eyes open and remained alert whenever I made this trek in the dark.
In South Carolina, on the other hand, I awoke to the clammy humidity of a warm July night. As I walked from my lodging to the monastery, through the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, I heard the sounds of tree frogs, frogs, insects, and other assorted creatures.
At both places, when I entered the monastery for Vigils, I was reminded to listen to God’s voice, wherever I was and whatever I was doing. God might speak to me that day and I needed to be vigilant to that voice. At Vigils, one is watching not merely for the dawn of the new day but also for the advent of God in one’s own life. As the psalmist wrote, “I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning” (Ps. 130: 5-6).
The season of Advent is a time of special vigilance for all Christians as they prepare themselves for the Christmas feast. It is a time in which we put ourselves in the place of the generations of people who waited and longed for the coming of God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah. At Christmas, we will celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the first advent of God in our human history, as we remember and give thanks for what happened in Bethlehem so long ago.
In the season of Advent, we also are to be vigilant for the return of our Risen Lord in our history, his second advent. The gospels remind us throughout the season to live our lives as if Jesus might return at any moment. We are urged always to be vigilant and prepared for the return of our Messiah and Lord at any time.
Finally, in the season of Advent, we are to prepare our own hearts so that our Lord may find a place to be born within us. Every day is a day in which God might speak to us. Every day is a day to watch and wait for God to speak to us. Every day is a day of vigilance. “Today if you would hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” This Advent, try every day to pay special attention to the moving of God’s Spirit within you. Harden not your heart—listen, watch, and wait and prepare to be surprised by God.
In the booklet, for which you will find a link below, you will find a short Advent service that you can use as a private devotion or as a service with family and friends around your Advent wreath. You might even use it along with your blessing at dinner. You also will find activities for all ages.
May you have a blessed Advent season in preparation for the coming of our Lord this Christmastide.