Notes from our Pastor April 2017

Easter

The celebration of the most crucial events in Christian history takes place this month. I use the term takes place advisedly, because through our liturgies during Holy Week and Easter, we relive the various acts of the sacred mystery and make it present both within our congregations and within the hearts of all Christians.  Thus, even though Jesus’ actual entry of into Jerusalem, His suffering, death, and resurrection all date from nearly two millennia ago, by our participation in the services with open hearts and spiritual presence, like Christians throughout the ages and across the Church, we can become witnesses in our own time to what God has accomplished in the mission of the Son.

Episcopalians subscribe to the idea that what we believe is mirrored in how we worship–Lex orandi, lex credendi, (“as we pray, so we believe”) to use its traditional Latin designation. In this way, when we celebrate our weekly Eucharist, we not only “remember His death” but the Spirit present in the gathered members of His Body also make Christ present with every celebration of the sacrament, so we can also “proclaim His resurrection.”

In the same way, our Palm Sunday procession reenacts Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem – the triumph being seen with the eyes of faith, because the actual event may have gone entirely unnoticed by the throng of pilgrims entering Jerusalem to celebrate that Passover that year. Our gathering again on Maundy Thursday not only marks what Christians generally consider Christ’s institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion, but during that service we ourselves gather around the table with His presence and His spirit as we replay the action. Our presence of spirit makes that night different from others, and we ourselves become present to His institution of that lasting participation in His offering of His broken body and outpouring of His saving blood.

Of course, individual parishes vary in the extent to which they observe those last days. After the Maundy Thursday Eucharist, our parishes ritually strip the altar and remove from the sanctuary of all outward signs normally associated with making it a sacred space. In many congregations, various parishioners will take allotted times throughout the night and early morning to keep vigil with our Lord throughout His hours in Gethsemane and before the Sanhedrin. We do these things not as acts of piety per se; rather, they mark outwardly our suspension of the normal business of our life in order to observe sacred time because we long to be near our Lord in His time of trial. The drama of these final hours and days of Jesus’ life now involves us as well by our participation—that which is recorded in Scripture becomes our present reality.

The power of the Incarnation–the mystery of God entering into human form to be one with us–shapes our whole understanding of who Jesus was. The human Jesus, depicted in painting and in films as beaten, bruised, and physically tortured, becomes a living reality for us during Holy Week. Our observing and participation in these rites and rituals (such as the Stations of the Cross or the dramatic reading of the gospel narrative on Passion Sunday) balances the equation: as the Christ of God becomes a human equal to us, so by our prayerful observance of these rites, we attempt in our own spiritual way to become one with Him. Doing so is physically and emotionally exhausting, but at the same time spiritually enriching.

This need to connect with the sacred drama is why I always opt for the account in John 20:1–18 as the Gospel read to proclaim the Resurrection on Easter Sunday itself. Here is Mary Magdalene, coming grief-stricken to the tomb to try to assuage her grief by offering what burial rites she can.  We can relate to her human suffering: Mary loved her Lord and is trying to live with her loss. Anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a loved one can put themselves in Mary Magdalene’s place. We can be shocked and awed with her as she finds the tomb open and the body she had hoped to tend gone. The emptiness of the tomb resonates with her worst fears that someone has stolen the body of Jesus. In the enormity of her grief at what she fears has happened, she will not be comforted or, unlike Peter and John, content herself with a tomb which is empty for no comprehensible reason. And so she weeps, as I believe we would weep in her place. Even the vision of angels sent to comfort her does not stop her search for her lost Lord. Only when she encounters Jesus – not even recognizing him but “thinking him to be the gardener” – is she finally able to stop her search.  Only when Jesus speaks her name in that voice which she has known and loved does she realize that her search is over. At that encounter, we have the wondrous, divinely resurrected Lord who has overcome death reaching out to comfort this bewildered but faithful woman—what a sign of God’s love for us wretched humans!

Our 2000 years of tradition recognizes this as Easter Sunday, the day of our Lord’s resurrection. But for us, as for Mary Magdalen, the letting go of the present and its propensity to disbelieve creates the ability to re-experience the terror and the awe of Christ’s death and resurrection that will finally open our eyes of faith and give us a new peace. This is why the Church’s rituals are there: to provide the means of experiencing what we call the Paschal Mystery and being personal witnesses to Christ who lives now and forever.

I always embark upon this week like a tree that has shed its leaves in the fall and endured the Michigan winter, only to have the sap rise and to put forth new buds of faith in the new life of Easter tied. The journey through Holy Week, the painful recounting of Jesus’s scourging and crucifixion, the death that leaves everyone present numb, the silence of that Sabbath after His death, and the wild almost unbelievable accounts of His resurrection are worth every moment we spend on them. Every tear we shed and every irrepressible swell of joy within our hearts renews and strengthens some portion of our faith.

We often say to ourselves that we can do without all the “drama” which seems to surround us as we try to carry on our lives in peace. But the liturgies of this week, the drama which accompanies the incarnate, living, human-as-well-as-divine Christ is the well from which we draw to bring water to our parched souls and to quench our thirst for a meaningful piece in our spirit – the same piece which Mary Magdalene finally found when she proclaimed, “ I have seen the Lord.”

Fr. Bill

Notes From our Pastor March 2017 – “Giving Up” vs. “Taking Up”

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It would be impossible to write anything for the month of March that did not focus upon the liturgical season of Lent. The cold wintry weather we are now experiencing lends itself to introspection and reflection. For Christians, this season of the year take shape within the context of our Lenten observances–those disciplines which we willingly undertake in order to prepare ourselves for the dramatic events of Holy Week and Easter. As I write this, on the brink of Ash Wednesday, the question that comes to my mind is: what sort of discipline shall I undertake this Lent to help me grow spiritually?

As the prayer book reminds us, the purpose of Lent throughout the centuries has been that spiritual preparation:

[I]t became the custom of the Church to prepare for [Holy Week and Easter] by a season of penitence and fasting… the observance of a holy Lent, by self‑examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self‑denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.         (BCP 264-5)

It is unfortunate that the words used above frequently create the impression that Lent is a dreadful time, marked by “giving up” things and enduring various sorts of deprivation. “What are you giving up for Lent?” is a commonly-asked question around this time of year. While I recognize that different personalities may embrace different means to show their devotion to God, my response to this question of how to observe Lent has shifted. Now my focus is toward disciplines or deliberate undertakings which I hope will open the eyes of my spirit and help me to grow in my Christian life.

One indication of the presence of sin is a sense of alienation or estrangement from God’s presence.  When I feel within myself an emptiness and lack of purpose rather than the connectedness to God and the love for others, then I can be sure that I am somehow off the path which God has set forth for me.  A large part of my purpose in observing Lent would then be to seek a means to overcome that feeling of spiritual alienation. The traditional term for active turning away from one’s isolated state and returning to God is penitence.

I recently found this insight echoed in the book which have chosen as a resource during our Lenten series on how to read Scripture. Marcus Borg, in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, speaks of our human condition in terms of exile, such as the Jews experienced after the destruction of the first Temple and their captivity in Babylon:

“Exile,” with all of its metaphorical resonances, is a rich metaphor for the human condition and how we often experience our lives. We feel much of what ancient Israel felt in exile: grief, anguish, longing, weakness, homelessness.

The solution for exiles is, of course, a journey of return, a way or path through the wilderness.… Both Judaism and Christianity are about a “way.” Indeed, the word repent, so central to the Christian tradition, has its roots in the Jewish story of the exile. To repent does not mean to feel really bad about sins; rather, it means to embark upon a path of return. The journey begins in exile, and the destination is a return to life in the presence of God.   (pp. 140-141)

In other words, whatever practices I undertake to follow in the coming weeks should be active, not passive.  My Lenten observance should (so to speak) get me on my feet and walking on a path directed towards God. Whatever I may deny myself should be chosen because it is an impediment to that journey, not as some sort of punishment for my sins. Ultimately, we believe that our sins are what draws from God, and it is the grace of God that calls us back into a state of unity. Therefore, the practice keeping a holy Lent is the intention and willingness to do those things which our heart directed us to do in order to return to a place where we once again feel love of God.

Perhaps the deepest call of Lent is not “to give up” so much as “to take up” our own cross and bear it with joyful expectation as we seek to become more faithful and to be one with Christ.

Fr. Bill

Notes from Our Pastor February 2017 – How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?

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In the section of The Book of Common Prayer called “An Outline of the Faith
commonly called the Catechism,” the Bible or the Holy Scriptures are addressed briefly thus:

  1. Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?
  2. We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.
  1. How do we understand the meaning of the Bible?
  2. We understand the meaning of the Bible by the help of the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church in the true interpretation of the Scriptures.

In these two sentences, there is great subtlety and the provision of great freedom.  First, the writings (note the plural) which constitute the Bible are recognized as being the work of human authors.  We know that Moses lived centuries before David, the author of at least some of the Psalms.  Isaiah lived under different conditions in a still later time, and his writings reflect then-current conditions and threats.  Different times and different writers, yet they affirmed—and the Church has also echoed this affirmation—that they spoke with the inspiration of God’s spirit and in God’s Name.  That was their source of authority, which has been honored throughout the centuries by the faithful.

More than half a millennium later, Paul composed letters to the churches he had helped establish, both encouraging them to stand firm in their faith and warning to avoid errors of teaching and practice.  Paul wrote in response to problems of his time and place, but with an eye to edifying his readers (for he knew that his letters would be circulated widely) to accept what had always been taught as the truth about the Good News (or gospel) of the crucified and risen Christ.  He wrote in Greek to assemblies who had read their torah and prophets and other writings such as the Psalms in Greek translation, which sometimes introduced different meanings and nuances into what the original authors had produced. It is not until a generation or so later that the four Gospels were composed to recount the life, death, and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.  But as John says near the end of his gospel,

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not
written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that
Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have
life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

In other words, he admits that he has selectively presented his material from his sources with the purpose of making converts or strengthening the faith of those who are already Christians.

The Catechism’s second point cited above allows for a variety of ways for us to read, understand, interpret, and meditate upon the Scriptures.  Both what we call Old and New Testaments are the work of the company and communities faith which produced them and reverenced them because they record and reflect the revelation of God.  We believe that the Spirit was active in their creation—call it inspiration if you will—and that the people of God, both in biblical and post-biblical times were guided by that same Spirit to choose which writings were authentic representations of that revelation.  In the end, we understand that the Bible is the work of that community (for us, the Church), even as its use continues to provide the means for that body to experience and worship the Lord.

Interpretation of Scripture, then, is the ongoing work of the Church.  We are people of a different time, with a different culture and different modes of understanding than the sacred authors who first composed these writings.  We read them in translation from the ancient languages—indeed, even when we can agree upon the Greek rendering of one of the recorded sayings of Jesus, we know that he originally uttered his teaching in the dialect of Aramaic he shared with his Galilean disciples!  Any serious attempt to understand Scripture therefore needs attention to the text and its underlying language, as well as the historical and cultural differences between its composition and our own situation.

Finally, our denomination encourages us to study the Scriptures as the Word of God for us by opening ourselves to the life of the Spirit itself, both as resident in the Body of Christ (the local congregation and the Church across time and space) and as the Spirit lives within us to challenge us to respond.  For the Scriptures sometimes offer hope and consolation, but even more often challenge us to break out of the bonds of our personal, limited perspective into the larger, divine vision which frees us to the experience of God.  Whether prophetic calls of Amos or parables of Jesus, the Word of God always humbles our ego and invites us to learn to walk with our God.

All this is to offer a call to join with others in our Lenten study of the means to approach the Bible.  I don’t call it a “Bible study,” because I believe our first task is to relearn how to read and engage the Scriptures before we tackle particular books or themes.  If you are interested, please attend our meetings on consecutive Thursday nights during Lent at 7:00 PM at Christ the King, Taylor.  Our first meeting is March 2nd.  I will prepare handouts for anyone attending, but I would encourage you to read Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally.  It is available on Kindle, or you can purchase online elsewhere.  I can also arrange a group purchase if I know you need a copy.

Feel free to contact me billhale00(at)gmail.com.

Bill

Notes From Our Pastor: January 2017 – Looking Inward

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January, 2017

Being someone who is obsessed by the origins of words and also with ancient history, I am aware that the month of January takes its name from the Roman god Janus, who was the keeper of doorways and entrances. Janus was depicted in sculpture as having two faces which looked in opposite directions–both forward and backward. Very apt name for the first month of the new year, linking what is past with the imminent future! But even as I wrote the previous sentences, I realized that Janus looks both inward (to the interior of a room or building) and outward on to the world outside. There is a psychic and spiritual link here: past and future, our public and communal life vs. our inner life of thought, reflection, and soul.

What prompted this line of thinking was reading that a former colleague, who was also the rector under whom I served when first ordained 27 years ago, had just died. Our work relationship had not been very positive, and my memories of that period immediately assumed a negative cast when his name appeared–something for which I am not proud to relate. What that response tells me is that, after all these years (during which I moved on in ministry and he retired from this diocese more than a dozen years ago), I had not forgiven him. Regardless of what had happened between us and the many sermons I had given on the subject of God’s grace and mercy and Christ’s example of forgiveness, I must have unconsciously harbored a spirit which had not forgiven. Looking backward and inward, I found that I lack the real forgiveness which should characterize any Christian, let alone a priest.

Thus, I am entering into the New Year with an awareness of my own failing and spiritual fault. This is the classic definition of sin: that which resides within our nature that leaves us incomplete and aware of our distance from our true center, which is God, the author of wholeness. By allowing an old hurt to continue within my memory (even if I am not conscious of it), I remain enslaved to its pain and cannot be free–that is, until I turn to our Lord and confess that I have not forgiven as He forgives us. Suddenly, what was a New Year filled with promise seemed like a return to a foregone time where my heart bears its grudges and cannot be renewed.

Thankfully, with this reminder of my spiritual weakness came also the recollection of the Good News that, through Christ, God is ready to make all things new. I can let go of whatever it was that darkened by spirit in memory and leave it behind as I run to the new life which grace offers.

I can honestly say now that I am sad to hear of the death of my colleague and fellow priest. I am sorry that I could not find the ways to make our work relationship be more fruitful and a source of good memories. And I regret that for however many years I must have borne with inner bitterness as the fruit of not seeking to forgive him and appreciate his many gifts. “But above all,” as the Prayer of Thanksgiving begins, I am thankful for the means of grace by which Christ makes forgiveness–both in giving and receiving–possible for such a one as I am in the presence of the Lord.

Whether you are looking back or looking forward, may the New Year find you surrounded by the community of those who love, support, and pray for you, as well as nourished in your spirit by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

Fr. Bill

Notes from Our Pastor: Thanksgiving Day, 2016

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Thanksgiving Day, 2016

Thanksgiving Day is becoming a lost holiday; not only is it losing ground to the overwhelming pull of Christmas shopping, but I believe that the rationale for the holiday itself is fast disappearing as well. For this reflection, the history of the American holiday of Thanksgiving is not as important as the shift in attitude pervading our culture. My father and his generation who grew up during the Depression wanted for many things in their lives. If the family could keep a roof over their heads and food on the table so that the children went to bed without hunger pains, they considered they were doing all right. Many people had no cars, even though they might work on the production line in the auto industry. When life was harder and existence threatened – first economically by the Depression then by the coming of the World War – people seem to learn how to value the basics and essentials of life. People could be thankful to have any job, not worrying about whether it offered them “fulfillment” or some other higher but more abstract value. The range of foods and beverages which compete for our palate were unknown except to the very wealthy. Bread, starches, soups, and perhaps a little meat from time to time were more appreciated than the luxuries we take for granted now. We might perhaps conclude from this that a thankful spirit is more likely to be found among those who have less than among those who are completely filled and satiated.

The perspective of earlier generations also seems to have found its center in love of family, in patriotism, and above all in religious faith. A belief in God was widespread and perhaps was held by the majority of people, regardless of which religious tradition they belong to. The understanding that God as our Creator and the provider of all good things (which is an apt description of the God found in the Bible) puts God at the center of everything. As our brilliant, radiant sun sits at the center of the solar system, radiating heat and light to the earth and making life possible from day to day, so our faith sees God as the source and sustainer of life. From that perspective, a spirit of thankfulness would be a natural response within us. At this point in the year, when agricultural harvests have been gathered in, it would be natural to think God for the produce and rewards of our labor, lending itself to setting apart a special day for Thanksgiving.

Returning to the analogy of the solar system, however, our current cultural perspective is more like the ancient view that the earth is the center of all things, with the sun and other bodies just circling around it. A culture of plenty measured by the amount of goods and services produced and consumed does not consider our relationship to God as the measure of our human worth; instead, all too often people are measured and valued (or devalued, degraded, and disregarded) based upon economic standards. Hand-in-hand with that is the belief that what I have results solely from what I have worked for and earned myself – it is mine and I claim both possession of it and the credit for obtaining it. Perhaps I was lucky in finding the right job, but otherwise all things derive from my own work and effort. Why therefore should we be thankful? You can see how this perspective based on an economic model of the person elevates the self to its own center, while at the same time creating within us a desire for more and more to consume or own. It also engenders within our hearts a contempt for those who have not reached the same place we have. Ideas such as the intrinsic or God-given dignity of all people, a positive regard for (let alone love of) our neighbor, and showing gratitude for the blessings that we have all disappear.

Thankfulness actually requires a degree of humility, for if I am not self-sufficient and solely responsible for what I have based on my own achievements, then I must acknowledge that these are gifts or blessings from God. Unless I am willing to grant God His due place at the center and recognize that all that I am and all that I have come from God, I will never know what true thankfulness is.

We can see then why Thanksgiving seems to have lost its place in our national life. To be sure, it is still a day of feasting, celebration, and the in gathering of families, but the immediate associations are excessive eating, football games, and the kick off (nope unintended) of the season of buying and consuming. The picture of an extended family feasting together, enjoying one another’s company, and giving thanks for the good things they have received has sadly become a black and white snapshot stuck in an old photo album from years past. The night before Thanksgiving, for example, is well documented as the busiest time in bars and taverns across the country as returning college students and other young adults gather with their friends, rather than the previous expectation that they would visit with older relatives to begin the holiday. And the day after Thanksgiving is aptly referred to as “Black Friday,” because people cannot wait to leave their families and feasting to start buying and partake of sales as soon as possible.

Taking a page out of the Prayer Book, we remember that the word Eucharist is Greek for “Thanksgiving.” The service begins with the dialogue between the celebrant and the people:

Lord be with you!
And also with you
Lift up your hearts!
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.

It is indeed good and right and proper to give thanks to God in all times and in all places for God’s goodness towards us, starting with the fact that we are alive and present, and that God has seen us through so many trials and heartbreaks, and has given us so many gifts and blessings. Our weekly Eucharistic service is one expression of this understanding of the relationship between ourselves and our God. The same impulse and humble response within our hearts can help us celebrate this Thanksgiving Day in a manner which sets it aside as holy and acceptable to the Lord. I can think of no more apt words to conclude this meditation than the collect for Thanksgiving Day:

Almighty and gracious father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (BCP, 246)

Notes from Our Pastor: November 2016 – All Saints Day

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All Saints Day

Every week when we celebrate the Eucharist, we say that we believe “the communion of saints.” I realize that something which is repeated week after week can sometimes slip by us as we recited without much reflection – that happens to me as well, even when leading the congregation in worship. But I would hope at some point you might ask, “what do we mean by the communion of saints?”

To me, being a Christian is both a personal connection to Christ and to the Father, and also a part of belonging to something much larger than myself. The personal commitment to God through Christ is what makes us Christians. It is what our presiding Bishop Michael Curry refers to when he talks about personally being a member of the Jesus Movement. But the Jesus Movement has been going on at least since the time of Jesus’ own ministry and the day of Pentecost. Countless numbers of people – the number of which is known to God alone – are part of this community that exists over time and across the whole space of the earth. They differed in language, customs, political identity, place of origin, and probably as many points of difference as can be comprehended in the whole of human life. They were bound together, however, by their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and their willingness to try to live out the Good News which Jesus proclaimed. We call this body the Church, but that designation would actually include a far number larger number of people that may have ever been recognized by an official affiliation with one or another denomination. It currently includes all of us who acknowledge Christ, even though the Christian Church as a whole is splintered among so many different denominations who practice their belief in so many different ways. To an outsider – indeed, it was to those people whom Christian missionaries sought to convert over the centuries – it must be bewildering to see one Christian or set of Christians setting themselves apart from another group who also claim to be Christian. This is a testimony to the human aspect of our faith and our brokenness, despite our unity in Christ. The divisions within the body of Christ must grieve the Holy Spirit, and it is a constant reminder to the faithful that we still have much work to do within our own household.

Nevertheless, whenever Paul wrote to any of the various congregations he addressed in his letters, he referred to them as “the saints” (hagioi) or holy people of God. That they were not “saints” as we usually use the word to designate those of outstanding holiness is clear when you read how he criticized and even berated the people of Galatia or Corinth in those letters. Despite their failings and shortcomings, however, Paul continued to address them as saints because they had been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, and he hoped to guide them to greater understanding of what that meant in their new life. So from the beginning, the “communion of saints” has always included a diverse group of imperfect people united by their belief in Jesus Christ and engaged in a continual struggle, both individually and as groups, to live lives worthy of their baptismal calling.

This community has endured periods of tremendous persecution, physical suffering, death and the threats of death, as well as times of prosperity and decadence. It has been a light to the world in its time, and yet the history of the Church also includes periods where church people themselves have been the persecutors and done unspeakable things ostensibly in the name of Christ. We must acknowledge our history with both its shining moments and its moral failures. Yet across time, the one true constant of this community has been its proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is founded its hope for the present and the future, in this earthly life and in the life to come, upon the gospel which Christ proclaimed. We were not born into the Christian Church as we were into our families, but like being a member of any family, we recognize both the good and bad which belonging and involves. But as John the Evangelist says, we were born into our faith, not “of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13)   Thereby we have become “children of God” and heirs of hope through Christ.

In our tradition, the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1st reminds us of our connection to the others saints of the Church. We are related not just to the members of our parish, or our diocese, or our Episcopal Church, or even the Anglican communion worldwide, but across those barriers of human denomination to all Christians within the worldwide Church. And more than this, we can look backwards across the centuries to all the faithful people – including those who struggled with their faith – across the centuries, back to Christ himself. Turning our eyes in the other direction, we can look forward for generations and generations to come, “a great multitude which no one can count,” which would include all those who will share our faith and who will also find their life in Christ.

We celebrate All Saints Day, therefore, to gain perspective on ourselves within the company we keep. It reminds us that we are not alone in our faith, but rather part of a huge flock under the one Shepherd whose name we bear as Christians. From such a perspective, we are humbled by our own small part in the undertaking which is the life of the Church; but we can also rejoice in the greatness of God’s grace which has included so many people and which still opens the door to all those who are lost and seek the truth. The abundance of God’s faithfulness and the limitlessness of Christ redeeming love to all peoples everywhere should lift us up when we are mindful of belonging to such an amazing and God-inspired assembly.

May we, taking our place within the communion of the saints of God, learn to bear our own crosses in such a way that God is glorified and Christ made present wherever we are.

Fr. Bill