Sunday, February 28, 2016

Writing and Prayer

Do not wait; the time will never be 'just right.' Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along. - George Herbert

We live in a world of words. We hear them from the time we're born, and learn to connect sounds with words as we grow. In elementary school we learn to identify first letters, then put those letters together to make words we can read and write for ourselves. Whether we turn into avid readers or not, we depend on words every day of our lives. For some, the release of words onto a page (or screen) is not just satisfying but something of a compulsion, regardless of what it is we release.

George Herbert was a poet and orator, a man whose command of words made his life what it was.
Born in 1593, he was a member of the aristocracy. One of his mother's close friends was John Donne who took an interest in the young man. Herbert was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. Proficient in Latin, he became the Public Orator for the university, the person whose job was to write acknowledgements for gifts to the library or welcoming speeches for visiting dignitaries. His work caught the eye of James I, who seemed impressed enough to be on the verge of offering him a job as an ambassador. James' death in 1625 put an end to that idea and also to any position in the royal court. Herbert had originally entered Trinity in order to become a priest but had become sidetracked. He returned to that calling and became a devout and very much loved vicar and rector.

Herbert is credited with writing a book called A Priest to the Temple or The Country Parson, a guide for rural parish clergy. He also wrote poetry which he kept private until just before his death when he sent them to his friend Nicholas Ferrar (of Little Giddings) who published them shortly after Herbert's death in 1633. Herbert was 39 at the time of his death which was probably caused by a long history of consumption or tuberculosis. His book of poems, The Temple, is still available in print and online.

Herbert's poetry was more than just writing. It was a reflection of his prayers to God, touched by the same mysticism that had been Donne's signature. Holding them back from publication was an act of humility. Like many writers, he was not sure his work would be judged as "good" writing by readers. Besides, the poems were both an offering to God and one side of a dialog, a very personal thing. Luckily, the poems were published and have become part of our literary heritage both as exquisite poetry and as inspirational readings which have become prayers for us and also as hymns for our worship.

Writing is not just for writers like Herbert, Donne, or the authors of our favorite books. Whether it is a thank-you letter to Aunt Mabel for a gift or a thousand-page exposition on a facet of history, we all write from time to time. In school, one of the most feared assignments is often writing an essay on some topic. As adults we have to write reports for work or notes to have Junior excused from class because he has the flu. Some people write letters to the editor of the local paper, and some blog about their special interests or even daily lives. Others journal for themselves alone, seeking release of feelings, thoughts, or insights. Then there are those, like Herbert, who write as a form of prayer.

The quotation from Herbert is an encouragement to writers and would-be writers, even those who don't consider themselves writers at all. The same quotation works for prayer itself.  As Christians, most of us can recite the Lord's Prayer or a Hail Mary or even the prayer to St Anthony for lost things, but, other than that, we are often reduced to "Help!" or "Thank you." We open the prayer book on Sundays but not so much during the week. We lead such busy lives, when would we have time to sit down and pray, much less write?

Herbert's advice is spot on.  We need to begin where we are, not where we think we should be. If five minutes of prayer (or writing or both) is too much, we could start with two or three. Instead of just rattling off a bunch of requests, we could write them down. It often takes longer to write than to think, so it would slow us down, allowing God to get a word in edgewise.

The pray-er or the writer may not have the eloquence of Herbert, but then, Herbert probably didn't have it from the beginning either. He wrote, though, and picked up tools and skills as he went along, becoming both eloquent and proficient, traits that we can read in his words, poems, and prayers.

I wonder--what would happen if we wrote down our prayers instead of just reading or mentally saying them? What if we wrote to God as a friend, not as a great being in the sky who is unknowable?  Even if we erased the electrons on the computer screen, or burned or shredded the paper it was written on, it might spark a new way of thinking about, or doing, something that may be familiar already. Who knows? We might be another Herbert in the making, or we might just find a deeper, more insightful way to pray.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Saturday, February 27, 2016.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Frederick Douglass

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced. -- Frederick Douglass, "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery," speech given July 4, 1852.

February is noted for Groundhog Day, Valentine's Day, President's Day, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent (in most years), and various saints' days and famous birthdays. February is also noted as Black History Month, designated by each president since 1976. Prior to the 1976 declaration, however, there was Black History Week, established in 1927 by Carter G. Woodson, a historian, and a group of prominent African-Americans.

In 1915, that same Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History which, in 1927, proclaimed the first Black History Week to be held on the second week in February as a tribute to the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (12th), the Great Emancipator, and Frederick Douglass (23rd), proclaimed the greatest African American leader of the 19th century.

Born a slave around 1818, his master's wife taught him the alphabet and Douglass took off from there. In about his twentieth year, Douglass escaped from slavery and went to Massachusetts where he attended a Black church and also abolitionist meetings. He became a producer of abolitionist newspapers, several autobiographies, and an early advocate of school desegregation, a movement that was still in progress when I was in high school and college in the 1960s.

He became an advocate of women's rights in 1848. At the first convention for women's rights, he was in the minority of supporters but rose to speak eloquently, including a statement that he, as a Black man, could not accept the right to vote if women were denied the same right. He continued to speak for equal rights for all throughout his life.

On July 4, 1852, Douglass gave the speech from which the quotation above was taken. These are words of an impassioned man who spoke as a prophetic witness to the sins of a country who proclaimed itself Christian but failed to follow the rules Jesus himself set down as well as God's words from Ararat to Moses. Douglass had been a church-goer and had, at least one point during his slavery, taught Sunday school at the African-American church. Throughout his life his passion was fostered by his faith and the zeal produced a style of oratory which is still present today. If you listen to the passionate oratory of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, you will hear echoes of Frederick Douglass and others. It's a good thing to hear although different than what most of us hear in the pulpit and other places.

Listen to those around you and those you hear and see via long-distance media. Are they cultivating fear or are they promoting freedom, equality, and justice? Where do you hear truth? Where do you hear exaggeration? Where do you hear truth? Where do you hear inflammatory and derogatory remarks? What do we do with the information we hear? And then, what do we do with the actions we see resulting from that information?
Douglass went on to have an illustrious career as a newspaper editor, certified lay preacher, an advisor to Abraham Lincoln, marshal and recorder of deeds in Washington DC, a chargé d’affaire to Santo Domingo and minister to Haiti. He backed away from those he felt were too rigid or radical in the abolitionist movement, but he never lost sight of his original goal, namely, to see the African Americans as free and equal people.

We need a few more Frederick Douglasses among us. Actually, we have some, but their voices are sometimes drowned out. They need to be heard, and we need to hear them, but do we have the courage to try to dial down the noise and ramp up the things that beg to be heard. Heaven knows, we could use a few Douglasses to stand up at rallies where the crowd may be hostile and speak the truth that needs to be spoken.
If we hear someone offering us a message with honesty, transparency, and passion, perhaps it is something to pay attention to. Furthermore, if the message offers us ways to do something to benefit everyone, not just a special group of privileged people, we may have found a prophetic witness for this age. Keep looking and listening. They’re there.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 20, 2016.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Smudge

"Um, excuse me, but you have a smudge of dirt on your forehead."

I was thinking about this on Ash Wednesday, and wondering how I could respond if someone mentioned it. A lot of thoughts came to mind, such as, "Thank you, I must've forgotten to wipe it off," or "I've been to church because it's Ash Wednesday." It occurred to me that neither of these were particularly useful or even an invitation to open a dialogue and help somebody learn something.

Being out of work after a number of years, I'm having to go to workshops in order to learn the new tricks of the trade insofar as looking for, and hopefully landing, a job. One of the things they stress is that an applicant for a job or even someone looking to network into an organization needs to have what they call "an elevator statement." It's telling a potential employer basically who you are and what strengths you have in the space of 30 seconds or so, about the length of time it would take to go from one floor of a building to another. It's a sales pitch, but what you're selling is yourself.

I've heard of churches referring to this kind of tool for use in evangelism; a 30-second presentation that endeavors pique the interest of someone enough to begin a conversation. "Hi, I'm passionate about Jesus. can I tell you about him?" This might pique the interest of some Christians, particularly  evangelical ones, but just might have the intended person you want to have a dialogue with scuttling rapidly in the opposite direction. Reminds them of people knocking on the door offering to share Jesus with me and it feels like I'm being cornered .

I wonder — what would happen if all Christians walked around with a smudge of dirt on their forehead, not just on Ash Wednesday, but every day? Some groups of aborigines wear ritual tattoos that in their culture serve as marks of identity and religious significance. A painted circle on the forehead of a Hindu woman can be either a sign that she is married, a cosmetic addition like lipstick or eyeshadow, or dedication to a specific Hindu God. Jewish males are circumcised, something that is a very important religious ritual but hardly one that is openly exhibited. Christians may wear crosses on chains around their neck, a tattoo of a cross somewhere on their body, or walk around with the Bible in their hands. Most people would simply take note of the visible sign and think no more of it.

With the smudge of the ashes, it's a seldom seen sign that most people don't understand. They just look at it as dirt on the forehead. But this smudge becomes a moment of evangelism, a teachable moment, that opens the door that might not otherwise even be noticed. It's an opportunity to practice a 30-second elevator statement that invites and informs and perhaps even opens the door for more in-depth conversation.

"Oh, thanks for noticing. It's a sign that today is special because I'm reminded that I'm human but also the child of God. It starts a 40 day journey whose purpose is to bring me closer to God, and leads me through the crucifixion to the resurrection of Jesus. It's a reminder that although I will be dust again one day, I was made from dust. It also reminds me that my faith tells me that death is not the end, but just the beginning of a new life with God. Thanks for letting me share that."

What if we wore a smudge on our forehead every day of the year? Would we be reminded that even though we may not have any sackcloth to wear (and people would definitely not consider it a fashion statement), but I can wear the ashes of humility and remembrance. Jesus did things with dust, like writing in it or wetting it with spit and healing a man's eyes with the resulting mud. The ashes on my forehead may be a little messier, but it is also very like dust; it is the product of a breaking down of other things and making them available for other uses.

Even though Ash Wednesday is over for this year, what if we assumed invisible ashes and prepared an elevator statement we could use to introduce ourselves to others as children of God and passionate about reminding them that they are loved as much as we know we are. It could be the most important piece of evangelism we could use.

Come up with your own elevator statement. Practice it so that it comes out naturally and easily -- and joyfully. And don't be afraid to use it. If you need to, put a smudge on your forehead, no matter what day it is. It's a real conversation starter.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 13, 2016.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Sin and Forgiveness

If God were not willing to forgive sin, Heaven would be empty. -- German Proverb

There are words and phrases people don't really like or want to hear, like hearing "IRS audit" or "The damage was a little more extensive than we thought." In church circles, "sin" is a big word. I've heard it said that Episcopalians never talk about sin. Like eating salad with a dinner fork, it's just not done. Just to be clear, though, the Book of Common Prayer is full of the word "sin" or "sins." It is all through our liturgy, the Psalms, and the readings. Somehow, though, most of the year we don't really "hear" it as seriously as in the season of Lent, which starts next week.

A sin is a shortcoming, a fault, a transgression of moral or religious law. It is a life where God is on the back burner or even totally shut out. Perhaps that last sentence should have added other human beings, since we are all part of God's children, even if they don't realize it. When we are estranged from others, we are also estranged from God, no matter how much we are sure we are in good standing with God in all other respects.

We don't like to think about sin. We don't seem to mind doing it sometimes, if it isn't too big a sin anyway and sometimes even if it is. A child is made to feel awful if he or she swipes a candy bar and is forced to go back to the store and make amends. It's a good lesson, we tell them. But what about if we commit adultery, or steal from the company because we think they'll never miss it, or hit a parked car or (God forbid) a person and just keep driving? Are we as rigorous about amends then? Are we as willing to accept reproof for our own sins as we are those of our children or even other adults?

During Lent we focus on getting back into right relationship with God. We hear the word "sin" more often and even the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday, we are marked with ashes to remind us that we are dust and one day will become dust again. We are sinners, whether we want to believe it or not, but our sin does not totally define us the way we sometimes believe or are told by others.  We're told about God's love, but we're also told we have to repent. 

Repentance is hard. Usually sinning isn't terribly hard, and even dead easy at times, but repentance is something else. It is hard to admit that we could be and definitely are wrong sometimes, but there it is, right in front of us. It's something we need to do to make things right between us and God--and us and those we have hurt with our sins. Whether we confess to a priest, recite the General Confession at church, or even just say "I'm sorry" in our night prayers or after recognizing we've messed up, we feel better. Even though we are told in church that God loves us, we're often still not sure. We want to believe, Lord knows, but a lot of times we really wonder.

The good news is that God does love us, enough that if God had a refrigerator, every one of us on the face of the earth would have our picture on it (God would know each and every one of us by sight). More good news is that God loves us enough to forgive us even before we ask for it. The confession and prayers for forgiveness aren't for God, they're for us, as funny as that sounds.

Every now and then, something breaks through and reminds me that God really does love me, in a way my Sunday-school song "Jesus Loves Me" could never do. Reading the German proverb, "If God were not willing to forgive sin, Heaven would be empty" was one of those light bulb moments.

Now, angels in heaven are supposed to be perfect, but what about the saints? They were human beings before they were saints, and every human being has the potential for sin (well, except for one, but he was both human AND divine). Some saints were dedicated from a young age but many were real stinkers. Yet all found that God's love was irresistible, and that turned them around.

So if God's love is all-encompassing, then there is no one beyond it or outside the pale, even sinners. Heaven isn't populated with perfect people, just forgiven ones. Heaven is also boundless so there is room for everyone, all God's children, even the ones other people might consider far beyond God's forgiveness.

I can't believe that Heaven would be empty, or limited to just one group of people to the exclusion of everybody else. "In my father's house are many mansions: if it were not so I would have told you" (John 14:2) is one reassurance. Some may treat Heaven as a goal but for me I would rather think of it as a promise. I may not be perfect, but I am forgiven.

That's a reassurance I can live with very comfortably. It doesn't mean I can slack off and do whatever I want to anybody, but if and when I mess up, I can say that I'm sorry, try to make amends, and count on God's forgiveness.

I'd like to think that that third cloud from the right is my eventual home. I hope God allows pets.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 6, 2016.