A Sermon: God, Our Lover

I preached this sermon at my home parish, Grace in the Desert Episcopal Church, Las Vegas, NV, on Sunday, September 2nd, 2018. The lectionary reading used is Song of Solomon 2:8-13. I offer it to you and to the heart of the God who loves and desires each of us.

“Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”

The Song of Solomon, a piece of which we encountered in today’s readings, has a rather controversial history in the Christian tradition. It is, on its face, an exquisite poem about the ecstatic love between a man and a woman—one that comes out of a long poetic tradition in the cultures of ancient Israel and the near east. It’s an unabashed expression of longing and desire between two people, and its heightened sentiments might sound familiar to those of us who have experienced the soul-stirring rush of romantic attraction.

At various points in the history of our faith, the Song of Solomon has also been reinterpreted as a metaphor of Christ’s love for His bride, the Church. The thought for some, I suppose, was that such a frank expression of bodily desire did not align with the sanctity and moral discipline of the Christian ethos, and so the Song was instead taught and understood as coded language that communicates God’s pure and holy desire for creation; the consummation of a bond between two lovers became an analogy for the Church’s mystical union with Jesus Christ.

So what do we do with this text, then? Do we stick with those Biblical scholars who read it as an ancient Israelite love poem, a beautiful erotic relic? Or do we cordon it off as a spiritualized metaphor, one that conveys a sanitized interpretation of Jesus’s bond with his Church?  Or is there something else here for us?

To answer this question, I want to tell you a brief personal story. Last year I was meeting with my spiritual director, a Franciscan friar, and we were talking about prayer—specifically, my prayer life while at seminary. I was telling him about the various ways that I was trying to relate to God, and how on some level I was more comfortable praying and talking to God the Father rather than directly to Jesus. I felt, quite honestly, like I didn’t know how to relate to Jesus. As a teacher or guru figure? An older brother? A King? (too intimidating) A close friend? (too familiar) As someone who is a disciple of Jesus, as someone who has pledged myself to serving this very personal God who is Son as much as Father and Spirit, I was troubled by my struggle to connect on an emotional level with Jesus, and not just a theoretical one.

And then my spiritual director said something surprising that I will never forget. He said, “why don’t you relate to Jesus as the one who is in love with you?”

I had two immediate reactions. First: my brain’s knee-jerk response: “No way! Jesus is God incarnate. I can’t think of God in the same way I would someone I am in love with. That kind of romantic love is only for human beings.”

And the other reaction, from a much deeper place in my heart: a door opening. The feeling of an unspoken, unrecognized truth suddenly brought to light: our God was also, somehow, human. Our God, in Jesus, had a heart and body like mine. And with this heart, God might not simply love me in a paternalistic way, or with a generic, impassive offering of good-will, but that God could be IN LOVE with me. That God could be IN LOVE with all of us.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

The Song of Solomon clues us in to something—that desire, that romantic love, as much as any other form of love, is a doorway to understanding the ways in which God relates to us. And that’s not in the detached, polite manner  of interaction that you might offer an acquaintance on the street. No. God loves us passionately, ardently, with a fury and a longing. God is the burning bush in the desert that calls out to us and burns and burns and burns and yet is never consumed.

And it’s with this insight that we come to understand that the romantic bond between two people—straight people, gay people, young lovers, or lifelong partners— this bond is bound up in the outpouring of divine love that permeates creation. It is our nature, it is a good thing, to long for each other, to yearn for the union of our body with another, because God longs for us in the very same way. It is this longing that erupted in the Incarnation, the Passion, and that brought forth the Resurrection. In the human heart, the divine heart, the beating and burning sacred heart of Jesus, God has not only sanctified our human love and desire—He has experienced it, as a human being, firsthand, coursing through Him.

This truth about the heart of God is what allowed the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, writing down heavenly visions in her monastic cell, to refer variously to Jesus as father, as mother, as brother, and as husband—the One Who fulfills every need, Who encapsulates every type of love we have been blessed to receive in this life, and every type of love for which we are still longing to find.

This truth about the passion of God is what St. Clare of Assisi was referring to when she wrote, of Christ: “Draw me after you! We will run in the fragrance of your perfumes, O heavenly spouse! I will run and not tire.”

This is a love that enfolds us, no matter our gender, no matter our sexuality, or our relationship status. Christ looks upon us and loves us, He sees our longing to be understood, to be admired, to be held, and He says:

I’m here. I’ve always been here. I love you. I am in love with you, every part of you. Why else would I have endured the folly and suffering of the cross, if not for that burning love? Why else would I show up here at this altar, week after week, to kiss your lips with bread and wine, if not for an all-consuming desire to be one with you?

And the voice of the poet, who is us, sings in response,

“Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.”

“Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.”

The Song of Solomon, like all of Holy Scripture, is an invitation to love and be loved, in body as well as heart and soul. Those who would read the text as “only” an erotic poem AND those who would read it as “only” a spiritual metaphor are actually making the same mistake: they are constructing a false boundary between our bodily experience of human love and that of the divine love we participate in through Christ. The two are intertwined, and in our humble passions we find a reflection of the One Consummate Lover of all creation—the God we know in Christ, who calls out to us, wooing us, consoling us, as only a lover can do.

The only question that remains, then, is whether we will respond to the invitation to “arise and come away“. If your beloved calls to you, will you go running and cast yourself into their embrace?  Will you venture out with them, into that landscape of abundant possibility where “the fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom”?

I pray that each of us will take such a chance. I pray that we will respond with the same intensity of feeling that Jesus offers us, for it is He who will always be the Supreme Love of our lives. I pray for a world blessed by the consummation of our desire for God and for each other. I pray that such a world will give way to a new love poem, one that never ends. Its title will be the Song of the Kingdom of God.

“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away, for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come.”

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The Ancient and the New

It’s been one month since I arrived in Mirfield; as such, one quarter of my time here is already done. I can already sense little shifts in the landscape. The dawn is brighter as I walk up the hill to morning prayer; dusk lingers a bit longer in the church as we chant the psalms at evensong. There are changes inside of me, too. A bit less disoriented, a bit more confident of how I fit into this place.

So much has gone on since my last post. There was the somber and beautiful Ash Wednesday liturgy, when the priest drew a cross on my forehead with cool, damp ashes that had been sprinkled with holy water. A day of silent contemplation at the College to usher in Lent, during which I alternated between stillness and dizzying anxiety. A weekend trip to the ancient city of York, where I wandered alone through the medieval streets looking for a glimpse of a ghost or two. At the massive and magnificent York Minster I was stunned into silence, not simply because of its visual grandeur, but in recognition of the centuries and centuries of prayers that have been offered up into its lofty heights.  I felt alone, and yet deeply connected to that never-ending litany.

This journey thus far, with its ample opportunities for reflection, have made it very clear to me how I am still learning to be a disciple of Christ on the most basic levels: to look kindly upon myself and my flaws, and those of others; to trust that God actually loves me, personally, and not just as an abstraction; to recognize that grace is imbued into everything, whether I see it or not, because God is far more than I can see, or feel, or guess at. These are simple, incomprehensible truths. I know how much I still have to grow, and yet I am also seeing more clearly how becoming a priest is less about growth and more about fully inhabiting myself as God made me. We are not asked to be perfect as priests, but we are asked to be deeply, authentically ourselves, and that is the hardest thing of all sometimes. That goes for non-priests, too, of course.

Lest you think my entire month has been pensive introspection, there have been tons of joyful moments, too. Case in point: on Sunday afternoon I went to lunch with a classmate; we drove out into the countryside and the hills were so green and vast I wanted to cry. Afterwards we drove up to the Victoria Tower, an old observation structure perched far above the town of Huddersfield, and the wind was blowing and the clouds were scudding across the sky and I thought, yes, to be alive is a very good thing. To be here, breathing and breathless and crying from the wind and the wonder is exactly as it must be.  Come, Lord. Come, spring. I am broken open, and I am ready.

Preparing for Lent

The season of Lent is almost upon us. The preparations at Mirfield have me learning about some very old customs that are quite new to me. Today, for example, is Collop Monday.  What’s a collop, you might ask? Apparently it’s a word that refers to bits of leftover meat, often bacon, which are traditionally eaten up on this day before the Lenten season of fasting begins on Ash Wednesday.  The grease from the meat (at least, if Wikipedia is to be trusted) is then used to fry up the pancakes that are traditionally eaten tomorrow, Shrove Tuesday. Mmmm, pancakes.

All the students at the College went up the hill to the monastery house this afternoon to eat Collop Monday lunch with the brethren. It was a feast, although sadly no bacon to be found. BUT there was brisket, roast chicken, stuffing, and tons of dessert. Gotta get those calories in before the menu is pared down for Lent!

Lent is taken quite seriously here, and many of my classmates have been pondering what sort of discipline they are going to adopt starting Wednesday. If you have been part of any liturgical church tradition, you are probably familiar with the question, “what are you giving up for Lent?”  The idea is that in the relinquishing of a particular habit, or in the adoption of a new spiritual discipline, we are creating space in our hearts to listen to God as we approach the commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection in Holy Week. It’s 40 days of soul-searching, and I could sure use it.

At Mass this morning the homily talked about how in our soul-searching we tend to bargain with God, usually petitioning for favors or for the cessation of misfortune. I do this all the time, frankly, even though I don’t necessarily think God relates to us in that way. I’ve been doing a lot of imploring to the heavens lately as I adjust to life over here and battle some inner and outer demons. Maybe you can relate.

Truth be told, I get really annoyed by people who sneer at anyone who prays with a desperate heart. “Well, he only prays when he wants something!” Come now, we all want something–don’t kid yourself that you are holier just because you pray at other times, too. The fact that we are compelled to cry out to God in any circumstance is a sign of grace to me; it just so happens that our need and our fear is usually the hollow space in which God can enter us, if we let God do so. (See Luke 18:9-14)

The challenge, at least in my case, is to remain open–to allow God to dwell in the space that’s usually cluttered up with the distractions and novelties that pervade my life. And so Lent is a little bit like spring cleaning for the heart; it’s an intentional effort to clear out some room and prepare a seat for the Holy One to come and abide with me as we wait together for new life to emerge.

I’m pretty sure what my Lenten discipline is going to be, but I’m going to pray on it a bit more between now and Wednesday before committing. If you’ve already settled on something for yourself, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

God bless you, friends. If you’re reading this, I am grateful for your companionship on this journey. I’ll write in a couple of days to describe the Ash Wednesday liturgy, which I’ve heard is beautiful.

xo

Tea with the Monks

Sundays are a whirlwind at Mirfield. Mattins (morning prayer) at 7:30 with fellow students and the monks of of the Community of the Resurrection, then a sung Mass til 9, and then I dash off to my field placement church(es) in town: St. Mary’s in the center of Mirfield at 9:45, followed by St. John’s in the nearby village of Upper Hopton at 11:15. Four worship services before noon!

After Sunday lunch back at the College there is a bit of a pause when students are welcome to go up for tea in the large home where the monks live. I didn’t go my first Sunday and decided I would venture up today to meet some of the brethren (as the monks are collectively called).

A classmate and I got into a long conversation with Fr. Eric, who has been a monk with the Community since 1961 when he arrived at Mirfield as an “unwilling” young novice–he said that as a young man he felt the call to monastic life but he was resistant to it at the same time. He admitted that he even kept his luggage packed for the first three weeks at the monastery, ready (hoping?) at any moment to be dismissed and to go back to his regular life. And yet nearly 60 years later he is still there, still working out his calling, still seeking God each day in worship and contemplation.

Given my own struggles (see previous post) I was deeply comforted by Fr. Eric’s frankness. Do we ever really know FOR SURE that the thing we are doing is the only thing we could have/should have done? Whether it’s a career, a relationship, or any other major life decision, we always step into it with an element of blind trust, because we can never know how it will turn out. I asked Fr. Eric if he ever reached a place in his life where he ceased to struggle with his calling and he chuckled. “A retreat visitor once asked me if I ever questioned becoming a monk,” he said with a smile. “Before giving it much thought I answered her, ‘every day!'” He laughed merrily.

There are no guarantees when you commit to a relationship, even when it’s with God. There will be doubt and struggle, and sometimes you will question why on earth you are doing any of this. And when you think about it, God has no guarantees when entering into a relationship with us, either: we are fickle and resistant far more than we might like to admit.

Despite this, God remains committed, and that divine fidelity hopefully inspires our own faithfulness–to God, to each other, and to the loving commitments that we make in this life. Not out of a sense of duty, and not because we are free of doubts, but because we trust that fidelity itself is a transformative practice, no matter the outcome.

Fr. Eric then told us another story about an elderly monk who is visiting the Community right now from the northern reaches of England. He is not a member of their order, but he has a longstanding relationship with them. This particular monk lives alone on a mountaintop; he’s been there for years, waiting and hoping that some others will join him to form a community. Nobody has ever come, though, and so he lives as a de facto hermit. I was both fascinated and shaken by this image of a man waiting for a vision to come true despite all evidence to the contrary. What kind of patience and commitment must that take? Did he ever second guess his decision? How does he know that he should stay up on the mountain?

After the tea ended, with all of these thoughts lingering in my mind, we walked back through the garden towards the College building; the sun had set and the air was damp and icy. My classmate pointed toward a cluster of forlorn bushes and said that before I leave in June, they will be covered in roses. It was hard to imagine it then in the February twilight, but I imagine he must be right; the roses will arrive in their time. A few months from now, on a balmy night, the air will smell sweet and who knows what I will have learned. I can’t quite picture it, but I have to trust.

 

Fire or Fire

This morning I woke up far earlier than I needed to after a night of troubled sleep. In one of those “God, give me a message” moments, I grabbed a book of poetry from my desk and opened it by chance to this:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre–
To be redeemed from fire by fire

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

These words, part of “Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot, inhabited the dark room with me like a corporeal presence. I have been struggling mightily with things I’ve lost and left behind and the fear of other things I might yet lose. The gratitude that I feel for this three-year seminary journey has often been tinged with sadness, and there have been moments when it all seems bleak and futile. The “flame of incandescent terror” is exactly what answering the call to priesthood has sometimes been for me: a burning away of old comforts and the scorching of my blithe naiveté about what priestly formation would entail, all carried down on the wings of a fearsome Love that feels more like grief. I think that anyone who seeks to follow God, no matter their path or vocation, has at some point felt the sting of what Bonhoeffer calls the cost of discipleship. Who we were must be relinquished for who God asks us to become. The fire of the Spirit is not for the faint of heart, and it demands everything we have to give.

It seems impossible sometimes. But what is the alternative? If Eliot is right, and we must choose to either be burned on the liberating pyre of faith or on the suffocating pyre of our own hardened hearts, then the choices are not in fact equal. Any fear I might feel about following Christ is still preferable to a life of deadening self-interest, and so I continue to turn my face toward the flames of God–however tentatively–and they continue to sting my eyes with their heat.

But how does one make a life of this? How do I let myself be kindled by God’s Love rather than fall back on the same old habits and neuroses that have gotten me by in life thus far? How to die to my old self and yet recognize that I remain a person who wants to be carefree, to laugh, to not trudge along in dreary self-importance? How can I be fully myself–complicated, vulnerable, earthy, needy–in a world (and even a church culture) that sometimes corrals people into a stultifying role that values piety and assurance more than raw presence?

These are some of the questions I’ve brought to Mirfield. I don’t know that they can be answered. But if “Love is the unfamiliar name,” I want to learn how to speak it with greater confidence. I want to adopt it as my own. Even if it burns, as it does, as I know it will.

God, give me the courage to be consumed by you.

Daily Life

I’m still new here and I’m learning all sorts of details about *how things are done* at Mirfield, but what follows is a typical day so far:

6:45AM: Alarm goes off. It’s still dark, and I fumble my way through a quick morning routine before putting on the required attire for all services and most meals: a black cassock (basically a long black robe that buttons down the front) and matching scapular (think of it like an apron that drapes over your shoulders, covering your front and billowing out behind you like a little cape when you walk). Underneath, people just wear a regular shirt and dark pants, and black shoes and socks are a must. A belt around the outside of the cassock and I’m good to go. I grab a borrowed copy of the Church of England’s “Common Prayer: Daily Worship” book and head out the door by 7:15. I might encounter some other students along the way up to the church, but everyone remains silent, as there is no speaking on campus from 9:30PM until after breakfast the next morning.

7:30: Mattins. This is a morning prayer service in the College’s worship space that consists of a few psalms, a canticle, one scripture reading, and some prayers. We aren’t with the monks for this one; they are upstairs in the main portion of the church.

One of my favorite moments of the day is when the students begin mattins by singing “O Lord, open our lips/And our mouth shall proclaim your praise” in the most beautiful harmony.  Since we are otherwise observing silence, this is literally the first sound that anyone utters as the day begins. We use the same language to open morning prayer back home, too, but the resonance of the words is somehow heightened when they pierce the silent gloom of pre-dawn after not speaking all night.

8AM: Mass. This is a very simple Eucharistic (communion) service, officiated by one of the faculty priests, without any singing. It is optional for students to stay for this portion (mattins, described above, is required every day) but a good number do remain. After we receive communion and close the service, everyone departs for breakfast.

8:30(ish): Breakfast in the refectory (dining hall). I’ll talk more about the meals another time, but it is simple, tasty, and eaten in silence. Once you finish your food and leave the refectory, you may talk at leisure for the rest of the day.

11AM: Tea & coffee are offered in the refectory, and students pass through, chat, whatever.  Very casual.

12PM: There is an optional (for students) midday prayer service in the main church with the monks of the Community of the Resurrection.  It’s only about 15 minutes, and is mostly psalms, chanted in plainsong.

1PM: Lunch in the refectory. Students do not need to wear their cassock and scapular to lunch, though you may if you would like to do so. Lunch is simple, often a casserole or a soup, and everyone is chatting and socializing.

4PM: Tea and coffee are again set out in the refectory.  There are usually some scones or other treats, too. As you can see, you don’t go hungry here! Everyone jokes about the “Mirfield Stone”, which is something akin to the Freshman 15.

6PM: Evensong (sung evening prayer) with the monks in the main church.  We put our cassocks and scapulars back on for this one, and it is a required service. The monks are seated in a circle in the middle of the worship space, and we are in a circle around them. Visitors to the monastery are in separate seats. Evensong is, again, made up of a number of chanted psalms, a reading, silence, and other prayers. It is incredibly beautiful to hear the assembly join its voices together; the vaulted ceilings of the church create a sound that envelops you.

6:45ish: Immediately after evensong, the students head back to the refectory for dinner. It’s always lively and the food is hearty. We open and close with grace, so everyone remains at the table until the meal is completed.  Then we all go downstairs to the common room for coffee and tea and more conversation.

9:15PM: Compline. This is an optional, very brief, bedtime prayer service with the monks again in the main church. The lights are dim, there is a single candle lit in the middle of the seats, and a few psalms are chanted. This service ushers in the silence that will be kept by the entire community until the next morning.

And then the cycle repeats itself, day in and day out. And that agenda, of course, doesn’t include classes, meetings, personal prayer and study, and socializing–all of which is fit into the hours not spoken for above. It’s a rigorous schedule, and yet I have found the rhythm comforting, especially since I am so new and sometimes feeling lonely and overwhelmed. Even when you are feeling lost on the inside, there is always another moment of prayer or fellowship approaching, carrying you like a current down a stream. You are carried by the schedule, by the community, and by God, Who is ever present in the ebb and flow of the day.

First Impressions

I’ve intended to start a blog for a long time, at least since I was preparing to enter seminary a couple of years ago. For various reasons the practice never stuck. Like daily prayer, regular blogging is easily derailed by the petty anxieties of the present moment.

Now, though, I find myself thousands of miles from home (the western U.S.), adjusting to life in northern England for a semester at College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, and I realized I owed it to myself (and anyone else with a passing interest) to document the experience. So here we are.

Mirfield is, in a word, singular. It is the only seminary in the entire Anglican Communion (the worldwide body of churches that includes, among many others, both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church) that is adjacent to and deeply intertwined with a monastic community. The students and the monks pray at multiple short services per day, sometimes together and sometimes separately, and an interdependent communal life is emphasized, required, and celebrated.

I came to Mirfield after a year and a half at my own seminary, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, because I was yearning for a deep spiritual formation that a monastic setting might provide.  In addition, I was drawn to Mirfield’s Anglo-Catholic traditions (more on that in another post, perhaps) and saw that aspect as a helpful counterpoint to my experiences in parishes back home.

There is much uncertainty that I am carrying with me on this journey to England, in nearly every aspect of my life. My hope is that this will be a space where I can 1) describe some of the interesting aspects of my time in England (and there are many already!) and 2) do some written spiritual reflection that illuminates my formation. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get in the habit of blogging and keep it up after I go home in June!

If you are reading this, whether we know each other in person or not, take away two things about me. First, I am a gay man who wrestled with the intersection of my faith and my sexual orientation for many years, and I am still discovering what it means to believe that God loves me exactly as I am. Second, studying for the priesthood has shown me that we never “get there” to a place where we are 100% sure of ourselves and rest in some doubtless bliss where faith is easy. There are no experts in holiness, only fellow travelers. I fret and struggle and mess up. All. The. Time. And yet somehow God doesn’t count me out. God hasn’t counted you out, either. Promise.

Next time I’ll describe some basics of daily life at Mirfield.  Thoughts or questions or prayer requests? Send me a note in the “About” page.

Peace, friends.

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A week ago, jet lagged from the flight to the UK.