The Language of Our Hearts: A Pentecost Sermon

I preached this sermon on Pentecost, June 5, 2022, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Acts 2:1-21, the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the Apostles.

A few weeks ago I traveled up to South Bend to attend a conference for all of the Episcopal Churches in Province V, which is a region that roughly encompasses the midwestern United States. It was a wonderful time, both for the workshops and other sessions offered, and also, just as importantly, for the chance to connect with new people and reconnect with some familiar ones—friends and colleagues that I hadn’t seen since well before the pandemic started. As we know from gathering together here at Trinity each Sunday, there is something heartening and healing about being together in person, seeing each other’s faces, hearing each other’s voices.  

When we celebrated the Eucharist at the conference, we were invited to do something that perhaps you’ve experienced before if you’ve attended a large Episcopal gathering or convention, especially one with a diversity of attendees: at that moment in the liturgy when we all join together to say the Lord’s Prayer, we were asked to pray it in “the language of our heart.” The language of our heart. I love that phrase.

And so, after a brief pause, a cacophony of voices rose up in prayer—some praying in the traditional English language version that is so dear and familiar to us here; some in the more contemporary English translation; but also in Spanish, and in other languages—a seminary friend of mine who was there offered prayers in Lakota. The cumulative effect was messy, but beautiful—a collision of hearts and tongues naming God, praising God, asking God for protection and provision. 

Maybe it was because I hadn’t heard the Lord’s Prayer offered that way in a little while, but it touched me deeply, it gave me a different sense of the vastness of that prayer, the billions of times it is offered up each day, in grand churches and in homeless shelters, on mountaintops and on commuter trains, by people we will never meet, people so different from us and yet so fundamentally connected to us, each crying out in the language of their deepest heart. Our Father, who art in heaven. Padre nuestro. Ate unyanpi. (That last one is in Lakota, if you’re curious). 

One of the great tragedies of Christian history has been the idea that being one in Christ means being exactly the same as one another. The idea that being part of the universal Church is more about fitting in than it is about becoming the fullness of who God made each of us to be. That pressure to conform, to get in line, to deny the parts of yourself deemed different or unacceptable—that is a particular cultural force at work, not the Gospel itself. That urge to suppress diversity is the work of tyrants and empires, not the work of God’s Kingdom. Because the Spirit of God speaks in every language, shows up in every type of person and place and circumstance, the Spirit radiates out of every color of the rainbow. 

And, to put it more bluntly for those of us here in the United States: God does not only speak in or understand English. God does not only work through people similar to us. And I thank God that we are part of a church that recognizes the joy and the strength of diversity of every type—social, economic, political, theological, racial, linguistic, and every other sort, too. We are messy, but we are beautiful, this collision of hearts and tongues that we call The Episcopal Church. 

By not simply tolerating our differences but striving to cherish them and learn from them, we live into the reality of the Church that was born on that first Pentecost, when the Apostles were caught up in the whirlwind of the Spirit and were able to proclaim the gospel in the native tongues of the immigrants to whom they spoke. 

There is a nuance here that is essential for us not to miss: the miraculous gift of the Spirit was not that these immigrants could suddenly understand the Apostles speaking in one universal language—which would likely have been Greek or Latin, the dominant languages of the Roman Empire. It was that the gospel was carried to their ears in the language of their hearts—the language of their blood, the language of their native soil, the language their parents sang to them in lullabies, the language by which they learned to count the stars and name the creatures of the earth. 

On this day the gospel–the fiery incandescence of God’s love–was transformed on the lips of the Galilean preachers and rendered into the particular poetry of the hearers’ innermost self. This is the day God called out to each of them not in the language of empire, of conquest, of sameness, but in a voice that was as familiar as their own.

There is a crucial lesson in that, a fundamental Christian truth, especially as we grapple with our own challenges of living in a diverse society where some would still have us give up our God-given uniqueness, would have us mute our stories, our perspectives, our voices, in favor of a monolithic, lifeless consensus masquerading as peace.

That is not what we were made for. That is not what Jesus died for. That is not the type of peace he leaves with us. And that is not what the Spirit came for at Pentecost. The Spirit came to fill each of us with life abundant, to winnow away with fire all the lies we tell ourselves, leaving the clarity and the particularity of our divinely-made selfhood, and the Spirit came to catch us up into a bond of fellowship that honors our differences while uniting us in common practice, in common mission. 

Authenticity and courage and truth, that is our peace. And that is not just who we can be or hope to be, that is who we are when we surrender our fear and our bitterness and our prejudice to the expansiveness of God’s Spirit. A people reborn, a people who are unafraid to speak in the languages of our hearts and yet somehow still understand one another in the wordlessness of grace, the ultimately unspeakable mystery of life and of love. 

Let that Spirit of love be yours today. Let it shape all of your days. Let it shape the work that we do together in this community, in this nation, on this planet. None of the challenges that we collectively face can be met without this Spirit—a Spirit that honors difference, and yet demands from us the discipline of remaining together IN that difference. No retreating into corners; no demonizing one another; no insistence that God only speaks in ways that we alone understand. 

For if the Spirit of God is like fire, like wind, then it is elemental, and limitless, and free—it is available to everyone, kindled in hearths unknown to us, blowing across landscapes we will never see, speaking in languages we will never understand. Today we honor that vast freedom of the Spirit, we put our hope in it, because it means that we, too, might yet be free. We, too, might yet be liberated from the language of empire and speak, instead, the living language of our hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit. Only speak the word, and we shall live. Speak the word, and we shall be healed. 

Other Nations: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 9, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary texts cited are Psalm 29 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22.

Last summer I was browsing in a used bookstore, as I tend to do, and I came across a copy of The Outermost House, written in 1928 by the author and naturalist Henry Beston. It is considered a classic in the genre of nature writing, and although I’d never heard of it before, I was quickly drawn into the author’s vivid, poetic reflections that capture a year he spent alone in a small cottage on a lonely, windswept beach at the edge of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. 

His only companions are the fog-enshrouded beacon of a distant lighthouse, the layers of sound made by the undulation of the waves, and the wild wind of midwinter storms—and all of these he observes with a sense of reverent wonder. But more than anything, he notices and celebrates the wildlife along the shore, especially the birds who pause there in the midst of their migratory patterns, hunting for food, resting on the long journey north or south, attending to their own mysterious rhythms of existence. I am not an especially devoted birdwatcher, but even I was moved by his description of what he calls the “constellations” of shorebirds flying in perfect, intuitive unison above the sea:

He writes: “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…for the animal shall not be measured by man…they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

They are other nations. I love that line. In the magnificent otherness of the birds, Beston realizes that we cannot always interpret everything in the world as simply an extension of ourselves. Some things are foreign to us, unknowable, inhabiting their own truth, inaccessible, and yet still beautiful, still worthy in their own right.

I find a sense of restfulness in that observation. The restfulness of not needing to understand something or someone fully in order to love them. The restfulness of letting them be what they are without trying to control them or shape them into our own likeness.

How much more peaceful my own life might have been, at several junctures, if I had done this. If I had let others—friends, family, partners—be who or what they were, rather than trying to fashion them into what I expected or demanded them to be. And how peaceful it might have been to let myself be what I was, rather than conform to what others expected or demanded of me. How good it is to fully inhabit the mystery of our deepest selves, and to honor that mystery in others.

I was reminded of all this—of birds and freedom and flight and identity—as I reflected this week on the image of the Holy Spirit, who comes like a dove, descending upon Jesus at his baptism. 

This aspect of the scene is a bit enigmatic, when you think about it, but I suspect that when we hear this passage, we tend to focus more on the figure of Jesus in the water, or even on the reassuring voice of the Father from heaven, so much so that we might overlook the descent of the dove, who is, lest we forget, also God. 

Our gaze might easily sweep right past her; we might not stop to wonder where she has come from, this dove, where she is going, or what it means that she chooses to anoint this moment with her arrival, with a brush of her wings, carried on the breeze blowing down from the open gates of heaven. What is her part in this revelatory moment? A specific answer is not given to us. The dove who is God remains just beyond our grasp, just beyond our comprehension.

And if we don’t know quite what to do with the dove in this story, I would also say, too, that we often don’t know what to do with the Holy Spirit at all. The Spirit is unpredictable, elusive, wholly other—wing and wind and flame. Jesus, we can see, we can listen to, we can follow. And the Father we can imagine, at least to some degree, because we know what it is to have or to be a parent. 

But the descending dove—she is not like us. Her experiences, her senses, her scope of vision are beyond ours. She is the person of God that cannot be domesticated or contained. She is free. She is another nation, sovereign and unassailed. She arrives and departs and shapes events on her own inscrutable terms.

And while that can be a bit unsettling, I also love that about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit teaches us not to be afraid of the things we don’t know, the things that we cannot know. She reminds us that sometimes we have to let go of controlling outcomes in our life—for we cannot harness the wind. She humbles us. 

So whether we are considering the baptism of our Lord, or our own baptism, or any other aspect of our faith, it is good to remember and celebrate this wild, strange, impregnable aspect of God’s activity in our midst. For as much as we long for intimacy with our Creator, and as much as we seek to know and be known by our Savior, I think we also desperately need to be surprised by God. 

We need a God, perhaps now more so than ever, who can do a new and unexpected thing in our lives. We need a God who is not bound by the limits of human imagination, who is not subject to the old, tired tyrannies, not governed by the mistakes of our past, a God who can, as the Psalmist says, split the flames of fire and shake the wilderness—in other words, a God who can dazzle us, wake us up, surpass the timid longings of the earth, and teach us how to fly. 

It is true that our salvation is found in a God who loves us enough to become as one of us, but our liberation requires a God who is not like us. A God who is another nation, who conquers us with grace.  Because only in the power of God’s strange and insistent newness can we dream of a newer world. Only under her wing can we be carried there.

Where is that wild Spirit of God calling you? Which expectations or disappointments must you lay down to let God’s freedom be your own? To what great mystery are you willing to entrust your heart as you navigate “the splendor and travail of the earth?”

For we must learn to trust in the things we do not fully understand. That is the essence of faith. And that is the essence of God’s love—a nation unto itself, but now descending, softly, on the wings of the dove, to anoint you with uncompromising authenticity. 

Stand on the shore, at the edge of comprehension, and marvel at her arrival, at all that she is, all that she brings, this bearer of God’s deep, inexpressible, freely given self. Let everything be possible again.

How much more peaceful it might be when we do.

School of the Spirit: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Pentecost, May 23, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 15:26-27

How do you usually feel when you come into church on a Sunday morning (or, in more recent times, when you happen to tune in from home?) How do you feel right now?

Excited? Encouraged? Or perhaps a bit tired? Burdened by the events of the week? Maybe on some especially challenging days you feel a little like those Israelites mentioned today in Ezekiel, the ones only recently brought back to life whose bones are dried up, gasping for the breath of life. (When my alarm clock goes off at 6, I usually feel exactly like that, but I never was an early morning person.)

What I find remarkable, and beautiful, and inspiring about you, however, is that you nonetheless come here each week, whenever you are able. You step through these doors and let your body and your heart and your mind get caught up in the words and the patterns of the liturgy. Despite all of the other things vying for your attention and your energy, you are here, in this place, doing this thing that nobody really requires you to do. Why is that? What is it that draws you here, to this particular church, whether for the first time or for so many times that you’ve lost count?

When asked that question some of us might say: the people; the beauty of our traditions; the music; the opportunity to rest and pray and reflect on our lives. At least some of those things are important for most of us here, but I would also offer that there is something even deeper at work, something we don’t tend to talk about very much in the Episcopal Church, but something that we ought to name and claim, especially today, on Pentecost:

You are here because of the Holy Spirit. We are participating in this liturgy, right this very moment, because the Holy Spirit has drawn us here. You are here because God’s Spirit is within you, and that Spirit is like a moth to flame, like a river returning to its source—this Spirit longs for communion with the Father and the Son, and has placed that same longing in you–a longing to know and be known, to hold and to be held.

‘Deep calls to deep,’ the Psalmist says, ‘at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.’

And we are here, deep under the waves of liturgy, treading among the shafts light in these baptismal waters because we somehow know, under the ebb and flow of the prayers and the silences, that there is TRUTH here, a truth that is deeper than our institutional stumbles, a truth deeper than our human failings. A pattern of living, revealed in the ancient pattern of the liturgy: a pattern that contains a truth you will not find anywhere else, nowhere else in the world except within the enactment of this living Word. In the liturgy, unbroken in its offering since the time of the apostles, are the tools that teach us how to live out our daily life as God meant it to be lived. 

This is Spirit-driven, Spirit-led work.

“Jesus said to his disciples, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.”

This promise is fulfilled in the Pentecost account recorded in the Book of Acts, when the disciples were transformed by wind and flame from somewhat hapless followers of a beloved teacher into the undaunted, fervent agents of Christ’s mission on earth. And it was not just the Son of God, but the ongoing work of the Spirit of God that drew them into the lives THEY were intended to live—it was the Spirit that animated their mortal bones and caused them to prophesy and to see visions and to dream dreams. It was the Spirit that sustained their dedication far beyond the typically fickle, faltering enthusiasm we tend to give even the most worthy causes of this world.

And that same Spirit of truth, that same Spirit that swept over the waters at creation, that same Spirit that descended at Jesus’ baptism and at your own, that same Spirit is still calling out to you, still guiding you, still animating THIS community and THIS liturgy, still saying YES: God desires for you to be close, God desires for you to take your proper place in creation, God desires you to live in fullness, God desires you.

You. 

God desires you so much, in fact, that God has made a home within you; God has fed you with his own flesh; God’s holy breath is on your breath as you offer up these ancient and eternal prayers week after week.

In short, we are here, friends, not because liturgy is just a nice ritual to enact on a Sunday morning, but because liturgy at its must fundamental is the very pattern of the Holy Spirit’s movement through creation, and we are being carried aloft on the Spirit’s wings, learning, day by day, how to fly heavenward. 

I share all of this with you because I sometimes observe that, if we talk about the Holy Spirit at all in our church, we don’t tend to talk about the Spirit in connection to our experience of liturgy. Maybe it’s because we are so often focused on the Father and the Son, or maybe it’s because we think that too much talk about the Spirit might open the door to a level of exuberance to which we Episcopalians are not generally accustomed. 

But be assured that the Spirit IS here, in candlelight and in quiet gesture and in the swelling note of song, the Spirit is here in the silence of your prayers and in the outstretching of your hand towards Christ’s body, and we should be encouraged, emboldened even, to name God’s dynamic presence in our liturgy, and to say to the world, to our neighbors and our friends and those who have fallen away from faith: COME, see what is TRUE. COME, see what the shape of love is. COME, see how God teaches us to embody, in this liturgical gathering—in this school of the Holy Spirit—the essential vision of a sanctified life: gratitude, praise, confession, lamentation, reconciliation, offering, receiving, communion, contemplation, joy. COME, and see, and live.

We ought not be timid or bashful about this. Because one thing I know is that there are countless people—some of whom you probably know quite well—who are desperately longing for the type of life we seek and strive for here. A Spirit-driven, Christ-shaped, liturgically-enriched life. There is no greater gift that we can give than to invite others into the practice of their truest, most beautiful humanity. 

So when you think about why you come here, week after week, and what it is about the liturgy that draws you in, what it is that inspires you to give your heart over to Jesus, day after day, remember, it is , in part, because you are doing something essential here, something more than engaging in a pastime, something more than exercising personal taste. We are seeking and claiming LIFE. True life. Eternal life. Love-infused life. 

The tongue of flame, and the wind, and the dove, and the water, and the bread, and the blood, and the unbroken song, and the unbroken prayer and the unbreakable bond: in the liturgy these things are present, they are given.

In the liturgy, the Spirit guides us into all truth.

In the liturgy, these tired bones–yours and mine–can live. 

Fruitfulness: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on May 2nd, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8.

Jesus said to his disciples, ”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

When I was about 10 or so, I was given a role in a community theater musical version of Rumpelstiltskin. I loved doing theater in school as a kid, and I was so excited that I got to be on stage with adults and live musicians—I felt like I had hit the big time!

And I remember on the first day that the director told me that I was going to be the page boy, one of the king’s servants, and I thought, yup, this is my big shot—next stop Broadway, surely—and there was this big opening number where all the villagers were presenting gifts to the king—one person presented a ham, and another one brought some lemons, and another one brought a big basket of limes, and then the director said, “Phillip, this is where you come in,” and I thought, wow, do I get to sing a solo here, or give a dramatic monologue? And then the director said, “you don’t actually have any lines in this play; we just need you to pick up the basket of limes and carry them off the stage. Then you’re done.”

Yup, that’s it. That was literally the entirety of my part in Rumpelstiltskin. So, I carried that basket of limes offstage. Needless to say, no Tony award was forthcoming. 

But honestly, I still loved it. And probably because it was the only scene I was in, I have never forgotten that particular musical number, where the characters were presenting the lemons and the lime–the fruits of their labors–hoping to one up each other, to impress the king, to win his favor and maybe to earn some bragging rights among their neighbors. 

Maybe we can all relate to that impulse a little bit. Because on some level, in whatever context we might find ourselves, I think we all hope that we’re going to make a good impression. We hope that our fruitfulness, whatever that means for us—maybe our work or our pastimes or other manifestations of our personal fulfillment—is really going to WOW whoever it is that we think is assessing us. Our family. Our neighbors. Our friends at church. The people on Facebook. Maybe even God. 

That sense of needing to be impressively fruitful can shape how we think about our faith, our relationship with Jesus, and it can affect how we interpret certain passages.

So, for example, in today’s Gospel reading we hear Jesus talking about being the vine and his Father being the vinegrower, and we are the branches who are expected to bear fruit, to bear MUCH fruit, in fact, so that we can glorify God…or else we’ll be burned up and thrown away into the fire. And if we’re accustomed to always thinking that somehow we need to be impressive to be of value, that sounds a little intimidating. like an ultimatum—be fruitful or else!

And so then in our anxiety we might start to act like those villagers in the play, eager to prove our worth:

God, look at these fruits, I mean, these are really impressive fruits, amazing fruits, I am so darn FRUITFUL, Lord, you just wouldn’t believe it. And no offense, no judgment, but mine are a little nicer than his fruits over there. I mean, look at these LIMES. Just look at ‘em. The Holy Spirit was really doing something amazing right here. So…I win, right? I’m the best one, right? 

Now of course, we naturally want to celebrate the fruitful ways in which God is at work in the world—the blessings we receive, the ways in which we share abundant life with others. 

But I want us to think carefully about whether our personal anxiety about being fruitful enough—which we might interpret at times as being saintly enough, as busy enough, as able enough, as successful enough—obscures what Jesus is really getting at here in this parable of the vine and branches. Because, I would offer, this is not so much a parable about God’s assessment or judgment of individual achievement as it is a parable about connection, about the divinely-perfected integration of heaven and earth.

“God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us,” the first letter of John says, and we need to take that quite seriously as we receive this image of the vine and branch. In Jesus, in the Incarnate mystery of the risen and eternal God, which we enter by our baptism, there is an inseparability between our life and God’s life.  Just as the vine transfers nutrients and water and life force into the branch, so God lives in us. God’s life, God’s love—God’s very essence—is sustaining everything that we do, big or small, shaping our hearts, giving breath to our words, bending the limbs of our body as we move in the world. 

“I am the true vine…abide in me as I abide in you…apart from me you can do nothing.” This is not a threat—it is an assurance. Christ is saying there is nothing you can do that is not already part of me, because we are one in love. I have given my life to you. We are connected. You are never alone. In me, no one is ever alone.

And this is a radical shift, even from the Old Testament imagery of Israel as the vine and God as the gardener, because now God has integrated God’s own life into the plant itself, so that it will never have to survive by itself.

Christ as the vine, as the one who sustains us directly, replaces the idea of fruitfulness as our offering TO God and replaces it with the idea of fruitfulness as God’s offering to US. 

Abide in me, God says, let me offer myself to you, let me give you the fruits of MY spirit, so that you never need be estranged from me again. This is my love for you—to give you myself! Too long you have tended your own vines and trembled and wept at the insufficiency of your own meager harvest, but I tell you now that my life is your life, my harvest is your harvest. Rest and live in that knowledge. Rest and live in me.

This fulfills what the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed,  “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” and “their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.”

In our life in Christ, this is what is true about the universe: that we are one—one organism, one cycle of life and love. There is no need for anxiety, nor for competition. There is no falling short before the king’s throne. In Christ, you are already part of everything. You are already enough.

I confess, though, that even knowing this is true, there are days, especially after the exhaustion and despair of this past year, that I still worry, because, if anything, I feel a lot more like that withered branch in the parable, the one that is all dried up and gnarled, with seemingly no fruit at all. 

In those times, forget the basket of limes; I don’t even feel like I have a single blossom. My prayers feel dry and my heart is heavy. And I wonder, sometimes, in that feeling of deadness and dryness—am I apart from God? Am I just a useless appendage to be cast away, as the passage says, “gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned”?

Because if we’re honest, there’s no shortage of dead branches in any of our lives and in our world at large—our failures, our squandered opportunities to love and care for one another, the burdens of our grief and the fear that our lives don’t amount to much.

But today, I want you hear those seemingly dire words anew, remembering, again, that God is love and nothing can separate you from the workings of that love. Nothing. You are part of love’s eternal cycle. And God is redeeming even those fruitless branches in our lives, those dead ends in our heart. 

So yes, God is gathering dead branches and putting them into the fire, but God is tenderly gathering them, tenderly gathering up our grief and our brokenness. God is putting them into the flames, yes, but they are the flames of his transformative mercy, reducing that which has died to ashes, not to annihilate, but so that it might go back into the earth to fertilize the growth of new life. To God, nothing is dead forever. And nothing is ever wasted.

This is the truth of which you are a part. This is the Life that imbues your own life. 

That will always be so, whether you are feeling abundant and confident, or whether you aren’t. Whether you are center stage, or whether you’re just standing in the wings with a basket of limes, wondering what the heck you’re doing.

What sweetness, what relief, and what possibilities for joy when we realize that fruitfulness is something given to us, not something proven by us. And when we realize that we are already known. Already acceptable. Already abiding on the vine, in God’s own life, forever. 

10-year old me as the Page Boy in Rumpelstiltskin. Not sure where the limes went.

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

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.