How should Christians fight?

FearCharlesLeBrun1760_wikiSERMON NOTES, PENTECOST 11 (Proper 14, preached August 9, 2015, at Church of the Good Shepherd, Town & Country, Missouri)

Family fights are often the ugliest. They can get nasty fast, and they’re very often over the smallest things. Someone takes offense at a remark; two people disagree over the right way to do things. Grudges can be held for years. When things get really bad, one branch may stop communicating with another for generations.

That’s not just true in families. It can be true in communities. It can be true in the Church. Some of the bitterest fights are over the best ways to honor God.

As Christians, we often think that we shouldn’t argue among ourselves. We shouldn’t fight. We shouldn’t bicker. We tend to think that that we should, instead, always get along, because isn’t that what Jesus expects of us?

The problem is that we’re human, and fighting amongst ourselves is a part of the human condition. When it comes to church matters, we’re going to disagree over the essentials of theology, and we’re going to disagree over how to do coffee hour, and we’re going to disagree over everything in between – and there’s a lot of in between. That’s true at the parish level, and it’s true of the national and international Church.

When these fights blow up and go public, it’s embarrassing to all of us. Non-Christians look on our quarrels as signs of hypocrisy: “See how these Christians love one another.”

We’ve been fighting over a lot of things in recent years. When I was young, I knew people who left the Episcopal Church over changes in language in the liturgy. Then there were people who left over changes in the role of women in the church. More recently, people have left over the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the full life of the church.

The fights have been ugly, with plenty of nastiness on both sides, with little sign of the love we are commanded to have for one another, with little evidence of attempts to understand where our opponents are coming from. It echoes our country’s unfortunate political dialogue today. But as Christians, we are supposed to be better than that.

There have been conservatives who accused liberals of apostasy, and liberals who accused conservatives of bigotry. There was the bishop who told conservatives, from the pulpit, “This isn’t your church any more,” and to leave. There have been lawsuits, from all angles. None of it has enhanced how those outside the church view us. None of it has demonstrated the love of Christ.

It’s not a recent problem. It goes all the way back to the foundation of the Church. You had the party that believed that Gentile Christians should first convert to Judaism, complete with circumcision, and the party that wanted to welcome all regardless. (Fortunately for us, Paul won that one.)

From reading the epistles, we know that disagreement was rife in the early Church. That’s why, in today’s reading, the author of Ephesians tells us how Christians ought to fight.
It’s okay to be angry, he says, but don’t dwell on it. Stick to the facts; don’t exaggerate. Don’t gossip. Work through your anger, and turn it into something useful, something positive. Don’t tear down others; don’t divide. Instead, work to build up the whole community.

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander,” he says, “together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

Well, that’s a lot to ask, isn’t it, when our side is clearly right and the other is wrong? How are we supposed to be kind or forgiving to bigots, or to apostates? Isn’t that a sign of weakness?

No, it’s a sign of paying attention to what Jesus has taught us. The gospels are filled with that lesson. How often are we to forgive? Seventy times seven, as often as it takes. Nobody says it’s easy, but loving our neighbor and forgiving wrongs is a basic part of our faith.

“Be imitators of God,” says the author of Ephesians, “as beloved children, and live in love.” We need to rise above the petty stuff, the coffee-hour disagreements, and put them aside. We need to find ways to reconcile the larger issues, or find ways to part in love and understanding, rather than in bitterness.

“Live in love, as Christ loved us.” That’s the takeaway for this reading, and it applies to every area of our lives: in our families, in our workplaces, in the Church, and in the world outside.

Lord, give us loving and understanding hearts, and the grace to get past our anger and bitterness toward one another when we disagree. Help us to live as you have commanded us, and in the spirit in which you yourself lived among us. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller


The Trinity (Heresy optional)

Creed_icon_(Russia,_17_c.)_wikiHappy Trinity Sunday, when we sing one of my all-time favorite hymns, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” (aka “I bind unto myself today”), albeit too often without all the verses.

The Trinity is one of those hard-to-explain, much-dreaded-by-preachers, oft-handed-to-the-person-on-the-bottom-of-the-totem-pole subjects for Sunday sermonizers.

This could have something to do with the fact that the Trinity is extremely difficult to explain. As the Donall and Conall video “St Patrick’s Bad Analogies” proves, even St. Patrick fell into heresy in the attempt.

I’m comfortable with the idea of the Trinity. I don’t mean to say that I could explain it theologically without (almost certainly) lapsing into egregious heresy, but I do think that it’s the only logical way to explain the different faces and facets and characteristics that God presents to the world, without either going all polytheistic and full-bore heretical or denying that Jesus is a part of the Godhead.

I’m comfortable with the concept of the Spirit, of Wisdom, demonstrating the feminine side of the Godhead, a counterpoint to the oft-cranky God the Father, so swift to smite in the Hebrew Bible. I’m comfortable with Jesus, our brother, our friend, the approachable God in man made manifest. I’m quite comfortable with offering prayers to all three Persons of the Trinity.

With the three Persons of the Trinity, to pray without ceasing becomes as seamless as shifting gears on an old Toyota. The Spirit guides us into truth, and we pray (if we have any sense at all) for wisdom. Jesus joins us on the road, a companion and helper. God the Creator is all around us. I don’t worry too much about the specific address. I just offer my prayer to God, and know that it is heard.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 The Nicene Creed explains it for us; so, in much greater detail, does the Athanasian Creed.

A chair with a view

WindowI lucked out the other day at the Infusion Center.

Jeannette found me a chair in a quiet corner, with no loud TV viewers in close proximity, and on an end with a window. To make things even better, it was in the realm of Barb, one of the compassionate veteran oncology nurses who always get the needle in the vein on the first try. Jeannette, the nurse in charge of the center, remembers me from the original cancer, and is unaccountably fond of me.

The first time I saw the center, it was after hours. Deserted in the late afternoon, unlit in the slanting sunlight, it was a little eerie. I walked in, looked around, and shuddered, the kind of shudder old-timers explain as the result of someone walking over your grave. The first time I had a treatment there, I entered feeling fine, but had to be helped out of my chair, thanks to the cherry-Kool-Aid-colored drug cocktail the nurses call “the Red Devil.” Inflammatory Breast Carcinoma is a particularly nasty and aggressive cancer, and requires a treatment to match.

This one is, in comparison, a piece of cake with extra frosting. The cancer is Stage 4 – the IBC decided on a return engagement in my sacrum – but the treatment is relatively easy. I take a pill every morning with my breakfast; once a week I take a Mystery Pill, part of a clinical study. Is it the real deal, or a placebo? I suspect the former, but even my oncologist doesn’t know. Once a quarter, I have scans to be sure that the cancer is behaving itself. Once a month, I get an infusion, a bone-building drug, delivered via IV. It leaves me feeling a little flu-ish for a couple of days.

I would doubtless have bitched and moaned at length about something like this Before Cancer; now, a veteran of much harsher treatments, I shrug it off. It’s not chemo; I’m not sick; I have hair; my brain is unfogged. How can I complain?

Now I focus on gratitude: gratitude for the researchers who have made it possible for me to survive this long with such a good quality of life, gratitude for my caring doctors, gratitude for the best phlebotomist I have ever had the pleasure to encounter, gratitude for the careful, caring nurses who even laugh at my jokes. I’m grateful for the friendly volunteer, a retired EEOC lawyer, who passed around the Girl Scout cookies (Thin Mints!) she discovered in a cabinet, and for all those who smile back when I smile at them. I’m grateful for a window to see a blooming garden on a sunny day in May. I’m grateful for the boss who gives me the time I need for my treatments. I’m grateful to God for giving me more time, however long that turns out to be.

The cancer has changed me, in more than physical ways, in good and caring ways. In that sense, even a deadly cancer can contain a blessing. I savor the view through the window, and say a prayer of thanks.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: The Good Shepherd, and the sheep

Good_Shepherd_wikicommonsSERMON NOTES, EASTER IV – GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY (April 26, 2015 – Church of the Good Shepherd)

If you were paying attention just now during the readings – if you were actively listening, as opposed to wool-gathering – you will have noted two dominant themes today.

The first is of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The second is closely related to it: The good shepherd is the one who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. They’re creatures who need the help.

Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This is the closest that the people of this parish [the Church of the Good Shepherd] are going to get to a patronal feast day, so it’s important to make the most of it.

Thanks to the miracle of computer searches, I can now tell you that there are a total of 118 references to shepherds, as well as 200 references to sheep, in the Bible when we combine the Old and New Testaments. 23 of the shepherds and 50 of the citations appear in the relatively brief New Testament. (That’s in the New International Version; your translation may vary.)

The ancient Israelites were herders, and the greatest portion of their flocks were of sheep. Jacob, whose sons would give their names to the tribes of Israel, was a herdsman.

Jacob was an intelligent and an observant man, and he used his understanding of what we would call the science of Mendelian genetics, of dominant and recessive traits, to conspire against his equally tricksy father-in-law, Laban. By encouraging the birth of striped and spotted sheep, which he got to keep, Jacob built the numbers of his own flocks, and thus profit for himself.

David, the youngest son of Jesse, kept his father’s flocks. He was out in the fields with the sheep when the prophet Samuel came calling, looking for the Lord’s new choice of a king to replace the disappointing Saul. David picked up some handy skills with a simple but effective technology, the sling, in protecting those sheep from predators.

By the time of Christ, the local economy had diversified somewhat. Other career paths had opened between “shepherd” and “warrior.” This was fortunate, since neither profession was very highly regarded.

The issues with soldiers, who were often indistinguishable from bandits, aren’t hard to figure out. Soldiers are strong, and armed both with weapons and authority. They take what they want, whether it’s your money, your food supplies, your person, or your life. It’s wise to keep a low profile around them.

The reasons that shepherds were held in low esteem are a little less obvious to us today, but they were then at the bottom of society’s ladder. They tended to be light-fingered drifters, men of no property and no repute. Although hired to tend the sheep, they were unlikely to endanger themselves on behalf of the flock. When the going got tough, they usually simply slipped away.

Shepherds have hard jobs, physically difficult and sometimes dangerous. In lambing season, they can be up all night, helping the ewes in their labor and then standing ready to drive off all the predators who crave newborn lamb as a midnight snack. They’re out in all kinds of weather, and their food rations were typically meager in centuries past.

This isn’t the pretty pastoral picture we get from images of shepherds leaning under trees, playing their flutes while the sheep doze in the shade. They have to work to build the trust of their sheep; the sheep do get to know the shepherd’s voice, and to come when called – sometimes.

We don’t think about how the tough job of the shepherd is when we hear the Christmas story. We don’t think of how radical a concept it is that shepherds first heard of the birth of the Messiah from a cloud of angels, instead of the more respectable and well-to-do folk in town.

But all this makes Jesus’s portrayal of himself as the Good Shepherd considerably more striking than it might have been on its face. Once again, he has identified with the poor and lowly, the despised, the rejects of good society. The shepherd was a part of the reality of first-century life, along with the crucifixion of criminals. but both were parts of that reality that the educated and people who strictly kept the Law preferred not to notice.

The one shepherd who would really care about the sheep, and about keeping them safe, was the owner of the sheep – or the son of the owner.

Then there are the sheep themselves. As the singing mice in the classic movie “Babe” told us, “Sheep are definitely stupid.”

Sheep may be herd animals, but they have a disconcerting tendency to wander off on their own. The paths they take on those journeys often seem to make no sense. (The phrase “wool-gathering” comes from the Scottish Highlands, where small children were sent to gather the bits of wool that caught on the heather and gorse plants as the sheep passed by. It’s a task that took them wandering in seemingly pointless paths around the fields.)

Sheep have ways of getting themselves into situations from which they cannot easily extract themselves. Sheep and lambs need a lot of care. They range over large tracts of land in order to feed themselves, and they can be tough to locate. They’re easy prey for all manner of killers, from wolves and wild dogs to eagles to people.

Sheep frequently act without thinking and against their own interests. Sheep, in other words, are a lot like people.

Both sheep and people need caring leaders to watch over them and lead them in the right direction, to guide them to a safe pasture, to find water and shelter, and, if necessary, to lay down their lives for them.

Shepherds need help in keeping the sheep together when it’s time to move. The traditional assistant has been the dog; now, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, drones are increasingly coming into use to find and round up sheep. But regardless of the nature of that assistant, a shepherd must still be in charge.

For us, as God’s people, Jesus is that shepherd. He came not just for the House of Israel, as he tells his disciples in today’s reading from John, but for all of us.

Jesus, the good shepherd, is calling us, ready to lead us where we need to go. Our responsibility is simply to listen to him and to follow. We know, we have his promise, that he will lead us to the safest of pastures, and that no danger is too great for his protection. With his help, we can fear no evil.

– Sarah Bryan Miller


The end of Lent

PaschaFIreRicardo77WikiIt’s almost here, the final darkness before the coming of the light, the brightness of the morning when the empty tomb was discovered. This evening, the new fire will be kindled, and bells will ring out in gladness.

That means that it’s almost two months since we decided on our Lenten disciplines, what to take on and what to give up. It’s time to consider how well I’ve done with mine.

There have been some successes in the first category. You’re reading the most public one. The Grace Prayer Network has been successfully revived, and in the originally intended form: Three former contributors besides me have returned, and a new one has been added. (If you’re interested, I invite you to contribute GPN meditations as well. Now that we’re going again, we want to continue, and having a variety of voices keeps things interesting.)

Giving up is harder for me; fighting ingrained habits takes more effort. It’s a small thing, and just one of several, but I’ve tried, for instance, to stop getting annoyed with other drivers, those who cut in front of me or poke along in the left lane. Getting angry over such small things hurts only me; let it go. That’s been a partial success, at least. Patience.

Now comes the greater challenge, keeping those small flames going and growing, and continuing all the disciplines I’ve begun. This isn’t like temporarily giving up chocolate or wine, and then plunging back into old habits (cheers!) on Easter Day. This involves a change in the way I live. It requires the discipline to continue to sit down and find thoughts and words worth sharing, even when the numberless distractions of modern life attack. It requires the calm to put aside annoyances and focus on what’s important.

Keeping the fires fed can be difficult at times, but the light and warmth will be worth it. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller







LaetareJerusalemAdvent has Gaudete Sunday, marked by a rose candle amidst the traditional violet tapers in the Advent wreath. Lent has Laetare Sunday, now rarely observed in this country, but worth remembering.

During the long centuries when the rules for observing Lent were both strict and and strictly observed, Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of the season, offered Western Christians a chance to come up for air. The name comes from the incipit, or first line, of the introit for the day, “Laetare Jerusalem,” “Rejoice, Jerusalem,” from Isaiah 66:10. It’s the closest thing anyone’s going to get to an alleluia in the course of almost six weeks.

Also known as “Refreshment Sunday,” for the tonic it provided to those who were feeling weary on the road to the Paschal feast, it had serious perks. In England and Scotland, special delights called simnel cakes – very unpenitential delicacies indeed, with marzipan frosting – were allowed on Laetare Sunday, the first legal sweets anyone had enjoyed since Ash Wednesday, and the last until the Day of Resurrection. It was also the only day during Lent when a marriage could be celebrated.

The color for the day is rose, a lightening of the season’s penitential purple. Some parishes (usually wealthy enough to afford a set of vestments that are used only twice a year, often Anglo-Catholic in liturgical and theological outlook) change out the violet hangings and vestments for the day, just to underline the temporary change in tone.

In 16th century England, it was the custom to attend the “mother church,” the cathedral or principal church in a parish, on Laetare Sunday; Lent IV thus gained the additional title of “Mothering Sunday.” Servants were allowed to go home to visit their own mothers, lightening their personal sacrifice but making Lent a little more real for their employers. In recent years in Britain, Mothering Sunday has become largely conflated with the imported American holiday of Mother’s Day, to considerable confusion.

Although our view of Lent has shifted over the years from a focus on giving up to an emphasis on taking on, Refreshment Sunday is still worth observing. The world seems darker these days, with perils at hand in almost every corner of the world; as Christians, we are reminded that Christ’s greatest sufferings are still in store. Laetare gives us a chance to breathe, to relax in our observance, and to remember that the Lamb’s high feast is coming soon.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

It would be worth wearing pink on Lent IV just for the simnel cake. Here’s a recipe from the BBC.



Sermon notes: Cleansing the Temple

ChristCleansingTempleCranachSERMON NOTES, LENT 3, YEAR B (Preached at St. Luke’s/Manchester, March 8, 2015) John 2:13-22

If you have ever labored under the misconception that Jesus was just a very holy, very nice guy, then today’s gospel reading is for you.

A thorough reading of the gospels reveals to us just how multifaceted Jesus was. There is the teacher, dispensing wisdom, and making people think with his parables and sayings. There is the miracle-worker, healing the lame and making the blind see.

There is the prophet, proclaiming the good news of the Reign of God. Occasionally, we even get to see the very human Cranky Jesus cursing a fig tree, or getting snarky with a Gentile woman who wants his help.

In today’s gospel reading, we see Jesus taking on the roles of judge and enforcer, going on the warpath in the Temple, upsetting the tables of the moneychangers, to say nothing of the status quo, and scandalizing the (easily scandalized) priestly class. It’s not a side of his character that we frequently see, but it’s an important one.

A version of this episode appears in all four gospels, but with some important differences. The three Synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – all put the cleansing of the Temple into what we know as Holy Week, after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. In those accounts, it’s one of the last things Jesus does as a free man. It’s also one of the immediate causes of his arrest, trial, and execution.

The gospel of John, which draws on a different early tradition, places it near the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. In fact, it comes right after the wedding at Cana, when Jesus changed water into wine, performing his initial public miracle.

Both put it right before the Passover, but at different times. John’s narrative shows Jesus’s public ministry taking place over the course of three years, with multiple trips to Jerusalem. In the Synoptics, it’s all compressed into a single year, with his time in Jerusalem coming only at the end.

The animal sellers and money changers were performing an important and officially sanctioned function. All the rules for what they’re described as doing are set forth in the book of Leviticus, the work of an early bureaucracy that was focused on centering all worship at the temple. Sacrifices were made by the priests on behalf of the people, for the forgiveness of sins, or for thanksgiving and celebration. These rules are major additions to the Ten Commandments, as we heard them read in the first lesson this morning, but it is in human – and, especially, bureaucratic – nature to expand on and further embroider existing regulations.

Since the animals were being sacrificed to God, they had to be absolutely perfect, with no blemishes. You couldn’t just bring in a dove off the streets and offer it for sacrifice, or lead in a lamb from your farm. It had to be certified and sold by an approved merchant, rather as our Cardinals team regalia has to be approved by Major League Baseball.

In the same way, the moneychangers made the use of coinage acceptable in the sacred precincts of the Temple. A Roman or other coin, bearing the image of an emperor or foreign god, was unclean for sacrificial purposes; it had to be traded in for a coin that had no pagan taint. The bankers at the Temple exchanged pure money for the impure.

Of course, everyone involved in this business did well while doing good. The Temple authorities got a cut of everything that went on there. The priests ate most of the sacrifices of grain and animal offerings. The money changers made a tidy profit, as did the animal sellers. Given human nature, it’s likely that there was some quiet price-fixing going on, and not in the consumer’s favor.

It all took place in the Temple’s outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, and it must have been a mess. There were the animal sellers, with their cattle, sheep and doves, all bellowing, baa-ing and cooing. There were the money-changers at their tables. There were even souvenirs for sale to those Jews who traveled from around the Mediterranean world in order to worship at the Temple.

We can be sure that there was plenty of huckstering going on, with all those wares and services being loudly advertised. We can be equally sure that it was not a scene to lift one’s thoughts to the beauty of holiness.

This wasn’t the first time Jesus had been to the Temple. This wasn’t the first time he’d made his way through the holy hucksters who hawked their wares. But this was the first time he reacted so passionately to what he witnessed.

Except for Mark, the Synoptics give the incident a set of fairly cursory paragraphs. Luke puts it this way: “Then he went to the Temple and began driving out the traders, with these words: ‘Scripture says, “My house shall be a house of prayer,” but you have made it a den of thieves.'”

Compare that to the level of detail we’ve just heard from John. Jesus went to the Temple, saw – and heard, and smelled – the market, and saw red. He made a whip out of cords and drove out the dealers and their herds. He overturned the moneychangers’ tables and set their stacks of coins bouncing and spinning across the pavement. He ordered the pigeon-mongers to take their cages full of birds and leave.

Jesus was like a one-man riot squad. The salesmen must have been stunned by his actions, because there’s no record that they resisted.

The Temple authorities weren’t so easily cowed. They ordered Jesus to justify himself.

He answered with a response that must have seemed absurd on its face: “Destroy this temple,” he said, “and in three days I will raise it up again.”

Literal-minded men, they assumed that he was talking about Herod’s Temple, which, as they pointed out, had been under construction for 46 years. But Jesus was talking about his own body. Jesus was talking about his own eventual death and resurrection.

So what does this mean?

First, Jesus is making a clear connection between himself and God, very early in this gospel. The message is that he himself is God’s dwelling place.

Second, as we see time after time in the gospels, Jesus was an observant Jew. He had come to the Temple in preparation for the Passover, after all. He did not, however, have a lot of patience with human regulations and additions to the law. Jesus had a common-sense gift for cutting through to the basics. That’s true whether he’s healing someone on the Sabbath, or reminding us that God’s House is there for worship, and not for the benefit of those who make their livings from it.

What does this mean for us today?

As Jesus makes clear, he was the Temple, God’s dwelling-place on Earth. After his resurrection and ascension, however, the Church became the Body of Christ. As the Temple had to be made pure and returned to its purpose, so, too must we, the people who are the Church, look carefully at ourselves.

Have we, like the Temple authorities, become too rigid and self-involved? Has the process become more important than the purpose?

Do we follow the first and great commandment, and love the Lord with all our hearts and souls and minds, or have we invented little gods of our own design that we follow in God’s place?

Do we really think about Christ’s second great commandment, and love our neighbors as ourselves? Do we think about what that means, or do we just give lip service to the Golden Rule while doing pretty much what pleases us?

Do we reach out to those in need – the hungry, the oppressed, the sick – and strive to help them? Or do we just read along on the prayers in church and figure that should cover it?

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably aware that you fall short in at least some of these basics. The fact is that we all fall short, each in our own way.

Fortunately, this is an excellent time to consider what we have done and left undone. The season of Lent gives us the opportunity, the liturgical space, to think about what God really wants from us and how to do a better job of living up to that standard.

On the second Sunday in Lent, we still have time to cleanse our hearts, to put ourselves on a better, straighter path, to make ourselves ready before the joy of resurrection and Easter Day.

Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

A holy Lent, revisited

ash_2What does it mean to keep a holy Lent?

When I was a little girl, the principle focus was on giving up something (inevitably, in my case, sweets), and putting the money I would have spent on it into my mite box, to help poor children in other lands. When the season of penitence was ended, we brought our offerings up to the altar, building a rather imposing wall from them. In our household, prayer was a given, supervised at meals and at bedtime by my mother.

As I grew older, my practice varied. There were years when I did nothing to observe Lent, and years in which I misused it as an opportunity for non-spiritual self-improvement. There were years in which I was overly obsessed with it, and years in which I was balanced in my Lenten practices. For several years in my teens, I took the gospel for the day too literally, and declined ashing. Four years ago, wrung out by chemotherapy and engaged in a healthy prayer life, I just kept doing what I’d been doing for the last months before Ash Wednesday. There was nothing more that I could add or subtract.

For the most part, however, I now strive to take things on, rather than give them up, to live in an intentional manner and to maintain it as best I can when Lent gives way to Easter joy.

This Lent finds me in a thoughtful place. The Grace Prayer Network has been essentially dormant for a while, fallout from my second cancer and other changes to my life. I’ve had some disappointments that didn’t seem suitable for sharing publicly. The original cancer returned last fall, now promoted to Stage 4. On a very mundane level, the treatments and medications consume energy, and sometimes my good intentions collapse into inertia.

Working on GPN, though, helps me to sort through things in a meaningful and spiritual way. This Lent, I’ll strive to return to that, using some of the time I’ve spent on pursuits like social media and word games for the purpose. It won’t be daily, but it will be reasonably frequent. I invite you to join me in the journey. I welcome contributions to the site, and your own thoughts on the meaning of Lent.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it

It's a long-standing (and dancing) tradition.

It’s a long-standing (and dancing) tradition.

On Monday evening I went to watch a pagan ritual. At least I think it was pagan, though it ended with Compline in the parish church.

No one knows how long the men of the village of Abbots Bromley, in the English midland county of Staffordshire, have been dancing the Horn Dance on a Monday in early September. The sets of horns they carry in the dances have been carbon-dated to the middle of the eleventh century, somewhere around the time of William the Conqueror’s invasion, and rather strangely seem to have been imported from somewhere in Scandinavia, as they’re reindeer horns. If you Google for “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” you’ll find a number of websites, but no explanation of this strange survival. (My theory is that it’s sympathetic magic, meant to ensure an autumn of good hunting before the winter closes in – but your guess is as good as mine.)

However it started, it’s now something of a tourist attraction, with the dancers moving along the long village street and dancing outside the pubs (all doing a roaring trade) before heading back to the green in the middle of the village for the final dance in the gathering dusk. And after that final dance, and a short rest, they take the horns back to the parish church of St Nicholas near the village green, where the vicar blesses them and they hang them up in the north aisle until next year. We went into the church to watch, as did many other spectators, and once the horns were hung up the vicar invited us all to stay for Compline – which, as he cheerfully remarked, goes even further back into history than the Horn Dance.

There’s something wonderfully warm and inclusive in the way Christianity can embrace older ideas, things that are rooted in our psyches and have been expressed in one way and another as long as human beings have existed. Magic to ward off a hungry winter ends up being blessed in the name of the God who knows all our needs, just as earlier Christians transformed a bunch of midwinter festivals into a celebration of the coming of the Light of the World.

Not all Christians are this generous; the Puritans found a remarkable number of old customs of which to disapprove. Some evangelical Christians are nervous of anything they think might just have links with the occult. I once had a conversation with an earnest woman who was worried that my batik skirt with a pattern of suns was disturbingly “New Age” She had obviously never heard of St Francis’s “Canticle of the Creatures” with its outpouring of praise to God for Brother Sun, Sister Moon and all creation.

Right at the beginning of Christianity, St Paul had to deal with similarly worried people. There were the Christians of Colossae, who were being harassed by the excessively pious with cries of  “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col. 2:16-20) and there were the Christians of Corinth wondering how fussy they should be about the origins of the meat in the market. Don’t get anxious about it, says Paul, quoting Psalm 24, because the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.(I Cor !0: 23-31). We need not be fearful; we live in a world which God has created and redeemed, and there is nothing which cannot be brought into his light and made holy.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins


downsizingI shouldn’t be writing. I should be sorting, culling, and packing.

I’m in the midst of moving, and moving, in this instance, means downsizing.

It’s been clear for a while that I’d need to leave the four-bedroom house that was just right for our family when we moved here 15 years ago. The household is down from four people to two. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of expense, to maintain. Recent health problems, featuring two cancers and a spinal surgery over just a couple of years, forced the issue. It was time to find another place to live.

So I did.

It’s not far from where we live now, which makes it easier. It’s much smaller than this house, which means getting rid of things, lots of things, which makes it harder. Culling is not my strong suit.

The last move was an upsizing, if you will, going from a smaller house in the Chicago suburbs to a more expansive one in St. Louis, and with my employer paying the freight. With more room came a variation on Parkinson’s Law: Possessions expand to fill the space available. Although some things left through divorce and the departure of the senior child, more – many more – arrived as I inherited furniture and furnishings.

Besides, between the nature of my job and the nature of my nature, I collect books and recordings the way a magnet collects iron filings, items  sent to me in hope of review or purchased because they interested me. I’ve passed along thousands of them by now to schools and libraries through the years, but that’s only served to prevent them from taking over completely.

Now comes the reckoning. There’s just not room for everything. I’ve spent the summer making tough calls: keep or discard?

Some people make those decisions easily, even ruthlessly. I don’t. Books bring back memories; recordings speak to me. Family things – and I have a lot of family things – have a special pull. Even the lowliest of kitchen items must be considered carefully: Not my Ship-of-Fools mug! I trim gradually, considering most items several times before I can part with them. It’s a time-consuming process, and I’m running out of time before I have to be out of here.

Technology helps: Some books can be downloaded onto my e-reader; many recordings, especially those I own primarily for reference, can be transferred with CD quality to an MP3 player. (As of this writing, I have exactly 40 days and 40 nights of listening on my hard drive.) But the tough calls continue.

We’re not supposed to be that attached to the things of this world. Jesus makes that clear, through parables and explicit instructions to his disciples: Travel light.  It is certain that we can’t take them with us, try as we may.

I’m making progress. Recently, my younger daughter and I went through several shelves packed with children’s books and made a vast heap of volumes to pass along. I had a harder time with it than she, and stacked a pile to consider: My mother gave her that. We read that every night for months. That was given to me for my seventh birthday. I really like that artist.

The next day I put almost all of them into the out pile, even the dearest of them. A good friend and her three young daughters came by to help pack them and take them away, to share with their friends and schools, and to keep and enjoy themselves, taking them where they’ll be used and appreciated. They dove into the piles, sorting and reading.

I handed a clever alphabet book, one of my favorites, to the youngest. She kept it close to her while exploring other things, and carried it with her when they left, not letting go as she climbed into her car seat. When they pulled out  a few moments later she was absorbed in it, lost in the enjoyment of that book, and I knew myself blest.

– Sarah Bryan Miller