Sermon notes: Giving up, taking on

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

SERMON NOTES, ASH WEDNESDAY (2013, Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue)

The party’s over. It’s time to hang up the beads. Today we embark on the season of Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter.

The time span reflects the period that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying, preparing for his ministry, facing and resisting temptation. The purpose of Lent may be found in the collect for the day: We ask God to give us new and contrite hearts, to help us to acknowledge our sins, to receive forgiveness for them.

That’s something we should do every day, of course. But Lent gives us a focus and a framework for accomplishing it.

This is a period of preparation for us, as followers of Christ, for the world made holier by the light of the Resurrection. In the early Church, Lent was the time when new converts were prepared to receive baptism, learning about the doctrines of the faith and what is required of believers. Through the centuries, this season has been a time to focus on prayer and penitence, on doing without and doing for others.

How do we keep a holy Lent?

When I was a child in a High Church household, it was all very straightforward. I gave up sweets, which I loved – I mourned whenever Valentine’s Day arrived after Ash Wednesday – and my favorite television show. I put money – the pennies, nickels, and dimes which still had some value then – in my mite box, to help poor children. I tried to do my chores more cheerfully, and without being reminded. I said my prayers. On Fridays, I ate fish sticks.

In later years, it got more complicated.

There were years when I gave up chocolate. There were years when I treated Lent as a sanctified diet aid. There were years when I did nothing at all to observe the season.

In all of that I had plenty of company. There’s a tendency among some modern American Christians to observe Ash Wednesday as a sacred New Year’s, to focus on personal self-improvement instead of the spiritual: to give up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks because giving up alcohol, or smoking, or fatty snacks is good for us physically.

It is a sacrifice to give up things we enjoy, whatever they are, but sometimes we don’t look beyond a few obvious suspects. It might be more useful to examine some of the other things in our lives, and consider the importance they hold for us. Sometimes we may find that those things have become little gods for us, and that we are worshipping at other altars.

It’s a good thing to exercise; it’s not so good to obsess about it and run roughshod over family life. It’s a good thing to connect with friends; it’s not so good to spend whole evenings on Facebook, or to check the Twitter feed every few minutes. It’s fun to play video games, but not to the point that they make us cranky and obsessive. It’s fun to play Words with Friends, but this Lent I’m going to play just a couple of times each day, instead of grabbing the phone every time my day slows down.

At least as important as giving something up is to take something on. We can check the daily meditation from “Forward Day by Day” every morning, or be conscientious about reading Morning and Evening Prayer. We can walk a labyrinth, or join a Bible study. We can work to increase our giving of time, talent and treasure, both at church and in the community. We can take on something new, as well as give up something familiar.

There’s another important point to keep in mind, and that’s the one that Jesus is talking about in the gospel reading from Matthew: Don’t make a big deal about it. At a restaurant with friends, don’t announce, “Oh, I’ve given that up for Lent” when the wine list or the dessert menu comes around. It’s human nature to want to get credit for our sacrifices, but, as Jesus notes, the announcement itself then becomes our reward. Just smile and quietly decline. Even if you’re suffering withdrawal symptoms, don’t say anything. Keep them guessing.

Practicing our chosen Lenten disciplines is a form of spiritual exercise, and the point of the exercise is to bring us closer to God. The ways in which we observe a holy Lent have changed over the centuries, but not the reasons that we do it. Like the earliest Christians, our aim is preparation to lead new lives in Christ Jesus.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: On the mountaintop

Transfiguration_David_wikiSERMON NOTES, LAST EPIPHANY (YEAR C; 2/10/13; Preached at Church of the Good Shepherd/St. Louis)

This Sunday brings us to the end of a time in the Church year when we are constantly reminded of the miraculous. It starts with God’s messenger telling Mary that she would bear God’s son; then segues to the Nativity, proclaimed by angels and attended by wondering shepherds; and moves from there to the Epiphany, when wise men followed a star to find a King.

Today the season of Epiphany ends at a high point, as we hear of the ultimate mountaintop experience. Jesus and three chosen disciples, Peter, James, and John, climbed into the high places, saw Jesus transfigured and conversing with Moses and Elijah, and listened, slack-jawed, as God’s voice spoke from the clouds: “This is my Son, my Chosen: Hear him!”

From this peak, we head downhill into the long slog of Lent, where it’s all ashes and sackcloth, temptation and repentance, suffering to go, and Christ’s death on an executioner’s cross. No wonder the disciples wanted to build huts and stay in the heights a little longer.

The New Testament is filled with moments of wonder that transform their witnesses, at least for a time: divine healings, flashes of divine insight, the conversions of whole crowds to the truth of the gospel message. It can give us the impression that Jesus and his companions lived and breathed the miraculous 24/7/365.

We want that, too. We want to go up on the mountaintop and hear God’s voice. We want to have the experience that will set us apart, remove all doubts, give us enlightenment and understanding. We yearn for the transcendent and the extraordinary.

There are Christian denominations that seem to set that kind of occurrence as an expectation, that demand to know the time and day when a prospective member had a born-again experience. When did you meet Jesus? At what hour did you accept him as your Lord and Savior? What is your born-again date?

Those who haven’t had such an experience but still have profound Christian beliefs sometimes feel shame that Jesus hasn’t seen fit to visit them personally. Sometimes they worry that their faith might not be quite up to snuff.

What, I wonder, did the other disciples think, the ones who were also chosen by the Lord to be among his closest companions, but who were left behind when Jesus summoned Peter, John, and James to hike up the mountain with him. Did they feel left out? Did they feel second-best?

And what did the Three Amigos get out of the experience? Were they transformed for life? The record is silent on James and John, but we all know how Peter reacted when it came to the crunch: He denied Jesus three times, in fear for his own life.

I believe that one size does not fit all, and that God tailors our experiences of faith to fit us as individuals. Some people may really need a lightning bolt to get their attention, like Paul or Martin Luther. Some may need to stick their fingers into the nail holes, like Thomas. Some need to experience the miraculous, like the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well.

But others are converted by a simple hearing and explanation of the Word, like the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip met on the road to Gaza. For others, the word and Christian witness work for years until they finally surrender, give up, and let God in.

That would include C.S. Lewis, who upon his acceptance of Christ called himself “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”. Some simply absorb the Christian faith until it is an inextricable part of them, and quietly recognize its truth. That’s true of a lot of people I know. I imagine that it’s true of a lot of people you know, too.

Spectacular conversions are not given to everyone. Not everyone needs an extrovert experience. Sometimes slow and steady really does win the race. Whether it’s a voice booming from the clouds that compels us to listen or a small nagging voice that doesn’t quit until we stop and hear what it has to say, God gives each of us what we require.

However we come to faith is not really the point, though. The point is what we do with that faith once we have it.

We know that the path of faith doesn’t always run smoothly, and that temptations sometimes seem to increase once we’ve made a commitment to Christ. We don’t need to go further than the daily news to find examples of fallen Christians. All too often, the headlines are filled with the tales of noted evangelists and conservative politicians who have failed spectacularly to stave off temptation, or who have, indeed, actually sought it out.

How, then, are we to live as Christians? What are we supposed to do with our faith once we have it?

We have the answer, of course, right in the New Testament: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, welcome the stranger at your door. Love God and your neighbor. Pray without ceasing. Don’t squabble with the rest of the Church about things that really aren’t that important.

If we truly accept Christ, we must live our lives according to his words and teachings, to the very best of our abilities.

Even the most spectacular of mountaintop experiences can last for only a few moments. It’s what we do with what we’ve been given there that matters in the long run.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: Peter’s confession

Christ_Peter_keys_wikiSermon notes, Confession of Peter (Preached 1/20/13 at St. Peter’s/Ladue; Matthew 16:13-19; Acts 4:8-13)

We have just heard one of the most argued-over passages in the entire Bible – and that’s saying something. Just what, exactly, is going on in today’s gospel reading?

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter, in his capacity as the leader of the apostles, speaks for the rest of the group, making his confession, his statement of faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus tells him, “You are Rock, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

We don’t know if Peter was given his nickname – Kephas, Petrus, Rock – before this milestone event, but the confession and Jesus’s play on words certainly cemented it forever. The passage of time has polished it to a high gloss: There is no record of anyone being called Kephas or Petrus before the time of Christ, but there have been untold quantities of Christians given variants on that name in the twenty centuries since.

Jesus goes on to say, “”I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in heaven.”

That phrase is God’s special gift to cartoonists, who can always draw a St. Peter-at-the-pearly-gates gag whenever they’re short of ideas. But what does it mean?

That’s where we get into the arguments. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and that in giving Peter the “keys to the kingdom,” Jesus was establishing the papacy. From there, they have progressed to a belief in papal infallibility.

Other branches of the Church, not surprisingly, disagree with that view.

For one thing, there’s not actually any contemporary evidence that Peter ever lived in Rome or died there; that’s a tradition that developed later. Paul, who was in Rome, mentioned a lot of Christian leaders, but he never wrote a word about bumping into Peter. That’s not too surprising: Peter’s work took place in Antioch, in Asia Minor, and Jerusalem. Rome was a long, long way away.

Besides, it’s doubtful Rome even had a bishop in the early years of the Church there. Bishops were a later, post-apostolic development.

St. Augustine of Hippo believed that Christ was giving authority to the Church, not just to Peter. That’s the position of the Orthodox Churches, along with Anglicans and most Protestants. The Orthodox see the Church on Earth as infallible, but “infallible” is not a word with which we Anglicans are particularly comfortable.

The exchange, however, is still significant.

Peter is the most clearly drawn of the apostles, both in the gospels and in the Book of Acts. Frankly, he’s almost the last person you’d expect to get a nickname like “Rock.” On some days, he’s more like “Noodle,” going limp as soon as he hits hot water.

Peter changes his mind at inopportune moments. He starts to walk on water like the Master, and then wimps out and has to be rescued. Peter’s always saying the wrong thing, talking without thinking, even contradicting Jesus when he tells the disciples that he must suffer and die – and getting smacked down for it.

When Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, it’s Peter who pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest. Jesus has to fix that one, too. Most famously, after the arrest, Peter denies that he even knows the man he’s been following for the last three years.

In other words, Peter is a kind of stand-in for the rest of us, weak, sinful and eminently fallible. And yet Christ chooses him to provide authority to the fledgling Church.

Peter was always the natural leader of the little group of apostles, but by the time we see him in the reading from Acts, he has grown into the larger role of a spokesman and leader of the Church.

Peter, accompanied by John, has healed a crippled beggar, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” That draws a crowd, Peter preaches to them, and the Jewish authorities arrest both apostles. The next day, the leaders of the Temple ask them, “By what power or what name did you do this?”

And Peter continues his sermon. An “uneducated and ordinary” man, he has been called forth to speak not only to the crowds but to the teachers of the Law, and we see him doing it with power and eloquence.

In that speech, he identifies the true rock on which the Church is built: Jesus Christ. “The stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.”

And what is the Church? The Catechism (which you’ll find in the back of the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 845) provides the official word. The Church is the community of the New Covenant, the Body of Christ. The Church continues in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, carrying out Christ’s mission, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

The Church is us, connected in faith beyond time and space, a vast throng of believers following Christ. Like Peter, we are imperfect; like Peter, we stumble and fall on a regular basis. Like Peter, we frequently misunderstand just what Jesus is getting at.

But, like Peter, we are called. The Greek word “ekklesia” means “assembly” or “gathering;” it also means “called forth.” We assemble here to hear God’s Word and receive the sacraments; we go forth into the world to share God’s love in every way we can.

We can take courage in the example of Peter; we can confess our faith and live it, too, as Peter did. I can’t think of a more appropriate patron saint, like us flawed and foolish, and, like us, blessed beyond all measure in the power and love of Christ.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: The next morning

SERMON NOTES, CHRISTMAS DAY (10 a.m. December 25, 2011, St. Peter’s/St. Louis)

“But Mary treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.”

It is the morning after the most momentous night in human history, an event bearing layer upon layer of symbolism and meaning: the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Jesus did not enter the world in the way foretold in scripture, “in power and great glory.” He was born a helpless baby in the poorest setting imaginable, to humble parents, a member of a subject people living far from the centers of worldly power.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t go into detail about the events of the previous 24 hours, but we can imagine them. Mary, a teenager, was newly married to her husband, Joseph. She was pregnant, and near her time. In spite of that, they undertook a difficult, dangerous journey on the orders of an oppressive government.

They arrived in Bethlehem, but failed to find a place to stay. They had no relatives there to take them in; there was no space to be bought or begged in the town’s guest houses. Instead, they found cover in a shelter for cattle, with a roof and walls to provide some protection, and the heat of the animals around them for warmth.

Perhaps it was the rigors of the journey that brought on Mary’s labor. Luke doesn’t tell us about that. He doesn’t tell us whether Joseph delivered the baby himself, or if – as seems much more likely – women were found in the neighborhood to help with the delivery, to encourage the young mother, to ease the child into the world.

Someone wiped Mary’s face with a moist cloth and brushed her hair from her face; someone held her hand as she struggled through childbirth. Someone cut the umbilicus; someone washed mother and infant when the birth was complete. Someone emptied out a feeding trough to serve as an impromptu cradle. Someone found bands of cloth to swaddle the baby, to ease his adjustment to the cold and colors of this new world outside the womb.

Someone placed him in his mother’s arms, and helped to make both of them comfortable as he nursed for the first time. Someone who had experience imparted womanly wisdom and helpful hints about the best ways to do things, the sort of information that a new mother doesn’t fully appreciate until she is finally looking on the long-imagined face of her child.

The Evangelist is more concerned with the announcement of the birth, and with those who heard that announcement. The hearers weren’t King Herod’s courtiers, let alone members of the Imperial court in Rome. They weren’t scholars or members of the priestly class. They weren’t merchants with connections on the Silk Road. They weren’t even respectable. They were shepherds.

Shepherds occupied a spot on the bottom rung of the social ladder. They were poor workingmen, not renowned for their honesty or for a robust work ethic. They were itinerant, wandering with the flocks they kept, usually for other owners.

And yet it was to shepherds that the angelic messenger appeared; it was to shepherds that the angelic host sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

It was shepherds, members of a despised class, who beat a path to the stable to see the baby, who told Mary and Joseph the things that they had seen and heard that unforgettable night. “And Mary treasured all these words, and pondered them in her heart.”

But the night, with all its excitement, has passed. The angels have disappeared. The shepherds have returned to their work and their flocks. The women are back at their daily routines. Now, in the calm light of day, the little family is adjusting to its new dynamic, its new form, its new life, with a beloved child who will – as we know – grow in strength, learning, and holiness in the years to come.

Last night we celebrated Christ’s birth here, the message of the angels, the witness of the shepherds. It’s a big night, the most festive in the Church year. We observed it with a traditional Christmas pageant, with carols and other special music; there were platoons of acolytes, and crowded pews.

This morning’s service is an altogether quieter affair. The population in the chancel and sanctuary has plummeted from the full ranks of last night – clergy, lectors, choirs, acolytes – to the handful you see before you now. Right now, many of us still have a portion of our brains revolving around questions of preparing Christmas dinner, gift-giving, and of the coming celebrations with our families and friends

With the pageantry over, in the calm light of day, we can take a few moments to consider what all this means: that the Savior of the world should come to us in such humility; that he came for all people, even – or especially – the lowest among us; that God’s love abounds for us, in spite of all our faults. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and good will.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller

The rain storm

The average annual temperature in St. Louis, according to Wikipedia,  is 56.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The average annual precipitation is just a hair under 39 inches; compare that to Seattle,  which gets just a hair over 37.

It doesn’t sound bad at all, if only it were  spread out across the seasons. The problem is that St. Louis weather specializes in extremes: cold in winter,  hot (and sticky) in summer,  with torrential rains that swell waterways and despoil basements,  too often followed by pitiless droughts that threaten crops and rosebushes,  and turn lawns into spiky brown wastelands. (This message was not brought to you by the Chamber of Commerce.)

We’ve had three enervating weeks of triple-digit heat indices,  three weeks of mercilessly blazing sun and barely a cloud in the sky. Our efforts to keep our plantings watered have kept them alive,  but nothing is really flourishing except weeds and strangler vines. The number of blossoms on the Rose of Sharon bush outside the kitchen window, usually covered with blooms at this time of year,  barely numbered a dozen.

Then clouds piled up in the western sky. The sun was briefly blocked, and we enjoyed a blessed hour of steady rain.

It cooled things off for a span. More than that,  three hours later I glanced at the Rose of Sharon,  and discovered,  to my amazement and delight,  that it was suddenly covered with tiny green flower buds,  swelling almost as I watched.

The weather is back on its sauna setting,  and more triple digits are forecast. Still,  the plants are making the most of this brief respite,  greening up and taking strength from the soaking. Faithful care and resilience have their rewards,  and the Rose of Sharon will bloom again.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Heat wave

The heat is stubbornly oppressive: it feels as though the entire region is covered by a hot wet woolen blanket.

Triple-digit temperatures have penetrated the thickest walls and left even the energetic feeling lethargic.

The streets are emptied of all but the most determined (or foolhardy) of walkers and runners. Neglected pots of flowers succumb in record time, and steering wheels in cars parked outdoors become painful to the touch. The other day, some of my colleagues baked a sheet of cookies on the dashboard of a car in the newspaper’s parking lot. They were, I am told, pretty tasty.

Systems fail in this kind of heat. People fail, too.

Despite public warnings about staying cool and staying hydrated, despite the existence of cooling centers, the grim novelty of reading about heat-related deaths has passed, too. Those deaths come in batches now.

Most of the people who perish this way are elderly. Most of them are poor: they may even have air conditioners, but they won’t turn them on because of the expense. Many of them live in neighborhoods where years of hard experience argue against opening a window.

It’s the sort of situation in which boots on the ground are irreplaceable, when simply calling to ask if an elderly friend, neighbor, or relative is all right is not enough, when a personal visit is necessary. In St. Louis, volunteers from the United Way are teaming up with city employees to check on those considered most at risk, but potential victims are to be found throughout the region.

Those volunteers are putting themselves through hardships as they go door to door under the blistering sun, but Matthew 25 makes plain our duty as Christ’s followers in these situations.  “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Sermon notes: “Love one another”

SERMON NOTES, MAUNDY THURSDAY (Preached April 21, 2011, at St. Peter’s/Ladue)

Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”

What would it take to love each other as Jesus has loved us? What would we have to do?

First, we might consider some of the ways in which Jesus showed his love for the disciples. We can start with tonight’s reading from the Gospel. Jesus, their teacher, their Lord, tied a towel around himself, and washed the disciples’ feet. It was an act of both humility and intimacy, and one that showed his love and care for them.

It wasn’t a task for a teacher; it was a servant’s duty, and we have the evidence that at least one of the disciples was shocked by it. But Jesus performed it with love – and as an example for them, and for us.

How else did Jesus show his love? Think back to other occasions in the gospel narratives. Think back to Jesus healing lepers, and feeding crowds of the hungry. He made the blind see and the lame walk again. He cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene, enabling her to return to respectable society, and brought a little girl back from death.

Those spectacular physical miracles served as signs that he was the promised Messiah, but they were also important ways of showing his love for his people.

Just as importantly, Jesus taught his disciples. He told parables and stories to make them think, and to help them to understand his teachings. He gave them a new perspective on the Law; he gave them new understandings of how to honor God and help God’s people. He taught them how to pray, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. That’s still the most basic, most foundational prayer we say today.

On this night, he gave them the sacrament the Last Supper, the sacrament of his body and blood. Then he gave himself up to be tortured and killed, and so gained the salvation of us all.

What would it take to love each other as Jesus has loved us? What would it take for each of us to live Christ’s commandment?

Today on the BBC, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that “all Cabinet members and leaders of political parties, editors of national papers and the hundred most successful financiers in the UK” be required to “spend a couple of hours every year serving dinners in a primary school on a council estate, or cleaning bathrooms in a residential home,” or serving as street pastors “ready to pick up and absorb something of the chaos and human mess you will find there, especially among young people.”

I’m not sure making it a legal requirement would work, but it’s an interesting and worthwhile idea.

Christians are certainly called to serve others. We may not be able to work miracles, but we can still feed the hungry and help to heal the sick. We can reach out to those in need, whether nearby or far away, and help them. We can’t claim divine authority, but we can teach and share our knowledge. We can tell the good news of salvation. We can offer our own prayers and thanksgivings.

We can never live up to his example, but we can still strive to love others as Jesus loved us. Foot washing may have gone out of style, but we are still called to be servants, even as Christ humbled himself to serve others.

For me, this is one of the most meaningful services of the Church year. In a few minutes, we will re-enact the Last Supper. Then the sanctuary will be stripped, and we will exit the church in silence.

Jesus and his disciples went from the upper room to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he was betrayed by one of his own disciples, and taken to be tried, beaten, humiliated, and sentenced to die like a criminal, upon a cross.

It’s natural to focus on Jesus’s sufferings in Holy Week – but we don’t want to fall into the Mel Gibson “Passion of the Christ” trap of making those agonies the sole focus of our devotions.

Jesus came into this world out of love for us. Remember his commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Out of the nest

Hummingbird, copyright Sarah Bryan Miller 2010, all rights reserved

Hummingbirds are a curious blend of the awe-inspiring and the appalling: tiny beauties who weigh less than a nickel and seem to defy the laws of physics with their speed and grace, their wings beating too fast to see – on average about 60 times per second for the ruby-throated birds who summer here – and their fascinating, beyond-agile maneuvers.

And then there are their aggressive impulses, which make the average Comanche warrior seem relaxed by comparison: hummers do not share well with others of their own kind, and one in my yard recently went after a bewildered fledgling finch who mistakenly thought that a hummingbird feeder might be a pleasant place to perch.

Since they first showed up last spring, right around tax time, I’ve had one male and one female as regular visitors at my backyard feeders, never at the same time, always alternating. A few weeks ago, a pair of juveniles – also one male and one female – appeared, and a most spectacular series of dogfights began.

My assumption is that the latter are the offspring of the former, although hummer homelife will never be upheld as exemplary: the male could most charitably be described as just a sperm donor. The single-mother female raises the babies on her own.

And when those babies are out of the nest, they’re really out. Both adults, in a rare display of hummingbird cooperation, have been zealous in assailing the youngsters in high-speed two-pronged attacks that send the adolescents spinning toward the trees, all of them chittering angrily at one another – or perhaps it’s the kids going after the grownups. They move too quickly to be certain.

This seems counterproductive. There is plenty of nectar (two feeders, seven apertures, no waiting), more than enough to provide many times their usual 10 calories per day per capita. Besides, all the hummers are currently gulping down the goodies at twice their usual rate, bulking up for the incredible migration that they must undertake in just a few weeks, including a 20-hour nonstop flight straight across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America. Why waste the energy?

Their atavism overtakes all other instincts, though, and the aerial displays continue. The odds are that the juveniles won’t make it through their first year.

Most creatures are programmed to hoard. We humans, who have reason and philosophy to support a policy of generosity, still have to fight the urge to hang onto all available resources.

Jesus famously told his followers to love their neighbors as themselves. Known, in various wordings, as the Golden Rule, it’s a constant for lip service in civilized human societies, too rarely observed.

Scholars have long pondered how the tiny Christian movement went from obscure, persecuted cult to Official State Religion of the Roman Empire in just a few generations. In his book The Rise of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark posited convincingly that it was because Christians actually lived their Lord’s command, thereby making a better life for all: What a concept.

In these days of economic anxiety, we revert to the hoarder model far too easily, cutting back on our giving and sharing. Jesus again: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

It hasn’t registered with the hummingbirds, but we have faith that tells us that there’s plenty of nectar to go around, and our Lord’s assurance that God’s love and generosity will never fail us.

– Sarah Bryan Miller


WikiCommons image, in the public domainIt was not a good weekend.

First, I got sick. Looking back, it actually started during the 10:30 service last Sunday, when my voice curdled bizarrely during the anthem and never quite returned.

It was official by Wednesday, when I acknowledged that Something was Wrong and called my doctor. He listened, and said, “Sounds like a virus. There’s not much we can do for that. Just take it easy; take some Mucinex, and try drinking tea and lemon.”

Huh. Even after treating me for 12 years, he doesn’t get Singer Panic. It’s a state to which I readily revert (understandably, perhaps, after a couple of decades of earning my living by my voice), a form of  (mostly) justifiable hypochondria for those who cannot work, and therefore do not earn, if they cannot sing.

So I drank hot tea with honey and lemon (and, occasionally, just a touch of rum) by the pint; I gulped Mucinex; I mixed fizzy patent vitamin-rich mixtures into glasses of water and slugged those down, too; I went on vocal silence; I looked up prayers to St. Blaise, alleged heavenly protector against throat ailments. I even got some sleep.

St. Blaise and I are not presently on speaking terms, even if I could talk. None of the rest of it worked, either. I had to cancel the solo I was supposed to sing on Sunday, and took minimal comfort in the responsible grown-up act of having given the choirmaster adequate warning to find something for the choir to sing in its place. To top it off, let it be noted that more than one editor is impatient with my current inability to conduct telephone interviews.

My voice is an integral part of my identity, of me; losing it is, for me, like an athlete being deprived of the ability to walk, or an accountant’s knowledge of numbers. It’s more than inconvenient. It brings on introspection, and who wants that?

And then the power went out.

It went out during a bam-pow-wham rainstorm on Friday night. Coming home from an opera through buckets and sheets of rain that resembled (as the friend who was driving remarked) “a summer blizzard,” lit up by a vivid electrical storm, I said a prayer for all the people who would lose their power – and pulled up to the house to discover that they were me.

Said power played a cat-and-mouse game all weekend: now on, now off. I gave up on resetting the clocks. I got to know my neighbors a little better when a group came out of hot houses for a confab in the street.

This morning the power came back and stayed on. I cleaned out the recently deceased foodstuffs from the fridge, and quietly cursed the fact that trash pickup isn’t until Friday: that bag will stink powerfully by the time we can legitimately lug it down to the curb.

And I put it all into perspective in my mind. There are so many things we take for granted, in ourselves and from technology: the ability to talk and to sing, power – for air conditioning and lights, for sound systems and telephones – that requires only the flicking of a switch. Yet it is all surprisingly fragile; a virus, or a broken part on a transformer, can take it all out.

It was a minor outage. It didn’t even make the paper.

We aren’t accustomed to hardship; we are greatly blessed. Experience has taught us that a call to the doc, or the power company, will make it all right. But it’s a fragile balance.

It’s easier to take the ups and down and wreckages of life – and, on a scale of one to ten, my set barely rated a two – if we’re firmly anchored in faith. It reminds us of the greater vicissitudes that our predecessors stood down; it reminds of the greater vicissitudes that we still may face.

Perhaps the trick is to take it all in stride and in prayer, to remember how much we have even at the worst of times. Not being able to sing along with the English church anthems I could finally hear tonight will make me more mindful when I get my voice back; not having power for a couple of days makes me appreciate what others endure on a regular basis. Thank you, Lord, for giving me perspective.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Mary at Walsingham

(Photo by Margaret Z. Wilkins; copyright Grace Prayer Network)

I seem to have been following the Mother of Jesus around lately. In March I visited the little chapel near Ephesus where some people believe she spent the end of her life, and last week a friend and I stayed for three days in “England’s Nazareth”, Walsingham, in rural north Norfolk, one of the more colourful manifestations of the Church of England.

In the eleventh century a local noblewoman had a vision of the Virgin asking her to build a copy of the Holy Family’s house in Nazareth there, and Walsingham became one of the great pilgrimage centres of mediaeval England. Destroyed at the Reformation, it was refounded by an eccentric Anglo-Catholic clergyman in 1931, and has now grown into a new centre of pilgrimage for a surprising variety of people. You can pay a virtual visit to it yourself on

I ought to disapprove of Walsingham; the shrine is part of that shrinking but determined section of the Church of England which won’t accept the ministry of ordained women. Men in cassocks and sometimes in birettas stroll down the village’s High Street and concelebrate at the gilded altar in the shrine church.

Yet somehow it’s impossible not to feel at home in Walsingham; it’s one of those “thin places” where there is a real feeling of the Spirit at work. Women priests are among the pilgrims, often wearing their clerical collars, gently making a point. And there are signs that the shrine is opening up gradually to the ministry of women: the sisters of the convent next door, who used to appear only to act as sacristans, now take part in the laying on of hands at the healing services, and pray with pilgrims.

You don’t have to be a Christian to feel that you’re in a thin place at Walsingham. I’ve watched a Sikh student soaking up the atmosphere and looking thoroughly at home, and read a paper by a Jewish sociologist of religion who couldn’t disguise his affection for it. The one person I know who didn’t seem to get it was a pagan of my acquaintance who went there with her Anglican husband, and was puzzled by the sight of all these men serving what she saw as a manifestation of the Goddess.

But Mary is no goddess, but one of us. The decision she was asked to make may have been much more momentous than anything that we have had to consider, but all of us, in our different ways, are asked to commit ourselves to doing what God asks of us, and just as it did for her that commitment may lead us through bewilderment and desolation as well as joy. At Walsingham it’s easy to feel her presence encouraging us to consider own callings,whatever they may be, and to draw closer to her Son.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins