Doers of the Word

SaintMaryMagdalenRCChurch(BrightonMichigan) MotherTeresaiconWhen I was in college, my roommate and best friend Chrissy said, “Jillian, you can be mean when you want to be.” And I was like, “Uhhh…okay.” She said, “No no no, I want to go on a diet and I need you to help keep me accountable.” So even though it turned out to be funny and not a big deal, it made me think.

I can be mean. I’m not the best person sometimes. I’m not the kindest, the most caring, or the most loving. I don’t always act like a Christian should. I’m not the best at being, as it says in today’s lesson from James, a “doer of the Word.” I constantly deceive myself. I hear the WORD and I’m like “Totally. This is super. I’m all about this.” And then I leave the pew or the class and I…forget. Either consciously or subconsciously, I forget.

So let’s back up. We hear this phrase a lot as Christians: “the Word.” And I’ve always wondered, what the heck is the Word exactly? Is it the whole Bible, is it Jesus’s teachings, is it the 10 commandments, what is it? Or could it be many things (which is probably the case)?

We read in John’s Gospel that “the Word was God.” Thanks, author of John, not vague at all. And while God is so many things, one of my favorite verses comes from 1 John: “God is love.” So while God represents so much more than that, love is my interpretation for the day. So to be doers of the Word, we are to do love.

But it’s hard to love, right? It’s a simple idea that’s difficult to execute. It’s hard to be doers of the Word, particularly when other people mistreat us and aren’t really being doers of the Word, either. And sometimes, we just flat out ignore what we know we should be doing and how we should be treating others.

I get it. We all do it. We’re all guilty.

We’re all deceivers of our hearts. I’ve patted myself on the back for being a loving Christian and then talked horribly about people I’ve called friends, dehumanized homeless people by refusing to look them in the eye, and turned away in the face of blatant injustice when I should said “NO MORE.” I should have loved my neighbor. I should have been a doer of the Word.

Because when it comes to being doers of the Word, doers of love, truly enacting what God calls us to do, it’s a lot easier to claim that we’re Christians and that loving people, our neighbors, is a priority, and then to just…not.

It’s easier. And because we’re doers in so many other ways, often for other people, why not take the easier route on something as emotionally and spiritually taxing as being doers of the Word? I know it’s who we want to be in our hearts, and we know we should do it…

But life is demanding. We have a lot to do. And somewhere along the way, we forget what it means to be doers of the Word. What it means to love.

So a few years ago, I was playing Ultimate Frisbee. In the middle of the game, this giant dude and I reached up for the disc at the same time, and upon coming down, his entire body weight landed on my thumb. I ended up spraining it so badly that I couldn’t use it for several months, and my muscle atrophied.

Embarrassingly enough, I had to go through physical therapy for my thumb.

I had exercises I was supposed to do every single day, multiple times a day, and sometimes, my hand was so sore that I just wanted to quit. I didn’t want to do it and it was certainly easier not to. I whined to my mom and my physical therapist, and they reminded me to keep going.

They were right. I mean, this was my thumb! I couldn’t even imagine what people with worse injuries had to go through. Some people have to literally relearn to use their muscles. But even still, it was hard some days, and sometimes, I didn’t do my exercises, even though I knew it was best for me.

I think remembering how to love and to be doers of the Word is very much like physical therapy. For instance, it’s easier not to some days. It’s easier to stay in bed. We see what we need to do, what we should do, how we should treat people, but it’s difficult. Uncomfortable. And sometimes, we just don’t want to.

We’re jaded by the world. Why bother being a doer of the Word? Why love in the face of so much hate? Why not stay in bed?

But society isn’t always as keen on reminding us about all the good in the world…all the examples of Christ’s love that happen before us every day…love that we, too, are capable of showing and doing.

Even still, being “doers of the Word” can feel like an impossible standard. A Buddhist monk once described sin as the “failure to do concrete acts of love.” So Christ, our example and teacher, lived a life without sin, meaning every action was motivated by love. Even his final act, dying on the cross, was just one giant act of love. No big deal or anything.

How in the world can we possibly do that? Just like the end result in physical therapy, it may be what we want and what we know is best, but it’s daunting. It seems like too much.

But imperfect as we are, we can do it. We just have to try. My friend Chrissy from earlier taught me that small acts of love, like smiling at your cashier at the grocery store or putting yourself in someone’s shoes, still matter.

We have to start somewhere. We aren’t going to run a marathon the day after our legs are broken. It’s a process. We are in need of therapy. And like a doctor or a mom, I think God is standing right beside us saying “You can do it! You can be the Doers! You can love!”

And, as Mother Teresa said, “God does not require us to succeed. He only requires that we try.”

We have to try to be the doers of the Word.

We have to try to love with our whole hearts and to pray with our feet, to live out the Word through our actions, which will always speak louder, to recognize that church is not a building and being Christian isn’t just the Sunday mornings we decide are worthy enough to be church days, and that when we leave, we can’t just forget what it means to be followers of Christ and doers who act and love, even with all the other things we have going on.

We can start small. It will not be easy. Some days we will want to stay in bed, and some days we will. And we may never fully get there.

But we must try. We are capable of so much more than we realize, and God believes in us so much more than we know. God is beside us, all the time, reminding us that we can and should be doers of the Word…that we can love. We just have to be quick to listen.

Today is Day One of our physical therapy. I want to take that first small step, with God’s help, to being a true, imperfect doer of the Word. I hope you’ll join me so we can all live as we were meant to live: loving each other.

Because, otherwise, what are we doing?

Amen.

  • Jillian Smith

Sermon notes: Seeing things differently

SERMON NOTES, PROPER 6, YEAR B (Preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue, June 14, 2015)

Conrad_von_Soest,_'Brillenapostel'_(1403)_wikiThe way we look at things makes all the difference in the world.

When I was a girl, I never knew what anyone was talking about when they mentioned depth of field, or 3D effects. I swung at balls that seemed to be close, but turned out to be far away, much to the disgust of my teammates. I could see the blackboard, though, and read even tiny print from a distance, so nobody worried about it.

Then, in college, my ophthalmologist discovered the reason for at least some of my athletic failures. We knew that one eye had perfect vision, while the other was extremely near-sighted. He realized that the good eye compensated for the blurry-visioned one. My brain processed only its signals when it came to seeing things from a distance. I had monocular vision, so my brain had no idea of where that ball might be.

When I got my first pair of glasses, I suddenly saw things differently, in ways I had never imagined. The world had more variation, more depth. It didn’t seem flat at a certain distance. Colors were brighter. I could spot birds in trees. I could probably even have caught a ball that was thrown at me, except that by then I instinctively ducked.

It was an epiphany. My point of view had changed.

Paul is talking about spiritual vision and spiritual points of view in today’s lectionary reading. Paul knows something about looking at others, and about changed points of view.

When we first meet Paul, in Chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles, he’s named Saul. He’s witnessing the stoning of the deacon Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The others in the mob have placed their coats at his feet while they carry out the execution. Saul saw the new Christians as a threat, and he watched the bloodshed with approval.

Two chapters later, Saul heads to Damascus, “breathing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples,” on a mission to root them out. Instead, Saul comes to see things differently. His feet are knocked out from under him as a bright light flashes, and a voice asks, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

The voice belongs to Jesus, who sends him on into the city, a changed and shaken man. For a three days, Saul can’t see anything, until the Lord sends the reluctant Ananias to lay hands on him and baptize him. Scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and he sees clearly.

Paul, as he comes to be known, clearly knows something about walking by faith, not sight. Seeing doesn’t always tell us the whole truth. Seeing can sometimes mislead us.

Paul is very definite about that, and about what we should be doing in this regard: Christ died for us all, and we are to live in and for him. That means that we are to look at each other as if we were looking through the eyes of Jesus.

I doubt that any of us need to be told what an enormous challenge that is. We are, by definition, not up to Jesus’s standard.

We can aspire to that standard, though. We can make for ourselves another point of view, make for ourselves a pair of Christ-colored glasses. We can try to see the world through his eyes.

I find that the best way to do that is through prayer. There is a well-known saying, attributed to the fifth century bishop Prosper of Aquitaine: “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” which translates, loosely, to “Praying shapes believing.”

This is a principle dear to the hearts of Anglicans, as the late liturgics professor Leonel Mitchell noted in his book, appropriately entitled “Praying Shapes Believing”: Our belief is shaped by our Book of Common Prayer. As we pray, so over time, do we think.

And I think that the present Book of Common Prayer encourages us in doing as Paul tells us, to see each other through Christ’s eyes.

Just for starters, the Baptismal Covenant asks, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Say that often enough, and the words and their meaning start to sink in.

In the aftermath of Ferguson, there has been a lot of talk about how we see each other, too often seeing each other as the other. I think there’s a parallel problem: Too often, we don’t see each other at all, at least not as people.

We see the clerk whose line is moving slowly, with us at the back of it; we don’t see the single mother who’s having a hard time today because she was up half the night with a sick child. We see the teenager with attitude and falling-down pants; we don’t see the young man who’s trying to find his place in the world, and to figure out the tools for making it a good place. Sometimes we even see the stranger who’s sitting in our preferred pew, but not the seeker who’s uncertain of her welcome in a new church.

My prayer of the last few years, which I started saying every morning, every night, and every time I climb behind a steering wheel – because I really need it most of all when I’m driving – is “Lord, help me to see your face in all I meet, and to do your work in the world.” I can say that it helps me, although I really have to work at it with a few people.

The point is our point of view, to see each other as Christ would have us see one another, not “from a human point of view,” but as Jesus sees us. When we manage that, everything old does pass away; everything becomes new – sharper, clearer, fresher.

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

Excitement

I love being excited.

It’s the best feeling. I can be reserved and keep to myself, depending on the situation, but when I get pumped about something, you probably won’t get me to calm down. Especially if someone surprises me with good news that gets me excited…I’m basically beside myself.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I auditioned on cello for the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts. It was a five-week program in the summer for rising junior and seniors, and they only took six cellists from across the state. You got to stay in a dorm at a college and spend a little over a month immersed in your discipline. One day after swim practice, probably in late January, I went out to the mailbox for a routine check.

Inside was my acceptance letter. I read it again and again in the middle of the street, in the freezing cold, with my soaking wet hair, still in my bathing suit. I screamed and jumped up and down with excitement. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was absolutely insane.

I was excited then, and totally beside myself, but think of the rush of emotion that the people in today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke must have been feeling. Picture it: They had just witnessed the most surprising and beautiful thing, potentially ever, Jesus himself, risen from the dead. Seeing him in the flesh, feeling his wounds…all after they thought he was gone.

How exciting that must have been? We cannot know, and I even find it a little hard to imagine the true level of joy they were feeling. It must have been out of this world.

But Luke tells us that, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering…”

Now, I don’t know about you, but those are some emotions I don’t have to try as hard to imagine: Disbelief, wondering.

You see, the people in Luke’s Gospel were so lucky. They got to experience the joy of Jesus’s resurrection first hand. They got to see him, to touch him, to know. But it says, even in the midst of that unfathomable joy, they were disbelieving and still wondering.

Talk about getting the short end of the stick, right? We were born a couple of thousand years too late. For us, as modern followers of Christ, it is far more about faith.

Faith is something that has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I’ve been an Episcopalian my entire life. I started acolyting at age 6, and went on from there to be active in Sunday School, my youth group, the Episcopal Church camp in Tennessee, and various other church retreats for many, many years. I even went on to be in the Episcopal Service Corps, and now (I know this is news), I work in a church!

Some of the greatest moments in my life have come from my experiences with my faith…with Christ…with God. I am overwhelmed with joy by the power of Jesus’s story, his teachings, how he treats others…his whole life, including his death and resurrection.

But even in the midst of that overwhelming joy, I sometimes find myself in an overwhelming state of disbelief…and I am still wondering.

I ask myself all the questions I’m sure those in today’s Gospel were asking: “Are you kidding me? No way. This is crazy, right? Is this for real? Is he for real?” And maybe you ask some of your own questions, too.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. It’s just plain difficult to be a Christian. This is a safe place, so let’s not pretend.

It isn’t always easy to trust. It isn’t always easy to have faith. We do not have the luxury of getting to see Jesus’s flesh and blood. For us, it is a matter of finding meaning and truth in a story that is, well, really old and investing our beliefs and our lives in it. Even with all the joy, that’s really hard. Naturally, we have doubts about all of it. We’re human.

And then comes Jesus’s immediate response to those who were disbelieving and still wondering. He’s showed them his wounds, his flesh, and then he’s just like, “Yo, I told you guys this would happen. Can I can get some food now, please?”

Okay, I joke, but think about it.

They were all both excited and unbelievably uncertain, and Jesus’s reactions in the rest of the reading are so steady. They touched, they saw, and Jesus told them what would happen. He opened their minds and they witnessed the resurrected Christ, so the faith and the action will come. It seems so simple, laid out plainly for us in scripture.

Honestly, though, I don’t know if it was simple, or if it will ever be simple for any of us. But the really exciting thing about Jesus’s resurrection and Easter is that it means that God forever has our backs: loving us, forgiving us, and waiting to help us engage in a joyful, faithful relationship, even when we disbelieve and wonder and life is anything but simple.

In spite of all that, it’s still all too easy to forget about the excitement of Easter and resurrection once all the eggs have been turned into egg salad or left too long in the fridge. It’s easy after a while for that excitement and joy to be overshadowed by our disbelief and our wondering.

And you know what? I think we should still be wondering. Every day.

Because it is kind of unbelievable, right? Jesus’s entire story? It’s messy and it’s complicated and hard to swallow sometimes. But that doesn’t make it any less important or any less magnificent.

I hope that — even in the midst of our disbelief, our wondering, and any difficulties that life throws our way — we are always able to feel that absolute joy when it comes to our faith, the same joy we have already felt in our own meaningful experiences with God and with others, the same joy we feel at the celebration on Easter morning, and that very same joy felt by those who were able to touch and to see.

Because, in a way, we have touched and we have seen.

So, just like them, when we remember Jesus’s life: his teachings, his death, his resurrection, and what all of those mean for us as a faithful people, I hope we are always, always able to think: “How crazy. How beautiful. How…exciting.”

Amen.

– Jillian Smith

Jillian Smith, a former member of Deaconess Anne House in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, is the Director of Youth Ministry at St. Peter’s/Ladue.

Green-Up Time

Daffodil, close up“Lo, the fair beauty of earth, from the death of the winter arising! Every good gift of the year now with its Master returns!”

– Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540?-600?)

This year, spring (the Midwestern variety, not just the precession of the equinoxes) arrived in remarkable synchronicity with Easter. The season of Easter, of course, continues for the Great 50 Days. So, if the weather smiles upon us, does spring.

Both seasons are now past their first blush. A few lonely blossoms cling to the half-leafed-out flowering crab outside my bedroom window, and the last of the narcissi have been clipped from the cutting bed out back. But even as a storm front knocks the fragile blossoms from one set of trees, the buds ready themselves to burst on another.

My father calls this “green-up time,” when leaves are new and grass re-grows, and that bright fresh green seen only in early spring is everywhere as the days lengthen recklessly on their way to summer. It’s the season for planting, whether crops, trees, or something in between in terms of permanence. So plant I did.

In fact, the only retail establishments to which I can easily walk from home are nurseries. In fact, there are four of them, three in a row just to the north of me, and one an outlier to the south. I headed out to buy pansies; their cheerful faces always brighten the pots outside my front door, to say nothing of my mood when I see them smiling back at me. On my way to Nursery #2, I noticed a sign at Nursery #1: “$99 trees.”

When this development was in its final stages of construction, someone found cheap white pines and planted them behind the houses. Unfortunately, the white pine doesn’t like our thick clay soil, and it doesn’t care for damp. Ours are planted on the low ground, and soggy roots are an issue. While one of my pines has done all right, the kindest word for the other one was “puny.” It was sick and sad, and largely bereft of needles.

I thought about it as I headed home with my plants and deposited them on my doorstep. Then I headed back to seek a tree, one that wouldn’t mind getting its feet wet.

The nursery man looked for an oak variety he thought would suit, but they were sold out, and the new ones wouldn’t be $99. Then he hit on the river birch, a native of southern Missouri, a practical tree that can deal with flooding. I bought it, and called Jim the Landscaper to take out the old and put in the new.

For a couple of weeks, the birch looked decidedly dead. Last week I saw the first signs of buds, cautious signs, not-quite-sure signs. This week, suddenly, there are thousands of tiny grass-green leaves, each expanding almost as I look.

Planting anything is an act of faith, whether it’s burying bulbs in the late-fall chill or trees by the pale light of early spring. For those of us with short life expectancies, bulbs are the safer bet. I expect to see mine come up several times.

But trees are for the long haul. It may not grow tall enough fast enough for me ever to enjoy its shade, but that’s all right; others will appreciate it in years to come. It is a connection to the future, a bond with God’s earth, and a promise for springs to come.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Doubting Thomas on Low Sunday

caravaggio-thomasThis Sunday is formally known as the Second Sunday of Easter. It’s also known as “Low Sunday,” a name enshrined even in the Churchman’s Ordo Kalendar on my wall, the handy ecclesiastical authority on saints’ days and holy days and what lessons get read when.

Some of the “Low” is about the notable contrast in ritual and liturgy between the the most important feast of the year, Easter Day, and the Sunday that follows it. Some of it concerns attendance; most Christians try to make it to church for the Feast of the Resurrection, but relatively few feel obliged to show up again so soon after it.

That is a shame, because the gospel reading for Low Sunday concerns an apostle with whom many of us can sympathize, Thomas.

The name Thomas means “twin” in Aramaic; he’s also called Didymus, the Greek equivalent. (We don’t know his given name; we also have no word on whether or not his closest relative was also a disciple.) He seems to have been a practical man, as well as a faithful follower. When Jesus announced his plans to go to Jerusalem after the raising of Lazarus from the dead, an act which certainly put him into the Temple authorities’ crosshairs, Thomas said, “Let’s go too, so that we can die with him.” You can practically hear the eyeroll.

Later, when Jesus says that he’s going to prepare a place for his followers, Thomas points out, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so just how do you expect us to find our way there?”

It’s not exactly surprising, then, that Thomas, who wasn’t there when the risen Christ appeared to the other apostles, loudly expresses his skepticism. Maybe he even got a little snarky, the way he did in Bethany after the raising of Lazarus. He wanted to be perfectly clear on this: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger there, and put my hand into the wound in his side, I’m not going to believe it.”

Jesus called him on it, appearing in the closed room where the disciples were meeting, and saying, “All right, Thomas, here you go!” Then Thomas did believe, responding “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus answered with a question and answer for the ages: “Do you believe now that you’ve seen me? Blessed are they who have not seen, and still believe.”

We were born much too late, and in much the wrong place, to have experienced Jesus up close, as his first disciples did. We have to take him on faith. We may feel Christ’s saving presence in our lives and be assured of his love for us, but short of a mystical experience along the lines of a Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila, we can’t touch the stigmata of his crucifixion.

Fortunately, it’s all right to have doubts; it’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions. It’s okay to believe in the truth of Jesus’s resurrection more on one day than another. If we ask, Christ will give us the answer we need, just as he did for Thomas, and for many more who have come to question in the centuries since then.

Some of us will always be Thomases by nature; what matters is how we respond to the answers that we’re given. Any day can hold the joy of Easter when our hearts are open; Low Sunday can come more than once a year when they’re closed.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

 

 

Easter gladness, Easter joy

HappyBabybyWeirdBeardIt was one of those bright moments that sweetly sums it up, bringing our attention to what’s really important.

At the start of the 9 o’clock service on Easter Day –  after a heroic prelude, the introit responses (“The Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us rejoice and be glad!”), and one of the great hymns of the Church, “Easter Hymn” (non-musicians know it as “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”), sung and played full out by the choir and congregation, brass and organ – there came an unexpected affirmation.

Just as the music began to die away, just as priests and people caught their breath and began to move on to the next (spoken) thing, a tiny girl in the back of the nave shouted out a spontaneous “Yay!” Her joy was palpable and contagious, a perfect non-liturgical reaction for someone experiencing that particular joy for the first time. The congregation laughed in appreciation. The rector said, “We’re going home now,” because, in a sense, it had all been said.

We didn’t, of course, and (without the sermon, anthem, and communion, just for starters) it hadn’t, of course. But it was a useful reminder. After all, we already know the story, how Jesus died and rose again, of his followers’ grief and elation. In that moment, she reminded us that the story is always new.

– 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

 

 

 

 

 

Refreshment

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.