What We Believe & Why We Do What We Do

Song of Solomon 2:8-13 | Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10 | James 1:17-27 | Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

There’s such familiarity in today’s readings that I feel they must be written on our hearts. These words of love, joy, and unity; words of encouragement and instruction; and words of Truth. These are words we live by–what we believe and what we do.

If you look on The Episcopal Church of the United States’ web page, you’ll find this under the “What We Believe” page:

“As Episcopalians we believe in a loving, liberating, and life-giving God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As constituent members of the Anglican Communion in the United States, we are descendants of and partners with the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church, and are part of the third largest group of Christians in the world.

“We believe in following the teachings of Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection saved the world.

“We have a legacy of inclusion, aspiring to tell and exemplify God’s love for every human being; women and men serve as bishops, priests, and deacons in our church. Laypeople and clergy cooperate as leaders at all levels of our church. Leadership is a gift from God, and can be expressed by all people in our church, regardless of sexual identity or orientation.

“We believe that God loves you – no exceptions.”

(We’ve also copied it onto our web page since it’s pretty concise. Our web page, by the way, is getting a makeover, so check it out and offer us your feedback!)

We are a church grounded in the love of God, and Jesus Christ has shown us the way. There might be images and connotations in Song of Solomon that make us blush, but if we get past our own immaturity and contemplate a yearning and love of God fulfilled and in perfect unity, we get closer to the sentiment the wise words intend. Jesus has this love for the world, for the Church, for us.

We know we’re not perfect, that we are going to fall and let our own desires and the world come between us and God, but Jesus Christ is there for us, showing us the way, and making way for us to return to unity with God. Don’t you know that the writer of the book of James, had his own struggles to deal with? If he didn’t, his words to the people he’s preaching to wouldn’t ring true. (If you came to the video lectures in Christian education, you know that it’s unlikely that one of the apostles James, wrote the book, but what is written contains Truth, regardless of who wrote it.)

We focus a lot on authenticity, right? We shun hypocrisy, what is fake and insincere. Most of us can probably spot it a mile away, smell it like the stinky mushrooms that are invading my flower bed at home. James is being real. He’s saying, “If this is what you believe, then what do you do?” (He can also be read as a what-you-should-be-doing list, but that’s for another time.) The book of James is big on doing, not just believing and talking, and we’re given a quick test for religion that is pure and undefiled: does it “care for orphans and widows in their distress” and “keep (people) unstained by the world”?

I don’t think I’ve met her yet, but someone asked us through our Facebook messenger page,

“What is your church doing in the community to follow the ways of Jesus in supporting the widow, orphan, immigrant, single mother, impoverished, the LGBTQ community, etc?”

Maybe I should have sat and contemplated our ministry roster (that will be updated for our Ministry Fair on the 16th!), but what I did was reply as quickly as I could, as if I were being confronted by “James” himself:

“Thanks so much for reaching out with such poignant questions! Indeed we hope that we are following the Way of Jesus in many ways that directly reach out in love to the very people you name. For widows, there are several in our congregation, and they find community in their midst. Maybe someday we can have a more formal support for them. Outside the church itself, many widows, orphans, strangers, and immigrants are participants in the food pantry at Christ the King (the church we formerly shared space with). They also have a Feast of Grace once a month that is open to all. We’ve also joined up with the HomeTowne Suites feeding ministry that assists all kinds of folks who happen to find the motel their home. We also have our Spanish-speaking congregation, and we don’t ask about immigration status, though we are supportive of efforts to support anyone who needs assistance/support. Padre Guillermo often participates and offers prayers at events for the Hispanic community. I’m working on my Spanish skills! We were the only church from Bentonville that marched in the Pride parade in Fayetteville this June. We are open and affirming of or LGBTQ+ community, and The Episcopal Church offers marriage for LGBTQ+ partnerships.

“This seems really condensed but hopefully gives you a glance at our work made possible by our faith community nourished by Jesus Christ, our worship together to offer praise to God, and the power of the Holy Spirit.”

This was just a list off the top of my head in response to her questions, and this is just a portion of what we do here at All Saints’ because we believe in a triune God and the teachings and salvation of Jesus Christ.

So why do we do what we do? Why is it important that we do what we do authentically? . . . Because if we do good because of true belief and faith in our hearts, what we do won’t stink.

God knows I’m being lazy with those mushrooms by my front door. I get one whiff of them these days, and I grab the hoe (that I just leave by the porch since it must be stinky mushroom season), break them down, and cover them over with the mulch. I’m probably just encouraging their growth right there, saving the flies that spread their spores the trip. But y’all, these mushroom stink, smell like death or rotten meat. They’re gross. You’d have to be crazy to eat them, and I’m pretty sure your hands would stink for days if you touched them. But God has said it doesn’t really matter if what we touch is clean or not. Whatever we bring into our grasp, whatever we put in our bodies is just going to go to the sewer anyway (or perish in its materialism, yes?).

It’s what’s in our hearts that matters. It’s all that God wants. It’s what Jesus Christ already knows.

It’s easier to just make things look pretty on the outside, to cover up the stench with mulch or Glade or Febreeze or the most beautiful church ever, but to be pure and undefiled . . . that’s going to come from our hearts . . . that’s going to get at the source.

We do all that we do because we believe in a Way of Love, and it’s not always easy. It’s going to mean that we have to hold ourselves accountable and worship with people who might have a different opinion than we have, but what holds us together is greater than our worldly discrepancies, if what holds us together is the Love of God.

God also knows that we like things a certain way in The Episcopal Church. But I’m pretty sure we’re not asked anywhere in the scripture which vestments we wear, how centered the altar is, what kind of windows we have, or what kind of coffee we serve. What we are asked is: if we examine the works that we do, what does that say of our faith? What do we believe, and what does that say of our heart? What do we trust to be true in our heart of hearts? God knows, but if we hold up a mirror to ourselves, do we see clearly? Are we willing to be honest about who we are in all our beauty and imperfections? I believe we are. That’s why we confess. That’s why we reconcile ourselves to God through Christ: so we can receive the Body of Christ and go back out into the world in peace, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit to do good work in the name of a true religion that actually practices love. If that kind of thing isn’t for you, then this isn’t the church for you. If that kind of stirs your heart or gives you goosebumps or makes you smile, then stick around. Because we are a church that believes in Jesus Christ, and we can love one another so much because with all our hearts, souls, and mind, we love God. We love what God can do through us and with us. I love what God does with me, when I am weak and when I’m strong . . . but especially when I’m weak. More than true religion, I know true love. God loves me with that love, and I know without a doubt that God loves you with that true love, too.

 

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On the Edge of Knowing

 

Acts 7:55-60 | Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 | 1 Peter 2:2-10 | John 14:1-14


That this Sunday is Mother’s Day here in the states and that we have chosen today to celebrate those graduating with their various accomplishments make me keenly aware both of my motherhood and of my firstborn graduating from high school. It probably doesn’t take much to imagine the vulnerability I feel in this place and time as a mother generally and as parent of a child who–at 18–is (we hope above all hopes!) prepared for the next stage of her adult life. This is a vulnerable place because it feels like being at the precipice of knowledge, on the edge of what is known and unknown, and like setting out on a journey with no idea what the traveling conditions or the final destination will be.

Marie Howe, former poet laureate of New York, said in an interview in 2013 that we often turn to metaphor when describing something that’s real because “to actually endure the thing itself, … hurts us for some reason.” We want to compare whatever “it” is to something else more readily known rather than take time to really see something as it is, endure it for all its worth until we realize that there is nothing more valuable or comparable than the thing itself. It’s easier to look away. She speaks with the authority of a writer/poet and professor who has her students start class by writing ten observations of the actual world. She said the students have such a hard time with this. If they can recall something–say toast, for example, they would rather say the toast is like sandpaper rather than describing it as dry, brown, and crumbly.

Howe theorizes our inability to make honest, aware observations comes from our constant distractions in the speed and chaos of life in the digital age. We spend more time gazing into the screen of our phones, computers, and televisions than into the eyes of one another. One could say we get accustomed to our hectic, over-filled, preoccupied lives, especially if we’re in the child-raising or career phase of life, and it easily just becomes the way it is, how life works. So even when we’re out of the “busy” phase, we perpetuate busy-ness in other stages of life. What we know is the perpetual busy-ness; we rely on our phones, calendars, and reminders. We get stuck in the roundabout of daily chaos. But if we keep doing the same thing, we’re relatively certain we’re going to get similar results. It’s called predictability, and most of us like the security of predictability. I’ll keep doing a good job, pay my bills on time, tuck the kids into bed with love, and wake to repeat the same things the next day. I know what to expect, and it gives me a sense of security. The same is true even if what I’m doing isn’t good by any standard. Perpetuating cycles of poverty, abuse, addiction, dysfunction–you name it–bring with it the same comfort of familiarity, even if it’s “the devil you know.” Our “roundabout” life doesn’t ever really take us anywhere, though . . . and certainly not to everlasting life.

After about four weeks of making concrete observations, Professor Howe says she has to put a cap on the amount of writing time the students have. She hears the scritch-scratching of their writing as they rush to get it all down, knowing their time is almost up. And when she changes the assignment, telling them to switch to using metaphors for their observations, they ask, “Why?

What brings about this switch? How do we move from not noticing our surroundings in all their value and sensuality to being at a place where we can’t imagine not noticing them and giving them full account?

Something happens to get us out of the roundabout: we can choose to set a different pace or to evaluate life more closely. We can retreat, quite literally backing away from the regular program. We can take the scenic route instead, maybe even bike or walk. One of my many fond Sewanee memories is riding my bike to school with the kids (even if Casey told me I looked like the Wicked Witch of the West in my black clothes and a basket on the back of my bike). Riding a bike lets us set the pace, especially if we’re with kids. We feel the wind in our face, note the smell of spring or rain. We notice even the slightest incline and rejoice in the euphoria of speeding downhill. We can also listen to and follow new directions, like when Professor Howe tells us to notice the smell of the air or the face of a stranger and then holds us accountable to recount the experience. We can pause or stop in illness or pain and listen anew to the demands of our body.

But what if I get a roadblock in my little roundabout life that I don’t choose or see coming, like a pink slip, a collect call from jail, or a diagnosis from the doctor? The flow stops abruptly. The unexpected has suddenly arrived, and my discomfort is off the charts. Rather than doing something destructive, at the end of the stressful day, I might think, “It’s been a while since I’ve prayed before going to sleep. Compline’s usually comforting (and predictable), so…I’ll give it a go.” When I get to page 129 in our Book of Common Prayer, I read the words of Psalm 31, the same words we said today, and I pray for our Lord to “be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe.” In this time of uncertainty, the prayers for God to see me through this night illuminate the unknown not only of the night to come but of my uncertain future and my eventual death. I realize that in the rush of my daily round, prayers have fallen to the wayside, church is just another thing to do, and only if it’s a good day do I have some sense that God is in the midst of it all. But how striking are the words “Into your hands I commend my spirit” when I stand at the edge of life as I know it and the unknown of life to come, whether it’s tomorrow or the hereafter.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says in John 14, which also happens to be one of the gospel readings often used in our burial rite. How meaningful to read this before our death. Jesus assures us that we are provided for, that he is the way, the truth, and the life, that through him, we know God the Father and everlasting life. In these simple words, there’s such peace and clarity. Jesus is the way, the path we follow. Jesus is the truth, everlasting and certain. Jesus is the life, vibrant and radiant. When I’m standing on the edge and feeling the world as I know it falling apart, Jesus reminds me that he has prepared a way and even has a place for me, for everyone. I honestly don’t imagine heaven as a bunch of houses, but I know that wherever Jesus is, there I will be also. When I question the validity of Jesus’ truth, he reminds me that my doubts are within the bounds of normal but are not necessary. Thank God for clueless apostles! Not only Thomas but Philip also needed a bit more proof for the outlandish claims Jesus made, and Jesus understood, knowing our hearts as he does. Jesus didn’t need signs or miracles to prove his divinity; those works were provided for you and me. And, when I fear change or death itself, Jesus reminds me of the triumph of life, the light overcoming the darkness, even if we have to go through the darkness first.

So often what is unknown is portrayed as darkness–shadowy, cloudy, or obscured. Jesus, let alone God, seem so far away. And yet, so often we say one’s future looks bright. We don’t know anything more, but looking into the faces of our graduates, it seems so easy to see the light and be sure of the presence of Christ with them, to see the Holy Spirit at work through their gifts and talents. Looking forward with faith brings a bit of light, which fuels our hope, making it even brighter. Add to that the joy of love, and we look into the face of uncertainty with a spirit of adventure. This is how we break open our hearts to love with all that we have. This is how we Christians walk the way of Christ, the way of love, to see our neighbors not as a statistic but as people doing their best with what they have. This is how we continue to learn and grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, even though that knowledge will inevitably open us to more pain, responsibility, and greater awareness of the unknown.

It’s what we do know of goodness and love that bolsters our faith and strengthens our belief, even when it’s hard and hurts our hearts. When we’ve stopped to notice the smell of a newly bathed infant; when we’ve lost ourselves in uncontrollable laughter; when we’ve opened our arms as wide as we can to give and receive a hug from a beloved; when we’ve clenched our throats against a sob as we smiled and assured a love it was okay to go . . . at these times and so many more, we have, indeed, tasted that the Lord is good. And we know that the only way we have the strength to endure anything at all is because of God’s mercy and grace. With that blessed assurance, found mostly in those moments when time stands still as we stand on the edge, we love fiercely, lean into the unknown, and step toward eternal life through Christ.

 

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Beyond the Shadow of Doubt

Acts 2:14a, 22-32 | Psalm 16 | 1 Peter 1:3-9 | John 20:19-31


Oh, the Easter joy!

We proclaim our resurrected “Alleluias!” as we continue in the glorious season of Easter. There’s not enough to be said of the exuberance of Easter morning joy, the euphoria that comes with the masses celebrating our Risen Lord: our newest frocks, the fragrance of the lilies, and music of the angels. We get caught up in the moment, carried away into the sentiment of the masses, but the mass sentiment that sends us into praise also carried us into cries of “Crucify him!” not long ago. All the more reason for our renewed praise to resound to the heavens, for God’s will surpasses our will, God’s triumph overcomes our transgressions, and God’s love knows no limits . . . even for the masses and especially for the individual.

If the Easter joy hasn’t caught up to you yet or if you’re spiritually fatigued or maybe even heartbroken, you might sympathize with Thomas today. Grief strikes us all differently, and I can imagine Thomas as one not so quick to rebound. We have the luxury of hindsight that gives us assurance of what’s to come. No matter how sincerely we move through Lent and Holy Week and enter into darkness of life without Jesus, we know Easter’s coming; so we never really lose sight of the Light that is Christ. And don’t get me wrong, I’m infinitely grateful for this eternal hope. But our kinship with Thomas is this: he attends to his very real and present grief, and he’s openly honest about doubting even the good news proclaimed by his friends.

In case you’re lost in thought about your own heartache or grief, let me draw you in as we move into deeper understanding of our dear apostle Thomas. Moving deeper into understanding requires equally deep listening. You’ve probably heard me mention holy listening before–something familiar to you if you’re involved in contemplative practices or if you are familiar with the work of Parker Palmer. In Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust, the circles or groups use a “third thing” to get us outside ourselves, untangled from our monkey minds of busy thoughts and self-centeredness, and get us closer to God. Poetry is most often used as the third thing, for good poetry has a way of pointing toward greater truths, which is the case in Denise Levertov’s poem “Saint Thomas Didymus.” She writes from the viewpoint of Thomas, taking us in and through his web of grief.

Before I share the poem, however, it’s important to know that when we use a poem or other reading or art or music as a gateway to deeper understanding, we set our intention on being present and still as we can be. We heighten our awareness like a hunter, seekers that we are, as we listen for what pricks not only our ears but our hearts. What makes us tense or relaxed? Where do we sense a surge of energy or feel our flesh tingle with goosebumps? Trusting that we are in a safe and holy place and time, we open our whole selves to prayer, opening heart, mind, and soul to hear, ponder, wonder, and maybe even understand what God might reveal to us.

Now with presence and prayerful attention–maybe even closing your eyes, we turn to Levertov’s portrayal of Thomas, who begins with a flashback to a time earlier in Jesus’ ministry when a father with a son possessed comes seeking healing (Mark 23-25). She writes:

In the hot street at noon I saw him

a small man

gray but vivid, standing forth

beyond the crowd’s buzzing

holding in desperate grip his shaking

teethgnashing son,

 

and thought him my brother.

 

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak

those words,

Lord, I believe, help thou

   mine unbelief,

 

and knew him

my twin:

a man whose entire being

had knotted itself

into the one tightdrawn question,

Why,

why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,

why is this child who will soon be a man

tormented, torn, twisted?

Why is he cruelly punished

who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth

was not so close

as that man I heard

say what my heart

sighed with each beat, my breath silently

   cried in and out,

in and out.

 

After the healing,

he, with his wondering,

newly peaceful boy, receded;

no one

dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,

    the swift

acceptance and forgetting.

I did not follow

to see their changed lives.

What I retained

was the flash of kinship.

Despite

all that I witnessed,

      his question remained

my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,

known

only to doctor and patient. To others

   I seemed well enough.

 

So it was

that after Golgotha

my spirit in secret

lurched in the same convulsed writhings

that tore that child

before he was healed.

And after the empty tomb

when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,

told me

that though He had passed through the door like a ghost

He had breathed on them

the breath of a living man —

      even then

when hope tried with a flutter of wings

to lift me —

still, alone with myself,

        my heavy cry was the same: Lord,

I believe,

help thou mine unbelief.

 

I needed

blood to tell me the truth,

the touch

of blood. Even

my sight of the dark crust of it

round the nailholes

didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through

to that manifold knot in me

that willed to possess all knowledge,

refusing to loosen

unless that insistence won

the battle I fought with life

 

But when my hand

   led by His hand’s firm clasp

entered the unhealed wound,

my fingers encountering

rib-bone and pulsing heat,

what I felt was not

scalding pain, shame for my

obstinate need,

but light, light streaming

into me, over me, filling the room

as I had lived till then

in a cold cave, and now

coming forth for the first time,

the knot that bound me unravelling,

I witnessed

      all things quicken to color, to form,

my question

     not answered but given

its part

in a vast unfolding design lit

by a risen sun.*

Such is Thomas’s transformation, as imagined by Levertov, the unfolding of belief that leads to Thomas’s declaration of “My Lord and my God!”

How beautiful it must have been for the other apostles to witness Thomas’s declaration. We have no sign that they had outcast Thomas for his unbelief: if anything, they may have held him nearer in his tender grief, which is what we do for those we love. Thomas was among the apostles that night the week after Easter morning. Thomas was in that closed room. Surrounded by others he felt alone in his doubt. As God would have it, we see Thomas there, and we witness the outreaching, the outpouring of Christ’s love for him. Christ overcame death and the grave for all, and all means all, no limits or restrictions.

Here today, whether we are strong in our faith and belief or weak with pain and doubt, as we come with praise and thanksgiving for our Risen Lord, may we feel the light streaming in, allow it to swim all around us, and usher it into the world with peace and great joy. For the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

*“Saint Thomas Didymus,” Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, pp. 80-84.

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