How I Became Episcopalian, Part 2

There’s an Episcopalian joke I like to tell: some parishioners went to their rector and said, “Father, we want to do a Bible study.  What book should we start with?”  Their rector, taken aback, but quite pleased, suggested they start with the Psalms; he showed them where it was, near the middle of the Bible, and told them to come back in six weeks and tell him what they’d learned.  Six weeks passed, and they came back to his office, rather upset.  “Father!” They exclaimed, “The Bible has stolen its material from the Book of Common Prayer!”

Last week one day, the Daily Office Lectionary assigned Philippians 4:1-9; a passage with 3 or 4 separate highlighter marks in my trusty hard-backed NIV Bible from high school.

The passage epitomizes why I became Episcopalian.  As I read, or listen to, these words, I hear memory verses in verses 4, 5, 6, and 8—sentences I committed to memory as an elementary or high school student:
“4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

In verse 4 I hear the lyric to a children’s song I learned more than twenty years ago at home.

Verse 7 is the common blessing offered during Ordinary Time at the end of a Eucharist service:
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

When verse 8 is read, I hear part of a prayer said during the service in the Book of Common Prayer called, “Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child”—a service I relish offering at hospitals when I visit the newest members of my congregation.

The psalms have become the same kind of patchwork quilt for me—snippets and echoes of other Scripture passages pop up in the psalms all the time, and in turn, the psalms are woven throughout our Book of Common Prayer.
The little red (or black) book that guides Christians of the Anglican tradition in their prayer, worship, and study with God is a puree of Scripture, set to rhythm and mashed up to show through its very being how the God of the Old and New Testaments is made man in Jesus Christ.

One Sure Thing

20130906-105958.jpgLast weekend, I was in Cooperstown, New York. This is the place where I learned what it was to be a parish priest, where I fell in love with the vocation, and where I’ve been stretched and challenged within an inch of my life to do my best at that job. The places (geographically) where great pain is experienced and lived through are sites of enormous comfort. When I return to Cooperstown, or Grand Lake, or Durham, I feel like the rocks and trees and wooden siding of buildings understand me and are full of those powerful memories–they’re witnesses to the battles fought.

People are witnesses, too, of course, and they can be a comfort, but there’s something about buildings and mountains and lakes and particular bits of earth (on which one stands and remembers a vantage point) that is somehow deeper, perhaps because of their stability and unchangingness. The unsettling thing is that even cities, buildings, and bits of earth change. You remember your backyard growing up as a place of great meaning, but when you return to your childhood home decades later, it’s almost unrecognizable–the trees have grown so that the sun is not at all the same, the new owners have re-modeled the flower beds; it’s not the same place anymore, the place you knew is lost.

God promises, though, that he is the same yesterday, today and forever. In this week’s Epistle lesson, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, we hear the witness of faithful people in the past who believed and trusted that, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (v. 8). This is what the church’s Gloria Patri says (“Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever, amen.”).

The first part of Hebrews 13 recalls Abraham, Joseph, and the prophets by their faith-filled acts: Abrahahm “show(s) hospitality to strangers, for by doing that (he) entertained angels without knowing it” (v.2); Joseph was first sold into slavery, then was imprisoned unjustly (v. 3) but didn’t turn away from God because of his circumstances; and the prophets, fairly described as “those who are being tortured” (v. 3) exactly because they refused to turn from God–to renege on God’s promise of being unchanging himself.

“Let marriage be held in honor by all… for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.'” (vs.4-5) The witness of Christian marriage is an effort at humans committing–in God’s strength–to be faithful to each other despite changes in themselves and their circumstances. This is the commitment that God makes to us–that he will never leave or forsake each of us, that he will be with us when we have no home like Abraham, or when we are isolated like Joseph, or when we are being persecuted like the prophets. God remains the same, even when we change and when our worlds change.

“Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

(BCP service of Compline, pg. 133)

Music & Worship

“‘Ah, music,’ [Dumbledore] said, wiping his eyes. ‘A magic far beyond all we do here!'”

– Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The Harry Potter binge continues; I’m now on book 4, but #1 still has my heart.  How can you not give a hearty “Amen!” to this sort of one-line-gem?  There’s much to be said about the power of music, studies to cite of the effect of melodious sound on heart rate and personal stories about how hearing a particular song immediately shifts one’s mood or triggers a memory; Emile Durkheim could even chime in, noting music’s power in creating the all-explaining “collective effervescence.”

Having held Dumbledore’s quotation with me this week, turning it over in my mind with special reference to worship, an embodiment of what I’d been trying to understand and articulate was plopped into my lap this morning:

A recent prayer practice in the Hylden household has included the book, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  In Anglican Daily Office-like format, this book provides a liturgy for Morning Prayer every day of the year, often building its service around modern saints (today was Septima Poinsette Clark).  In every service, a song is included to be sung about where the Invitatory psalm would be said (or chanted) in the morning office. Though I’ve chanted Morning Prayer before, this book’s services include a variety of 50-some familiar melodies (from the first verses of favorite hymns, like, “Amazing Grace,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” and “Be Thou My Vision,” to songs like “Solid Rock,” “Servant Song,”), which are more forgiving to froggy morning throats and, at least for me and my family, tap into a bit of that personal-story-memory.  Adding just a bit of music to the morning–joining voices together to sing and worship, nonetheless–has transformed the prayers.

Candlemas – Nunc Dimittis – the Church of St. Michael & St. George

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Becoming a Hylden changed me in many ways.  The most unexpected, perhaps, is that I now can speak with relative authority on matters of agriculture farming in the United States.  While most of the country was suffering a drought last summer, North Dakota had enough moisture that the crops turned out rather well, and the summer before that, floods in Russia and agricultural parts of Europe turned into good news for farmers over here, because their crops were subsequently in much higher demand.  Things have been so unexpectedly positive for upper-Midwest farmers the last few years that my father-in-law has finally finished the house they’ve been meaning to build for almost three decades.

And four years ago, I had no idea about how any of these international weather patterns could affect a family farm in Northeastern North Dakota.  My perspective has been changed with my introduction to the Hylden clan.

In our Gospel reading this evening, Simeon’s perspective is changed with his introduction to Jesus.  He’d known for some time that his days on earth wouldn’t end until he’d met the child of promise that God was sending to the whole world.  Finally, the climax of Simeon’s life arrived, and he held the infant Jesus in his arms.  As he takes the child in his arms, he bursts into song—the beautiful song we just heard offered earlier in this service, a song that is  that’s also in the order of service for Evening Prayer and Compline in the Anglican tradition.  Simeon, whose name, curiously, means “he has heard,” goes on about all that he’s now seen.  His purpose, he says, is fulfilled in seeing Jesus Christ.  He’s received the greatest gift he can imagine a human could—he’s lived through the dark night of exile and oppression[1] along with the Israelite people and now he’s come to the dawn of the ultimate light.  The best part of this, he knows—and he says so!—is that this light isn’t just for Israel, though it is Israel’s crowning glory, this light, the dawn that Jesus’ life on earth brings, is for the whole world.  Simeon recognizes a baby isn’t a Jewish thing, it’s a universal thing, a sign that God’s people are meant to be made up of everyone on earth.  This salvation, Simeon sings to God, has been brought by you to all peoples, both Gentiles and the people of Israel.  In Jesus arrival, the limits of who made up God’s people were destroyed.  There are no limits on who is acceptable to be God’s child.  The only requirement for being God’s child is that you be a sinner seeking of healing.

The other striking aspect of  Simeon’s interaction with Jesus also has to do with Simeon recognizing what the humanity  of God meant for us humans.  When I was nine, my family went to abroad for the first time.  We went to a conference for my dad’s medical specialty in London, and then spent another week in the English countryside.  To this day, almost twenty years later, my most vivid memory of that entire trip is a particular subterranean museum in York.  Of course, a subterranean museum seems like something especially memorable, but this one was so because, as it boasted, it allowed the attendee to experience the “sights, sounds, and smells” of ancient Jorvic—the Viking town that had occupied that space in the eleventh century.  It was something like the Carousel of Progress at Disneyworld—a bunch of human-like robots who engaged in smithing, cooking, and agriculture, complete with animal noises, crying babies, fire smoke, and bodily odor.  My parents probably hope that I recall the lovely bulcolic scenes we passed on our drives, or the various ruins we visited, but I think there’s something important to be gleaned in the fact that my brothers and I most remember the one event that engaged all our senses at once.

Simeon had heard that he would not die before meeting the Lord, and then he went to the temple and saw God, he approached Mary and Joseph, and in taking their baby into his arms, he touched God.  As anyone who has held a newborn knows, you cannot help but smell the sweet scent of his or her head.  Simeon experienced God with his senses, and he was changed and fulfilled by it.