Friday, February 08, 2019

Why Beauty?

Philippians 4:8-9 NRSV
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the Peace of God will be with you.

Paul tells his congregation in Philippi, and us, that God’s peace comes from focusing on what is good and true…and beautiful! The congregation in Philippi knew, as we do, that there’s always something to complain about, sometimes deeply hurtful things. However, as children of God, we know that life is a gift from God and to be celebrated. As Christians, we know that following Jesus leads us on a path that, while perhaps not easy, is full of the Peace of God.

For 2000 years Christians have tried to follow Jesus. Today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews is another example of what that path looks like. To me these steps – the practice of deep empathy – are ‘next-level’ instructions, lessons for those who are at a place within themselves that they can focus on others.

Jesus knew his path isn’t easy! We are so easily distracted! How do we know where the path is? How do we stay to it? Christians in America today are perhaps more like the congregation in Philippi than previous centuries’ of Christians -- we are seriously outside the cultural norm and the path we are trying to follow, and to lead others’ towards, is obscured.

The Psalmist instructs us, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”


Certainly, God’s word was all that was necessary for John Calvin in the 16th century: Scripture alone would bring the beauty of God’s creation into focus, creating a clear path to God’s Peace.

Calvin, in his Institutes, tells us that nature is indeed a “most beautiful book.” The natural world is the first instruction we receive in learning about God. And the natural world instructs us in God’s order and God’s desire. Calvin would say we need to follow Scripture to unlock God’s plan.

But the natural world is vast! And, in our daily lives, the world seems very different than what Scripture describes. For multiple reasons, sola scriptura cannot be our only lamp. Following Jesus was never easy; in the 21st century it is ever-more complicated.

But...Calvin was on to something: focusing.

How do we know what to focus on? How do we learn “to see heaven in a wild flower?”


I’m going to jump forward through the Romantics 400 years to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s.


Sister Corita Kent was a deeply formed Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Her college classes were filled with young women who were not necessarily Catholic or practicing Christians; when you hear Corita teaching, it’s not surprising that she never talks about God, Jesus, or the Sacraments... She talked a lot about Beauty. Sister Corita believed in the beauty of the world and the joy of the everyday. She was frustrated that art could only mean one way of seeing. Told by her Roman Catholic superiors that her art wasn’t appropriate, she turned to the world outside the Church.

Corita used the ordinary items of her contemporary Los Angeles world and refocused them, telling a counter-cultural story, making a spiritual message, pointing to God’s Peace.

This is one of Sister Corita's students, as a class, downtown, on Sunset Blvd, participating in an exercise on focusing.

Corita tells her class that of course it is possible to take the whole of the world in…but sometimes what you need a small piece. In her words,

“I think that's really what a work of art's a small piece that you can digest which gives you a kind of idea of the richness that is in the whole.”


Where does this journey from Paul through the Reformation, Romantic Era and into our own take us? We too are called to focus others on God's Great Work.

And it is indeed what we are doing with Signs of Life!

Sadly, it doesn’t serve our purpose well to walk around with a 1-inch square view-focuser…

Instead, the Brothers' understanding of the Eucharist, of living the liturgy daily, of living in Community, will help us create Lamps…Signs…that illuminate the everyday. And, I hope, use the everyday to illuminate the Sacred.

In the Lent 2020 Offering, we –Brothers and Communications people and curriculum writers alike—are being asked to focus on very small portions of God’s Grandeur in our hope that others will come to love Jesus and this liturgical way of living in God’s Peace.

[this is where my homily ended, officially]


I started on this homolini with a scripture search for “Beauty” and of course the first up was “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Vapid? Yes. But it also begs the question: Who is the beholder?

What is beautiful to one person may not be to another. How do we talk about what we believe to be Beautiful and True without dismissing others’ experience?

One of the very great dangers of this entire project is that we will end up in a binary area with one side heavily weighted towards Grace and the other unvalued.


Swinging back to our mini theme of Beauty, I want to start us with a quote from the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist:

“This deep intention at the heart of our life to find God in all things means learning to trust that divine companionship continues undiminished even when we feel only boredom and frustration.”
If this is so, then beauty must also be available in all of creation, even what we think of as ugly.

**what is the counterpoint to Beauty? If the world God created is Good, can anything be ugly?

What's the counterpoint? Counterpoint brings more than one voice into relationship with the melody, highlighting one and then other for a polyphonic experience.

Is the counterpoint of Beauty ... Falsehood?

**Is beauty solely in the mind? How do you experience beauty with your body?

What I want to ask is: What is the “practical application” of beauty.
We know beauty – if we are the beholder –

How does this play out liturgically?

If we were to apply this theme to the structure of the others, what would be the theological meaning of Beauty? And how would we see that meaning in the liturgy and reflected back into our lives?

***affiliated readings***

Philippians 4:8-9 The Message

Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious -- the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Auguries of Innocence, William Blake

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

Monday, February 06, 2017

The Purification, Presentation, and Our Confession of Sin - NOTES

I am a big fan of the liturgical reciting of the Confession of Sin.

According to the rubrics - as I have been taught - of the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, we stand for corporate prayer. In a practical sense that means that I stand a lot during the service:
We stand for the processional
for the welcome
song of praise
We sit for the readings
standing to witness as a people the proclamation of the Good News.
We sit to hear the learned response.
We stand to communally affirm that We Believe.
We remain standing so that as a people a representative can petition our prayers.

And then we kneel. From my earliest memories, I have repeated in unison with the gathered body of Christ:

Most Merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

I don't remember a time when I thought it was unimportant to recite - not read - the Confession. Reciting allows my mind to wander, to stop on the words that resonate, to think on what I might have done better or not done at all. It does not bind me up in guilt, nor does it make me feel either better or worse. For most of my 38 worshipping years, I have recited and moved on, having made right with myself in order to make right with my neighbor. 

Last week was the Feast of the Purification and Presentation, the Feast of Candlemas. Juan Oliver's Preacher's Study for the Feast touches on exactly what that means. According to Jewish rites, Mary comes to pay the temple tax in order to be made ritually clean after giving birth. Joseph and Mary come together to present their first born son, Jesus, as an unblemished offering to Go. We're most familiar with this Festal occasion because it gives us Simeon's graceful personal/political commentary on Emmanuel's birth, the Nunc Dimittis.


"Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.

I urge you to read Juan's pericope. It's thought provoking even though we are now past the Feast. Juan digs into the cultural reasons for placing the Feast when it is and the 1st century implications of Joseph and Mary's actions, as well as the developments to the Feast by the early Church. What does the Feast's placement, so squarely within the season of Epiphany mean for 21st century listeners?


I had fully intended to write on the Purification last week. A chorister from my earliest years, I love singing the Nunc and it never fails to comfort in the last moments of Compline. I was struck by the idea Juan presents of a Light that is also a scourge. A Light that like fuller's soap, purifies. He writes, "So Luke stresses that we cannot enjoy the light and warmth of Christ without also welcoming the purification that it brings, a cleansing of the inner clutter of insecurity, lack of focus, deceitfulness, culling favor, and so on."

Daily living go in the way of writing, as it does when I'm not paid to do it. I was okay with setting this aside, allowing the green shoots to mature a while. 


Until, that is, Sunday. We knelt to recite the Confession and as we were standing to enact the Peace I experienced an epiphany of my own. 

"Have mercy on us and forgive us, that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways."

Our confession is fuller's soap. If we don't repent of the wrongdoing - petty and insignificant or all-encompassing - we  cannot have room to DELIGHT.

A progressive Christian, I have been told my whole life that God is Love, God loves me, God is still creating, God is willing us to be other words, God wants us to delight

As the member of an extended Jewish family, I have always taken seriously that Jews follow Torah because it delights them. To follow God's will is to offer thanks to God. 

And sot the call to repent, to be purified, to present ourselves scrubbed clean is not because God wants us to be Good - whatever that is. God wants us to have enough room in our hearts to DELIGHT and thus be willing and able to follow God's ways. 


A few years ago I taught a family service how to use American Sign Language to recite the Lord's Prayer. My families and I were struck by the word for sin in ASL - using both hands in loose fists but with the index finger of each hooked, make small circles from your stomach outwards. 

What happens in our bodies when we have sinned? When we have not told the whole truth or we have held onto information that should have been shared? When we call each other names? OUR STOMACHS HURT. There is literally no room for delight. We must rid ourselves of the fullness of sin in order to make room for delight. We have seen the Light, set us free. 


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Epiphany 2A, January 15 2017

1 Corinthians 1: 1-9

I've been several places in the past week where security seems to be amped up.
I feel like I am holding my breath. Or perhaps it's more appropriate to say that I am holding my breath, clenching my teeth, and then remembering to take a deeper breath, shrug my shoulders, peel my tongue off the roof of my mouth.


It's in keeping with this feeling that I read the Epistle assigned for today, Paul's greeting to the church gathered in Corinth. It's a typical introduction: grace and peace to you, who have been strengthened by God and enriched and strengthened by the testimony of Jesus Christ...

Honestly? It didn't say much to me, so I clicked to the following chapter. Ahhh. I imagine the people listening to this letter heard this opening salutation holding their breath. Because - spoilers - the next paragraph is a doozy.

If Corinth were America, security would be heightened. There would be neighbors bunched together, nervous about those on the other side. Corinth was divided.

If we were in Corinth, the Corinth to whom Paul addresses his letter, we would know this. I imagine there would be some followers of Jesus who would be expecting a smack upside the head. Those new Christians would be holding their breath, waiting for their shepherd, their mentor, to rightly admonish them.

And that's where we are, current day Americans, less than a week before a Presidential Inauguration that even the most ardent supporters of our President-to-be are waiting for with bated breath.

In a 2011 essay on this reading, Daniel Clenendin, a contemporary Christian commentator, tells us this about Christian faith, "Focusing only on our faults distorts the true nature of the church." In the same essay he quotes several writers, ancient and new, who have gone to church, participated in worship, precicely because they needed the space to find faith, not because they had faith and needed to express it.

As a denominational entity, the Episcopal Church came to the conclusion some 40 years ago to celebrate Holy Communion every week. I'm not here to tell you what you should or shouldn't find in the common celebration of "our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving." But I will note it is the one time in my week that I find myself in a group of people with whom I have little else in common.

We are waiting, here, almost holding our breath.

Breathe out. Breathe back in. Slowly. Roll your shoulders back down your back. Breathe in again. Breathe out. Scrape the tongue off the roof of your mouth. Breathe.

The world is a frightening place. We all have worries about what will happen in the next few years; many of us worry about changes already enacted by our House & Senate. We are waiting to be scolded from one side or the other.

But we are HERE. NOW.

The Psalmist writes,
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my
feet upon a rock, making my feet secure.

Come and see.

2He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

Friday, January 13, 2017

NOTES: Baptism of our Lord, January 8th, 2017

Or maybe it's the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated?

I feel like I am in an old timey cartoon, watching Jesus' life speed by like a train. We got glimpses this year of his childhood: there's goes the birth and an angry Herod, sending out the troops to massacre the Holy Innocents. Maybe we can wave to Anna and Old Simeon at the presentation? Woohoo, circumcision! Somewhere we passed the Magi and their foreshadowy gifts and the flight into Egypt...

And now the train has stopped. Catch your breath, we get a panoramic view of the Baptism of our Lord.

Head's up: Jesus is now an adult.

Our readings for this week are descriptive:
Isaiah tells us what God will do.
Psalm 29 describes the actions of a mighty God - "Lebanon skips like a calf."
Acts succinctly retells the story from a distance of some years, to a new audience - and importantly, what Peter tells them (and us!) what actions we should take with that information.
And Matthew's Gospel gives us the actual interchange between John the Baptizer and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, speaking God's words. (My co-editor at Building Faith, Matthew, has a handy explainer for this occurrence.)

Unlike viewing the world through the windows of a speeding train, reading God's story in Scripture isn't linear. We loop and double back more like a roller coaster, often ending up in the same physical space as when we started. Surely, it is the journey that makes the difference. This same reading from Acts is also read at Easter in all three lectionary years. It is the story, if you read just a few more lines, of a massive baptism by the Holy Spirit to a group of non-Jews. We read it at the same time we read the story of Jesus' the start of a new year.

In another big loop, here we find Peter in Joppa, the same city where Jonah fled to avoid God calling him to preach to non-Israelites. Peter is being called into Cesearea, to share daily living with, and to preach to, non-Jews.

As Christians we are called to repeat the holy cycle year after year, sometimes, as in this reading from Acts, repeating the same scripture verses within a year. But as Sir Terry Pratchett notes, "Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving." And we can see this! We know that this January is not like any previous one. As we look with some trepidation to the big changes ahead of us a country, as communities, as congregations, we can also reflect upon the words of the Psalmist, written some 3,000 years ago, calling us to witness to God's terrifying acts, not simply to scare us, but to testify that this God is our God of strength and a blessing to us.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

DRAFT: The Feast of The Circumcision, January 1st, 2017

2016 has been an awful year. Sure, there were individual moments that shone like the magi's star. In our family, there were births of wonderful babies, Wylie got his driver's license, Beatrice survived her first year at college, and Joe made Captain. But by and large, most people - all the people? - I talk to are ready to shut the door FIRMLY on 2016.

And the Church is ready to move into 2017, as well. Christ is born! The Nativity has happened and we are in the great pivot, waiting for the magi to show their obedience to a baby king, waiting for the grown Jesus to signal he is God-with-us, waiting for the signs and symbols of Epiphany.

BUT WE ARE STILL IN THE NATIVITY. In a weird twist of God's calendar, we actually celebrate Christ-the-baby for a solid 12 days. And so, this 8th day of Christmas, the 8th day after Jesus' birth, we find ourselves in the Temple with Joseph and Mary and the squalling, squirmy Christ child. We find ourselves here because Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus were 1st century Jews. In accordance with the custom of their faith, they had come to the Temple to name their baby and, as a son, for him to be circumcised. The bris, as Jews today call this ceremony, is the enactment of a covenant between man and God that stretches back to Abraham. In Genesis 17, God changes Abrams name to Abraham...but the sign of the covenant with which he does that is in circumcision (Genesis 17: 9-14). 21st century American Christians call this the Feast of his Holy Name, but it is more properly the Feast of the Circumcision, because while the name is important, the act of blood-letting is more important.

As a culture, we've moved beyond circumcision. When Wylie, who is almost 17, was born, parents who chose not to have their boy children circumcised at birth were on the fringe. There are now more parents who choose genital integrity over circumcision.

So why does it matter? Why not simply refer to this day as the naming of Jesus? His name is pretty important: Jesus, a derivative of Joshua, means "he saves." He is also to be called Emmanuel, "God with us." Those names appear to his parents in dreams from Gabriel. Hebrew scripture tells us that God cares deeply about names and naming. But we also know that God cares deeply about covenants.

*As we pivot into Epiphany, into the miracles of Jesus that portend who is really is, it's important to remember where we came from.
*As we swing into the New Year, with so many changes on the personal, family, and societal levels, it's important to remember where we came from. We cannot simply shut the door on 2016. We cannot have made it to 2017 without 2016 and we would be wise to remember the year as we move bravely into the new one.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

So many things to do, so few photos - let's eat!

I even thought, as the cornstarch-slicked jewels of rhubarb and strawberry filled the dish, "I should take a photo."

Um, yeah.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp-like Sweet Casserole
(can't be a crisp, topping didn't, well, crisp)

Preheat oven to 350, grease baking dish

Dice 7 cups of rhubarb and strawberries - attempt to keep in the same general size family
Gently fold in:
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 cup brown sugar
2 Tbsp lemon juice
zest of one lemon
1/2 tsp large-grain salt

Let sit while you make the crispy-like topping.
Mix together:
1/2 cup oatmeal
1/3 cup oat bran
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup flour
1 tsp cinnamon* oops, I forgot this
1/2 tsp large-grain salt
**I also added 1/2 cup sliced almonds and some more oatmeal
Add 8 Tbps cold butter, diced small
Cut in butter as though making pie crust - you're done when you can squeeze a handful and the mixture stays together

Pour fruit into baking dish.  Gently cover with topping.

Bake 40-60 minutes until fruit is bubbling (you might want to put a baking sheet under your casserole), topping is crispy, and rhubarb submits willingly to a skewer.

Devoured in less than 5 minutes, piping hot and all.
Is that because the boy was hungry or because it was that good?  Does it matter?

Monday, March 03, 2014

See where I am now?

I'm not sure if writing for somewhere else will make me more likely to write here?  Promises, promises, right?

But please come see my curatorial work at Building Faith, a place to converse, critique, and keep working on Christian formation and a mission of the Center for the Ministry of Teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary.