Sitting behind the altar yesterday, having received the ashes and having imposed the ashes for others, I found a quiet moment to flip over to a prayer in our Book of Common Prayer…
Prayers for the Church
7. For the Church
Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it
with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt,
purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is
amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in
want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake
of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer pg. 816
This prayer touched me, on the first day of Lent, in the wake of the recent divisive decisions and news from the United Methodist Church, in the context of the Church of Rome and many others finally facing up to sexual sins they have worked so hard to hide for so long… and I prayed it sincerely.
In case you don’t know, when Episcopalians pray or speak of the Catholic Church we mean the whole of the Church in all places and times, not just the Church of Rome. The word Catholic comes to us from the Greek katholikos which is a combination of kath and holo, throughout and whole.
The prayer resonated with me as a needed reminder that we must resist the mistake of equating the church with God, just as we must always remember that our beloved scriptures are not God. When the church fails, God has not. When scriptures fail, God has not. But it still hurts. In daily life it’s too easy to look to what can be seen or touched for our compass and foundation. And when those foundations shake, we fall apart. When our compass fails to point a way from pain to healing, we despair.
As I begin this year’s Lenten journey I’m feeling called to pray for more than my own transformation, but also for a transforming of the church, all of us, throughout the whole. We have fumbled with truths that should have been held tightly. We’ve too often exchanged peace for power. We’ve ignored our neighborly responsibility to this world and its people. Reform us, God! Please, heal the hurting!
This morning I pray that our Mothering God would teach us to have broken and pliable hearts. I pray that the Holy Spirit, the spiritual presence of God living within each of us, would give us her wisdom and a deeper joy. I pray that Christ would truly be our spiritual food and daily sustenance, the One who animates us as we speak and act. I pray that the whole church throughout all of humanity will be courageous in its love and humble its following of the God who breaks down the barriers between us and frees us to love and serve one another. This is my Lenten prayer.
I must confess something to you: I’ve always doubted, at least a little, John’s statement that we cannot love a God we do not see if we do not love a sister or brother we can see. It always seemed to me that an opposite principle would be truer, that loving what can be seen is far easier than loving what is not seen, and not loving the seen is also easier. I mean, I see the failings and suffer the injury of these seen brothers and sisters, don’t I? I also see their beauty and goodness at times. So then, how can my love of God be doubted by my lack of love for other people, especially when they can sometimes be seen as not very deserving of that love?
18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;
for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears
has not reached perfection in love.
19 We love because he first loved us.
20 Those who say, “I love God,”
and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars;
for those who do not love a brother or sister
whom they have seen, cannot love God
whom they have not seen.
21 The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
1 John 4:18-21
Have you ever read some of the old prayers of saints gone by, the prayers that are rich hymns of love for our unseen God? Those prayers have drawn me like a moth to the flame for years, and also left me a bit confounded. How do these prayers come into being? How do I love an unseen God that way, and not just be celebrating the ideas of that God which I’ve been taught?
Let us pray…
“I entreat thee, dearest Saviour,
come and reign over my heart.
Far from me for ever be all other loves but thine,
my Supreme Good.
Burn me with the fire of thy beauty,
O sovereign of my heart;
to thee I sacrifice all, even my inmost being.
Jesus, lord of my heart, mighty and strong, all hail!
O Saviour, reign absolutely over this heart of mine.
Oh! How happy I am to think
that thy reign can have no end.
Thousands of hearts have loved thee tenderly,
thousands of hearts will cherish thee in time to come.
Would that they were all united with mine
to love and cherish thee as thou deservest.
Would that I could make thee sought for and loved
by all the sons of Adam, Lord who art all lovable!
Triumph, my love, my beginning, and my all!
I want thee only, desire thee alone!
My joy, my great joy is that thou art God,
a God that is good, perfect, immeasurable,
infinte, just, wise, powerful.
I love thee for thy own sake, and I rejoice
in thy favours for the sole reason that they are thine!
I throw myself into thy arms, Jesus,
with all the fervour of my soul.
I sing for joy that all of the angels
and saints adore and praise thee.
Oh! That I could love thee in proportion as thou art lovable!
But since this is impossible for any creature,
let me at least love thee as much as I can and ought.
Fill my soul with thy love, my God,
so that I may die in its embrace,
wholly devoured and burnt up in its flame.
How much I repent having loved anything else but thee!
Oh! Would that I might have my life over again,
and drown it in thy love!
Sweet life of my soul, let my heart faint away in thee!
What else can I desire in heaven,
what else can I seek on earth,
I have asked of thee one favour alone,
and it is all that I shall seek, Lord, at thy hand:
to dwell in thy house all the days of my life.
May my last breath be a sigh of love.
May I die of thy love, my God.
May my life, if it did not begin with love,
at least end in it;
and let my last act be an act of love.”
from the Aspirations of Cardinal Bona
I have prayed these aspirations with the good Cardinal many times over the years, always caught and entranced by the deep poetry and power of the words. This morning as I was praying my own small daily aspiration “let me love, let me learn, let me serve” I was reminded of this prayer of love and I turned to love God with my whole self. I turned all my inner strength to focus on loving my God, my unseen God, my hope and center of faith. From that exercise of loving God, straining to love and embrace the unseen, I felt another door open, a door to a treasure room of strength to love the people around me.
I think now that John was actually saying something along these lines… that we can’t have truly given ourselves to the act of loving God, a God we do not see, if a greater love for those who are seen around us has not been manifested in our lives. He’s not essentially contrasting the ability to love what is seen versus what is unseen, but he’s teaching a principle: Turning our hearts to God in a deep stream of affection and love will automatically cause us to have a deeper affection and love for the people around us made in the image of God and so beloved by God. If I’m not loving people, and I find it so difficult to do so, then I need to turn back to applying myself to loving God, for that love is being lost.
In truth, in living the religious life, walking in faith for years, there are many pitfalls that can sneak in and replace my love of God: love of self, feelings of correctness, personal piety, personal giftedness, pride, anger, impatience, fatigue. Love takes effort. Remember how our scriptures tie the love of God and the love of other people together in several ways, from this passage in John’s letter to the famous summary of Law and prophets that Jesus gives in Matthew 22:34-40 that is repeated by Paul in his letters: 1) love the Lord your God and, 2) love your neighbor as your very self.
But somewhere past simply agreeing that those two commands constitute a summary of the Law, past agreeing that these are two important streams of love, there is a reality that John’s seems to hint at for us, that there is an intrinsic connection between those loves. Instead of getting caught up in arguing with John about ways to love those seen and unseen, I need to immerse myself in loving the unseen so that the tidal surge and burning sweep of that love may overflow to the people around me. May I love my God in such a giving of myself, such a visceral application of my strength and being, that when my eyes move to those around me my eyes still see only God. And then I not only am loving the people I see, but my cherished unseen God suddenly has a face as well.
It’s Ash Wednesday again, and if you don’t have plans tonight I’d like to invite you to join my family at St. John’s Episcopal Church for the imposition of ashes and celebration of the Holy Eucharist. (I’m working all day and can’t make an earlier service.) We’ve come to another Lenten Season, a time of reflection, repentance, sometimes rededication. But, why ashes?
I think it’s fair to say that most of us don’t think about our death each day. And really it’s probably healthy for us not to be too focused on our impending deaths. Once in a while though, it’s good and it’s healthy to remember that our journey here on earth needs to be made with intention, and it needs to be made in view of the end and the destination of our journey.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
This is a day and age when we are openly speaking of care and concern for all the earth, and compassion for the lost beauty and lost goodness of an ill-treated creation is an appropriate response to destruction of habitats, litter, oil spills and human negligence.
As an individual, does my stewardship of creation reflect my love of people? Does my compassion for the hurting extend to animals as well as humans? Have I allowed my compassion to be stunted and limited?
I believe that these are the kind of questions that would drive St. Francis to give us such a warning. I can ill afford to let my compassion be stunted or bounded or restrained. If it is to be a ready gift to my own species, a blessing to other people, then I must allow it to be growing and ever-expanding for each and all.
Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours,
all glory, all honor, and all blessing. To you, alone, Most High,
do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day;
and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant
in all his splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather, through which
you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom
you brighten the night. He is beautiful and cheerful,
and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us, and produces various fruits
with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you;
through those who endure sickness and trial. Happy those who
endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds
doing your most holy will. The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve him with great humility.
“Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation. Frequently people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are very demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action!”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
And amen, Todd
“God, another day unfolds before us…
Help me to forgive more and judge less.
Help me to love more and be angry less.
Help me to speak more grace than criticism.
Help me simply to speak less and listen more.
Help me see another’s beauty before their flaws.
And bring to me people who will forgive me,
love me, speak grace to me, listen to me
and celebrate the beauties of my life.
I’m a fan of the Dalai Lama. I like so much of what he says, teaches and exhibits in his life and humility. And I can’t tell you how much I wish I could work some Buddhist robes into my daily life, I just don’t have the body for it. So in the interests of being compassionate to others I’ll just quote the Dalai Lama and leave myself safely encased in flannel.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.
Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
Dalai Lama XIV
As I read Jesus year after year, I’m more persuaded that the idea of life is not to make the world like me, or to make the world to be like me, but life is an effort to love and serve the world around me. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is on record as having said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” I couldn’t agree more. Not only does judging use up my time, it also wastes my precious energy and skews my prayers. I truly believe that living my life in judgment of others does more harm to my own soul than effects correction in anyone’s life.
Today, I’m going to let the man in orange speak to me. Compassion is not something I can ignore or replace in my life without serious consequences to my own health and the world’s joy. As Micah’s words have needfully reminded us for so very long: let us be about justice, mercy and humility, walking the road of life with a God we proclaim to be love. (1 John 4:7-9)