Random and not so random musings from a 5th generation NE Missourian who became a 1st generation Episcopalian. Let the good times roll!

"It is a paradox in human life that in worship, as well as in human love, it is in the routine and the everyday that we find the possibilities for greatest transformation."
--Kathleen Norris, "The Quotidian Mysteries."

So, perhaps you are wondering, "What did I do this weekend on my self-directed retreat?"

Well, for starters, I stayed away from the Internet for the weekend. No e-mail, no Facebook. I turned my cell phone off and only checked it in the morning and evening just to make sure nothing emergent was happening in the outside world. I wasn't on call, so that wasn't a problem. These things can be a time suck when I have serious contemplating to do. I've always found that easier than I thought it would be, the first time I did it.

I have been dealing with issues on about five different fronts that all seem pretty "big" when I let them take hold of my mind. They run the gamut of work to church to personal life to the expectations of others to my expectations of myself. They involve joy and fear and mystery and confusion and obsession with detail--but they all carry a certain level "un-clarity" at this point. These things are all out there, but I am not sure what I am supposed to be "doing" with them--or am I supposed to be doing anything?

In short, there are just a whole pile of things on my plate that my discomfort with a lack of a "big picture" is frustrating.

An old, old memory popped into my head.

Thirty-three years ago, I was named one of the "Outstanding High School Writers in America" by the National Council of Teachers of English. The words of one of the referees, words told me long ago, when I was young and stupid, bubbled up. To paraphrase, this referee had said that my greatest strength as a writer was that I was able to write about the banal and ordinary in a way that captivated the reader into entering into a realm of mystery and delight.

At the time I did not think beans about it. I thought to myself, "Well, living in a town of 5000 people in NE Missouri is incredibly dull and if I am going to write about something, I'd better find something interesting to say about all the dull and boring surroundings of my life." In fact, I felt inadequate that I didn't have great, exciting, literary things to offer.

But in pondering these present spiritual paradoxes in my life, I came to realize that the answers were not going to be big wide screen Cinemascope-like answers--they would come from those seemingly banal parts of my life that I imagine are boring to outsiders. So I spent a lot of time quietly sitting and exploring the ordinary in my back yard, visiting a couple of favorite places in the area that give me solace, that I had not seen for a while, and making sure every day I punctuated it with a quality visit with people I consider trusted spiritual friends. On Sunday, I celebrated the Eucharist at a place other than my home parish--I have been endeavoring to try to take a "field trip" once a month to another parish in our diocese--simply to see how "other Episcopalians do church." To see there is a Eucharistic world outside my weekly world, so I could appreciate the "sameness" of my weekly worship. How can I truly value what my home parish gives me if I don't step outside of it once in a while and see more of the Episcopalian world?

I also built in long periods of silence during the weekend. I observed the Great Silence from Compline to Morning Prayer, as I prayed the four offices in the BCP each day. When I drove from place to place, I drove in silence, as opposed to my usual mode of always having the radio blaring. (I did make one exception to my nighttime silence--when I took the dogs out I did give instructions to the dogs. But since "Dog" is "God" spelled backwards, I figured this was an acceptable breach.)

But this little Kathleen Norris book (well, booklet, really--it's a printing of a lecture she gave some years back) made a great jump start to giving thanks to the ordinary. The word "Quotidian" means, "Everyday, mundane, in the normal course of events." It's from the Latin word "Quotidianus"--everyday. (Ok, I admit the word "laundry" jumped out at me, since I have composed an entire liturgy for doing the laundry (including revisions for Lent), and my Episopalian Facebook friends and I often post that we are doing the Saturday Sacrament of the Laundry in weekend status updates.

But I figured the most important thing was to get in touch with some affirmation that it is the small stuff of life that gives us the biggest stuff of our understanding.

Then...on to using a book I've touted before on this blog to address where the rubber meets the road for me in preventing me from affirming the goodness in the mundane...

Once again, I am putting in another shameless plug for my Facebook friend Jane Redmont's book. It was a major source of how I planned this little self directed retreat. In particular, I used the following four chapters and the reflections in these chapters to shape my quiet time:

Chapter 2: Begin where you are, not where you ought to be
Chapter 6: Gazing: Images, Icons, and the depth of God
Chapter 10: Praying with Anger
Chapter 24: Faithfulness, not Performance: Building a Daily Practice

For me, these seemed to be the most important places that, as the stockbrokers say, "have high risk but also high potential for reward."

Now obviously, I need to spend more time with what I've discovered this weekend, and let it process, but for me, all retreats also have a small amount of instant gratification in the form of insights I had not (or dared not) considered. Here's the short version of that chapter by chapter:

Chapter 2: Begin where you are, not where you ought to be

I think this is a hard one for many of us. We feel the weight of the expectation of others upon us. I think that, for any of us who ever lived through situations that required time to gain perspective, whether that is for healing, insight, or closure, we have this sense that others are assessing us, and we often feel "others think I should be further along with this," or "others are upset b/c I no longer seem to care about this like I used to.

I did a crazy exercise to just add to "where I was." In the winter, when I can't have my night time outdoor space with my chiminea, I have a place in my living room that is my "devotional corner." I light candles and burn incense. I was sitting outside and thought to myself, "I wonder what it would feel like to sit outside and look out at my pasture and burn incense." So I took a little bucket and filled it with gravel and I put half a dozen big incense sticks in it. I get the really smelly, strong incense that Hindus use--I even buy it from an online Indian foods store.

It was an amazing experience to look out across at my pasture and my hay field, to look out at the rolling hills that make up my home in NE Missouri, and smell jasmine and musk and patchouli. It doesn't get any simpler than that!

Chapter 6: Gazing: Images, Icons, and the depth of God

For this one, I did two things.

First, my Facebook friend Luiz Coelho is designing an icon for me. I look forward to seeing the icon he has written. I know a little about what he plans to do with it. (Don't worry, I will share when I know what it looks like.) But for part of Saturday, I sat and simply pondered, "What will it be like praying through this icon?"

The other thing I realized is part of why I love Trinity-Kirksville's recent addition of Taizé services, is I dearly love "The holy warshtub." We use a galvanized washtub on a small table to hold the candles that people light during the service. The tub is filled with sand, and the table often has a towel draping it for the correct part of the liturgical year. So I decided to have my own "holy warshtub." Well, it's not quite a "washtub." It's a galvanized oversized pail with a garbage-can style lid--perfect for keeping the feral cats out of the sand in the tub. So I spent some time at Home Depot prayerfully considering "The holy galvanized pail with a lid." I put it into practice outside this weekend.

Chapter 10: Praying with Anger

If "being angry on a regular basis" were a condition of exclusion to Heaven, well...I'd be hosed.

The fact is, I'm a little on the volcanic side, but my volcanic eruptions are generally short-lived. Most of the time, they are angry pop-offs. They are responses to stress I can't control. But one of the things I have to learn to do better is do them when no one is in the line of fire. It's usually either an innocent bystander who gets fried, or a person I care deeply about.

But it turns out I did not have to use any "planned" activity for this one, I had one come up of its own accord.

I woke up Sunday to a flat tire on my truck.

I was supposed to drive to Columbia to worship at Columbia Hope for my "planned outside worship activity." I have a "spare vehicle" but it was being loaned out. I had to make arrangements at 7 in the morning to "borrow it back."

Believe me, I was mad. Mad that I had a flat. Mad that Ford Motor Company puts cheap 4-ply tires on new vehicles. (It has never made sense to me that they do that particularly with pickup trucks.) Mad that now I had the hassle of taking a tire in on Monday morning.

So I sat and fumed as I waited for the ride that was going to take me to my other vehicle. Then as I sat, and looked out over my pasture, a thought occurred to me...

"Wait a minute...I am glad that I am fortunate enough to own another vehicle and can loan it out to folks who don't."

Literally, at that moment, a flock of about six goldfinches showed up and flitted in my trees in the sunlight. I thought..."Why goldfinches?" I had a vague recollection that goldfinches were in some religious art. But it calmed my anger just the same at the time, simply to see the brightly colored birds in my tree. Had I not been sitting there, fuming, I would not have seen it.

I later looked it up. Some of the Italian paintings of Madonna and Child show the chubby little naked baby Jesus holding a goldfinch. Legend has it that as Christ ascended Calvary, carrying his cross, a goldfinch flew down and plucked a thorn out of his brow. European goldfinches have a red spot on their heads, and in the legend, some of Christ's blood got on the goldfinch.

It was a reminder to simply sit with my anger. Acknowledge it. Remain open to what might be behind it rather than let it close me down.

Chapter 24: Faithfulness, not Performance: Building a Daily Practice

I spent a lot of time pondering all the things that simply await me each day, faithfully. Coffee in my kitchen. Sunrises and sunsets. Useful work (and a lot of not very useful work.) A paycheck on the last day of the month. My dogs, waking me up.

I thought a lot about the discoveries we've made during this interim period in my parish, where new people with new ways of serving have emerged. I have undercut my faithfulness in all this. I have downplayed that there is something holy about my simply "being there" on a regular basis--that being reliable is, in itself, a gift.

I sometimes get frustrated that the busy aspects of my day sidetrack some of my regular prayer time. I became more open to the idea that there is plenty of room in my day for short prayers. The frustration (and occasionally, subsequent anger) that my prayer time gets cut short now and then with the demands of my world, really, is not about "getting my prayer time cut into." It's about "not getting what I think I want with my prayer time." Not getting "my way" about things. So being open about using the short empty spaces in my day for prayer is unexplored territory for me. I think I need to explore it more.

But all in all, it was a good retreat...a retreat into the ordinary...but with extraordinary findings!

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Habakkuk 2:1:
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

Thanks to the magic of being able to set posts in advance, this blog post is being posted at a time I am observing a weekend where much of it is in a personal "silent retreat."

I basically have three obligations to the world this weekend. I have to attend two birthday parties for the same friend's birthday, one on Saturday and one one Sunday (Hey, when a person turns 80, I think you might be allowed two parties!) and I plan to attend worship in another town Sunday with a friend as a "field trip" to see a more "millennial-oriented" way of doing the liturgy of the Episcopal Church. Our interim priest is always suggesting "field trips" for me, to bring back ideas to recharge both my spiritual self, and to continue to cultivate a fresh, active viewpoint within my own parish.

But other than that, I am feeling the need to be recharged by a Sabbath of my own making.

One of the things I have learned from embracing Benedictine spiritual practices is to never put the first line of the Prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict too far from me...

"Listen carefully, my child, to your master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart."

Emphasis on that first word. LISTEN.

One of the problems that goes with being a person with both an active mind and active hands is I start to measure my worth in terms of "doing." Benedictine spirituality is about balance. I think of myself as a person with two gas tanks, my "doing" tank and my "listening" tank. The last three weeks of my life have been very demanding in terms of "doing." My life is a constant attempt to please too many masters--the patients whose surgical pathology specimens and lab work I serve, the students I teach, some temporary obligations at Trinity-Kirksville, and the needs that four rural hospitals have of their medical director. It is the rare day I can please them all 100%.

My day involves exercising "my clinical mind" all day long. My clinical mind works more or less dispassionately, with facts, with only occasional input from my hunches. But it is not a life geared to have time for listening "with the ear of my heart."

As I grow in my own spirituality, I find myself getting hungry for time to use that ear.

So this weekend, I am making time. I have a few local "road trips" planned to simply sit outside and enjoy some of my favorite views alone--views I have not seen for a few months. I have built in silent time at both a period in the day, and the Great Silence at night. I plan to do all four offices in the Prayer Book both Saturday and Sunday--Morning Prayer, Noonday, Evening Prayer, and Compline, (with the exception of worship on Sunday to cover the "noon" one.) I have built in time to spend a couple of hours with two of my more trusted spiritual peer companions. The computer and the cell phone will be off. I will check my cell phone twice a day for emergencies, but since I am not on call this weekend, the "emergencies" would be like, "somebody died."

I'm also trying something new during my silent times. In the past, when I observe silence, I have never stopped myself from writing. I have come to realize that for me, "writing is talking." I could stop running my mouth easily enough in silent times, but I have never made my hands be quiet with words. I've decided to try to let my hands be as quiet as possible. I am not sure how that will feel. It will be interesting, to say the least!

If you have never tried a "self-driven retreat," I urge you to do so. Really, it's not that difficult. Use your spiritual imagination. Here's what little advice I have to offer...

1. Create a prayer space. This can be indoors or outdoors. Consider which of your senses connects you to God most closely and provide a means for those senses to have opportunities for contemplation. For instance, it's no secret both fire and water ease my soul. Candles, my chiminea, and light help me to be more prayerful. Likewise, sitting by a body of water "too big for me to control" has a centering effect on me. It's also important to let a few people know of your intentions, and ask them to hold you in prayer at this time. I have found it very calming to know others are praying for me during my time off.

2. Consider what forms of spiritual reading will catch your ear at this time in your journey. Read them "lectio Divina" style--a few lines at a time--sit back--see if a word or phrase pops out, and sit with it. Repeat the same passage as necessary before moving to the next one.

3. Build in times of silence. You may have to define, in the beginning, what forms of silence are not too overwhelming or "heavy." Cold turkey total silence can be very unnerving in our modern world. Not everyone has a good experience cold turkey, and sometimes it is better to gradually train oneself to silence. When things come to the forefront in the silence, simply sit with them and accept them.

4. If possible, arrange a way you can celebrate the Eucharist in this retreat. Sunday worship is very useful for that, and attending worship after a day of a quiet mind can be kind of exhilarating, and makes a nice "halftime break" for a weekend quiet/silent retreat.

5. At the end of your retreat, make time to gather. Gather what happened over the retreat time. Offer your findings in prayer. Sometimes sitting down and writing can be a great way to collect these gatherings.

6. Finally, it's important to find a way to put your findings from the retreat into practice. A retreat is not worth much if it doesn't help you re-engage the world in a more holy way. A retreat without an outcome is simply a self-indulgent exercise. It's important to see this time as a way to give more freely, to love more deeply, to be more engaged in God's work in the world. That can become very exciting!

I dearly love retreats. Even little ones like this one. Give it a try!

(Label made at the website)

Job 39:26-30

“Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high? It lives on the rock and makes its home in the fastness of the rocky crag. From there it spies the prey; its eyes see it from far away. Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is.”

Every now and then I spend some time in the book of Job as part of a "reality check" in terms of my expectations vs. God's relationship with me. I am in the season in the Daily Office in my regular prayer time that our Old Testament readings are from Job, and I've been spending a little extra time in that book. Job is a good reminder that although God is in relationship with us, a relationship that we understand in the frame of our own minds as best we can, what God DOES is not in response to our desires and expectations of him.

I've had an interesting phenomenon begin to take place as it becomes more openly obvious that I am a person of regular prayer. A few people I know will request me to pray for them. But as I listen to their request, as they reveal their intentions, it becomes clear that they are asking me to pray for a specific outcome to a dilemma, a situation, or a condition in their lives. In short, they are asking me to participate in their concept that God is a Cosmic Coke Machine, and we'll all put our prayer quarters in and a Coke will appear, just as we ordered it.

Sometimes these people come across to me in a way that sounds to me like, "The more people I have praying for them, the more likely this request will be granted,"--or that my being asked this request puts "weight" into it. I become concerned that I am being asked because, although I am a lay person, I have a regular and open prayer life. It might connote to some that I possess some minor degree of shamanic power.

This is VERY uncomfortable to me. As we've discussed before on this blog, I've got some serious problems with intercessory prayer as it is used so often in the modern Christian vernacular. Even the simplest ones. Take, for instance, if a friend asked me to pray for her on an upcoming job interview--that she gets the job.

Well, I have no problem praying for that person--but I have a MAJOR problem praying "that they get the job." It feels like an attempt for us all to manipulate God. That we have all decided what's best and it's God's job to comply. Maybe it is not in that person's best interest overall to get THAT job. I have no way of knowing that. So my prayer would be like (and I'm going to use the hypothetical fictional name Suzie here)..."Lord, be with Suzie as she searches in earnest for a job. Help her to be calm and prepared and comfortable as she goes on each interview, including this one she has coming up. Let her have a discerning heart as she tries to find the job that both best suits her needs and your desires for her. Let those who interview her also have a discerning heart so, when that right job comes along, that they feel as called to hire her as she feels to work for them. We ask these things in Jesus' name, Amen."

In short, I avoided the "that I get THIS job" part entirely. I figure they might see that in my prayer, they might not. If they do, and ask about it or challenge it, to consider it an opportunity to explain prayer as I sort of see it. If they don't, I leave it alone.

But I'm going to admit, if I was asked to go off on my own and pray for them, I would avoid my issues with intercession entirely with that person--and often do. Perhaps I am a bit of a coward because I don't challenge their request before I go off on my own. But I also realize that, chances are, when I say nothing, that person is thinking I went off and actually prayed for them to get that job.

It's a bit of a clash in my interactions with others. I am at a place in my prayer life where I request fewer and fewer of the specifics with God, and more of the generalities. Oh, it's not that I don't slip and make a few attempts of my own to get God to hear that I think I have my needs figured out. But as time goes on and those situations evolve, it becomes pretty clear that God had better timing and better things in mind than what I did. Many times, my prayers have started with, "God, I was dead sure I needed XYZ to do ABC...but you know, it's worked out pretty well the way it worked out. I guess you knew more about this than I did, din'cha? I'm grateful it was done the way it was done."

But it still begs the question--when others attempt to have us put God in their box, how do we explain what they asked of us in their prayer request feels somehow "wrong?" Should we explain it at all, and simply go off and do as we feel more comfortable? Is it our place to teach, to explain our discomfort in their request? My guess is, probably not at the time they are stressed. It's just going to create more strain. But perhaps when we have the chance to look at the situation through the retrospectoscope we should. I realize I don't do that enough. But I am never sure if it is my place to provide "the teaching moment." I also know that even though I might be at a little different level of understanding about this, I slip and do it too--just in more subtle ways.

Well...gee. I guess that's something else I ought to pray about, huh?

One of the things I have enjoyed this summer is the fact that being a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal church seems to land me a couple of opportunities here and there to supply for the Presbyterians. Granted, it's a little daunting to lead worship with "someone else's liturgy" when we are talking about a liturgy that is somewhat similar but a little more "free form" than I am used to, but it has given me an opportunity to observe what is happening in mainline churches in the rural Midwest...and I am guessing there are some similarities through the rural areas of the United States.

This is 1st Presbyterian Church in Macon, MO. It was...well...interesting leading worship in the town one grew up in, and even more interesting when one's mom decides to show up and observe! But one of the things doing supply here reminded me of is that all over rural America, mainline churches have wonderful old grand buildings that they can no longer maintain, and congregations can scarcely balance "maintaining the building" vs. "calling a full time pastor."

Standing on the chancel at this church is a gorgeous view. Wonderful old hardwood. Two sets of curved pews. A magnificent smaller pipe organ. A choir loft. But all these things need money and love. The history of this church during the 1960's and 1970's is interesting. They were spared calling a full-time pastor for many years. The rector at the Episcopal church, St. James, also covered 1st Presbyterian during his tenure there. So both churches were spared calling someone full time (a novel concept for those days.) His retirement contributed to the death of one parish (St. James) and the decline of the other (1st Presby.) It makes me realize that there were a lot of brave pastoral souls in rural Mo. in the 1980's and 1990's who stood in the gap in these churches. But as the economy changed, and the world of the need for health care benefits changed, and the little rectories and parsonages churches owned simply were not enough house for people, and seminarians started racking up student loans, affording seminary-trained clergy AND an edifice that is grand, but "too much building" for a congregation to maintain, caught up with them.

It's a reminder that when times are better, perhaps we humans get a little too much into edifice-building.

I could not help but feel genuine compassion for this congregation. Wonderful, dedicated people, who are trying their darndest to keep the place together, without the means to call a pastor without yoking their parish. I sense there is a piece of them that still wants their spiritual community life to grow, not just "be maintained." The problem is time is not on their side. They are aging. Some have spent a lifetime giving their time, talent, and treasure to the place. It's an odd mix of God's love and fear of failure that goes with a lot of mainline congregations in small town--hope and despair all rolled up in one. Prayer and fear go hand in hand in congregations all over rural Missouri.

Also, in these days, younger people who do choose church, don't want their grandmother's church, necessarily. There's a lot of what I call "church entertainment" out there. It presents a challenge in my mind. How do we reach young people's minds? How do we challenge them to have a faith beyond what a building looks like, or what music they prefer?

Next up, we have the Brookfield, MO Presbyterian Church. Not quite as big a building, but a little bigger and more active congregation. But the fact remains they are also pastorless. Theirs is s little different situation. They, in some ways, understand the need for a "Sabbath." They are taking time to deal with who they are and who they want to be as a congregation.

I have discovered from my Presbyterian friends these are not unusual situations. In the Missouri Union Presbytery, less than half of the churches have a full time, full-salaried pastor. Many are existing on week-to-week supply preaching. Some are using commissioned lay pastors. Some are hiring part-time ordained people. But many of these arrangements simply "cover Sundays and emergencies." They are not situations where people learn to grow, both spiritually, and attendance-wise. Many are married to "too big a building." How do churches move to the needs of millennials when you are busy caring for your grandparents' house?

These are all charged questions and difficult ones. No one wants to throw away the past. Memories are bound up in those old buildings--names are at the bottom of stained glass windows. People left things to the church. We feel obligated to care for things that were left to us.

But wait--there's more!!

Now we move to the other half of this story...

This is the rose window at the Brookfield Presbyterian church.

It should not surprise you to discover it used to be in the (now-defunct) Episcopal Church in Brookfield. You can see where it was in this picture...

What used to be the Episcopal church building in Brookfield is now a private residence. It's a small church building--almost chapel sized. It shows the influence of a style of architecture embraced by the Cambridge Camden Society in the 1800's. In both the Episcopal dioceses of Missouri and West Missouri, churches built in the late 1800's and early 1900's often looked like an English chapel plopped into the rural outposts of the Midwest. They attracted attention because they looked almost foreign. But as these little parishes declined, they simply were closed, once the struggle became too great.

What's interesting is in both Macon and Brookfield, the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians seemed to like to be neighbors. The building above is not more than a block and a half from Brookfield Presbyterian.

This is the (now defunct) St. James Episcopal Church building in Macon, MO. It's a little bigger than the one in Brookfield, but not a lot bigger. Like the one in Brookfield, it is roughly only a block away from 1st Presbyterian Church in Macon. Like Brookfield, it was eventually closed and deconsecrated and turned into apartments/office space.

These are hard times for rural churches who have an expectation of "formally educated clergy." A classic seminary education puts graduates into six figures of debt. Many Episcopal dioceses (including mine) are trying to bridge the gap by self-educating "diocesan trained priests." The Presbyterians are training commissioned lay pastors. My Presbyterian friends told me in the Missouri Union Presbytery, fewer than half of their churches have full time pastors.

There are no right answers when the choice is "less than effective presence," vs. "no presence at all." The "no presence" part is what haunts me as a long-time rural person--these closed, deconsecrated, rehabbed Episcopal churches really gnaw at me. When I look at a map of the diocese, I find myself drawn to the giant hole that exists in the center of a triangle bounded by Kirksville, Hannibal, and Columbia.

I find it impossible to accept that rural northeast Missouri has no need of the faith disciplines and theology of the Episcopal church. I find it impossible to accept there is no one living in that hole that desires the inclusiveness of "our brand of church." Yet, I also find it impossible to accept that putting the Episcopal church back in that empty hole can't be done.

I have no clue how this can be done. But I do know that it involves not being married to a crumbling religious infrastructure. I sense that if these places rise from the ashes, it might well be without the buildings.

Psalm 16:6:

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.

Yesterday morning, as I was drinking my coffee, I was pondering my new barbed wire fence along with several things going on in my parish, my diocese, and the Episcopal church at large. As you may know from reading this blog, back in April I had all my fences replaced. The fence builder and I had many discussions about the fence; most pleasant, some a little confrontational, but they were the good kind of confrontational, the "How do we work this out so the builder is satisified with his work and makes a reasonable profit, and the owner is satisified with the function of the fence?" kind.

As I look back, there were phases of how I viewed this project.

The first phase was simply understanding what my needs were. I needed a fence that my mule would not thwart. This part of my pasture encloses my two donkeys, a horse that doesn't belong to me, and my mule. (Long story about the horse, which I'll avoid for now.) The problem was that my mule, as mules are prone to do, had a habit of destroying my old fence by pushing against it. My old fence was square woven wire with a single strand of barbed wire on top. Mules, by and large, see boundaries of any sort as "something to push against and see what happens." If something tasty was on the other side of the fence, he would simply put his hoof in the woven wire and squish it down and stick his head under the strand of barbed wire through the hole and eat it. If he thought the fence was six inches short to simply lean over the whole shebang on the other side and eat, he just leaned against the fenceposts until they moved in the clay soil or snapped off at ground level.

So in just a few years he had taken a relatively nice fence and turned it into a squashed, outward leaning contraption that really would not hold equines in if they took a notion to leave.

Mercifully, none of my equines had a desire to leave my property. They certainly COULD have walked off and done it if they had chosen, for several months. I knew once they DID, I would no longer be able to keep them in with this fence. My prayer time often included "Oh, God, please don't give the equines a reason to wander or suddenly find themselves on the other side of the fence and think "Oh, boy! We can do as we please!" Ok?"

So one need was to "keep the equines properly penned."

Then I realized another reason was "to keep my dogs OUT." Fences don't just keep things in, they keep things out, too. My mule dislikes dogs to the point he will stomp them flat, if given half a reason. I did not want to find my dogs dead in the pasture looking like they were hit by an 18 wheeler. So I realized I needed to have this fence secure enough at the bottom to make it dog-unfriendly.

The next phase of this operation was, "what did I want to change about the arrangement of my fence and corrals, and what did I want to keep the same?" I realized that the previous owner had conveniently made a few little corrals to separate cattle, which was nice, but he did not have a chute for doing things like veterinary work. I wanted to have a chute with gates at both ends that was narrow enough to confine them, so the vet could give shots or examine them. So we added a chute when we rebuilt the corrals. We added a squeeze gate so I could go inside the fence easily to turn the water spigot off and on that is hooked to both my stock tank and my garden hose.

As the work progressed, much of the conversation between my fence builder and me was about "how the previous owner didn't do it right." For instance, the clips that held the woven wire on were on the outside of the fence--so when my mule pushed against the wire, they simply sprung open and bowed the woven wire out and away from the fence line. We put the clips on the inside, so when he leaned against the fence posts, this would not happen.

In a similar vein, the previous owner had the gates opening outward. That never made any sense to me. If an equine got mad and kicked the gate, and it had flown open, well, it would have been wide open and out they would have all vacated the premises. We re-hung the gates to open inward. That way, an angry kick would have still appeared that the gate was "closed" to an angry equine, and they would not be as likely to test it.

We also opted for Missouri hedge for the corner posts (believe me, it lasts forever--there are 50 year old hedgeposts still being used for fences here and they are still good) and for metal fence posts that were a foot higher than the ones I had. That was more likely to make my mule disinterested in leaning over it. The underside of an equine's neck is very sensitive; he would not want to scratch himself there very much.

Most fences around here are 4 or 5 strand. We decided to use seven strands to make the gaps narrow enough they would not tempt my mule to stick his head between them. Oh, believe me--he tried to put his head over and through in the beginning. But he decided it was not worth the effort after a few days! He also strung an 8th strand near the ground line of the fence, where it abuts the house and my backyard. This was a decision I made after watching my dogs a couple of days. My littler dog seemed interested in testing if he could get between the gaps. That put a stop to his testing.

But what I realized, as I was drinking my coffee, was that I put a lot of mental effort and consideration and contemplation in something as simple as a barbed wire fence, and I realized I am at a place in my life where I am also doing that with the "fences of my life."

You know, in some ways, we "inherit the fences we have," just as when we move to a new house we inherit what other people did at the house prior to our taking possession. I have some pretty clear personal boundaries in my own life, and they have to do with my relationship with God through my worship time, my prayer time, the Bible, and our prayer book. As a member of the Episcopal church, I've inherited our rules, canons, and constitutions. I don't always like exactly where the fence line is in some places, but I am pretty satisfied about where it is, and don't see a need to tear it down--both at an institutional church level and a personal level.

But, like my mule, I am prone to pushing at the fence posts if I see something interesting on the other side. I have that desire to explore--always have and always will--and that in itself is not wrong--nor is my desire to sample all the grass I'm allowed to sample.

In short, if that fence is not well-constructed--with those inward-facing clips and the inward-swinging gates--my natural exuberance and curiosity, coupled with my perceived needs--can sometimes make a poorly-constructed fence pop open or gap. Then I sort of find myself outside of the fence--firmly outside--KNOW I'm outside where I'm not supposed to be--going, "Hey, how did I get here????" I am there both because of my desires and in spite of my best intentions with what I wanted to do with those desires.

In short, a well-constructed fence is better for me. One of my life-long internal struggles is to constantly push at rules and authority--not to break them or destroy them, but simply to experience their fullness--yet my life is happiest when I finally stop pushing and accept to live within them. But I do not get to that place unless I push first. It is why I need strong individuals to lead and guide me--ones that will hurt my feelings sometimes, but in love. It is why my own leadership skills are rather "firm" and "intense." When I am the top side of the power differential, I make it very clear in the beginning "who's on top." For twenty years I have lived through class after class of medical students thinking in the beginning of the year I hate their guts, but somehow by the time they graduate, they realize, in fact, I loved them very much. Enough to be a barbed wire fence strong enough to push against me and let them explore their own fence lines.

One doesn't need an angel to wrestle with obeying God--a barbed wire fence will do!

Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
--p. 123, Book of Common Prayer

"We do not worship a tame God."

I heard that phrase some time back, and was recently reminded of it again.

We tend to glom onto the "peaceful" images of our connection with God--doves, light, rainbows. But we also tend to forget that God is present in the midst of the fire, storms, and prowling lions of life. Even his son had a stormy side. The same Jesus who preached God's economy of the last being first, and the first being last was the same Jesus who said he came to bring fire and division, the same Jesus who opened up a can of whoopass on the moneychangers in the temple, and the same Jesus who snapped at his beloved disciple Peter to "get thee behind me, Satan."

Neither God nor his son are afraid of a little scrap. That's an important thing to remember.

One of the hardest thing for me to do as an adult is to pray to God when I'm afraid.

For starters, there is this little voice in my head that says adults are not supposed to be afraid. It sits right next to the little voice that tells me I am supposed to be the biggest, baddest thing in the room. My role in my family and extended family for decades has been to be "The strong one." Not to mention "The practical one." "The one who will hold the rest of us up." "The one who will always know what to do." "The one who no burden is too big."

Oh, I'm not afraid of the things I OUGHT to fear, like tornadoes, hurricanes, various storms, lightning, violent and difficult people, blood, gore, mess, and smell.

My fears are actually relatively wussy things. Things like fear of failure. Fear of loss of respect. Fear of emotional abandonment. The fact of the matter is, I don't even like to admit to God I'm afraid, even when I recognize that God is no fool and already knows it.

Isn't it interesting that these things tend to creep into our brains when the sun goes down? In my days rotating through psychiatric units and moonlighting at a psych hospital, we used to talk about "sundowning" all the time. Most people who work in those environments will tell you that something happens after sundown that makes crazy people crazier, and normal people a little crazy.

That realization has always been in the Book of Common Prayer. Even the 1662 BCP includes prayers against perils in Evening Prayer services. It's pretty much the one I pasted above, but in Elizabethan English.

It is, I believe, a very fundamental part of human nature for our fears to come out in the dark. After all, in the days when we were still considered prey for various predators, it was protective. But we no longer need to fear saber-tooth tigers or other meat-seeking beasties. Yet the instinct remains. The instinct is still handy for natural disasters, of course. But, I believe, as we evolved, so did the things we fear, so our fears became more nebulous, less well defined.

It's why we still need the Psalms. Although we now are at a place in civilization where we abhor war (but still seem to do it anyway), we still, I believe, need the comfort of a God who has the capability, but only if necessary, to "kick ass and take names." Not that we WANT him to do it. Not that we wish it upon anyone else. We just want to know the capability is there.

We want to know that the God of Psalm 121 is near us. The God that we can lift up our eyes to the hills and see his posse coming down the mountains to our rescue, like in the old Westerns. We want the God who will deliver us in times of tribulation. We might even accept that "deliver" is not necessarily the posse from the old Westerns. "Deliver" might simply mean, "Just be with me, God. Don't be so far away I can't see you."

The Taizé song I embedded here is another means by which I stave off the perils that arise in my head. I love the line, "let not my doubts nor my darkness speak to me." That's where it's at in those times, you know. In so many of those moments of fear, it is OUR doubts and OUR darkness that is trying to get a foothold in the light of our relationship with God.

Yes, some perils really are on the outside. But when you really get to thinking about it, it's like the old Pogo comic strip--we have met the enemy, and they is us.

Our God is not a tame God. But that is because we are not tame people.

I read a great article that appeared in the online version of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a few days ago, that had a double bonus (it was written by one of my Facebook friends.) She talked about how she was not a "singer" in the "church choir" kind of sense, but she sang to herself all the time when alone. The key line that jumped out at me was this one:

"I think lots of people are like this–innately, even joyfully musical when they’re not feeling self-conscious, but at a loss when expected to perform musically."

It immediately connected me to a very recent discovery in my own parish.

In recent months, we have begun having Taizé services on a relatively once a month basis. I found myself surprisingly hooked. In all honesty, I was going along with the Taizé concept because our parish was kind of needing something to nudge the envelope of "that's how we've 'always' done it," and other people seemed interested in it, so I was more or less helping with it to support them. In the beginning, really, neither aspect of Taizé--the music or the silence--was totally attractive to me. As a rule, I don't like "7-11" music (seven words sung eleven times,) and although I am very good at being silent when I am alone, I am horribly, incredibly, absolutely self-conscious about being silent in groups. (When a group of people started a "centering prayer" group for a spell, I wished them well, and said, "There is no way in hell I am going to be involved in it because I am unable to sit still and be quiet in front of people--I was always the kid in school that made people giggle in "quiet time" without even trying.")

But I went to the Taizé community's web site in preparation for our first Taizé event, in the privacy of my own backyard, and my chiminea, and was utterly hooked. Maybe it was because my first experience WAS in the looming evening in the sacred space of my chiminea, and not at church, but as I played some of their podcasts of services, with the night falling around me, I found my ability to pray in the spaces of the music absolutely enchanting. Over the next few days, I started downloading the MIDI files, not just of the melodies, but of the tenor parts.

(Here's my dirty little secret: I am incredibly self-conscious about singing in public because I feel I was born with the wrong voice register for my gender. It's just another way people confuse me in the gender spectrum. I get called "Mister" on the phone all the time. In grade school and junior high, singing became messy for me. It became apparent that little girls with high voices attract the attention of music teachers more than ones with booming lower voices. Well, I take that back. They tell you they don't know what to do with you.)

But somehow, I get over my self-consciousness singing in church to a degree because it's not about me; it's about God.

So when we started doing Taizé, people wanted to use my skills as a prayer writer, or reflection writer. There just wasn't any discussion about the singing part as far as I was concerned. I think everyone figured I'd show up and not be scared TO sing in the service as a worshiper, but that was about it.

By about the 2nd Taizé service we did, I sat back in the back (because I was going to do the reflection and I wanted it to come from the back of the room, not the front, because this is about personal worship, not "led" worship) and I happened to be back there with our music director and a little handful of the "choir people." As the music started, I thought, "What the hell. I KNOW the tenor parts. I don't see many tenors here. Might as well sing 'em. If people think I suck at it, I will know."

What happened was kind of funny.

It wasn't exactly "being stared at en masse" but more like one at a time. One by one, various choir members and our music director kind of looked back at me with a surprised look...and not surprise like "Oh, my God, that's the worst thing I ever heard," either. More like "She can DO that?" More of a "pleasantly surprised" look. It was more "the joy of coming out of the musical closet."

The bottom line is, on Sunday, I'm happy to let the choir be the choir. My time constraints and my inability to read music fluently prevent me from having any major desire to be a regular part of that. But in the true spirit of why I love being our parish's "utility infielder," I came to learn I love being an actively singing part of the "smaller" services where only a few of the choir will be there. I feel I can get a base hit or two in a pinch and the sluggers can still be the sluggers. The reward is it has enhanced my church life and my personal prayer life. It's not unusual now to hear me singing to Taizé podcasts if you wandered into my "sacred space in the yard" time.

But it brings up a good point--what can we be doing as parishes to teach people new ways to pray? How do we use music to invite everyone to be a vital praying part of the community of believers, rather than use it as a divide to make those who are self-conscious with the musical parts of worship feel like "2nd class worshipers?"

It has made me notice the people who don't sing in church--and makes me ponder what beautiful prayer voices they might have if they were only unafraid to sing.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.
--p. 124, Book of Common Prayer

The prayer above is one of my favorite prayers from Evening Prayer and Compline. It makes a nice combination with the Taizé chant I embedded.

As a person who works in the health care world, I am very attuned to those "working, watching, or weeping" at night. In my prayer imagination, I often see the night shifts at hospitals--floor nurses, ER staffs, young medical residents and clinical medical students, the lone medical technologist in the laboratory, the night hospital security people and custodial staff.

They are also among the watchers--along with the family members who are waiting for the continuum of life--loved ones dying, women in labor waiting for the new baby, people in the ICU where people are not only watching them personally, but watching the beeping, tracing, tracking instrumentation attached to them. Some of the watching is to see "which way the wind will blow"--whether antibiotics start to reverse the fever of septic patients, whether post-operative bleeding will abate, whether drains in chest tubes still drip reddish fluid or whether it is starting to be clear.

Then, of course, there is the weeping. Not just the weeping that follows death, but weeping for joy, weeping from loneliness, weeping from gratitude. The weeping isn't only among the patients and families, either. I have seen an entire health care team break down in a sea of tears over their inability to save a favorite patient. Medical students hide in the corners and weep over the "first loss" of a patient. Many a health care worker has wept because they were at work and someone at home reports the baby just walked for the first time, someone has lost a first tooth, or a small child at home missed Mama or Daddy, who was "working at the hospital again."

Even in my unchurched years, the hospital at night seemed a holy place--as holy as the sanctuary of a cathedral. I can remember lying in the call room at night hearing the heavy silence, punctuated by an occasional cart or gurney rolling down the hall, or the ominous "wuff wuff wuff" of the helicopter. It seemed the sound of the helicopter almost in and of itself triggered prayer. In the large medical center, it meant "incoming trauma" or "preemie." In the smaller hospital, it meant someone had taken a turn for the worse and had been "shipped out," or the ER had a case "too hot to handle."

I could see why "Hôtel Dieu" was a popular name for hospitals in French-speaking countries--God's hotel, tended by the priests and deacons of medicine and nursing, at the altar of the bedside. Crucifixion and resurrection in OR's, ER's, ICU's and Labor & Delivery suites. The Holy Trinity of doctor, nurse, and patient.

So the next time you pray this prayer, take a moment to remember the folks who spend their night in hospitals, soothing the weary, tending the sick, waiting along with mothers in labor, and feeling the relief of a rallying patient. Some of the angels charged with guarding those asleep in the Hotel of God are not cherubim or seraphim, but are very, very mortal.

"O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from your place, and lift up the poor and afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever, Amen."

--Prayer for the feast day of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, from "Holy Women, Holy Men, p. 527.

"I'd take a bullet for you."

That's a phrase we toss around now and then when we want our friends to know how much we care about them. But on August 14, 1965, Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels took a 12 gauge shotgun blast in Ft. Deposit, Alabama, for 16 year old Ruby Sales, as she walked into a grocery store to get a cold drink. Daniels was there because he felt called to be in Alabama to help African-American residents to register to vote. A man named Tom Coleman threatened people outside the stoor and leveled his 12 gauge shotgun on Ruby Sales. Some accounts say Daniels pushed her down and stepped in front of her; others say he pulled her away. At any rate, the end result was that Daniels got the full force of a 12 gauge shotgun blast to the chest at close range, killing him instantly.

In the beginning, this definitely did not have a happy ending.

Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury for manslaughter. Ruby Sales was so traumatized by the experience she could not speak properly for seven months, but did manage to speak at Coleman's trial.

But over time, a miracle evolved.

If Ruby Sales had been traumatized forever for what had happened to her, it would have been understandable. But instead, she was transformed by this experience of a stranger laying down his life for her. You can read her biography here. She ended up spending a lifetime in civil rights. I also recommend reading an interview she did in 2005 here. Ruby herself had a calling. It's obvious she was a precocious young woman when you read her bio. She was already enrolled at Tuskeegee at age 16. She was already participating as an organizer in the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee. She was willing to lay down her own life, as well, I believe. But as time passed, as tragic as this episode was on August 14, 1965, it seems it turned out to be what it needed to be. Eventually, Ruby attended the Episcopal Divinity School in MA--the school Jonathan Daniels attended, ultimately choosing not to be ordained, but obviously being called to do all the things that she has done in her life as a called lay person.

I don't think at the time this all happened, Jonathan Daniels had a clue what this moment would do in the life of Ruby Sales. In all honesty, I don't think he thought anything except a man hat pointed a shotgun at a teenage girl, and I think he reacted with that same knee-jerk reaction that many adults would do if a child or a teen were threatened.

It's paradoxical. I believe Jonathan Daniels was called by God to go to Alabama in 1965. But I don't believe he was called to do THIS. I think he just did it out of instinct--the instinct that adults have when caring for their young or any young person in immediate danger. It was just a bigger version of sticking your arm out when you stop quickly at the stoplight with a young passenger in the seat beside you.

Granted, in 1965, it would not be the typical young white male who would have done that for the typical teenage black female. But I don't find it surprising at all, given the sense that he felt called to be there. Once he had submitted to his call, to do what he did, was God-supported instinct.

I think about sometimes how one of the oddities of life is that if a person happens to be in the right place at the wrong time, poof! You're a martyr.

What I am saying is not to denigrate the events that led to his death into nothingness. Far from it. What I am saying is there is something deep within the recesses of human nature that is there that tells us to protect the weak. When you look at photos of Daniels, it's pretty obvious he's no Arnold Schwarzenegger. I doubt he went to Alabama to kick butt and take names. I doubt he had heroism on his mind. I doubt in that split second it took for him to replace Ruby Sales in that line of shotgun fire, he was thinking, "I'll save this black child." I dare say he barely knew what color she was at the moment. I doubt he saw himself as a hero. I doubt he was brave, fearful, or thinking even one second ahead. I imagine that really, he didn't think anything--everything was simply brain-stem reflex.

What always intrigues me about the saints and martyrs, is that really, they are simply no different than us. All of us, at one time or another, try to hide from God our fears that we are "cowards" of some sort. We often are, really, when we have time to roll things around in our head, and stew about them, and compare them to our past misdeeds, and try to make up for them. But then there are times where the heart of a hero or the soul of a martyr just flies out of us. Unfortunately, when this happens in a certain place at a certain time, the results can be tragic. But they are there. When we read about the story of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, I don't think it's useful for us to think "I could/I couldn't do that." We don't know, really, and perhaps we should simply pray that we can live in a world where the question will never be put to the test.

(Map from

John 4:1-4:

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John”—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized—he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.

When you look at this map of the times, you can see exactly what the issue is. Samaria is smack dab in the middle between Galilee and Judea. Crossing the Jordan and "going around" is rather out of the way. The problem was, of course, is that Jews and Samaritans didn't get along. They got along about as well as the Hatfields and the McCoys, the Serbians and the Croatians, or the Hutu and the Tutsi. It was an animosity that went clear back before the division of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms in the Book of Kings.

When Assyria took control of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E., the Jews were deported and the Assyrians moved in. Consequently, the religion of the area was more of a syncretism--The Samaritans used the Torah as their holy book, but they also worshiped the Assyrian gods. It was not a "pure" religion in the eyes of the Jewish population, who was exiled. When the exile from Babylon ended under the reign of Cyrus, the Samaritans had initially welcomed the Jews, but the former exiles would have none of it.

It sets the stage for many Gospel stories, including the one later on in chapter 4 of John, the story of "Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well," as well as the best known Gospel story involving a Samaritan, "The Good Samaritan."

But here's the sad fact: DNA studies show that the average Samaritan had a lot of Jewish bloodline, some even from the priestly Kohanim. Sure there were some Assyrians, Persians, etc. in the mix, but in reality, the Samaritans were probably genetically more like their adversaries than they were different.

There is a take home message in that. All that hatred, manifested in two groups of people who ultimately, were more alike than different, sharing incredibly similar DNA and both sharing the same holy book.

How many times do we feel we are journeying through our own Samaria?

Dealing with people who have prejudices can be a seemingly impossible task. They have notions about us that are stereotypes, and vice versa. The most awful stories often have a kernel of truth buried in them. Or, on a more personal level, perhaps the worst kind of Samaria is a personal one, involving an "ex" of some sort, sometimes an "ex" in which once there was shared psychological or physical intimacy. These forms of Samaria raise our hackles in a very special kind of fear. We are dealing with people who know our deepest intimacies, and again, vice versa.

We have choices. We can cross a river and go around the long way, or we can choose to walk through Samaria.

But in the rest of the story in John 4 we know what happens. Jesus encounters the woman at the well, and the woman at the well is changed. This would not have happened if Jesus had chosen to take the long way home.

Who will change, if we go straight through Samaria instead of taking the long way around? How will we change in this trip? It is not an easy trip...but perhaps it is the best trip.

In the movie, “Inception,” each member of the “dream team” has a unique object—a small pocket size totem—that serves as a boundary marker between the real world and the various dream worlds they enter in their dream “assignments”--the presence of "touch" signifies the state of reality vs. the state of dreaming. Indeed, Leo DiCaprio’s small metal spinning top itself becomes a focal point of the movie. Little did I know that the next day at Sunday Eucharist that this would springboard in a whole new train of thought.

My priest associate and I have had many discussions regarding the power of touch as a form of ministry. In her “day job” as a regional Hospice Chaplain, she has described to me many times in situations where a Hospice patient is not looking for the presence of the Episcopal church, or any church for that matter, but merely a representative of God in human form—with one of the most powerful and tangible representations of that form residing in the hands of the clergy. I also recall a time when one of my best friends in our parish was having a rough time with chemotherapy, and what she desired from all of us, lay or ordained, was simply our presence and a hand to hold as she received her chemo. But it was apparent to me that the touch of the clergy in this episode carried a different weight for her.

This power of the totem in the movie came back to my mind in the middle of Sunday worship. In her discussions with me, we have talked about how my postural preference when receiving the Sacrament is that I prefer not to look at the priest, but to be more attuned to the feel of the bread in my hand, and as I close my hands around it, to feel the presider’s fingers as they leave my hand and move on to the next person. It reminds me that in this moment, it is not the hands of “a priest” but the hands of God through the physical body of that priest, sharing the Body of Christ with me. On occasion, she has used this knowledge of how I see everyone's hands involved in that moment as a form of quiet blessing—sometimes, when she knows I’ve been under stress, after handing me the bread, she has placed her hand over my two closed hands. It’s a sign to me that without a single word being spoken, I am being prayed for at that moment.

Sometimes, I think we forget that embedded in our Book of Common Prayer is the use of touch as one of the facets of “the shamanic presence.” In many places in our various liturgies, priestly touch is an essential part of the liturgy—not just in the sharing of the bread at the Eucharist. It resides in the making of the sign of the Cross with chrism in Baptism or through healing by anointing, in the hand resting on the hand or head of the penitent in our rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, and in the hands of the Bishop at Confirmation. The hands of the Bishop on the head of the ordinand are a key component in ordination, and the hands of three bishops are just as key in the ordination of bishops. We are encouraged to mimic these forms of priestly touch in the sharing of the peace, and ordained and lay person alike can impose ashes on the heads of others on Ash Wednesday. So many of our liturgies display the power of priestly touch and teach the ministry of “God’s presence through touch to the laity.” Hopefully, it empowers people to use their own hands to silently spread the Gospel message.

But notice that in these settings, they are all accompanied by something that is a tactile reminder of Christ—his Body in the form of bread, the sign of the cross, the legacy of St. Peter. I believe these accompaniments are there in our Prayer Book by design. They are there to remind us that these are powers in which the ordained are only a conduit of the power of Christ, and NOT from the ordained person alone. It’s why we need to teach what these touches mean in the context of the liturgy. It’s why the laity needs to understand the meaning of priestly touch behind the context of the rubrics of our Prayer Book, and it needs to serve as a reminder to clergy: “This is about the rubrics of the Prayer Book. This is what touch in the liturgy means to laity. This is about the liturgy--it’s not about you.”

It’s also why we have rules in our Canons about sexual exploitation of adults and minors. Touch is one of our most hyperacute senses—even the profoundly unconscious respond to touch. When clergy blur the lines between the touch of the shaman—God’s conduit to be physically present in the liturgy and in pastoral settings—and the touch of an individual—it is inherently dangerous. It’s why the Episcopal Church has training in sexual exploitation of both minors and adults. Children innately want to experience Jesus in a physical way, and they are exceptionally vulnerable. Adults in stressful or crisis situations can have a lowering of the boundaries regarding touch, especially if the stress or crisis involves an intimate partner. Clergy who feel burned out, stressed out, and overworked can succumb to the feeling of their powers of touch as something belonging to them, and not to God—and unfortunately, predatory clergy know how to abuse these forms of touch for their own personal gain and their own sexual satisfaction.

Physical touch is one of the most sacred parts of our liturgy and one of the most tactile representations of God in pastoral care. We need to continue to educate laity and clergy alike on why it should never be profaned, and one of the most readily accessible means of education lives within the pages of our own Book of Common Prayer. Just as the little metal top grounded Leo DiCaprio in his journey between dreams and reality, so should our sense of touch in the liturgy and in the pastoral setting ground us between our world and God’s world.

“Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc-one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei-the holy common people of God.

“To those who know a little of Christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, every one with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves-and sins and temptations and prayers-once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the Eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew-just as really and pathetically as I do these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor:-’Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much’. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of Christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday Eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione-and to the millions like her then, and every year since? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought. (All that going with one to the altar every morning!)

“It is because it became embedded deep down in the life of the Christian peoples, colouring all the via vitae of the ordinary man and woman, marking its personal turning-points, marriage, sickness, death and the rest, running through it year by year with the feasts and fasts and the rhythm of the Sundays, that the eucharistic action became inextricably woven into the public history of the Western world. The thought of it is inseparable from its great turning-points also. Pope Leo doing this in the morning before he went out to daunt Attila, on the day that saw the continuity of Europe saved; and another Leo doing this three and a half centuries later when he crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor, on the day that saw that continuity fulfilled. Or again Alfred wandering defeated by the Danes staying his soul on this, while mediaeval England struggled to be born; and Charles I also, on that morning of his execution when mediaeval England came to its final end. Such things strike the mind with their suggestions of a certain timelessness about the eucharistic action and an independence of its setting, in keeping with the stability in an ever-changing world of the forms of the liturgy themselves. At Constantinople they ‘do this’ yet with the identical words and gestures that they used while the silver trumpets of the Basileus still called across the Bosphorus, in what seems to us now the strange fairy-tale land of the Byzantine empire. In this twentieth century Charles de Foucauld in his hermitage in the Sahara ‘did this’ with the same rite as Cuthbert twelve centuries before in his hermitage on Lindisfarne in the Northern seas. This very morning I did this with a set of texts which has not changed by more than a few syllables since Augustine used those very words at Canterbury on the third Sunday of Easter in the summer after he landed. Yet ‘this’ can still take hold of a man’s life and work with it.”

From The Shape of the Liturgy, Dom Gregory Dix, pp.744-745

I was having a lot of fun poking through the first American version of the Book of Common Prayer (the 1789 Prayer Book.) In some ways, it is VERY different than our present 1979 version. Morning prayer is the lynchpin of corporate worship where the Eucharist is now. It is in more or less "Rite I" language. The theology is more penitential rather than Resurrection-based. There is a LOT of verbiage devoted to sea travel, perils at sea, burial at sea. There is a lot of space devoted to "ministering to people in prison" and "people condemned to death." One gets the idea the average American in 1789 either knew someone at sea, someone in prison, someone condemned to death, or all of the above.

Then, on the other hand, as I leaf through it, I see bits and pieces, even though it is in Rite I language, of things we say all the time in 2010 at Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and in the Eucharist. For instance in the 1789 version of the Morning Prayer service:

Min: "O Lord, show thy mercy upon us."
Ans: "And grant us thy salvation."
Min: "O God, make clean our hearts within us."
Ans: "And take not thy Holy spirit from us."

BOOM--Sufferages A, page 97-98:

V. "Show us your mercy, O Lord,"
R. "And grant us your Salvation."

V. "Create in us clean hearts, O God,"
R. "And sustain us with your Holy Spirit."

Again and again I find bits and pieces of liturgies I partly or totally know by heart. It reminds me of looking at old family photographs from my late grandmother's collection. Not all of them are labeled. The names of some of these people are lost to the ages, but I look at their faces, and I can mostly tell which ones are relatives. You can tell we share the same DNA to a large extent.

Even the disciplinary rubrics are there. What is on page 409 of my Prayer Book, is, in essence, on p. 171 of the 1789 Prayer Book.

We call this "common" prayer as in "corporate," but it is not "common" at all when you consider the rich traditions we bring with us in today's worship. Then, the more you start to think about it, some of our traditions, date back to the earliest parts of the Early Church.

The other thing one realizes with the 1789 Prayer Book is that the Episcopal Church of the United States of America has been a thorn in the behind of the Church of England for more than 220 years. So much so, they would have let Anglicanism die in America had it not been for the persistence of Samuel Seabury and three Scottish bishops. the 1789 Prayer Book has prayers for the President of the United States, not the monarchy of England. So, in that sense, I don't feel so bad about our present strain within the Anglican Communion and the Archbishop of Canterbury. I get the sense we've been that way a long time.

Have fun pawing around in America's first Book of Common Prayer. It's quite fun!

I confess that in times of boredom, I leaf through the Book of Common Prayer. Now, keep in mind I am not often bored. But the fact of the matter is, sometimes living alone is boring...and that's okay. Being bored is, in my mind, an invitation to play with my spiritual imagination. I tend to engage in a "mindless act" that evolves into a mindful act. Leafing through the BCP is one of those ways "mindless" becomes "mindful" and "prayerful."

But for some time now, I've been fascinated by pages 400 to 405, "An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist." At first, I wondered why it is even in there when we have two perfectly good rites, Rite I and Rite II. I learned a little bit from some people that this section (and its corresponding section in pages 109-114 for Evening Prayer) were part of theological discussions about what some people call "Rite III"--to allow some latitude in creativity in worship but have a framework within the Canons and traditions of our Prayer Book.

But what I came to realize as I looked at this section is, what I am looking at is a snapshot of the literal "body habitus" of the Eucharist. I am seeing its head, its heart, its arms and legs.

What's interesting is in the very first title says it is "the PEOPLE and priest" that make up this snapshot. One of the "rules" I have learned is that when multiple things are placed in order in the BCP, they truly HAVE been "rank ordered." For instance, if it says "the people stand or kneel," standing is the preferred posture although kneeling is just fine. It really jumped out at me that, although we lay folks tend to center our thoughts about the Eucharist on "the priest," the priest is actually the lesser player in the Eucharist. In short the people make up the corpus of the Eucharist.

But as we examine the parts of this body frame, we see many body parts to the Eucharist. We gather in the Lord's name. We proclaim and respond to the word of God. We pray for the world and the church. We exchange the peace. We prepare the table, make Eucharist, and break bread. The Body and Blood of Christ is shared, we give thanks, and we depart in peace.

It is so absolutely simply elegant the way this is laid out. These five pages are literally an anatomic atlas of the Eucharist.

What's even more fascinating to me that, although it states in the rubrics that this form is not to replace regular Sunday Eucharistic worship through the authorized "standard" Eucharistic Prayers in the BCP and supplemental authorized sources like the Book of Occasional Services or Enriching Our Worship, it is an invitation to explore.

It's an invitation to explore our body of corporate Eucharistic worship in the same way we explore the human body. It's the same thing as exploring the body of a lover in seeing what pleases them and also pleases you. It's the same thing as marveling at the tiny fingernails and fingers and hands of a sleeping newborn. It's the same thing as looking in the mirror at your own face as it changes over the years and on one hand, being wistful that it is no longer the face of youth, but being in awe that it is becoming a face of wisdom. It's the same thing as taking a snapshot of a moment in your life that for a tiny space of time, was pure magic to everyone in the room, a moment you all knew could not last forever, but when you show the picture around, everyone in the picture can recapture the magic in their own heart.

These five pages might be the most amazing piece of buried treasure in our Prayer Book--but yet we might not be using them to our full advantage because of the eight little words that strike fear in the heart of the typical parish--"But we've never done it that way before."

Yet here we are, with a 31 year old treasure map, and an "X" that says "dig here." What an amazing gift!

It's the time of year that the hospital labs of which I'm medical director are doing a lot of "inspection prep"--whether it's an actual lab inspection or the "interim year" where we do the "mock inspection." One of the things we all get kind of obsessive-compulsive about is putting warning labels on everything that needs one--and maybe even on some things that don't.

This year has been a year of amazing discoveries for me both as a worshiper and as a leader of worship as a licensed worship leader and as a lay preacher in my diocese, the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri. Part of this experience has actually been to have the "street cred" from my lay credentials to do some supply work this spring and summer in another denomination (the Presbyterians of northeast Missouri seem perfectly ok with the "Rent-an-Episcopalian-lay worship leader/preacher" plan in their non-Communion services.)

But with this opportunity has come some really difficult and paradoxical thoughts.

Don't get me wrong. I find worshiping from the pew in my home church to be a dynamic, exciting experience. I find LEADING worship in the various ways I've been allowed to likewise be exciting and dynamic but in a different way. But...I've also learned this...

Liturgy ought to come with warning labels.

In the wrong hands as a worship leader, this is dangerous stuff. Maybe that is both the good and bad of it. In the "good," it is renewing, life changing, growing. But without careful attention to what it is, it's dangerous and destructive.

I think over the next few months I'm going to seek out the occasional "warning label" to illustrate these concepts and post over them.

What I am learning in my new forays into "leading worship" is that the above warning label is really important, and that in some ways, the framework of our liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer (and the liturgy in other mainline liturgical churches) is a built in "protective device" against our own egos if we are called to lead worship, either as a lay or ordained person.

In short, a person truly needs to be grounded before being in charge of a liturgical service.

I discovered this partly by accident, when leading Sunday worship for the Presbyterians. Everyone was "up." It made me feel "up." I came away from worship feeling "up" for two hours. Now, I've felt up at my home church many times. But I wasn't leading it. when it was happening. Oh, as a lay preacher in my home church, I know when I've managed a good homily. When I lead Morning Prayer one Wednesday a month, at most there are six or seven people there. It's hard for a half dozen people to be "up" at 7:30 a.m.

So this sustained feeling of "up" was new for me as a worship leader. I thought about how the people seemed pleased in their worship, and how I enjoyed leading them. Then it hit me...if a person wasn't grounded in the thought that this is about people enjoying being in the presence of God, a needy person could think THEY had something to do with this euphoria. The leader of worship might begin, over time feeling it was what "they" were doing that created this state, not God. The leader might become addicted to the euphoria. Then, as with all addictions, when you don't quite get the "buzz" you used might become more and more needy. Over time, it might turn from you serving the parish to the parish serving you.

That was when I realized, for the first time, there was a danger in leading worship. It meant that I should never let "it" be responsible to make me feel better. If it does, great. If it doesn't, well, ideally I might have helped someone else enjoy THEIR worship better by simply staying out of the way of the liturgy. I realized "that feeling" can never be about "me" in my head.

People are vulnerable during worship. They desire the presence of God. The leader is vulnerable. He or she desires to please the worshipers. There is a lot of projecting going back and forth there. But the bottom line, whether one is leading worship or in the pews, it's about God--not the person blocking the view of the altar in the funny clothes!



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I'm a longtime area resident of that quirky and wonderful place called Kirksville, MO and am wondering what God has hiding round the next corner in my life.

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