Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
A loved one recently texted to me, “no more,” adding that they “didn’t care or want to talk any more.” They had reached a point – the point – where they just didn’t have the patience to connect with me whenever the stars might align to do so. To their way of thinking I was just too busy for conversation, spontaneous or otherwise.
I apologized. I owned that certainly over the past few weeks I have been otherwise occupied and busy. I didn’t make excuses but I did try to explain that I had intentionally carved out me-time to take care of a long overdue ‘to-do’ list and to begin the process of discerning new vocational settings – of landing a new job. I texted,
So sorry to miss you tonight – I know I’ve been out of touch for the past couple of weeks – been holed up with church biz and trying to get a grip on healthy daily habits food, sleep, excercise wise- so I’ve been going to yoga a lot, spending time in prayer and trying to write and get caught up on stuff calendar wise through the end of November – I hope we can touch in and talk tomorrow or Friday xo
My loved one pushed back,
Forget it. I am fed up with everyone’s busy schedules. Really forget it.
Ouch. Then they wrote,
What is everyone here waiting for to connect? When things are perfect?
I thought it was an opening and responded,
…a good thing to talk about when we talk – hope we will in the next couple of days – love you
To which I received this reply,
Stop being overly sweet and understanding…just forget it – it doesn’t matter.
I didn’t reply back. And we haven’t talked. If they were now indifferent, how to move forward? The text-conversation hung with me hovering in the background like a shadow in my study, reading, praying time (searched for a Word all week in the lectionary readings – none to be found until this morning) in the yoga studio, in my ‘church biz’ administrative work, reminding me that this relationship was wounded.
My loved one is angry – not just with me, but with others – others they have loved or have an ongoing relationship with and find connecting and conversation on a regular basis hard to come by. In the language of therapy, anger = hurt. If you feel ‘hurt,’ if your feelings are hurt, if you feel dissed or dismissed, you’re angry. Maybe with the person, maybe with yourself – but you are angry. And if conversation about that anger is cut off – ‘forget it, it doesn’t matter,’ there’s little hope of resolving, let alone healing.
Conversation is essential for relationships to thrive. Cutting off conversation intentionally or not, signals the end. That was the Word that finally came to me this morning in the Old Testament reading from Job.
We’ve been reading Job all week and most of us know his story well, but it was at today’s opening verse that the Lord sent me the Word I needed to hear to attend to the hovering shadow of the relationship I had injured.
Job, as angry as he was with God, as justified as we think he might have been to be angry with God, keeps the conversation going. Just look at how he hangs in there with God, engaging, provoking even, God to keep talking,
‘I loathe my life;
I will give free utterance to my complaint;
I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. Job 10:1-2
Think of how easy it would have been for Job to have sent a different text message, something like this, instead:
‘Forget it, God, you just don’t care, it doesn’t matter…’
That would have ended the conversation right there. No more headache for Job trying to figure out this or that, or ‘why,’ all these bad things had happened to him and his life. Instead, Job stays in conversation. And conversation keeps him in relationship with God.
I like how theologian and writer, Walter Brueggemann in his book, Finally Comes the Poet, writes about Job his healthy relationship with the Lord, God:
Job pushes his attack on God as far as a voice in Israel dare push. In chapter 9 Job asserts not only that God is unrelaible, but is in fact a liar (20-22). Job never pushes to God’s nonexistence, for then he would quit speaking and be reduced to silence. Muteness is practical atheism. Job keeps believing and speaking; he lives for the dispute. Likely that is why in ancient Israel there are no atheists. The conversation of faith is the best action in town. Job is characteristic of Jewishness that finds dispute a viable, crucial form of faith. Job delineates his experience of negation, of God’s absence and silence, of God’s refusal to deal with his issues. Job yearns most for an answer, any answer, because he prefers harsh dialogue to an empty monologue. (Finally Comes the Poet, pg 61, 62)
Muteness is practical atheism – humorously depicted in Dan Piraro’s panel from Bizarro, to the right – no conversation to be had, nothing believed in to be discussed.
This goes for personal relationships, too. When we cut off the conversation, resign ourselves to the dispute and don’t deal or talk about it with each other, we – I – am basically saying, “I don’t believe in this relationship anymore.” It’s a blank pamphlet – an empty thing. There’s no there, there.
But I do believe in the relationship – so I will keep speaking and asking and trying. Avoiding each other, “forget it, it doesn’t matter” ain’t right.
Cutting this short. Gotta make a phone call.
Praise God from whom all conversation, angry and loving, and blessings, flow.
Acts 7:55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’
I have to remember to look up when I’m feeling down. Took this pic on my drive home last evening feeling blue even after a glorious day of worship with God’s people in God’s church. Stopped to take the pic of the skies that beckoned, testifying and witnessing to me God’s glory, reminding me that I am not alone, that I am in God’s hands, following wherever my Lord would have me.
I wonder if the skies weren’t as they were then just so I’d sync up today that reminder as I prayed the Daily Office and encountered the scripture reporting Stephen’s martyrdom.
Look up when feeling down. And be thankful.
Praise God from whom all #cloudsofwitnesses and blessings flow.
During the discernment process for ordination to the priesthood, I attended a weekend with others who were discerning the same call. These ‘discernment weekends’ are scheduled annually for the coming together of aspirants (that’s what I was) with a committee of folks, lay and ordained, whose vocation was to help discern for the institutional church whether or not each of us should continue – cross over to the other side of the Jordan – or whether we might consider a different path for ministry. The name of the committee is, the Commission on Ministry, and in The Episcopal Church they serve a critical function of …
…assisting the bishop “in determining present and future needs for ministry in the diocese” and to assist “in enlisting and selecting persons for Holy Orders.” …they interview candidates prior to their ordination … (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/commission-ministry)
Many such interviews and weekends occur in the journey of seeking Holy Orders, but during this particular one, I found myself to be a sort of foreigner. I was new to all the people present having moved into a different diocese and starting the process all over again – a three-year process I had nearly completed, elsewhere.
As welcoming as everyone was, including the four other aspirants, I felt like I often had – not so much a fish out of water, but sort of like a fish dumped into the San Francisco Bay from the ballast of a ship that had come from the English Channel. That might be stretching the metaphor too far but bottom line, I knew that though I received my seminary education at a more progressive seminary, (gratefully, by the way!) my thoughts about God’s church and its mission landed more on the conservative end of that spectrum. And so, I entered the weekend with some wariness – how would I be received? Would my experience in ministry thus far be accounted for? How would I be judged? Would there be any sort of litmus test?
At the end of the first day, I was paired with another to lead Evening Prayer. This was to be expected – all the aspirants would lead one worship gathering or another over the course of the next days.
My worship partner – a young man who had only just entered Holy Orders, having come from a different tradition entirely (Baptist) and only in the first year of his divinity degree, asked me – the older, cradle-born, MDiv graduate, GOE completed, aspirant – to introduce at the end, the Prayer of St Chrysostum admitting that he had not yet learned to pronounce the saint’s name properly.
I recalled the challenge of mastering pronunciations in seminary – of learning to say names and prayers correctly – the right intonations, pauses, accents, etc. I was somewhat prepared when I entered having learned the liturgy phonetically as a cradle-born. But ugh – not this name – I hadn’t learned or mastered Chrysostom even though his prayer I prayed nightly at Evening Prayer in seminary chapel.
It was crazy how I was flooded with all the feelings of inadequacy when my liturgy partner asked me to lead. Was this the litmus test? I didn’t belong here on this weekend – I wasn’t ‘the stuff’ of ordained ministry. Who was I kidding?
As a seminarian, I felt woefully inadequate. I thought differently than my fellow seminarians and professors, not as critically, not as deeply or objectively. Seminary was hard for me on every level but most especially in thinking and writing and reading as an academic.
At this moment on this important discernment weekend, perched at the river bank desiring to be ‘one of them’ on the other side, all my insecurities about my critical thinking skills, worthiness, and scholastic shortcomings flooded my head. “Why don’t you lead the Prayer of St Chrysostom, since I’m just a newbie at this,” my partner suggested. Ugh.
How that moment came back to me upon the reading from Judges, this morning. The tribe of Gilead used a word to help them determine ally or enemy, to judge whether or not those attempting to cross the Jordan were worthy – all based upon their pronunciation of the word, Shibboleth.
…the tribes of Israel were divided by the Jordan River—some located on the west and some on the east. The eastern tribes, including Jephthah’s, had adopted certain pronunciations and practices of foreign nations, distinguishing themselves from their brothers in the west. The word shibboleth was an example. Those in Gilead pronounced it “shibboleth,” but those in Ephraim, west of Jordan, pronounced it “sibboleth.” The dialect was different – 
‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ When he said, ‘No’, 6they said to him, ‘Then say Shibboleth’, and he said, ‘Sibboleth’, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.
Pronunciation, vocabulary, cadence all matters when God’s people gather to worship together – not as a test of worthiness as it was used in Jephthah’s story, but simply to feel comfortable and be a part, no matter from whence you came and landed in our pews.
I wonder what it is like for people new to our parishes and liturgy. Does the liturgy itself make a newcomer feel inadequate? A friend who worships in a non-denomination church once commented to me how the cadence of our worship was strange and how difficult it was to keep up with the prayers – that they seemed to be ‘said’ and ‘recited,’ and not prayed.
I hope that all of us in the pews alongside someone we see struggling to stay with liturgy, might pause and show them the way across the Jordan. Take note of the fish who have landed in your congregation from a different bay. And worship leaders might do well to announce before worship the location of prayers in the bulletins, pronunciations, page numbers and the like – sort of like providing at the doors a Courtesy Call phone, as depicted in Dan Piraro’s Bizarro strip I have included here.
I think we need to be reminded to do this over and over, and not presume that even return worshipers know the ‘correct’ pronunciation. Our liturgy should never be for anyone a test of worthiness.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
 Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one
accord to make our common supplication to you; and you
have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two
or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the
midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions
as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of
your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.
Psalm 145:9 The Lord is loving to everyone *
and his compassion is over all his works.
10 All your works praise you, O Lord, *
and your faithful servants bless you.
11 They make known the glory of your kingdom *
and speak of your power;
Just as Holy Communion was coming to a close and right before the Post Communion prayer, the Bishop leaned over and asked if I knew I’d be asked to offer blessings, First Blessings, as a newly ordained priest at the conclusion of the service. No, I didn’t know about the tradition, but yes, of course, I was blessed to be asked and grateful he tipped me off in time. I had been to ordinations before but had not witnessed such blessings.
The tradition of Priestly Blessings goes back to the first century (and before that to our Hebrew ancestors and to Moses’ brother, Aaron), tied to the Roman Rite following the Eucharist utilizing Trinitarian language of “May the blessing of almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, come down on you and remain with you forever.” This, the blessing addressed to the congregation at the conclusion of communion and one as a seminarian, then postulant, then candidate, then Transitional Deacon I had mastered and known to expect at my ordination in the context of the Eucharistic prayer.
But so focused was I on the ordination liturgy itself that removing the blessing from its context just didn’t occur the moment the Bishop alerted me that I’d be asked. The simplicity of “May God’s blessing be upon you” while placing my recently anointed hands upon the head of the person asking, just didn’t come forth. Instead, while I did place my hands on their head with a newly found – authority isn’t the right word, but something along the lines of weight – a divine weightiness, I offered a blessing in ‘Jesus’ holy name’ preceded by a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessing that person had been to me and to God’s church. Nothing wrong with what I prayed – the words were of the Holy Spirit – but at the same time, by not using the Trinitarian language of blessing, I am left these few days later to wonder how it was received by those who asked.
I’m left to ponder because now as an ordained priest in God’s church I am feeling the responsibility to respond to the expectations of those with whom I work, pray, and live. I’m no different in terms of what I do to serve God’s church this week than I was last week, but I’m aware that others look at me differently, now – ordained clergy and colleagues but also friends and family who I’ve known in every other context but God’s church. I came upon an article this morning by a recently ordained person who said this about that:
They look at me differently now, though. As much as I’ve tried to assure them that I am still the same person, we all know it isn’t so. I do all the same things, …but, it is not the same person doing them. Though they might not articulate it, in some way, I believe my colleagues and friends do not want me to be the same as before. People long to know the holy is present among them, even if they wrongly attribute special holiness to priests. On my best day, I simply represent the Holy in a particular way, and that may be enough for all of us.
I’ve often included in my sermons and in my teaching and in my writing the call for each of us to be “God’s person” in every aspect of our lives – our homes, our work places, our schools, our travels, our hospital rooms, our communities. We are called to bless the space we are in and between us – to represent the Holy in a particular way.
This is what the psalm reminded me today as I opened the day feeling a little anxious that I didn’t serve God well in those private blessings last Friday. I’m thankful that God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and God’s Word, continues to bless me and bless the space between us.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
Psalm 87: 1 On the holy mountain stands the city he has founded; *the Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
God. Loves. Fill in the blank. More.
Over the years to ones I have loved, I have abbreviated the sentiment expressed in the psalm to one word – ‘more.’ Sometimes as a response to their expression, I love you, I reply, “More.” And sometimes upon seeing them or writing to them, I’d say or sign off with “More.” The one word has functioned to say more to the loved one than the three words, I love you, could.
Children use the comparative often. Mommy loves me more than you. The more-than comparison always begs the question of ‘favorites,’ and that line of thinking stays with us into adulthood. The youngest is the favorite or the first born, etc. My beloved niece recently hit the jackpot when visiting my dear aging father who apparently told her she was his ‘favorite granddaughter’. Whether he said so or not, it is what she heard and she is boasting like the psalmist boasts today about the Lord loving more than the other. Of course, we all know, as do each of my dad’s five granddaughters, that God’s love is not comparative – God loves us all, none more than the other, but, differently.
God loves us each uniquely and differently. God puts people and experiences and pets and rainbows and sunsets in our lives so that we may feel his love in all its depth – we are not alone, as Dan Piraro’s Bizarro panel here so tenderly illustrates. Differently, not more than. My dad loves my niece’s sense of humor – one quite similar to his own – and he loves her for even wanting to be his favorite, for boasting that she is. That means something to her and to him. God likes when we boast of his love for us, too.
When my children were young one of (the many) bedtime routines – after books and prayers – was to settle into a sort of litany of love. Laying beside them I would ask, “Who loves fill in the blank?” And my child would name someone, like their brother or sister. And I’d respond, “Yes, your brother loves fill in the blank.” And then I’d ask again, “Who else loves fill in the blank?” And on we’d go asking and naming all the family, friends, pets, teachers who my child knew loved him or her. I was always the penultimate one named, “Yes, I’d reply, mommy loves fill in the blank.” And at that prompt, my son or daughter would have settled in for the night – eyes closed, waiting to respond to the last, “Who else loves fill in the blank?” “God” he or she would say. “Yes, God loves you, sweet one.”
I can’t be sure but I believe this ritual gave each of my children a way to ‘feel’ God’s love, personally. Laying there all snug as a bug in their beds, my arms wrapped around them, recalling all the people God had put in their lives to love – it was a way to experience God’s love that the word alone, without modifiers or context, doesn’t often deliver.
St Augustine wrote that God is love. Yep, true that. But as much as I know this I don’t always feel through every cell of my being, God’s love. Perhaps because the word ‘love’ is so inadequate on its own.
There are so many ways to experience love – to love and receive love. Robert Johnson, author, psychotherapist, and former member of a Benedictine Monastery has written extensively about the inadequacy of the English word for ‘love’. In his book, The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden, he writes:
“Sanskrit has 96 words for love; ancient Persian has 80, Greek three, and English only one. This is indicative of the poverty of awareness or emphasis that we give to that tremendously important realm of feeling. Eskimos have 30 words for snow, because it is a life-and-death matter to them to have exact information about the element they live with so intimately. If we had a vocabulary of 30 words for love … we would immediately be richer and more intelligent in this human element so close to our heart. An Eskimo probably would die of clumsiness if he had only one word for snow; we are close to dying of loneliness because we have only one word for love. Of all the Western languages, English may be the most lacking when it comes to feeling.”
It is helpful to remember that when speaking or writing or hearing anything about God’s love, our word for the truth doesn’t really function. We have to employ modifiers such as ‘more than’ and contextualize to get the point that God is love.
The psalmist found one way to express the depth and dimension of God’s love for the chosen people of Israel – he employed the modifier: The Lord loved us more than the people of within Jacob’s gates.
Ok. But as I might say to my child, “who else loves God?’ “The people of Jacob love God.” And who else does God love? God loves the people of Jacob.
God. Loves. Fill in the blank. More.
Praise God from whom all blessings – and love – flows.