Monthly Archives: June 2013

Eleanor Roosevelt prayed here

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors, so I was thrilled to learn that the church where she worshipped and set the novel “The Age of Innocence” was a 15 minute walk from our apartment in NY.  Calvary Episcopal is a gorgeous church steeped in history but clearly moving forward.

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As we walked into the beautiful gothic sanctuary where the Roosevelts, Astors, and Vanderbilts all worshipped, I was struck by the beautiful, if elite, history of our church.  The sermon spoke to the radical power of God’s grace as written by Paul in his letter to the Galatians.  Looking around the church, with its racially and economically diverse and vibrant congregation, the power of Paul’s words within this city where I will be spending the next five weeks took on a new meaning.

But even in this church which symbolizes much of old New York and the traditions of the Episcopal church, I was missing the liturgical traditions that we have crafted within our own community of St. David’s. I must admit I struggled a bit with the praise hymns, with their lyrics projected onto a screen at the left of the altar. And I missed seeing the priest facing the congregation as he prepared the sacrament, as he was forced to turn his back to us because of the position of the altar.

The congregation of Calvary felt happy and unified.  I am amazed that despite the structure of our liturgy, a church can find a tone and approach that works for those that worship there.  Although I am sure that Eleanor Roosevelt would feel out of place at the Calvary of today, it felt like just the right blend of the traditional and progressive for those that worship there now.

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Jane & Roy Got Married!

jane and royTwice! Sort of. They got married in New Jersey on May 25th with their East coast family on hand to celebrate. This morning they renewed/reaffirmed their marriage with their St. David’s and extended Pacific Northwest family and let all of us share our prayers and support in person. It all took place in our principal service of the day, and gave us a chance to celebrate two pillars of our community in the most natural setting our community has- our common worship. Plus, we got to answer the question -what does the resurrection of the son of the widow from Nain have to do with a wedding feast?

Jane and Roy were among the first people I really got to know at St. David’s. I was here for a Summer internship and they were among the core group of folks who met for the gratitude experiment on Wednesday nights. The gratitude experiment was an outgrowth of that year’s Following the Way class, our annual course of preparation for new members and candidates for Baptism, Confirmation, Reception and Renewal. As often happens around here, many of the members had found an authentic experience of community in that group and kept meeting, and they invited others to meet with them as well. On Wednesday nights that Summer we brought snacks to share, often a member of the group had prepared some food for thought to offer as well, but mostly we just sat around and spoke to one another about what we were thankful for. Sometimes we gathered around that picnic table out front when the afternoon sun was slanting through the tall trees of Harrison Hill, a picnic table that was eventually painted red to imitate the bright red welcome of our church doors. I want you to know that as an intern, I didn’t have to come to those group meetings. The gratitude group was totally lay-led and planned, there was nothing I needed to do to help it out. I came because I was welcomed to it, and because I was fed there. It was not uncommon that Summer to find Jane and Roy lingering by the picnic table on Sunday mornings, usually with some book in hand they had both been reading. Whenever I stopped by to join them I was refreshed by the spirit of welcome and inquiry which they exuded together. Together, they showed me something of what this place was all about. They were so clearly in love with the way they followed Jesus here, and for me, that love was catching enough to keep coming back for more. What I didn’t realize at the time was that they were also falling in love with each other.

These twin loves, the love of God that leads us along the way of this life’s journey, and the intimate, mutual love of a fellow traveler upon that road, are a true blessing when they can feed and inform one another. Both kinds of love set a place for others at the table to come and taste the love of God for themselves, and for Jane and Roy I can only imagine that your marriage will become the same source of generous hospitality in your household as it has been in your discipleship here. Marriage is a sacrament of the church, and like the fresh bread of communion, the cool running waters of a baptism or sweet-smelling oil marked on the head of someone fallen ill, marriage makes two people the material substance through which the grace of God is both signified and delivered. We gather here today the way we gather for any other celebration of these sacraments, to give our prayers and support, and to receive something of the grace being offered. You, Jane and Roy, are a part of the grace we come to partake of this day, and every day we are blessed enough to be near you both. You are a sign of God’s fidelity and covenant with us, his people, and a living spring of the mutual joy and care that binds us all together in the body of his Son upon the earth. In your love and vows of faithfulness towards one another you remind us of who God is among us.

One thing we have learned about this love is that, like Jesus himself, it often comes to a place we had given up for dead. In this morning’s story from the Gospel, the presence of Jesus turns a procession line of grief and mourning into one of celebration. I can only imagine that the members of such a procession would be more than a little bit confused at the sudden shift. Usually by the time we make it to a funeral we are somewhere past the initial shock of loosing a loved one but not yet to the place of healing that public displays of grief help us move towards. It can be a raw and open place as grief goes about its work within us, and in this story about Jesus that place is totally disturbed by new life. A random young man given up for dead suddenly rises from the bier, and his loved ones are left gaping in their funeral attire, their grief arrested by the totally unexpected and seemingly impossible grace of God. This story about Jesus tells us something important about what it was like to follow him around back then, and what it may be like for us today. Where there is injury we may find pardon, hope where we had thought to find despair, light in the midst of darkness, and in dying the seeds of true life. We spend lifetimes following in love one who turns the whole world on its head, and we get used to bracing ourselves for surprises along the way.

Now, it may seem odd to be preaching about a funeral in the middle of a wedding feast, but the truth is we know this will not always be easy. Our prayers know it will not always be easy, and that is why in a moment we will ask, among other things, that you will have grace, when you hurt each other, to recognize your faults and seek forgiveness, to overcome estrangement and despair with unity. We will pray that where there is need, you will find strength; where there is perplexity, counsel; where there is sorrow, consolation. And we will pray for all of this so that in moments of joy you may also have the company of one another, another broken human being who may hurt you sometimes in your closeness to one another. With the God who can turn sorrow into shouts of joy and funerals into feasts, you will have the strength and courage to love one another back into wholeness, whatever that may require. Jane and Roy, your bravery in committing to such a life together is a blessing to us all; may the blessing pour forth between you both for all your days to come. AMEN.

Between a Buddhist & a Christian Practice…

A reflection from the Pastoral Associate on what makes a spiritual practice Christian or not…

About this time last Summer I went on a Vipassana meditation retreat in which I spent 10 days in total silence with some 80-odd strangers sitting cross-legged on a concrete floor for hours at a time while paying attention to every last twitch and itch in our bodies without scratching or responding to them. You can, too, if you are at all inclined by the end of this essay. “Why Vipassana?” you might reasonably ask. Because a friend told me about it. Because I had just finished three years at a denominational seminary and wanted to clear my head with a practice that had as little to do with the Daily Office and Plainsong Chant as possible. Because I wanted to honor my 15-year old self who left church when he found out he was gay and told his parents that he was a Buddhist without actually knowing what that meant. But most of all, because I wanted to see what was inside of me at the bottom of 10 days of silence.

Explicating the discoveries related to that last rationale would take a novel rather than an essay and I would only ever make my therapist read it. I will tell you that the journey on the way down changed me temporarily. In the silence shared with 80 strangers I became more attentive. Observation is one of two major skills honed in Vipassana. The time spent observing one’s own body and its sensations inevitably translates into a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings. It didn’t hurt that the retreat center was poised atop a crest overlooking a bucolic meadow with meandering dirt paths in the middle-of-nowehere, Washington. Often, we emerged from the low-lit meditation hall squinting against the daylight to see the glaciers of Mt. Rainer glistening wildly in the sun. A family of deer lived in the meadow, and it was not uncommon for a group of us to gather wordlessly at dusk and watch the newborn fawn leap across the tall grasses with his older brother and sister. Once, after rising at something crazy like 4:30 in the morning, I came face-to-face with the mother doe as I walked the gravel path from the dormitory to the meditation hall. The whole landscape was covered in a thick fog which she emerged from with grace fluid enough to be an imitation of the air around her. I could see the muscles of her hind-quarters ripple as she passed by me close enough to reach out and touch. I spent considerable time laying on the ground watching slugs crawl across my path, once I even watched long enough to find an abandoned baby naked mole rat the size of the tip of my pinky finger squirming in the grass (at which point I totally lost it and talked for the first time during the retreat to one of the teachers’ aides about what we should do to save it. He did not offer to help, incidentally.) This from a guy who is much more likely to watch HBO on Demand with some noisy friends and a glass of wine most nights. Maybe I was more myself there, maybe I was less.

I will also tell you that the hardest thing for me to do during the whole retreat was not the keeping silent part (as many of my closest friends assumed it would be) rather, it was to set my Christian practices aside. One enters the Vipassana training with the agreement that all other practices will cease while learning the technique. At stages in this training far beyond the initial 10-day retreat one agrees to practice Vipassana exclusively. The intention behind this requirement is that one not mix Vipassana with other practices, thereby gaining an undiluted experience of the technique. In the particularly apophatic mood that had seized me post-seminary I interpreted this to mean no praying, period. My seemingly liberal Christian sensibilities were tweaked, however, when terms like Buddha and Dhamma were thrown around in a slightly devotional manner. It is clearly explained from the outset that Buddha needn’t mean anything more than anyone who is fully enlightened or Dhamma than the law of nature and way to liberation. It is also explained that Vipassana is a way of living and not a religion or form of worship and needn’t contradict any religious beliefs. Still, without the name of Jesus constantly on my tongue where it had been for the past several years, I began to feel like something of a traitor. Jesus is the name I know how to talk to God with. Even when I’m not saying the actual name itself, I know its there, much in the way that the name of a roommate or other constant companion is simply implied in a statement such as, “Hey [you], could you bring me some milk on your way to the living room?” In the end, I simply could not divest the implicit “you” in a statement such as “Hey [you], please help me observe the sensations in my body with equanimity,” from my guy Jesus Christ. I will probably never be someone who can simply call upon my own individual resources of will and self without the help of a dead man from 2,000 years ago. In the retreat, this came to a head on the fifth or sixth day when I scampered away down one of those meandering dirt paths in the meadow and fell to my knees gushing aloud every scrap of the Daily Office and Plainsong Chant that I could call to mind. I felt better after that.

Equanimity is the second major skill honed in Vipassana. As you sit with yourself, moving your attention systematically from head to toe, observing every major and minor bodily sensation along the way, you are meant to treat each one of them equally. Perhaps that crick in your back is gradually spreading it’s throbbing intensity with each passing tick of a clock that you are not allowed to see while elsewhere, say, on the back of your hand, you notice a light, pleasant, tingling sensation. (As I sidenote, I’ll tell you that I seemed to never have any light or pleasant sensations anywhere in my body to observe at all.) You are supposed to treat them both the same. You are not to give any one sensation more time or attention than any other, and you are not to respond to any of them, you are simply to observe them with a hopefully ever-growing sense of equanimity. This is actually pretty incredible. The idea is that as you refine your prowess for equanimity in your physical body, you will be better equipped to treat all of the thousand various desires and aversions of the chattering ego with greater objectivity. My inner Pelagian squealed with delight at even the smallest victories in this arena. The trouble is, desire and aversion actually seem essential to my Christian life. I long for God the way that mother doe likely longs for a cool drink of the very water her own body seemed to imitate. At the same time, I actively despise all the things that keep me from that living water of God, including and above all my own selfishness. So where was I supposed to draw the line between aversions to deflect and aversions to train?

In the end, when the retreat was over and I was back home with my HBO, I could not decide; or maybe I was just too lazy to. I was also too lazy to maintain the twice-daily hour-long sittings that are supposed to continue developing the technique over time. Instead, I took to heart the idea that Vipassana shouldn’t be blended with other techniques and ditched the whole thing. I also entered a year-long Chaplain Residency on the psych ward of a VA hospital where, occasionally, my lack of equanimity got me in way over my head. That may be why, a year later, I’ve gotten to a point where I am trying to meditate again. Except that now, the practice doesn’t seem to present nearly the same kind of conflict as it did then. Observation and equanimity are two edges of a sword sharpened by Vipassana, something I’ve come to understand as a mental rather than a spiritual discipline. It is a discipline, or a tool, that can help prepare and dispose one towards the multiple sympathies of Christianity: the love of enemies, neighbors, self, and God; relationship in the Spirit of Charity cut free from the bonds of selfish desires and aversions. It is a tool one can put to use in the work of following Jesus, who taught his disciples to model themselves after the perfect equanimity of a creator God who shows love where it is not deserved and makes the sun to shine and rain to fall on the good and bad alike. Christian practice invites and even encourages the development of such tools, yet it does not ultimately require them, that’s what we have forgiveness for. Christianity began with a man who took one look at the people who were following him and ultimately expected them to fail in their pursuit. It has never been so much about practice-makes-perfect as it has been right-relationship-makes-us-whole-again. He still helped them get back up to try again anyway. Trying something new along the way could help, too. It could actually be pretty incredible.

Does this bring up any thoughts or questions about practices you’ve tried in your own faith journey? Leave them in the comments section below…

Our Rector’s Sabbatical Chronicles…

We’ve certainly been missing Sara while she’s on sabbatical this Summer, but we don’t have to miss out on what she’s been up to and pondering. You can head over to her own personal blog at dailycup.net to find out more.

In her most recent post, she reflects on the experience of returning to a church from earlier in her life which had initially left her with mixed impressions…

On that day I learned something important about what kind of a Christian I was turning out to be. I was the kind of Christian who—if anyone asked me—did not distinguish between baptized and un-baptized, Christian and non-Christian. If I were a priest in this or any church, I would want to care for people, in death as in life, whether or not they were baptized, whether or not they were Christian or any other kind of religion. I couldn’t imagine someone being excluded from the church because they didn’t believe as I believed, or were in a different place along the journey. Later I learned the churchy word for this: it turned out I was a universalist, someone who believed that if there was in fact a heaven—a big if, in my book, at that time in my life—there was not just one way to get there, but many ways to get there.

Head over to this blog entry to read the rest of her story, and be sure to subscribe if you want further reflections from her journey this Summer!