Thursday, July 14, 2011

Prayers for the Journey

The request for my blessing by someone about to take a trip gives me great joy. It is not something I ever thought about prior to ordination. It is not even something that happens with any great frequency. It is certainly not something that takes a lot of time and effort, as preaching and other tasks do. But it is immensely satisfying, and I am always delighted when someone asks me to do it, as two people did this week.

I don’t have a standard formula – I pray extemporaneously for the person, adapting the prayer to the particular journey they are about to take, ending with a blessing in the name of the Trinity as I trace the sign of the cross on the supplicant’s forehead. Simple. I hope it is meaningful to the person seeking the blessing – I find great meaning in offering it.

Whenever I am about to leave for an overnight journey, I pray the Itinerary, a short office consisting of the Benedictus, the Lord’s Prayer, several versicles, and several collects evoking biblical journeys. It ends with the wonderful versicle and response “V.Let us go forth in peace. R. In the Name of the Lord. Amen.” The antiphon on the Benedictus recalls the journey of Tobit by invoking the archangel Raphael, and the Benedictus contains the prayer “to guide our feet into the way of peace”. The collects mention the journeys of the Israelites in the desert, the Magi on their way to pay homage to the newborn Christ, and Abraham as he set out from Ur, as well as recalling John the Baptist at whose birth the Benedictus was first recited by his father. It is a beautiful prayer, and it has a way of calming me as I set out. The Anglican Breviary adds to it a form of thanksgiving at the journey’s end, using Psalm 103, which is also lovely, and which helps me to return to my everyday life after a trip.

It is my prayer that all of my readers have safe travels wherever they go, as well as a blessed journey with God through life.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Part III of Sermon: "Confessions of a Church Polity Geek: Reflections on Doing the Holy Work of the Beloved Community"

This is part two of a three-part sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Delaware County on Sunday, June 26, 2011. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found there.

Because of the time spent to prepare this sermon, I did not have time to prepare a sermon for St. Mary of Grace's Sunday evening Eucharist celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi. I had planned on recycling a sermon I have given several times on the Eucharist. A few minutes before Mass, it occurred to me that if I switched the order of "discerning Christ's body in the Church" and "discerning Christ's body in the poor", I could use the four points in the third part of this sermon as an explanation of ways to live out being Christ's body the Church. During the singing of the Gloria in excelsis, it occurred to me that each of these four points could be tied to one of the marks of the Church from the Nicene Creed, and so in brackets, I have included the appropriate mark with the appropriate section, although this was not part of the sermon as preached to the UU congregation. There was more explanation of how the marks corresponded with the points, but that will have to wait for another blogpost. Self-plagiarism is a preacher's best friend.

There are four things the church must do in order to do its work well.

[ONE] First, each part of the church, be it a congregation, a regional unit, or a denomination, must order all of its activities around the central core values it holds as foundational – the beliefs and practices that are most sacred and most important to it. Of course, first, this means that a church unit must know what those values are, and be in unity about them. Every activity in which the church engages must be evaluated to see if it is in basic harmony with those values, and if not, whether it should be let go or reconfigured in order to better express the fundamental mission of the church. The church should also carefully consider whether it is being called to new ministries to better carry out its mission.

[HOLY] A church must be concerned with spiritual growth. Many religious traditions tell stories about a mountain as a metaphor for spiritual growth. Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet God and receive the law. Jesus went up a mountain with three of his disciples for the Transfiguration. St. John of the Cross, the great Carmelite mystic, used the Carmelite foundational symbol of Mount Carmel as the basis for his teaching about prayer in his classic work The Ascent of Mount Carmel, with a diagram of the mountain laying out the progress of the Christian’s life of prayer with God.

When you climb a mountain, there are two ways to go – you can keep ascending and going toward the top, or you can start going down. The spiritual life is similar – you are either progressing, going higher or deeper, or stagnating and declining, moving away from union with the divine. Everything the church does should be helping its members grow in the spiritual life. If it is not, it is very likely that it is moving its members away from the divine and hindering the spiritual life.

[CATHOLIC] A church must also balance the needs of the community as a whole with the needs of the individual. In order for the church to prosper, its members must sacrifice in order to contribute to the well-being of the community as a whole. Just showing up week after week is a sacrifice – in our busy society, there are always more enjoyable things that one could be doing. Members need to be willing to contribute their time, their talent, and their treasure for the church to continue to do its work. And members of the church need to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to spiritual growth so that they can support one another. A church whose members do not sacrifice is not a true community – it is a collection of individuals, a social club.

But the church must also work for the good of the individual. A church that demands sacrifice but offers no freedom in return, and runs roughshod over its members’ individual gifts and needs, is a cult. True spirituality inspires each individual to attain the highest level of growth and flowering of her individual gifts. This must always be respected and nurtured.

[APOSTOLIC] Finally, there must be a balance between the pursuit of spirituality, the nurturing of community, and reaching out to the world at large with the church’s message of faith, hope, and love. A church that focuses on spirituality to the neglect of community and mission risks pursuing a false spirituality that is not engaged with real life – a spirituality which is an illusion. A church that is only inward-looking, fostering close relationships among its members without reaching out in love to others, risks becoming a social club. A church that is only concerned with fighting for justice, neglecting spirituality and its own health risks becoming a political club or a social service agency. While there is nothing wrong with either of these, it is not what the church is called to be, and it cannot do those tasks as well as organizations whose mission is to be a political party or a social service agency. All three of these tasks are necessary, and they must be balanced.

As we reflect on how the church does its work, let us commit ourselves more fully to our beloved community, and gird ourselves to do the holy work we are called to do.