Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Times Takes on Prayer

Please go to and read my new post there. Steve Thorngate, theolog's editor, asked me to weigh-on on an article in The New York Times Magazine by Zeb Chafets on prayer. Be interested to know what you think.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Prayers and Preachers

It was something of a schizophrenic experience, these last couple of days. I was at St. Mary's Retreat Center in Sewannee, TN, a large meeting place on the grounds of the Convent of the Community of St. Mary, one of the ten remaining convents of Episcopal nuns in the United States.

There are eight nuns left at St. Mary's, and four of them recent transplants--the last remnants of an Episcopal convent and order, the Episcopal Sisters of Charity, which had known the West Virginia mountains as home. Each morning at seven they gather for Mass, at noon for prayer, at five for Evening Plainsong and at seven for Compline. It is sad, in a way, to see these women, all of them older and two of them much older, gathering in a small semi-circle around the Altar to pray, and especially because there no novices among them or any on the horizon. In another way it is thrilling, and humbling, to know that these have given themselves to this place, this life, this prayer and particular service.

The convent chapel is lovely if small, and worshipers look out over the Altar to see the bluff and valleys of the Tennessee hills. On the two mornings I was there I was invited to share Holy Eucharist and breakfast. The hospitality of the Host is also evidenced in these hostesses. Monday was the feast of St. Matthew the Evangelist. Tuesday was the lesser feast of Philander Chase. I had never heard of the latter, but will never forget, I think, that he was the fifteenth of fifteen children, a missionary to the Oneida and Mohawk and, later, an Episcopal bishop.

There is a small cemetery near the entrance to the retreat center, where the dead far outnumber the convent's quick, and I could not help but think that those who come here to live know they have come here also to die, that each of them will lie in that very and very sacred place when the last breath they any of them have for prayer will have passed their lips and wafted like incense toward heaven. Nuns, convents, part-time prayers like me may come adn go, but prayer remains for ever, and the life of prayer will finally claim us all.

I found myself at St. Mary's not only for prayer, however. I was also on hand for a kind of homiletical retreat with eight Baptist pastors, all of them men, from Nashville. They had come to consider their Advent preaching, most of them still struggling to make sense of the lectionary, the worth and rhythm of the Christian year, or if not that, exactly, then at least how to preach the lectionary in their Baptist congregations back home. At the invitation of my old Greek teacher, in the company of a couple of old friends, I was there as a resource for their discussion--God help them and me--but the irony was delicious. I was moving back and forth between two worlds I have inhabited for parts of my life, two ways of thinking and believing that I understand only a little, and both of them my heritage in a way (I was raised Baptist; I am now Methodist, heir to the English reformation).

I have never felt completely at ease nor yet completely un-home in either. I fumble through the Book of Common Prayer (and, more regularly and nearer to home, the Benedictine liturgies at Belmont Abbey) and stumble at the often-unintended parochialism of Baptist life. I love preaching revivals and shudder at the often uncritical veneration of Mary.

It is the story of my life, this narrative of being between ports, and sometimes in a storm. This week there was no storm, only lots of rain, but these last two days I sailed back and forth, trekked as it were back and forth from cathedral to camp meeting, from the Sacrament of bread and wine to the distinctly southern sacramental of preaching.

My friend Bill has been pastor of his semi-rural Baptist congregation for 27 years, more than half his life. How monastic is that? I have been in my current appointment for three months; how itinerant is that?

The word of God, and the challenge of preaching it; the prayers of the people, and the challenge of perpetuating it; the giving of oneself to the life of prayer and the life of proclamation...they are the same challenge, I guess, so whether man or woman, young or old, Episcopalian or Baptist (or even Methodist), living or dead, Christ is and will be all in all, the once and final integration we need for all our various multiple personalities and professions.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Revival on The Way Home from Revival

I have been pondering something I heard on Wednesday night as I returned from preaching the last of four revival sermons at Maggie Valley UMC. I was, as I often do, scanning my radio dial listening for a) oldies rock and roll--the kind I used to play years in ago in a handful of garage bands; or b) a good radio preacher. The former is easier to find than the latter, to be sure, and some of the preaching that you can find is, shall we say (and especially in view of the balance of this email), less than wonderfully edifying.

Anyway, I stumbled by grace onto a station carrying a preacher by name of Alistair Begg, of whom I had never heard, from Parkway Church near Cleveland, with which I am unfamiliar. In a beautiful Scottish brogue (he came to the US with his family in 1983 to serve the Parkway church), he was teaching/preaching on The Epistle of James. To conclude the sermon he quoted an Episcopal priest of the 19th century, Charles Simeon, who is considered by many to be the father of the evangelical movement in England (Wesleyans might disagree!). The link to the sermon in its entirety is below.

What I most want to share, though, is the quote from Simeon--for it has occupied much of my thinking yesterday and today. It is rather stately, typical of British prose, and you may have to chew on it a bit (especially number 3, which I think I heard correctly), but the truth is simple enough: that slander, what I have called "bad gossip," is a sin the Bible takes very seriously. The sin proceeds from the "vain imagination" by which we presume to have knowledge enough and right to judge another's actions or motives. Anyway, according to Mr. Begg, Simeon was writing to a colleague in the ministry when he penned these words:

"The longer I live the more I feel the importance of adhering to the rules which I have laid-out for myself, which are as follows: 1) To hear as little as possible what is to the prejudice of others; 2) To believe nothing of the kind until absolutely forced to; 3) Never to drink into the spirit of one to circulate an ill report; 4) Always to moderate as far as I can the unkindness which is expressed towards others; and 5) Always to believe, that if the other side were heard, a very different account would be given of the matter."

Mr. Begg concluded by saying that Charles Simeon often said to his friends, "Let us sit upon the seat of love instead of the seat of judgment."

I find those "rules" fit not just for an English divine, but meet and right for me, too, day to day. If I can adopt such a posture in all my conversations, it will be evidence of the Peace of Christ--both in and through me. Which is to say, Christ, the Prince of Peace, has given us his Peace, that we ourselves might be peacemakers.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

New Post on Theolog

I have written a new piece for, reflections on the funeral Mass for Edward Kennedy. I hope you will check it out.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Faith and Sight

I visited with Robin today. She is dying of metastasized breast cancer. She is a nurse, and so knows at a clinical level, at head level, what is happening to her. She has seen it all more than once. But she is also, now, the patient, and at heart level wants to believe that this time, in her case, it may be, could be, will be different.

She is dual-relational with herself, in other words, trying to find hope, which is to say, remain hopeful, in spite of the terminal evidence she knows all too well. She quotes the percentages on the new prescriptions, the statistics on the next set of treatments, tries to find some comfort in the facts. The recitation rings hollow even to her.

Hope does not come from facts or statistics, I think, but from the ineffable. Still, humans beings what they are, we try to find our way through the darkness by narration, in the accurate reporting of the news. Our counselors tell us that freedom, even control--or a bit of control, anyway (if even that proves ultimately illusory)--is achieved when we can say in no uncertain terms what ails us. Real comfort, though, and real hope, comes not from expositing the obvious but in the telling of what saves us. Such testimony is dappled with fear and trembling--the grammar of salvation, is no certain or "factual" language--but may ring truer than chemistry or calculus.

I read Robin Psalm 27: The Lord is my light and my salvation;/ whom shall I fear?/ The Lord is the stronghold of my life;/ of whom shall I be afraid?// When evildoers assail me,/ to devour my flesh,/ my adversaries and foes/ shall stumble and fall.//

"That is deep," she said.

It is the same Psalm I read my friend Karen, about whom I wrote in Praying for Dear Life, as she lay dying of lymphoma. I told Robin that I really think I really do believe what I always say to folk: "Because God is God, and because we are God's children, all is well." I really believe I really believe that, all appearances to the contrary, despite the ways things appear and what we are forced to experience and feel--that "though heaven and earth, the Dow Jones and most relationships, and life itself pass away--all really is well."

It is my prayer that I really have such confidence, which means, I guess, that I am dual-relational with myself--uncertain whether my ministrations will finally minister also to me. In other words, I cannot know whether I truly have the kind of faith I encourage in others till I myself lay dying.

At that point I will know whether the hope I have proclaimed as refuge for Robin and others is refuge for me, an undimmed light in that present darkness. And sometime after that, whether my faith will indeed be sight.