Some weeks it’s tough to keep up spiritually and emotionally with all that swirls around us. In the last couple of days we’ve seen images of devastation coming out of Oklahoma. We continue to be pummeled with disheartening world news and violence in our communities, even as many of us are still trying to process the Boston Marathon bombings, the explosion at a fertilizer factory in West, Texas, and the collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh.
As people of faith, our first response is prayer. Upon hearing about the latest tragedy or disaster we get down on our knees and pray. Or at least close our eyes for a moment at the next stoplight or post a prayer on Facebook. Sometimes we pray because we know it’s what we’re “supposed” to do; sometimes we pray because we can’t thing of anything else to do; sometimes we pray because it’s part of our ongoing and life-long conversation with God; and sometimes we pray because we know it matters.
Yet it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed to the point of “prayer fatigue.” We’re bombarded on all sides by tragic news, horrific images, and interviews with the bereaved, all of which contribute to an overall feeling of helplessness. As many of us are discovering, there’s only so much capacity the human brain has to respond to grief, sadness, and traumatic events. We could become hermits and spend all our days in prayer and, still, it wouldn’t be enough. We’d just be scratching the surface of the world’s needs. As we seemingly face crisis after crisis it’s easy to feel that prayer doesn’t matter or that it doesn’t change anything.
The 24-hour news cycle doesn’t help as images of natural disaster, war, and abject poverty assault our senses and our sensibilities. Nor does social media which, in the face of tragedy, serves as an echo chamber. That’s not to say we should all go off the grid when tragedy strikes — there’s tremendous value in connecting with others, offering prayers and resources, and even raising money as a way to “do something.” Rapid response online donations in the wake of tragedy (at least the ones that warrant media coverage) are becoming part of the national grieving process and perhaps even a secular form of prayer. But it still never feels like enough — there’s always the next tragedy, the next disaster, the next shooting.
The good news is that the world’s peace and harmony doesn’t depend exclusively upon us. That’s God’s realm, not ours. Once we realize this, it takes the pressure off of us to get the words right or say the proper number of prayers to “fix” everything. We don’t even need words — they’re usually inadequate anyway. We can weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn while leaving the big picture to the God who cares for us as a mother cares for her children. This doesn’t mean that tragedy won’t continue to pervade our lives — it’s part of the human condition — but we’re not in this alone. Jesus, who knew something about tragedy, is with us at every step of the journey.
And so, even in the midst of despair, we’re left with hope. As Christians, hope is the bedrock upon which we build the foundations of our lives even as things seemingly crumble around us. Where is God in all of this? Under the rubble; crying out with the disaffected and impoverished; in the tears of those who weep and mourn.
This weekend we mark Trinity Sunday and revel in the fullness of God even as we pray for hope and healing and reconciliation. There is, perhaps, no better time to do just that.
I was down in Copley Square last week for the first time since the marathon bombings. The place was still crawling with news trucks and reporters and police on a beautiful Tuesday morning. I saw the impromptu memorials made up of running shoes and t-shirts and flowers and teddy bears and hand-made signs.
There was a hushed tone quality in the memorial area even as the bustle of downtown Boston swirled all around it. People were writing notes of prayer and support and simply milling around trying to take in the whole scene. Some looked stunned, some resigned, some were quietly wiping away tears; there were gawkers, of course, angling to get in the background of one of CNN’s live shots, but I think everyone was in some way seeking to come to grips with what happened on marathon Monday.
After I said a few quiet prayers, I started thinking about the Boston Strong slogan that’s been on t-shirts and stickers and hats and, more importantly, in the hearts of so many in this area. I agree with the sentiment that in times of trial and distress, it’s important for a community to band together and seek strength in its own unity. Those of us who live in the Boston area take pride in this community and our ties to it and there is great strength of spirit and character here. Anyone who witnessed or participated in the singing of the National Anthem at the Garden before the Bruins played in the first public event after the bombing couldn’t help but get chills.
But I think focusing exclusively on the image of strength has potential pitfalls. When we wrap ourselves in the mantra of Boston Strong, we face the possibility of denying our vulnerability both as individuals and as a community. Clinging to the notion of strength in the midst of uncertainty and fear, does make us feel better and safer in the short-term. But it also has a shadow side of desperation — if we only say we’re strong over and over again, it will magically become true.
Now I realize no one would buy a hat that said “Boston Vulnerable.” That’s not a slogan anyone would rally around or start chanting at a Red Sox game. But from a faith perspective we’re challenged to think beyond popular slogans to get to the heart of things. People being blown up in a public place on a sacred day at an iconic event makes us feel anything but strong. If we’re honest with ourselves, it taps into our deepest anxieties and fears; and feelings of vulnerability and helplessness can’t help but be stirred up.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, we hear Jesus tell St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words strength and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive. It is because of our vulnerability as human beings that we’re able to trust in the strength of God. It’s not our own strength that will see us through — no matter how many t-shirts get sold. It is the strength of God alone that allows us to endure and persevere in the midst of profound tragedy and grief and to find comfort and strength and solace in the context of community.
In light of this Paul goes on to say, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” Not because God will fix it and make it all better like a mother who kisses a skinned knee. But because through Jesus we know that God is present even in our darkest hours, even in those moments we feel most vulnerable or alone of forsaken.
When I was a priest in New York, a parishioner asked me if I’d go say last rites for his grandmother — the woman who had raised him. The catch was I had to go to some huge hospital in the middle of the Bronx, which I was happy to do even if it meant getting lost a few times on the way. It turned out her roommate had just died and one of the hospital chaplains was with the family as I arrived. He kept saying over and over again, “Be strong. You gotta be strong.” And I wanted to scream, “No! That’s not what they need right now!” This is precisely the time they need to cast their burdens upon the Lord. They don’t have to be strong, just faithful. And if they can’t do that right now they can just be, and let God hold them in the palm of his hand.
There’s a time to be strong but there’s also a time to admit our weakness, to admit our powerlessness in a situation and let God take the lead. And in that we find true strength.
I hate baptismal shells. You know, those tiny little silver shell-shaped scoops used to carefully drip water on a baby’s head at baptism. I’ve never wanted to admit this before since, not only was I likely baptized with one (along with water and the Holy Spirit, of course) at St. Mark’s in Milwaukee in 1968, but many of my friends and colleagues swear by them. Plus, what self-respecting Episcopal sacristy doesn’t have a beautiful antique baptismal shell that’s been used at the baptismal font for generations?
But, please, let me explain. My problem with baptismal shells is that, in my opinion, they domesticate the rite. The thing is, baptism isn’t merely a quaint rite of passage; something to precede the real event: catered brunch back at the house. When getting the baby “done” takes precedence over the power of God’s Spirit working within us, baptism loses its entire raison d’être. We might as well just take an ordinary bath or a dip in a hotel pool.
Baptism is a rite of commitment; it’s a rite of indissoluble relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s also a rite of total immersion into the Christian faith and the ministry of all the baptized and of being marked as Christ’s own forever. In whatever manner we were baptized, we can’t live our lives as if we’ve been sprinkled with a few drops from a cute silver shell. We must live our lives of faith with the reckless abandon of total immersion.
Let’s face it, our relationship with God is not always a neat, tidy, orderly affair. It can get messy. And baptism, as both an initiation rite and as a continuing symbol of relationship with Christ, should reflect this messiness. There should be water splashing around! And the shell, to me, is just too precious. A symbol of trying to contain the Holy Spirit rather than unleashing it.
So if you come to a baptism at my church, you might get wet. I like to warn people that the area immediately surrounding the baptismal font is the “splash zone” — you sit there at your own risk. No, I won’t go far as baptism by full immersion — trying to jam an adult into our smallish font just isn’t happening. But I’m all for full spiritual immersion, something the shell just doesn’t seem to convey.
And anyway, as we mark the Baptism of Our Lord, it’s hard to imagine John the Baptist, after screaming “You brood of vipers!” at the Pharisees and yelling at all to “Repent!” sprinkling just a few drops of water from a tiny shell onto Jesus’ head in the Jordan River.
I had an interesting encounter today with a woman named Gail who lives in Hingham (she wouldn’t give me her last name). She interrupted me during a meeting (“I just need a minute of your time”) to tell me how displeased she was with the sign on the front lawn of the church highlighting our Saturday 5 pm service. She tried her hardest to muster a conciliatory tone (“I don’t mean to be disrespectful” and “I’ve always so admired your church; it’s one of the most beautiful buildings in Hingham”).
But…there’s always a BUT. After trying to get me to tell her that it was just temporary and I’d be taking it down any moment, she pulled out the firepower: “It looks like a used car lot.” I responded with “That’s the point” and she left.
Now, I don’t think it actually looks like a used car lot. If you’re going to give me that complaint, just check out First Baptist down the street around their fall (or spring — can’t remember) fair. They actually hang those multi-colored plastic flags above their lawn. I think our S.W.5 sign is clever, rather discreet church marketing (evangelism!) for a growing contemporary, informal out-of-the-box service (averaging about 35 this fall and trending upwards).
I posted a brief version of this encounter on Facebook and got some great responses. Lent Madness Celebrity Blogger Heidi Shott said my post sounded like the start to a limerick. This naturally moved Lent Madness Poet Laureate Mary Cox to respond with one:
A woman from Hingham named Gail
proclaimed St. John’s banner a “fail”
it’s just SO indiscreet,
right out there at the street,
like an ad for what’s free — or on sale.
As the Rev. Maxwell Grant (a Congregational pastor in Greenwich, CT) put it in a reply to my post, “Please have the courtesy to keep your church lovely, unobtrusive, and irrelevant…thanks.” And isn’t that the prevailing cultural attitude? People don’t mind pretty churches in their midst as long as they keep the lawn mowed, don’t block my driveway on Sunday morning, do the occasional food drive, and don’t ever invite me to participate in your community. They like Christians to be seen but not heard.
Well, I apologize but that’s not how we do things around here. We really do believe what we say in the ancient Creeds and what we hear of Jesus through Scripture. We’re called to share this Good News with which we have been entrusted not hoard it. And so I’m sorry if you don’t like our sign (don’t push me, Gail, or I’ll invest in some neon) but it’s not going anywhere.
What I really should have done was invite her to attend the service next Saturday. Maybe she really was searching for something deeper. Perhaps the sign wasn’t so much an affront to her aesthetic sensibilities in driving down Main Street as much as a symbol of brokenness in her life as she seeks something that transcends the visible world.
Then again, maybe she just abhors the London Underground.
Sitting in summer vacation traffic has me reflecting on bumper stickers. Specifically Christian-themed bumper stickers. I’ve always wondered what general impression of Christianity is offered by these four and five letter pronouncements to the non-churchgoer.
Most of them are vaguely self-righteous like “Keep Christ in Christmas.” I don’t disagree with the sentiment. In fact, I’ve essentially dedicated my life to it. But the underlying theme is “You’re doing this all wrong; I know best; and anything you do is not enough.” Which is not exactly the most endearing, welcoming message during the “Most wonderful time of the year.” And anyway, I’ve always thought about making a sticker that proclaims “Keep Mass in Christmas” just to see if anyone notices.
Bumper stickers are really about self-identity. They’re a way of telling the world that you’re smart (“I went to an Ivy League school!”) or your kids are smart (“She’s on the honor roll!)” or you have certain political leanings (“Obama!”, “Mitt!”, or if you never got around to scraping it off, “Dukakis!”) or that your identity is wrapped up in your favorite sports team (“Go Orioles!”).
Religious bumper stickers are no different in that sense. We all crave an identity and stickers are a way of driving an identifying stake into the ground. So when you see stickers like “Christians Aren’t Perfect, Just Forgiven,” it’s a way of claiming that tenet for the individual’s own life. Again, it can also be read as saying, “You’re neither perfect, nor forgiven.”
Then there’s the fish symbol. I remember being in high school and being mortified when my mother put one on her gray 1985 Honda Accord. I thought it was some sort of Jesus freak thing that only hand-waving evangelicals put on their cars (she thankfully didn’t fit into this category). It wasn’t until years later that I learned the true story of this ancient symbol of Christianity.
Back during the early days of the church when the persecution of Christians was running rampant, they needed secret code to identify one another. The fish had a double meaning: it evoked Jesus (the call to the disciples to drop their nets and follow Jesus; the miracle of the Feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish; the post-Resurrection appearance when he eats a broiled fish on the beach) and it was also an acronym. The Greek word for fish, Icthus, was also an acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. This symbol was often found on the old catacombs in ancient Rome.
For the record, I’ve never put an Episcopal Church sticker on my car (let alone a fish) not because I’m embarrassed to be an Episcopalian but because with the way I drive I don’t want my cutting someone off in traffic to be someone’s lone impression of our denomination. I did learn to drive in Brooklyn, after all.
While I’m not exactly comparing Joe Paterno to the Pope, it’s hard not to see parallels between the sex abuse scandals at Penn State and in the Roman Catholic Church. Blind loyalty, concerns about protecting the institution above all else, gross negligence, and abused children.
This week’s headlines screaming about former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s guilt on 45 of 48 counts of sexual assault must be dredging up tremendous emotional trauma for those affected by abuse in the church.
A lot is made about the culture of both institutions. Paterno is often referred to as the “god” of Penn State Football. People close to the program say that nothing ever happened without his approval or knowledge. Far from being the bespeckled, slightly out-of-touch grandfatherly type — an image he cultivated — he was a larger-than-life figure who controlled every aspect of the program and demanded absolute loyalty from his players and coaches.
In the Roman Catholic Church, at least in the past, the parish priest was revered in a “Father knows best” way. To respect and trust the priest implicitly was to respect and trust the entire basis of your faith. When a sacred trust is violated, faith (not to mention the abused), is violated as well.
Like I said, I’m not comparing JoePa to the Pope but there are clearly some parallels in terms of utter, unquestioned devotion and control. This isn’t to say that Paterno or the Pope are evil in any way — if questioned they would obviously be appalled at such behavior. But I do question whether their “protect the institution at all costs” mentality got in the way of their better judgement as these issues were coming to light internally — before the respective scandals broke.
Any institutional leader sets a tone. I think this is one of the great responsibilities of leadership. The tone varies — it may be a culture of joy and gratitude; or discipline; or integrity; or creativity. Like it or not, whatever tone is set comes down from the top. When there is dissonance between the tone and the actions of an organization, an erosion takes place. It may be slow but eventually the hypocrisy will be exposed. Sometimes the blow is crippling and sometimes an institution can recover. But unless lessons are truly learned and the culture is changed, it’s just putting off future crisis.
Please continue to pray for victims of abuse; both those who have come forward and those who suffer in silence.
As I’ve been reflecting on the gospel for Sunday — Mark’s version of Jesus calming the sea — I remembered this was the text I preached on three years ago after announcing I would be leaving All Saints’ in Briarcliff Manor, New York. I had the privilege of serving there as rector for seven years and my leaving brought up lots of emotions for both me and the congregation.
Ending a pastoral relationship is never easy; it’s different from simply moving from one job to another. For better or worse, people’s spiritual lives are often wrapped up in their relationship with their priest and a priest’s identity is often wrapped up in their relationship with their parishioners. Leaving a congregation can feel like you’re forsaking a congregation. Even when you’re trying to be open and faithful to the call of the Spirit, feelings of anger, betrayal, and grief can abound on both sides.
I learned a lot through the process of saying goodbye, seeking always to be intentional about my leave-taking as opposed to “running through the thistles.” Some of it worked, some of it didn’t. But we’re also forever changed by the people we encounter on this journey of life and faith. I still keep the people of All Saints’ and their not-so-new-anymore rector in my prayers. Many of them had a profound effect on my ministry and that never fades away.
I rarely post sermons on my blog, but here’s that sermon I preached at All Saints’.
A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 21, 2009 (Proper 7, Year B)
When I was about ten-years-old my dad rented a sailboat and took the family out for a leisurely afternoon jaunt around the Inner Harbor of Baltimore. Some of my father’s earliest childhood memories were sailing on the Long Island Sound and he had recently started taking sailing lessons at the Getaway Sailing School. He loved being out on the water and naturally wanted to share this with his two sons. So why did it feel like I was about to board the SS Minow?
My mom was less keen on this whole family adventure but she packed a picnic basket and we headed down to the launch site to claim our 18-foot Bluenose. After adjusting our life jackets and a quick lesson about ducking when the boom swings around, we were ready to take to the high seas. And things started out pretty smoothly. The gentle breeze took us out into the middle of the harbor, the sun was shining, my brother and I argued over who was the First Mate, but the freedom of gliding through the water was amazing.
Until the clouds started moving in and the wind picked up. Since it would add to the story, I’d like to tell you there was a massive storm with gale-force winds. But there wasn’t. It did get a bit windier but the problem was that the bow line somehow got caught or tangled and suddenly my father couldn’t control the boat as it started heeling drastically to one side. Water rushed over the sideboards, my mother screamed, our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were washed out to sea, and I remember wondering if this was indeed the end. The whole scenario probably took less than a minute before my dad was able to get things straightened out but the horror of it all is seared into my psyche.
It’s in moments of panic or sheer terror, like the one the disciples experienced out on the Sea of Galilee or the one I experienced on the gentle waters of the Inner Harbor, that our first instinct is rarely to put our trust in God. Fear paralyzes us and all we can think about is survival. The natural reaction is to cling to a life vest rather than to Jesus. Because trust is the rarest commodity during times of trial and tribulation. The disciples cry out, “Jesus, don’t you even care that we’re about to die!” And we get this almost comical moment of contrast between the fear and frenzy of the disciples versus the absolute calm and tranquility of Jesus as he sleeps in the back of the boat.
But it’s understandable because trust tends to go out the window or out to sea in moments of uncertainty. There is a lack of trust that Jesus would see the disciples through the storm. Despite his presence the disciples didn’t believe he could or would help them. But of course it’s precisely his presence that is the ultimate source of comfort no matter whether the storm continues to rage or ceases completely. He’s there for them.
But meanwhile Jesus is trying to get a little shut eye. Trying to get a bit of rest after a long day of preaching and teaching. And you can just imagine his annoyance here: “You woke me up for this? Can’t a guy get a nap in around here?”
And I admit it sometimes does feel as if Jesus is asleep at the wheel. Sometimes when we need him most, it feels as if he’s not available to us. That he’s not paying attention to our needs; that he doesn’t care. And yet those are the times when he is most clearly present. It’s us who often become blinded by the storms and trials and tribulations of this life. Life swirls and rages, fear takes hold, and we fail to see the living Christ in our midst. We fail to see him calmly resting in the stern. We’ll see his presence in retrospect, perhaps, but rarely in the midst of the storm at hand.
The subtext for this particular community of faith is, of course, the departure of its rector. As I announced this week, I have accepted a call to a church in Massachusetts. And so All Saints’ is entering a time of transition and uncertainty. Anxiety and a sense of un-rootedness is a natural response to major change. And as the initial emotions swirl it can feel precisely like the tempest we read about this morning on the Sea of Galilee. The feelings of abandonment and betrayal are real. And it feels as if waves are beating against the sides of the boat and swamping it with water.
Yet, as in this story, Jesus is present. Anchoring us, guiding us, blessing us through this particular storm. And when we call upon him he will indeed calm the waters of our souls. Know that he will not leave you orphaned, he will not forsake you, he will be with you until the ends of the earth.
With three words, Jesus calms both the sea and the disciples’ anxiety: “Peace! Be still!” He becomes the calm in the midst of the storm. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t a storm; it just means that if we look inward Jesus stands at the core or our being even in the midst of the storm. Storm and calm are not mutually exclusive. If we go through life waiting for complete stillness we’ll go through life in great disappointment. Because life is really a series of storms; some smaller and some larger. So it’s not a matter of silencing the storm as much as it is recognizing God’s abiding presence in the midst of the storms that confront us. Allowing Jesus to provide the steady hand despite what rages. In other words, Jesus didn’t promise us perfect peace and tranquility in this life; he didn’t promise that there wouldn’t be any storms in this life; but he did promise us that he would be present in the midst of them. And that hope and assurance is at the very heart of the Christian life and faith.
And thus in this passage from Mark you could say that a literal “sea change” has taken place. A radical, profound, and mystical change in the water, the weather, and the hearts of the disciples. When you substitute the word transformation for “sea change” you get the idea of the power of Jesus Christ. Similarly we are going through a sea change at All Saints’, one that I am confident will lead to such transformation. It’s interesting to note that the phrase “sea change” first appears in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Ariel sings, “Full fathom five thy father lies: Of his bones are coral made: Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade: But doth suffer a sea-change into something rich and strange.” We are entering something “rich and strange” around here; things will soon be different. But I also trust that through this sea change new and good things will arise. In the days ahead, let Jesus be that calm in the midst of the storm both in your own life and here at this wonderful parish of All Saints’.
I spent the afternoon of Father’s Day at a service that marked the closing of a local parish, Trinity Church, Weymouth (this may or may not have been more painful than the kids making me breakfast in bed — though I wouldn’t know since I always leave for the early service before they’re awake).
I’d never been to such a liturgy but they’re becoming more common as parishes close all over the country. I won’t comment on the liturgy itself — it was presided over by Bishop Bud Cederholm who did an admirable job striking a tone of hope in the midst of difficult circumstances. But what struck me more than anything was the emotion displayed by some of the long-time parishioners. There were tears and there was tangible grief. In this sense it felt like a wake, albeit with the whole church building serving as a wide-open casket.
It’s hard to know why a particular parish suddenly becomes unsustainable. A lack of money and dwindling attendance are the “presenting issues” (to use a therapeutic term), but what is it that brings a parish that has held on for so long to its ultimate demise? I’m not thinking specifically of Trinity (I’m not familiar enough with the situation) when I say it’s usually a lack of creative, energetic, entrepreneurial-based, and Spirit-inspired leadership.
While we talk about the “community of the baptized” and the “priesthood of all believers,” I still don’t think a parish can thrive without strong clergy leadership. Yes, it takes an entire congregation working together with a common mission for sustainable, long-term growth and vitality but a lack of clergy leadership can do irreparable damage to a congregation. Some priests are natural leaders but I think leadership skills can also be learned and if we’re not focusing on leadership skills in the training of clergy we’re failing the people of God.
It’s not enough of a mission to proclaim “Services at 8 & 10 am” and “All are welcome.” Yet that’s precisely what so many of our parishes do. In this spiritual environment, opening the doors a couple times a week isn’t a compelling reason for people to enter — and they won’t. A passive approach to church growth that expects people to come in and stay because “we’re friendly” is no longer viable. It’s one thing to open the front doors and wait for people to show up. It’s quite another to fling the doors open wide in welcome and actively invite people into vibrant community. Congregations that don’t actively seek to share the Good News of the Gospel with others will eventually whither away. Even the True Vine needs some occasional pruning.
Thus, while no one wants to see a church close, I also don’t have a problem with it. Not because it isn’t painful and emotionally gut-wrenching for those involved but because I believe in Resurrection. Sometimes death must occur in order for Resurrection to take root — and that’s the truth at the heart of the Christian faith.
Okay, I’ll say one thing about the liturgy; I can’t help myself. I won’t go into details since I don’t really get it but a thing (spool?) of yarn was involved. It started at the front of the congregation and then wound around to every person before returning to the front. Then we sang “The Tie that Binds.” Interconnectedness? Knitting a scarf? I’m not sure.
I do wish the best for the few remaining parishioners at Trinity, Weymouth. I pray they will eventually feel the power of the Resurrection through this experience of congregational death. And that they will soon find a parish out of which they can continue to live out their baptismal vows.
Anyone with a pulse knows that silence is an elusive commodity in our lives. Between car radios, i-Pods, music in stores and eateries, and omnipresent TVs — in the supermarket, the gym, hospital waiting rooms, and Jiffy Lube, not to mention most rooms in our own homes — there’s a lot of noise out there. Left to dumb luck, you’d be hard pressed to find much silence in your daily life. Thus cultivating silence take intentionality.
I recently heard the story of the American avant-garde composer John Cage who, in 1952, wrote a piece titled 4’33”. It was unique in that the score directed the performer not to play an instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It didn’t matter what instrument the soloist chose not to play – saxophone, tuba, washboard, whatever – the important thing was that, while on stage, he or she didn’t play it.
But the piece wasn’t meant to simply be a four and a half minute period of silence. Cage’s theory was that true silence does not exist. So, for Cage, the piece actually consisted of the sounds of the environment in which the listeners heard the work performed. People breathing and coughing; perhaps the sound of the heating system or the low hum of the lights; that annoying person who takes forever to open a candy wrapper.
Now once you get past the feeling of being subjected to the musical version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” there’s actually something to this. In reality, there is no such thing as total silence. Even if you entered a soundproofed room, you’d still hear the sound of your own body breathing and moving.
The upshot is that we can never enter into total silence; it simply does not exist. But what this might suggest to us from a faith perspective is that there is actually another sound in the mix. It’s often referred to as the “still, small voice within” – the sound of God’s movement within your own soul. And it is indeed a sound that cannot be silenced.
I actually considered giving a performance of 4’33” as a Sunday sermon — with the proper context and explanation of course. I decided not to though, mainly because I didn’t want people coming up to me at Coffee Hour and telling me it was the best sermon I’d ever preached.
But I would suggest that the church does offer its own version of the composition. It’s called contemplative prayer. And I always encourage people to try it out since we all desperately need some silence in our lives. Here’s a link to Father Keating’s guidelines for contemplative centering prayer. Enjoy and if you’re comfortable sharing your experiences with this devotional practice, I’d love to hear them.
In my travels throughout the church (and by that I mean attending other parishes a few times a year when I’m on vacation), I’ve noticed that people are still of two minds when it comes to The Peace. In other other words they either (quite literally) embrace it or it’s their least favorite part of the liturgy.
You know how it goes: just before what I like to call Liturgical Halftime, the priest says “The Peace of the Lord be always with you” and the people respond “And also with you.”
I’ve worshiped in parishes where The Peace has taken so long, I could have gone out for a cup of coffee, drank it, returned, and not missed a thing. But turning it into a parish-wide love-in is surely not the point. It’s not a liturgical cocktail party where everyone mingles and greets everyone else in the entire church. On the other hand, I attended a service at St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue in New York City about 15 years ago where the priest offered The Peace, the people responded, and the liturgy just went right on without anyone moving a muscle or even glancing around at those around them. That can’t be the intention either. There must, in true Anglican fashion, be a middle way.
When the Episcopal Church transitioned from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to the current iteration dating to 1979 one of the biggest controversies surrounded The Peace. The ’28 book didn’t have it; the ’79 book did. Some loved it; some hated it; and many misunderstood it.
But contrary to popular belief, The Peace was not a new liturgical innovation. Many of the epistles conclude with a call to greet the faithful with a “kiss of peace.” And out of this history, The Peace became part of the earliest Christian liturgies. So the re-introduction of the Peace with the “new” Prayer Book was a return to one of the Church’s most ancient liturgical practices.
I always think it’s helpful to reflect on what it actually means to offer “peace” to someone. Jesus offers us peace at the very core of our souls. So when we offer one another peace in his name it’s a reminder that whatever burdens we’re carrying around, whatever pain we’re holding onto, whatever hurts we bear in our hearts; that Jesus’ presence abides. And that he will never forsake us even in our darkest moments.
But the question remains, why do we still do this? At its worst it can feel awkward and a bit forced to look a stranger in the eye and wish them the peace of the Lord. Especially for the introverts among us. But The Peace is not merely a foretaste of the coffee hour that is to come or a holy “Hey, how’re you doing?” Rather it’s a tangible reminder that we’re not in this alone. When we gather to worship God we don’t come as isolated individuals in some sort of liturgical cocoon. That might feel safe or comfortable but it’s not how we understand and experience God.
We worship using the Book of Common Prayer, so named not because it’s ordinary but because it’s a communal expression of our life and worship together. We don’t hear God’s Word in isolation and we don’t receive Communion in isolation. By exchanging The Peace with one another we are forced to confront the reality that we worship in community, not because it happens to be convenient or always easy, but because Christ gathered disciples around himself and calls us into community as well.
So the next time you offer someone The Peace remember that it’s not just any peace but the peace of the Lord. That’s the peace that abides, that’s the peace that passes all understanding, that’s the peace that unburdens the soul and allows you to rest in God’s abounding love.
But by all means, just greet the people in the surrounding pews. Don’t worry, you’ll see everyone else while stuffing your face with deviled eggs in the parish hall after the liturgy.