The Rector’s Digest 2021:11
5 November 2021
Saints Zechariah and Elizabeth (1c)
Happy November, St. B’s Family —
Years ago, when I was first ordained a deacon and then a priest, I was the curate of an old Anglo-catholic Episcopal church in Washington, DC, named the Church of the Ascension & St. Agnes. I loved working at ASA — it’s where I learned to celebrate the Eucharist (my boss, Fr. Lane Davenport, and I would have “mass practice” every couple days in the weeks leading up to my ordination, and I assure you I learned more at his elbow than I did in any liturgics class in seminary). Renee and the kids and I actually lived upstairs in the parish house above the second-floor choir room for about a year in an apartment with a kitchen so tiny the refrigerator was in the living room. But that same living room hosted a group of young adults in their 20s and 30s on Wednesday nights, a group that sometimes numbered upwards of thirty souls, learning together about common prayer, the Way of Jesus, and craft cocktails.
And cheese. I remember there being quite a lot of cheese.
I’ve been thinking about Fr. Lane and ASA a good deal lately, maybe because of a conversation I remember he and I had some time before he died much too young in the summer of 2015. We were reflecting on one of my homilies, as I recall, which we did every Monday after a Sunday I’d preached. He’d give me tips, say what was good and what could be better. On this particular day Father commended me for emphasizing the love of God from the pulpit, then he said something like: “People don’t believe that, you know? People don’t really believe God loves them.” Which is why he made sure to remind our little parish family of that fact in every single sermon. To the degree I do that today, you can thank him for it, as well as for most of what I do that’s good in my role as one of your priests.
See, I believe Fr. Lane was right — people don’t believe God loves them. Know how I know? Because I don’t believe it. Not all the time, not completely, or at least my behavior would suggest as much. So when I say “God loves you” in a sermon, you can bet the words are aimed right at myself. The preacher is petitioner before she is preacher. Before he preaches, St. Augustine said, the preacher should “raise his thirsty soul to God in order that he may give forth what he drinks, that he may pour out what fills him.” So I need to really believe God loves me first if I am to bring that message to you.
That’s what I think our lives are really for, when I’m honest. All the circumstances of our lives, the most mundane little details, are all there to teach us to love. William Blake said it the way only a poet could:
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.
And you only really learn to love by example, by having been loved first. So may I share some examples I’ve picked up that have helped me along the way? Here are three I’ve found useful as lenses onto the love of God for me:
The first is kind of a trope, I know, but I still love it. It’s the parent assuring their child that they never had to accomplish anything to get the parent’s love. It’s President Bartlet telling Ellie, the daughter who thought he preferred his other two daughters to her, that “the only thing you ever had to do to make me happy is come home at the end of the day.” Or if you find WW quotes a little outdated (and if that’s the case, then how dare you?!), check out Denis Villeneuve’s lavish adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune. The story focuses on House Atreides, a noble family led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) who is fiercely devoted to his son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet). The scene I’m talking about shows up in the trailer for the movie, as well. At about the 2:24 mark, Paul says:
“Dad, what if I’m not the future of House Atreides?” Dad’s reply: “A great man doesn’t seek to lead. He’s called to it. But if your answer is ‘no,’ you’ll still be the only thing I ever needed you to be: my son.”
That’s how a father loves his child well.
A second example — I first heard this one in a sermon Tim Keller preached years ago. The phrase I remember is “the applause of heaven,” which is what Dr. Keller said our souls are made for. He said it’s like the roar of a huge crowd right at the end of a transcendent musical performance. The artist stops playing, there’s the slightest silent pause . . . then the audience just erupts in adulation. We crave that roar deep in our souls — to be fully known, and yet fully loved by God. The other day I found a recorded example — it’s the last 30 seconds of this recording of pianist Yuja Wang’s performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuala. Rachmaninoff intended the Rach 3, as it’s called, to be a way to “show-off” and dazzle audiences on his first American tour in 1909. Ask most classical pianists what the hardest song is to play, and if the Rach 3 isn’t at number 1, it’s probably in the top 5. So when Wang sticks the landing in the Finale, you can just hear the crowd exploding to its feet to roar with applause.
That’s the sound I think of when I read Zephaniah 3, when the prophet tells Israel just how God feels about them:
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
The last example is maybe my favorite. It’s St. Julian’s hazelnut. Dame Julian of Norwich was an English mystic in the Middle Ages when the whole world seemed to be coming apart at the seams. As a child she lived through the Black Death as it burned through Europe. She saw the One Hundred Years War and the Peasants’ Revolt. The church she knew was in shambles. And Dame Julian almost died from her own illness. Yet we remember her today as the author of the earliest work of English literature we know of written by a woman. Her Revelations of Divine Love is the account of a series of mystical visions, or “shewings,” she received in 1373 as a young woman only in her thirties. In chapter five, she gets to the one I’m talking about — the one about the hazel nut:
And in this [God] showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God.
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.
Julian’s vision (described well in this blog reflection) is about contingency. It tells us something about us, something about God. Julian understood that it is we who “because of littleness” might “suddenly have fallen into nothing.” I know God loves me because he made me, sure. That’s Psalm 139. But Hebrews, which we’ve been reading in worship of late, says creation isn’t just a one time thing. God “sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1.3). That means God continues to make me, second after second, moment by moment. God loves me and you that much! We last and ever shall because of the love of God.
Remember — You’re a daughter, you’re a son.
You’re a hazel nut.
God’s crazy about you and heaven applauds you every day.
I think St. Julian got that, and it’s why she could confidently say “All manner of thing shall be well.” That confidence, that trust in the sustaining love of God, changes everything. When you’ve got it in your pocket, you can be wrong. You can lose with grace. And one day you can even die with great dignity (as my friend Fr. Lane did with courage and hope).
So smile — God loves you (and me)!
And lastly — the latest
If you find yourself by a fire this weekend, let me tell you what I’ve been up to of late:
- Reading: It’s not what I’m reading now (that’s the first volume William Gibson’s “Jackpot Trilogy,” The Peripheral, about a slow-motion “mundane cataclysm of modernity itself”) but two books I’m getting ready to start. The first is Philip Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing About Grace.” Renee’s and my LifeGroup is revisiting this old favorite in anticipation of Yancey’s visit to St. B’s for a weekend next February! And the second I plan to start at the turn of the year. In 2017, Gail Pitt (friend-of-the-parish) published a little book called “First We Were Loved” that has been sitting on my desk for months now. Gail says St. Ignatius of Loyola recommended everyone spend at least two years — sometimes three — contemplating sacred scripture’s account of God’s love for us. First We Were Loved includes scriptures for every day of the year along with instructions for prayer and inspirational quotes. I’ll be starting it Jan. 1, and you can find a copy of the book (laid out by our very own Director of Community Life, Sally Chambers-Rhea!) on the Dovehouse Ministries website.
- Watching: Been down a YouTube hole lately. There’s so much cool obscure stuff on there! I’ve long been fascinated with Mt. Athos, but the closest I’ll ever get (because of the lack of hot water and the rumors of bedbugs and mosquitoes) is likely a clip like this one from a trip 60 Minutes took to the peninsula in 2011. Also take a second to watch this clip about Rev. Becca Steven’s new book and Thistle Farms on GMA — there’s a little shot of St. Bartholomew’s in the B roll.
- Listening: Really just one band. In anticipation of the release of “Kid A Mnesia” today (the 5th of November ain’t just for “gunpowder, treason and plot” anymore), it’s pretty much a constant rotation of “Kid A” and (what’s maybe my favorite album) “Amnesiac” in my office this week.
- And practicing: Fr. Mark the Confessor has me experimenting this week in prayer. I set an alarm on my phone (in airplane mode, of course), then just pray. My only prompt: “Jesus, where do you want me to go in prayer today? Holy Spirit, guide me.” I’ll let you know how that goes. What’s the worst that can happen?
As always, thank you for reading. Hope you enjoy the extra hour of sleep we get tomorrow night and that you’ll join us at St. B’s to celebrate All Saints Sunday! God bless you —