Door of Hope: A Photo Essay

From last week’s lectionary readings:

“Therefore, I will now allure her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
From there I will give her her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Achor* a door of hope.
There she shall respond as in the days of her youth,
as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.”
~ Hosea 2:14-15

*Achor = trouble, struggle. So, yes, you might say God will “make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope.”

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St. John’s College (Santa Fe, NM)

They say “when God closes a door, He opens another one.” Or maybe this: “When God closes a door, He opens a window.”

But, I’ve started to think of it this way: “When God closes a door, She opens a paint bucket and builds some beauty.” God makes beauty out of boring, color out of chaos, veritable art out of valleys of Achor.

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Church of the Incarnation (Dallas, TX)

A little late afternoon light reaching through a darkened door, making possible a stained glass window prayer? Telling us where in the world we are? Door of hope.

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Duke University Chapel (Durham, NC)

A wash of morning light moving slowly over a threshold, marking the passage of time? Telling us when in the day we are? Door of hope.

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Church of the Holy Family (Chapel Hill, NC)

A church door red as the blood of the lamb that was slain, as though all who dwell there might be marked by mercy and life while sin and death pass by? Telling us who and whose we are? Yes. What a door of hope.

 

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Sacrament at the Soul of Me

I grew up at a Baptist church receiving Communion seemingly whenever the senior pastor felt like offering it, which probably amounted to once a quarter. Ushers would pass heavy silver trays up and down the pews — a tray of wafers followed by a tray of little, thimble-sized plastic cups of grape juice. It seemed like snack time to my seven-year-old sensibilities.

06-2015-laity-lodge-02I don’t know exactly when the sacrament became something more than snack time. But it certainly has.

When I visited and joined an Episcopal church at age 22, I started receiving Communion once a week. It was the focal point of the Sunday service, as opposed to the music or sermon, which I have seen centralized and even quite frankly sensationalized in some settings.

When I interned at and worked at that Episcopal church, I started receiving Communion multiple times a week, because the parish offered the sacrament typically every Monday-Friday in conjunction with morning prayer.

Eventually, I started hungering for it. Just a few months ago, when I was away from home and from my home church one Sunday,  I noticed the hungering for it and semi-jokingly told a friend traveling with me: “I think I’m having Eucharist withdrawal!”

It’s not a physical hunger. Because, let’s be real; that’s best satiated with some Sunday brunch after church.

It’s a spiritual hunger. The hungry searching of a weary swimmer grasping for a buoy. The “hangry” searching of a tired traveler scanning airport corridors for some trustworthy sustenance. Subway and Starbucks are my airport go-tos. Bread and wine are my life’s go-tos.    

The comparison of Eucharist to fast food chains is a pale comparison indeed. But what I mean is this: it’s a source of constancy. I remember the relief of finding a Subway at the Toronto airport during a layover once, tucked away among all the unfamiliarities of poutine and ketchup-flavored potato chips. I remember the warm comfort of sipping Starbucks at the Charlotte airport during many a layover when I used to travel periodically between Texas and Virginia. Travel where I may, these edible anchors would be there, offering much the same menu each time and at each location.

Having recently moved halfway across the country, I find that Communion is an edible anchor too, offering “much the same menu” upon each reception. Maybe a thin, round wafer or a piece of sweet, soft bread. Maybe juice, usually wine. Always “the gifts of God for the people of God.”

When I receive nowadays, I go back to my seat and might recall fondly other times I have received. I might recall a quiet Jesuit retreat center in North Texas or an Anglican mission church in Belize. I might recall that home parish that first taught me to cherish Communion, glance at my watch, and realize that even across time zones they’re eating and drinking of the same body and blood at about this same time.

I might recall the time last summer when my grandma’s 94th birthday was approaching and I arranged to give her Communion for her birthday. As I told my mentor-priest: She really doesn’t need anything else, and I really can’t offer anything else. So, come Sunday, she wheeled her walker into the sanctuary, sat on the edge of a pew, fell asleep twice during the sermon (sorry, preacher), and watched as I served the chalice to countless parishioners more ambulatory than herself. Finally, a priest gestured to me to follow him out to the pew where Grandma sat. He leaned over, handed her “the body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” and stepped back into the aisle. I stepped forward, making eye contact with this white-haired woman of God who has thus far been around all my life but who cannot possibly continue to be around all my life. I held out “the blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” she warily dipped her wafer in, and promptly dropped it. I looked at my priest, who shrugged, and I fished the wine-soaked wafer out of the chalice and placed it in her thin, receptive hands.

Later, we laughed about the awkwardness of that Communion.

Much later, I would cry about the gift of that Communion.

When so many things change, move, age, and even pass away, the Lord does not. For me, Communion attests to this.

Because, a thousand miles away from some of my closest family and friends, the continuity of Communion over time and space tells me that the Lord provides for those family and friends. I have done and will keep doing all that I humanly can to care for them, but ultimately the Lord will provide. And, Communion tells me that the Lord provides for me too. Travel where I may, this edible anchor will be there. Thanks be to God.    

In a Foreign Land

“How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” – Psalm 137:4

IMG_3085I recently moved to the foreign land of North Carolina. To be sure, I am no Israelite in exile, for I chose to move here of my own free will, accompanied by all the familiar belongings that would fit in my car, a few familiar faces, and countless familiar chain restaurants (God bless Cracker Barrel).

But there is a foreign-ness to be faced nonetheless. New roads to roam, grocery stores and gas stations and pharmacies to track down, and — most interestingly in my opinion — churches to visit. Churches that remind me of home just enough to turn my slightly-homesick heart into a gumbo of gratitude and grief over what was and is and is no longer in my life at this point in time. Churches that make me wonder: “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”

Apparently, we shall check and double-check church websites, take the wrong exit off the highway, arrive nearly ten minutes late, and eventually slip into the back pew.

We shall study the bulletin and juggle it with the hymnal, Book of Common Prayer, and Bible with all the clumsiness of a court jester.

We shall see a bespectacled gentleman who reminds us of our own beloved priest back home and a young family with two boisterous blonde boys who remind us of a young family back home — a family that almost always sat in the pew in front of us, their own boisterous blonde boys squirming and saying “peas be with you” at the appropriate time.

We shall close our eyes and click the heels of our Sunday shoes three times, thinking “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

We shall receive bread into our open hands and wine to our waiting lips and think, first, like a pouting three-year-old that it tastes nothing like we’re used to and, second, that it feels everything like we’re used to — like sitting as we do so many Sundays “at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out freely, shared by all” (Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion).

We shall be grateful for that bread and wine, that one old hymn we recognized, that one priest who offered a handshake and a helpful “Hi, are you new here?” on the way out.

We shall drink coffee and meet parishioners, who in turn introduce us to more parishioners, whose names we can’t keep straight and who make us long for the many names and lives we know (knew?) so well back home.

Finally, we shall drive home wondering what home even means.

And, if we listen we shall hear Jesus say:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

We who are homesick, who wander and wonder, who miss things and mourn things — we shall be home with Christ and in Christ both now and forever.

Happy (Still) Easter

I know, I know. Easter blogs were supposed to happen a month ago.

It’s not that I procrastinated exactly (although maybe I did). It’s just that it’s still Easter. And that’s fascinating to me. As I’ve settled into the relatively-new-to-me rhythms of the Episcopal tradition perhaps more than ever this year, I’ve noticed the continuation of Eastertide in some little day-to-day ways.

There’s the old wooden sign at the front of the IMG_2208church that keeps insisting it’s Easter even
though the now chocolate-less children and the Hallmark stores would beg to differ. Easter 1, Easter 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. It goes on and on, week by week, rolling in over us like the waves of an Easter tide (that’s what they call it after all: Eastertide).

There’s the “alleluia” that we say during the liturgy, nice and noticeable now after skipping the “alleluia” during the more somber season of Lent. Sometimes the prayer book even tells us to say “alleluia” two or three times — like when my housemates and I pray compline on Sunday nights and, laughing a little, they say alleluia-alleluia-alleluia as though it’s a tongue twister. It comes out more hurried than holy sometimes, but it makes me happy nonetheless.

Finally, the other day, the nice maintenance man IMG_2273who mows our yard removed the cross from out front — the chipboard cross that was handed out at church during Holy Week to adorn our homes for a season — and placed it gently on the porch, out of the way of his yard work. I thought about bringing the cross inside that day, picked it up, noticed the soft earth appropriately sullying the bottom of the cross. But, that’s the moment when I started thinking about all this Easter season stuff, started thinking about how Christ is still risen and how maybe I should remember that and show the world that just a little longer, and stuck the cross right back into the ground.

He is still risen.

It’s not just that “he arose” in the past tense. It’s that “he is risen” in the present continuous tense (I think that’s the tense? God might be breaking grammar rules in this case. But I’ll forgive Him.) It’s the mystery of the faith that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” — past, present, and future.

As for right now? We’re in the present. And Christ is absolutely present. Not just for one day but for many days, for every day, and for the everyday.

How to Decide What to Give Up for Lent

Confession: I just Googled “what to give up for Lent.”

The almighty Google offered links to some decent advice, for instance in this blog by a Catholic youth ministry and even in this BuzzFeed quiz (go ahead, give it a shot).

But here’s the thing I have to remind myself about the almighty Google: it’s not actually almighty. And it certainly doesn’t know me. It’s not that powerful and it’s not that personal. The Lord, however, is powerful and personal.

So, first and foremost, take the question of “what to give up for Lent” directly to the Lord.

In prayer, reflect on resources like these:

1. The temptations Jesus himself faced in the wilderness (Mark 4:1-11) — temptations to provide for himself, take pride in himself, and have power for himself. Consider: Do you ever think you couldn’t possibly live without ample provisions, praise from others, or positions of power? That you need something that maybe you don’t actually need?

Sometimes these habits are so ingrained in us that it’s hard to think in abstract terms and may be easier to think in concrete terms. So, think of it this way: When you’re a bit stressed, what do you turn to? Chocolate, ice cream, alcohol, TV, social media, sex, and the list could go on. These things are inherently good. But they’re not God. The problem is that we turn things like chocolate and Netflix into God when we think we need them — when we turn to them before turning to God. (Case in point: my turning to Google before turning to God today. Maybe I should give up Google for Lent…we’ll see.)

What’s more, these things we turn to can be mind-numbing rather than life-giving. When turning to them, we say we’re vegging, chilling, “tuning out.” I’ve been doing this a lot; just ask my roommates. This Lent, I’m hoping to seek less of the mind-numbing and more of the life-giving.

2. The 7 deadly sins — pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, lust. I used to think of the 7 deadly sins as cliched and even comical, maybe because I read Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus twice in college. They seemed like such grandiose sins that I could suppose I’m not a total lazy bum or gluttonous pig, so I’m off the hook. But, life and liturgy and especially my church’s “examination of conscience” pamphlet based around the 7 deadly sins have made me re-envision these sins as concrete realities in our day-to-day lives.

According to one “examination of conscience,” pride includes failure to worship God, trust God, pay attention to God (e.g. through prayer and study), glorify God through work and daily life, and steward generously what God’s given me by giving to others. Envy includes maliciousness, contempt, annoyance when others are praised, and pleasure at others’ misfortunes. Anger includes cruelty and hostility, prejudice and bigotry, rudeness and nagging, pouting, disrespect, insensitivity, and refusing to pray for or do good to those I feel are my “enemies.” Sloth includes neglecting or putting off social and moral responsibility, ignoring the needy or those “difficult to get along with,” spending too much time on self-entertainment. Avarice includes idealizing “the good life,” IMG_1282patronizing others, stealing, cheating, and giving bribes. Gluttony includes over-indulging in food and drink, as well as neglecting healthy disciplines of rest and exercise. Lust includes ingratitude or disrespect for the holy way in which God created us after his own image, unfaithfulness to my partner, sexual exploitation, and immodesty.

That sounds like a lot. And it is.

Just see which 1-2 stand out to you and let that be a deciding factor in what you give up for Lent. Spending too much time on self-entertainment? Maybe try less Netflix for 40 days. Over-indulging in food and drink? Maybe try less of a particular type of food or drink.

Get creative with your Lenten practice.

And, above all, get connected through your Lenten practice to the God who is far more powerful and personal than Google, Netflix, chocolate, and all else that we turn to.