Prayers of the People: A 2016 Rendition

2016Last summer, the Internet started asking questions like “Is 2016 the Worst Year In History?” and compiling collections like “Tweets That Perfectly Sum Up 2016 So Far.”

I’m not usually one to catastrophize like that. But, after this past week, I toss up my hands and say yes, 2016 has lost its mind. Then, alongside the raw frustration, maybe because I’m Episcopalian and in seminary and doing a semester-long project on the spiritual discipline of lament, I toss up my hands to the Lord and say something like this (modeled after Prayers of the People, Form I):

With all our heart and with all our mind, let us pray to the Lord, saying “Lord, have mercy.”

For the 336+ Haitian souls deceased as a result of Hurricane Matthew; for the 4+ missing, 211+ injured, and 60,000+ displaced; for the mourning mother, fearful father, hungry child, and tired aid worker, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the woman who was sexually assaulted at the hands of Donald Trump and for the woman or man who hears audio bragging of the assault and recalls all too viscerally their own unwanted encounters, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the faithful LGBT-affirming InterVarsity staff worker losing or quitting his job and for the student feeling confused, alumnus feeling betrayed, and administrator feeling pressured to impossibly appease all parties, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the transgender woman fighting for dignity in her state, school, and restrooms, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the black man who fears that wherever he goes he cannot truly go in peace or safety, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For the anxious student who sleeps little, worries lots, and insists that he would rather die of shame than accept any grade lower than an A, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

For deliverance from all danger, violence, oppression, and degradation, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord, have mercy.

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.

First Things First

I am not a morning person. I would love to stay in bed as long as possible, keep to myself as much as possible. I imagine most of us would.

But, lately, I have been attempting the practice of attending morning prayer at my church, a practice that I was first introduced to while participating in the parish’s Uptown Fellows Program and which I kinda-sorta continued after program completion.

Ranjani's Communion photo

photo by Ranjani Groth

The little chapel gathering for Morning Prayer And Holy Communion convenes each morning at 8:00 am (used to be 7:30 am, which I almost never managed to make). Needless to say, at that time, I am tired.

I yawn. Sometimes a lot.

And I learn. Sometimes a lot.

I am learning to love the fact that, for the most part, the first things I hear in the morning (besides my alarm clock and the natural white noise of the world waking up) are the officiant’s opening words, an “invitatory” statement like this: “O, Lord, open thou our lips.”

The first things I say in the morning are the congregation’s response: “And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.”

The first things I consume in the morning are the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Broken for you. Shed for you.

The first motions I make with my hands are to cross myself. Up, down, side, side. The head, the heart, the whole of my being. As though trying to dedicate the whole of my day to the work and worship of God.

Of course this is all far from completely, perfectly true. In reality, I might first hear voices of worry in my head. Might say “good morning” (or something less polite perhaps) to my housemates. Might consume a cup of coffee or the morning news. Might make some other motion with my hands even while driving to the church (just kidding…mostly).

Imperfect though it is, what a holy habit this has become to practice putting first things first. To even try to hear holy things first and say sacred things first. To breathe in communion and breathe out commission.     

In philosopher James K.A. Smith’s latest book, You Are What You Love, Smith discusses the “spiritual power of habit,” asking questions like:

“What if you are defined not by what you know but by what you desire? What if the center and seat of the human person is found not in the heady regions of the intellect but in the gut-level regions of the heart? How would that change our approach to discipleship and Christian formation?”

From my experience of morning prayer, I might add to Smith’s questions another, similar one: “What do you put first?” Facebook? Food? Finances? Friends? Family?

I have put all of these first, and then some. And, to some extent, that’s alright.

But I wonder what it would look like to, more and more, literally and liturgically, in our days and in our lives, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

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.