Monday, August 22, 2011

School Year Blessing

(For a couple years now, we have been doing a Blessing of the Backpacks the Sunday before school starts.)

We are a church that believes in blessing. God blessed Abraham so he and his descendants could in turn be a blessing to all nations. God blessed Solomon, one of Abraham's descendants, with wisdom. God sent his son, Jesus Christ, as his Living Word, the embodiment of his wisdom and love, to bless the whole world through his teachings and through his life, death and resurrection. Jesus sent his disciples, his students, to go into the whole world and make others into students of his. And now we ask all students to come forward, bring your backpacks in you have them, and we will ask God’s blessing upon them and upon you.

Lord God, whose Son was a teacher and whose students wrote down his words and works for our benefit, we ask your blessing upon these backpacks and upon the students who carry them. Fill them both with the knowledge of your creation. And fill these students with the wisdom to understand and use that knowledge for good. May they learn not only facts but values as well. May they learn not only by hearing and reading but by doing.

Lord, give them good teachers who will not only provide them with knowledge but lead them to love learning and discover how to keep learning all their lives.

Lord, give them good friends who will teach them the joys of companionship, the strength of having faithful friends and the value of being a good friend to others.

Lord, give them good experiences that will teach them their strengths and their weaknesses and give them the tools to work on each.

Lord, give them the support and example of loving and wise parents, who show them the benefits of discipline and hard work, of study and the mastery of skills.

Lord, give them the resources of your church that they might learn of your Son, your love, your wisdom and your goodness through words, songs, activities and the life of a community of people following Jesus. May they learn what is right and what is wrong and how to tell the deference.

Bless them in the name of your Son our Savior, Jesus Christ, and through the power of your Holy Spirit, who live and reign with you, Father, one God, forever and ever. AMEN.

Take your back packs and your gifts.

If the teachers will now come forward.

Lord God, whose Son invested most of his ministry in teaching others, we ask your blessing on those who have been called to teach.

Lord, give them good minds to absorb and understand what they need to impart.

Lord, give them the words they need in every instance, whether to break down a complicated subject into easier to grasp parts, or to encourage and inspire their students to achieve more than they thought possible.

Lord, give them understanding hearts that they may discern any impediments that any given child has to learning and help them overcome it, or know who or what program can give them what they need.

Lord, give them plenty of time to rest and replenish themselves so they have the energy and resources they need to tackle the tasks you have set them.

Lord, give them the support of family, friends and fellow followers of Jesus, so they may know that they are much admired and not alone in their endeavors.

Lord, let them see at least the first fruits of their labor, children excited about learning and showing increasing mastery of their subjects, so that they may know that what they do is just as real and vital as any material thing anyone ever crafted. And they are shaping the future by shaping generations with their work.

Bless them in the name of your Son our Savior, Jesus Christ, and through the power of your Holy Spirit, who live and reign with you, Father, one God, forever and ever. AMEN.

The Gospel According to Hogwarts

Warning: Spoilers if you haven't read/seen "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

I started reading the Harry Potter books after reading a review that compared them favorably to the Narnia Chronicles. And once into them, I noticed that, while they were definitely fantasy, they also partook of the sub-genre of British Boarding School novels. The most famous is "Tom Brown's Schooldays." I can't summarize the tropes of this type of book better than the entry in Wikipedia does: "It focuses largely on friendship, honor and loyalty between pupils. Furthermore plots involving sports events, bullies, romance and bravery are often used to shape the school story." That pretty much describes the Harry Potter novels, doesn't it?

There have been objections in Christian circles to the novels because of the magic involved. My response is that this has nothing to do with the real world witchcraft that the Bible condemns. There is no calling up of demons or invocation of gods or goddesses in order to accomplish one's will. The people in the Potter universe are either born magical or not, and their powers manifest themselves somewhere around their teens, rather like the X-men. If you are a muggle, you cannot use magic. If you are a wizard or witch, you already have magical powers and need not make deals with devils or gods. Hogwarts, like Professor Xavier's school, merely teaches these kids to use their powers properly. And the most important lessons learned by the people in the novels are moral. The morals are specifically Christian.

Traditionally there are 7 chief virtues. Four are called the cardinal virtues and were recognized by all people, Christian or pagan: wisdom, fairness, moderation and courage. You see examples of all of them in the Potter series. The wisest characters are Dumbledore and Hermione. Harry has a strong sense of justice or fairness, though Hermione is one of the few who sees that the wizarding world has mistreated other magical folks, like the house elves. Hermione and Ron are always urging moderation or self-restraint upon Harry, who is a bit of a hothead and whose impetuousness does, in a sense, lead to the death of his godfather, Sirius Black. And several characters are courageous, perhaps most of all Severus Snape, who is a double agent for Dumbledore and pays dearly for it. In his years at Hogwarts, Harry learns a lot from these people and comes of age early, another trope of this genre.

As we said, all people value the 4 cardinal virtues. But the 3 theological virtues are uniquely Judeo-Christian: faith, hope and love. If non-believers value them today, it is because these virtues have become part of the culture due to the influence of Christianity over the last 1700 years. And when I recognized that these virtues were the linchpin of J.K. Rowling's saga, I strongly suspected that she was writing a Christian story. Let's look at each of the these virtues closely, both by themselves and as part of the novels.

Faith is not merely a vague, unfounded feeling that all will turn out well. Faith is trust and trust has to have an object. You trust your car to get you to work. You trust your parents to have your wellbeing in mind when they make decisions that will affect you. You trust your doctor when he tells you what you must do to avoid illness or to get better. Of course, your faith in any of these can be shattered. In a fallen world trust is difficult. That's why in Christianity it is a virtue, a conscious moral stance you take. At some point, you have to choose whether to trust God or not. And if you do so, you choose to rely on him even in the face of events that have a negative impact on your life. Making that choice is virtuous.

In the Harry Potter world, the person whom the good guys trust is Dumbledore. When Dolores Umbridge takes over the school, Harry forms like-minded classmates into a group called Dumbledore's Army. It is Dumbledore's wisdom and goodness that causes Harry to trust him. He later finds out that Dumbledore has been watching over him throughout his life, often through agents like Mrs. Figg, the cat lady who gave Harry chores to do as he grew up with the Dursleys. Even his placement with his aunt's family was done by Dumbledore to protect him from his enemies. Harry continues to trust Dumbledore even though he finds out the headmaster knew about the prophesy that Harry and Voldemort could not both continue to live and knew from the time Harry was an infant. Harry trusts Dumbledore to the extent that he is able to face his death as Dumbledore did his, in order to destroy Voldemort.

The opposite of faith is fear. Without trust, all that is left is uncertainty. Uncertainty is a terrible state in which to live. I know of someone who adopted the 3 year old child of addicts. When she fed the child, it not only ate hungrily, but hoarded and hid food. The child's early experience was that being fed was not a certainty. Fear of not being fed again led it to keep some food in hiding just in case. The child had to learn to trust its new mother.

Fear is what motivates Voldemort. He fears death above all and he trusts no one but himself. Fear of him is what binds his followers, more than anything else. Many of mankind's sorrows come from fear. Fear of others can lead to hatred and rage and isolation. If someone hates a group of people, it is because on some level they fear them. In the Potter universe, certain wizards fear what they call "mud bloods," magical folk born to muggle parents. It is telling that Voldemort's father was a muggle, paralleling the historical question of whether Hitler's grandfather was Jewish. Rowling says Voldemort thinks of death as a human weakness, so one can see why he hates muggles and wants only pureblooded wizards.

Fear of loss can lead to greed. A person who hoards can never have enough. We have seen the devastation that fear and greed have wrought in the world. Ironically, it is because money is basically a symbol of trust. Now the world is unsure whether the richest nation in the world will always pay its debts. It is afraid that the Euro and the dollar will not retain their value and so the markets resemble a very scary rollercoaster. Only the restoration of faith will calm the financial world in which we have ourselves put too much trust. This is an example of why it is silly to say "it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you believe in it sincerely." Not all things are worthy objects of our trust. In the Potter universe, it is wise to trust in Dumbledore. In the real world, it is wise to trust in God.

The second theological virtue, hope, is the future tense of faith. It is the belief that one's trust will be rewarded. It is the belief that the bad things in our past need not dictate our future. In Christianity it is the trust that the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ will fulfill his promises, to redeem us and restore the world to what he intended it to become when he first created it and pronounced it good.

In the Potter universe, that hope rests in Harry. He is the "boy who lived" when Voldemort intended him to die. The spell rebounded on the evil wizard almost killing him. Harry's survival is for the magical community a sign of hope. It is interesting that Harry's greatest fear, manifested when confronted by a boggart, is a Dementor. The effect of the Dementor's Kiss is the loss of all joy, all hope, in other words, despair. Despair is the opposite of hope.

Again, in Christian ethics, hope is a conscious moral choice. Strictly speaking, one cannot know the future. But by choosing to hope, to believe in the triumph of God's goodness and justice over evil, one is taking a moral stance. You are choosing sides. By giving in to despair, by giving up, you are choosing to be part of the problems that afflict this world, either actively or passively. By choosing hope, and acting on it, you are part of the solution to the ills of the world. When learning of the prophesy that neither he or Voldemort can survive together in this world, Harry could have succumbed to despair. In fact, that is what kept Dumbledore from telling Harry about the prophesy earlier. He did not want to dash his hopes. But the prophesy is ambiguous. Does it mean only one can live or that neither can? Does it require the death of one, or of both? Harry chooses hope.

The final and greatest of the theological virtues is love. And by this, we do not mean just any kind of love. We mean the divine love most perfectly manifested in Jesus' sacrifice of himself to save humanity. Self-sacrificial love is the heart of the Harry Potter saga. In the very first book we learn that it was the self-sacrificial love of Harry's mother that caused Voldemort's killing spell to backfire. It protects him over and over and it is something Voldemort does not understand. Because of his fear of death, the evil wizard cannot conceive of sacrificing himself for another person. But Harry puts himself in harm's way again and again to save his friends. In the Chamber of Secrets, he nearly dies to save Ginny. He himself is saved by the healing tears of Fawkes, the phoenix. And you can be sure that J.K. Rowling knows that the phoenix, which dies and is reborn, is an ancient symbol of Christ. It could be a symbol of the entire Harry Potter series.

In the last book, Harry realizes that when Voldemort tried to kill Harry as an infant, he inadvertently made the child a horcrux instead. Murdering Harry's parents splintered the wizard's soul and a small part entered Harry. Voldemort had been using this evil method to hide bits of his soul in various objects, to secure a kind of immortality. Harry and others in the Order of the Phoenix had tried to destroy these horcruxes so that Voldemort would be mortal. Now Harry must die so that Voldemort can be killed and the world saved from his evil. While this is not the first time Harry faces death, it is the first time he will do so without the intention of fighting back. He goes like a lamb to the slaughter, trusting that Dumbledore was right and hoping that the world will be better for his sacrifice. As it says in John 15:13, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Harry Potter puts up his wand and lets Voldemort kill him.

The whole series is leading up to this. My daughter and I anticipated it and were worried that Harry would win a Pyrrhic victory. Rowling's books, while replete with Christian ethics, were silent on its theology. When Sirius Black dies, Harry is frustrated by the silence of the grave and its finality. There seems to be no way to bring back the dead. So Harry along with the reader is surprised to find him conscious and in some sense alive immediately after Voldemort pronounces the killing curse. He finds himself in what appears to be the train station at King's Cross, probably the most blatant symbolism in the series. There he talks to the deceased Dumbledore and it is revealed that he can return to his body if he chooses. The spell simply destroyed the sliver of Voldemort's soul hidden in Harry.

Harry does return, of course. And here I want to draw attention to another virtue we find in the Potter tales: mercy. In their confrontation in the Room of Requirement, Harry saves his adversary Draco Malfoy from a fiery death. When Harry returns to life, he finds that it is Malfoy's mother who is bending over him, checking that he is dead for Voldemort. Noticing that he is in fact alive again, she whispers, "Is Draco alive? Is he in the castle?" Harry lets her know he is and she lies to the dark wizard, telling him Harry is dead. This allows Harry to get the drop on Voldemort. Again and again Harry shows mercy, to Dobby the house elf, to his opponents in the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and to Draco. And in most instances, it is repaid. In this instance, it enables Harry to end the evil of Voldemort.

Harry Potter, like the main protagonists in the Lord of the Rings, like Neo in the Matrix, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like Aslan in the Narnia Chronicles, is an archetypal Christ figure, one whose self-sacrifice saves others. Unlike Aslan, Harry is not divine, nor does he foresee what he must do. In that way, he is like us. Rowlings intimates that either Harry or Neville Longbottom could have fulfilled the prophesy. Ironically, by choosing to attack Harry, Voldemort marked him as the chosen one. So, too, extraordinary circumstances may make one of us the ordinary person who must step up to the plate and make a fateful decision or a loving sacrifice. Or we may, like Neville, find ourselves faced with the less central but equally important task of helping and supporting others in their mission. Neville uses the sword of Gryffindor to dispatch another horcrux, without which Harry would not have succeeded in freeing everyone from Voldemort's evil reign.

Indeed, the final virtue celebrated throughout the books is that of a community that helps and supports each member as they strive to do good. Harry could not have won were it not for Hermione, Ron, Ginny, and their family, Professor McGonigle, Moaning Myrtle, Dobby, Professor Lupin, Tonks, Dumbledore and even Snape. They are bound by their faith in Dumbledore, the hope Harry represents and their love for each other. In this, they parallel the Body of Christ, the community bound by our trust in God, our hope in Christ and our fellowship in the Holy Spirit of the Divine Love that made us and redeems us and sustains us. May we, like the good students of Hogwarts, keep alive and practice these virtues as we go out into a world that, though lacking in fictitious magic, is suffused with the wondrous works of our great, good and wise God.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


The lectionary reading I'm referring to is Genesis 45:1-15. But read the whole story of Joseph starting in Genesis 37.

The classic tale of revenge is "The Count of Monte Cristo." Edmond Dantes is a merchant sailor who has risen to the rank of captain and thus can marry his fiancée, Mercedes. A romantic rival, a jealous junior officer, and a prosecutor with a secret frame Dantes as a traitor and he is sent to an island prison. There he befriends a fellow prisoner, Abbe Faria, the Mad Priest, who gives Dantes an extensive education and tells him of a fabulous treasure hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. When the priest dies, Dantes escapes in his body bag as it is dumped into the sea. Rescued by smugglers, he makes his way to Monte Cristo, finds the treasure and returns to France after 2 decades. He finds out that his father died in poverty, all of his rivals are rich and one has married his fiancée.

Using his wealth and the purchased title of the Count of Monte Cristo, Dantes manipulates markets and lives to exact his revenge. He manages to destroy his enemies but when the son of one of his adversaries dies, Dantes must reassess his plan of vengeance. He forgives one of his enemies and salvages the lives of some of their children.

Once considered the most popular novel in Europe, The Count of Monte Cristo has provided a model for most action movies. Even if the hero is a cop, sworn to enforce the law objectively, the villain usually does something--kills the hero's partner or kidnaps his girlfriend or child--that changes the dynamic of his relationship with the hero. He makes it personal, a matter of revenge for the hero, even more than justice.

The story of Joseph is almost the opposite of the Count of Monte Cristo. It's too bad that our lectionary jumps from the beginning of the tale to the end. It is one of the most compelling stories in the Bible.

When we first meet Joseph, he is a bit of a brat. He is not shy about sharing his dreams, the interpretation of which always seems to be about his parents and brothers bowing down to him. And it doesn't endear him to his brothers--technically, half-brothers--when their father Israel gives Joseph a coat with long sleeves, signifying his favor and authority. So when their father sends Joseph out to check on them, they are thinking very unfraternal thoughts.

Some want to kill him. But Reuben, the eldest, talks them out of it. The compromise is that they throw him in a pit, a humiliating enough act on the brother who would be their lord. Reuben plans to rescue Joseph later. But while their oldest brother is absent, the rest sell Joseph to a caravan. They take his coat, the hated symbol of his authority, and smear it with goat's blood, telling their father that he was killed by a wild animal. Hearing that the elder of his two sons by Rachel, his favorite and late wife, is gone, Israel is devastated.

Joseph is taken to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh. Joseph works his way up to the overseer of the household. But when he spurns the advances of Potiphar's wife, she accuses him of attempted rape and Joseph is thrown into prison. Again he works his way up to the jailer's number one trustee. He meets 2 disgraced figures from Pharaoh's court, his baker and his cupbearer. They have dreams, which Joseph interprets. One will be restored to favor with Pharaoh; one will be executed. It works out exactly as Joseph says, but the reprieved cupbearer forgets about Joseph until the Pharaoh has a series of disturbing dreams. Joseph is sent for and he sees the dreams as a warning that after 7 good harvests, Egypt will endure 7 years of drought and famine. Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of saving the surplus from the bountiful years to offset the years of famine.

When the drought hits, even the land of Canaan is affected. So Israel sends his sons to Egypt to buy grain. He keeps Benjamin, the youngest and Rachel's remaining son, at home. While his brothers are buying grain, Joseph recognizes them. But after all the years, and in his Egyptian finery, they don't recognize him. With all his power, he could get his revenge now.

And he does seem to be going there. He accuses the brothers of being foreign spies and puts them in jail for 3 days. This gives him an excuse to question them and test their loyalty to each other. He takes Simeon as a hostage till they return with their youngest brother, Benjamin. But they do not offer to buy back Simeon with, say, food. Joseph sends then back home with grain and, unbeknownst to them, their money.

Israel is dismayed when they return minus another of his sons. And when they find their money in with the grain, they are afraid to return, lest they be accused of being thieves as well as spies. But the famine persists and they must go back. The only way to get Israel to let them take Benjamin is for Judah to guarantee his safety.

Back in Egypt, Joseph wines and dines his brothers. They explain about the mix up last time and offer the money back. Joseph says it must have been the work of God. Joseph is especially interested in their youngest brother. Which makes it odd that this time, he not only has their money planted in their saddle bags, but also has his gold cup planted in Benjamin's bag. After they leave, he has them arrested, brought back and threatens to make the thief his slave. When the cup turns up in Benjamin's bag, the brothers, in contrast to what they did with Joseph, will not give him up. Judah pleads with Joseph, offering himself in place of Benjamin. Because, he says, he cannot bear to bring more suffering upon his father.

Which brings us to our reading for today. Joseph cannot contain himself anymore. He sends his staff out and reveals his identity to his brothers. And he reveals something else: that he doesn't hold anything against his brothers. He sees God's hand in his life. How otherwise would the son of a herdsman become the second most powerful man in a foreign empire and thus save the lives of his family?

I think that this must have been a recent realization for him. He would have been very busy just keeping the people of Egypt from starving and until his brothers showed up, he may not have known if and how the famine was affecting them. It's not like he could get worldwide news and weather reports on his iPhone. There must have been other Canaanite refugees coming to Egypt, but for all he knew, his nomadic family may have migrated back East. But when he saw them, it all clicked into place. "Of course! This is why God put me here: to save my family."

It must have been a persistent question that haunted him on dark nights. Why is this happening to me? He couldn't have foreseen this particular situation, not in the pit while his brothers argued over killing him, nor in jail on a false charge of rape, nor after the cupbearer had forgotten to mention him to Pharaoh immediately after his restoration. He might have clung to those earlier dreams of his family bowing down to him. Surely, that meant things would get better and that he would see them again. But as the years stretched on, that dream would fade a bit, get hazier, lose its emotional impact. Even when he rose to his position under Pharaoh, the literal fulfillment might have seemed farfetched. If he encountered his family, they would bow to his title and authority. But would that ever really happen?

And when it does, Joseph is no longer the brat who relishes his position of superiority. Sure, there's a bit of payback in the games he plays with them. Joseph is not perfect. And we are told that Egyptians do not usually eat with Hebrews. Joseph may have been cautious to reveal that he was a Hebrew. But basically, the stratagem is to see his whole family again, especially his only full brother and his father. And to see if his brothers have changed. They have. Having seen their father's grief over Joseph, they cannot subject him to that again. They even see their present problems as punishment for what they did to Joseph.

And though Joseph forgives his brothers, he is under no illusion that they didn't mean it when they threw him in the pit. After the death of his father, the brothers are afraid that the last reason Joseph hasn't had revenge on them is gone. But in Genesis 50, Joseph reassures them, saying, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today." Joseph was not God. He did not presume to pass final judgment on his brothers. God had his reasons and Joseph saw that all things had worked together for good, for Egypt, for his family and even for himself. His job was not to condemn but to save lives. So Joseph forgives a very real wrong done to him.

Many see in Joseph a foreshadowing of Jesus. He too is the favored son, rejected by his brothers, who faces death, goes down to the pit (a favorite Old Testament term for Sheol, the place of the dead), whose miraculous rise and vindication brings salvation to all who come to him for sustenance. And as his followers, we may be called upon to suffer for the greater good. We may not see in this life the good our suffering brings. After all, Moses did not enter the promised land. But if we trust in God and his goodness, we can be assured that he has a plan and he will succeed and we will hear him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your Master."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Before I preach I say a short prayer: "May be the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer." It's the last verse of Psalm 19. Because of the promotion of Transcendental Meditation since the 1970s, if you use the term "meditation" nowadays people are apt to picture someone sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, and possibly chanting softly a word like "Om." But that stereotypical visual represents but one member of the family of practices called "meditation" which are found in every faith tradition. It generally involves focused concentration on one thing to the exclusion of all other thought. It may be a concept, a word, one's breathing, or the present moment. The object is often an altered state of mind or mode of perception.

This month's slip from the sermon suggestion box asks us to contrast and compare meditation and prayer. It also asks if they vary between Christianity and other religions.

In the Bible the word "meditation" appears most frequently in the Psalms. The object of meditation is almost always God's nature or deeds or law. In these instances, meditation is used in the original sense of "deep thought." The object is not to empty the mind or attain an emotional state but to gain insight and wisdom. However, the effect on the person meditating is often a sense of awe or delight or peace.

Meditation in this sense is not so much ritual as reflection. It can be a rational exercise: ie, If God is love, what follows logically from that? Or it can be simply turning an idea or verse over and over in one's mind, examining it as one would an object with many sides or facets. How many facets are there to the idea that God created everything? What additional insight does each facet add to our understanding? How do the various facets relate to each other or modify our perception of the whole? Or, realizing that all language about God is metaphorical, one can meditate on what a particular metaphor in scripture reveals about God. The Bible speaks of God as father. How far does the metaphor go and at what point does it break down? Another type of reflection is on the practical implications of a verse or passage. If we are to love our enemies, how do we go about doing that?

But do Christians ever use meditation in the sense that other traditions do, as a mental activity not governed by rigorous logic or with a sharply articulated goal? Zen Buddhists may focus on an imponderable riddle called a koan, such as the famous "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Muslims may meditate on the 99 names of Allah. Some consider saying the Rosary is a form of Christian meditation, and in addition to the Roman Catholic rosary, there are now other versions, including an Anglican one. In Eastern Orthodoxy an aid to meditation since the 4th century has been the Jesus Prayer. In its simplest form it goes like this: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." This can be said over and over. One can emphasize a different word each time and hear how the meaning subtly shifts.

In the case of both the Jesus Prayer and the Rosary, the meditation is also a form of prayer. It is a way of communicating with God and of God communicating with us. As we contemplate the words, new meanings and nuances emerge and resonate in our minds and hearts. Simple words and phrases take on unexpected depths. You may feel as if you are hearing familiar words for the first time.

Unlike yoga, Christian meditation has no set of positions to hold. But finding a time and place that's quiet is optimal for concentration. This may have been easier when these contemplative disciplines were developed in the monasteries, with set times for prayers and meditation. In today's very busy, very noisy world, finding solitude is not easy; rather it is vital. God prescribed the Sabbath for us, a whole day out of the week in which to refrain from labor and rest, while meditating on his Word. But in a 24/7 world, we may need pockets of Sabbaths spread throughout the day or week.

One source of such a pocket Sabbath is found in the Book of Common Prayer. We call it the Daily Office and it boils down the 7 hours of prayers practiced by medieval monks and nuns into 3 main services which may be read individually or by a group. Morning Prayer consists of invocations for the season, confession, selections from the psalms, daily readings from the Bible, the Apostles Creed, prayers, a general thanksgiving, and blessing. The noonday service is shorter while Evening Prayer is the length of Morning Prayer. For bedtime, there is the delightful little additional service called Compline (BCP, p. 127).

If these services are too long, the prayer book offers mini-devotions that run a page each (BCP, p. 136). And the Prayer Book provides outlines of the service for DIY service construction.

I personally use Celtic prayers composed by David Adam to put me in the proper frame of mind for worship or to tackle the frenzied work schedule of the nursing home. It reminds me of the fact that, amid the tribulation Jesus said we would experience in this world, he promises his peace. It reminds me that he dwells in me and I in him. I incorporate the Jesus Prayer as well as a few of my own composition. The best thing is that, having memorized these prayers, I can use them anywhere, anytime, regardless of whether I have a Prayer Book at hand.

And I can alter them to circumstances and include my own petitions and thanksgivings. Episcopalians have been called "the people who love to read to God" but prayer is basically talking with God. We should not be afraid of spontaneous prayer. God is not a prosecuting attorney, ready to jump on any misstatements we make and turn them against us. He is a loving father, patiently hearing out his children and helping them articulate what they really mean. As Paul says In Romans 8, "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." God is including us in the divine conversation, helping us even when we don't know how to say what we want to say. But it does help to have some words as a jumping off point.

This is why all forms of Christian meditation are developed around a kernel of content: a passage, a prayer, a spiritual truth. It is important in any kind of meditation to have a focal point, something on which to concentrate one's attention. It gives us a firm grounding, a foundation on which to build spires of inspiration. Think of the words we begin with as C.S. Lewis did of the formal liturgy, not as monotonous repletion but as the flat, even, stable runway the airplane of our devotion needs so that we can take off and soar.

Sometimes we need things repeated for them to make a real impact. For instance, slow, deliberate repetition of the words "God loves us" really lets the idea sink in. It penetrates, resonates, calms and reassures. It says, "I mean it." That's why we use repetition with children or those who are in emotional turmoil.

We are built for meditation, it seems. Studies of Zen Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns who meditate show that their brains change in many beneficial ways. According to neuroscientist Dr. Andy Newberg, the portions of the brain that have to do with attention and focus are strengthened, as are the parts that foster compassion. The centers where fear and anger originate are calmed. In addition, the brains of those who meditate regularly do not age at the same rate as their contemporaries. They retain more gray matter.

Changing minds is at the heart of Christianity. It is done by what we do and say and think. Meditation is one way we can change our minds. It is a way of expanding our understanding of the God who creates, redeems and sustains us. It is a way of perceiving his many facets. It is a way exploring the names and metaphors for God, saying to each as one mystic did "This, too, is you; yet this is not you." It is a way of teasing out the implications of what we discover and how we should act in response. It is a way that we can communicate our deepest feelings to God and hearing his voice resonate within us. It is a way that we can experience him dwelling in us and we in him.

In this hectic, impulsive world, taking time for reflection can be seen as a luxury. It is not. It is important that we take regularly time out to get in touch with God, who gives all things meaning and purpose. Meditation is one method of discovering those meanings, including those that are hard to articulate. Not everything in the world can be reduced to logic or even expressed in words. Otherwise we would not need poetry, rituals, music, dance, or drama, all of which are also used in worship. Meditation is another way to explore the mysteries of a God too big to be contained by any of the finite methods we use to try to tame unruly reality. This is not to say we can know nothing about him, or not know the essential truths about him, just that we cannot know everything. And that means there is always more to explore about God and the infinite expressions of his love.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


It was not like Jacob had any real chance to get sleep. The words of his slave echoed endlessly in his heart: "We came to your brother Esau and he is coming to meet you. And he has 400 men coming with him." When Jacob had left home, having tricked his elder brother out of his blessing and birthright, Esau's murderous rage towards him was not surprising. But after 2 decades in a foreign land working for a father-in-law more deceptive than himself, Jacob had come to miss his family. He had hoped the years had worn away his twin's anger. But if it had, why did Esau need 400 men merely to greet Jacob?

The rest of the day Jacob had called together his slaves and hatched a scheme to appease Esau. He divided up his goats, camels, bulls and donkeys into droves. He arranged for them to travel, one drove at a time, with a distance between each, towards Esau. As his brother came upon each drove, the slave was to say, "They belong to your servant Jacob; they are a present to my lord Esau; and moreover he is behind us." He hoped that this cascade of gifts would soften his brother's resentment.

As night fell, Jacob decided to split his entourage. By diving into 2 companies, Jacob hoped that should Esau lead a night raid upon one camp, the other would survive. And still he fretted. Finally he took his wives and children across the river Jabbok and returned alone. There was nothing else to do. Nothing but watch and pray.

"O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, 'Return to your country and your kindred, and I will do you good.' I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness you have shown to your servant. For only with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become 2 companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him. He may come and kill us all, the mothers wit the children. Yet you have said, 'I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number."

It was a good prayer. And Jacob meant it, every word of it…the first dozen times he said it. In between each prayer, he listened. And if he heard anything, he got up and investigated. Esau might not send a band of men. Not blindly. He would send a scout to spy out their position. Someone good at sneaking about. That's what Esau would do. Because that's what Jacob would do. They were twins, after all.

And in the long hours of the night, with no one but God to talk to, Jacob's thoughts about his family and his life started to seep into his prayers. Which became a lot less formal and more of a dialogue. Or an argument. It may have sounded like a monologue but Jacob would pause and the next thing he said would deal with an unvoiced objection to what he had just said. Someone overhearing it might think the second person was speaking too softly for anyone but Jacob to hear.

"I know, Lord, that I am partly to blame for Esau's anger. But only partly. I mean, Dad always favored Esau. 'My big boy, the hunter.' How am I supposed to compete with that? Huh?…Yeah, Mom favored me but, you know, Dad has all the power. He's the one who gives the blessing. Mom couldn't do anything about that….Well, yeah, she did, I guess. And it was her idea, you know. She came up with the whole 'let's dress you like Esau and grab his blessing' thing. Everyone says, 'O, Jacob is the crafty one,' but I got it from Mom…I guess I could have said 'No.' It was a rotten thing to do to Dad, you know, take advantage of his blindness and all. But I don't regret what I did to Esau. You know that business about the birthright? It just wasn't fair. I mean, I'm staying home, taking care of the business, the sheep and all, and I'm just making some stew, cause I've been working. And he just waltzes up, having been out hunting again, while I'm working! He was out hunting, unsuccessfully I might add, and he smells my stew, my lunch, and says, 'Gimme that; I'm starving to death.' And that just ticked me off. I'm taking care of the family business, and he's off having fun, pitting his wits against some dumb animal, and he can't even catch one, and so what does that say about him, huh? He wanders back to camp, probably lead by the smell of my lunch, and he demands it!…Well, he does ask but, you know, like he's entitled… No he didn't want all of it but it's the principle of the thing. He thinks he's entitled cause he's older. By, like, a second. I heard the stories. I came out right after him, grabbing his heel, because, you know, he was gonna take all the breast milk, probably. One second older, he's the firstborn and gets a double share of the inheritance!

"And what do I get? A crappy name. Jacob, the 'heel-grabber,' the 'usurper.' I'm just a baby, barely born, trying to keep my brother from getting all the milk, all the glory, all of Dad's love but I'm marked for life, you know! I had to be smart. I had to be. Nobody was going to give me anything for showing up first! I had to scheme and fight, you know, cause I came in second-place on my own birthday and that made a second class son forever.

"Well, now who's second class? I got wealth. And I had to fight Laban for every bit of it. Changed my wages 10 times, you know. Tried to cheat me out of my share of the flocks. Tried to cheat me out of my wife! He knew I loved Rachel. He knew I worked all those years, seven whole years, just for her and comes the wedding day, he drapes Leah with veils and keeps filling my cup with good wine--I shoulda smelled a rat, right there. What's a cheapskate like that doing giving me his best wine? Getting me drunk, that's what! So he can fob off the older daughter, the old maid on me…That's not really fair. Leah's a good woman. She's been a good wife. Beautiful eyes. Gave me half my sons. And my daughter. She's a good mother. If it hadn't been for Rachel…

"But me and Rachel, we had a connection! I mean, I waited seven years! I worked seven years! And he tricked me! My own kin! He cheated me out of something that was mine…I know what you're gonna say!--it was completely different from what I did to Esau…Probably felt the same to him, though…Maybe I was rough on him. My brother. My big brother. My twin…

"O God, I don't want to fight him. I don't want to be killed by him. I don't want kill him. I just…I just want peace between us again. I don't want to fight him. Anything but that. If there's some other way…if he sees all the gifts I sent…he'll know I don't need the birthright…I'm doing fine. And I did it all myself, without any help…Well, no. I did get help. From you. And I need your help now. I need you to change his heart. Help him to see me as I am now. I'm not Jacob, the 'heel-grabber,' the 'usurper,' the sneak and cheat. Not anymore. I'm not what I was. I changed. Right?"

Just then Jacob heard a splash behind him. The river. The Jabbok. His wives! His kids! Jacob ran as silently as he could towards the sound.

There he was! A man standing in the water. But he wasn't looking across the ford to where Jacob's family was camped. He was looking at Jacob as if expecting him.

"Who are you?'

"I'm not your enemy."

"Prove it. Give me a blessing."

"I decide who I bless."

"Then you'd better decide to bless me. I'm not letting you pass otherwise."

"We'll see about that." And with that the man stepped out of the water and ran. Jacob gave chase and tackled him. But the man was wet and slippery. Jacob wrestled for a better grip. The man rolled out of Jacob's grasp and he had to scramble to grab him again. He got a hold of the man's waist and tried to get up onto his back, to use his weight to push his face into the dirt. But incredibly, the man began to rise, even with Jacob on top of him. Jacob was slipping down his torso. He scissored his legs around the man's and his opponent almost fell. Then the man twisted and struck Jacob's thigh. Jacob felt a pop and let go of the man, falling to the ground in pain. His hip was dislocated.

The man straightened up and started to leave when he fell face first to the ground. He looked back at his feet. Jacob had him by the ankles. The man said, "Let me go for day is breaking."

Through teeth gritted in pain, Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me."

The man looked at him with something like approval. He said, "What is your name?"


"No longer will you be named Jacob but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with mortals and have endured."

This was not at all what Jacob expected. Was that a blessing? And what kind of name was Israel? "He Who Fights with God?" Or "God Fights?" For whom? And how did this man know about his struggles? He hadn't confided with anyone but…

"Please…tell me your name." Though the sun's rays had found them, Jacob shivered a little.

"Why do you ask my name?" said the man with a hint of a smile. And then he stood and pulled Jacob to his knees, laid hands on him and blessed him.

The man turned to the east and walked. Jacob was afraid to look up at first but now that it was light, he just had to see who--or what--he had striven with. He looked up but had to squint as the man was walking directly into the sunrise. He saw, or thought he saw, the man turn and look at him for a second before striding into the dazzling ball of light blossoming on the horizon. Jacob blinked to protect his eyes and when he could look again, the sun alone filled his view.

Leah's eyes were no only beautiful but sharp. Though the newly risen sun blazed on the surface of the river, she thought she saw a figure there. She could not make out much more than an outline against the reflected radiance but there was something both familiar and unfamiliar about him, his bearing and his gait. Oh God, had Jacob's fears been right? Was this his brother come to kill them?

Then the man walked out of the brilliance of the water and she saw it was Jacob, but with a limp and a stick to help him walk. The children saw him and ran to their father greeting and questioning and expressing sympathy to him all at once. Rachel came out of the tent and tried to shush them but Jacob grabbed her and shut her up with a passionate kiss. Leah was not surprised but when he summoned her over and gave her a kiss just as long and fervent, she was shocked. Kisses from him like that were few and fleeting. Only in the last moments of it did she stop analyzing it and just let it happen.

When he let her go, she saw the children's faces expressing degrees of amazement and delight. Blushing and trying to recover her dignity as first wife, she managed to stammer out an only mildly reproving "Jacob!"

"No. Not Jacob. I never liked that name. I'm Israel now. I'm a new man." He smiled hugely. "Let's go. I want to see if my brother is, too."