That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Tag: Liturgy (page 1 of 3)

The Second Commandment on Sunday Morning

I retired from active parish ministry as a priest in the Episcopal Church in December 2018 after nearly 29 years in holy orders, more than half that time as rector of one parish. Since then, my wife and I have visited several Episcopal congregations in this and other dioceses on Sunday mornings, not as supply clergy and spouse but simply as visiting worshipers.

In nearly every case, we have been greeted by friendly people, found worship that is lively and engaging, enjoyed sermons that are masterfully crafted and well preached by erudite clergy, and left feeling that we have encountered a loving God in a vibrant community. Oh to be sure, we have been able to find minor aspects to criticize, but these are merely the quibblings of professional church geeks; sharing them is how we amuse ourselves on the drive home. In the main, though, we have been very impressed at how well the Episcopal Church follows the first great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”[1]

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Lenten Journal 2019 (14 April)

Lenten Journal, Day 39, Palm Sunday

Yesterday and the day before I wrote in this journal but did not post what I had written to Facebook as I have throughout the rest of Lent. Friday was our 39th wedding anniversary and Saturday, being the day before Palm Sunday, is when Evelyn and I remember the day our daughter disappeared (she was later found and all is well). What I wrote yesterday and Friday was simply too personal to put out on public social media.

Today we have stayed home from church because Evelyn has a rip-roaring upper respiratory infection. You should hear her cough! As we have done so, I have been thinking about the way we have commemorated Palm Sunday as married persons for the last 39 years. Except that year when Caitlin went missing, they have been invariably the same (as least for me): Saturday spent decorating the church with palms; Sunday the simple 8 a.m. distribution of palms within the context of Holy Communion; the later service a big production number beginning with a procession around the church and through the cemetery (if there was one nearby, as there has been here in Medina and was in San Diego), a choral Eucharist, the dramatic reading of the Passion Narrative.

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Lenten Journal 2019 (11 April)

Lenten Journal, Day 36

Labhraím Gaeilge!

I really wish that were true (it means “I speak Irish”). I don’t. I study Irish. I forget Irish. I study it again.

That is how I spent today; using Duolingo and a free online course from Dublin City University, I have spent the day refreshing my memory of the Irish language, recalling things I learned a decade ago at a school in the Connemara Gaeltacht north and west of Galway City.

Irish is just one of the languages I have studied. I took Spanish in grades 5 through 8 in the Los Angeles city schools. I studied Latin throughout high school. I took Italian in an immersion course in Florence in 1969 and then French in a longer immersion course in Paris in 1973. I cannot speak, read, or write in any of these languages, although I could back in the day.

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Lenten Journal 2019 (4 April)

Lenten Journal, Day 29

So, typical of me, I let the Lenten discipline slide and didn’t write anything in this journal yesterday or the day before. In my defense, the first day was dominated by the “prep” for a colonoscopy and yesterday the procedure was done early in the morning; I spent the rest of the day sleeping off the Propofol used as anesthesia during the procedure.

That’s one of the drugs used in the capital punishment “cocktail,” by the way. One minute I was watching the nurse inject the stuff into my IV line; the next, I was in a different room, my wife at my bedside conversing with the gastroenterologist about radiation damage to my colon (that damage being a sequela of my treatment for prostate cancer). The rest of the day was spent mostly in a fog of unthinking, which is not the same thing as the cloud of unknowing by a long shot!

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Point of View: If I Were Preaching, Lent IV, 31 March 2019

I’m not preaching this week, but if I were . . .

I often read poetry as part of, and frequently as a substitute for, a homily. This is especially true on “high holy days” when the liturgy and the lessons of the lectionary speak so eloquently that the attempt at exegesis seems at best irrelevant and at worst intrusive, e.g., Good Friday or Palm Sunday. On such days, in such liturgies and with such lessons, the poets seem to get and to give the message so much better than I can.

There are two poems that I’ve used on Palm Sunday which look at the story focusing on or speaking through one of the often-ignored characters, the donkey which carried Christ into the city of Jerusalem. One is Mary Oliver’s The Poet Thinks about the Donkey in which the poet expresses her hopes for the animal.[1] The other is G.K. Chesterton’s The Donkey[2] in which the animal speaks for itself.

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Lenten Journal 2019 (26 March)

Lenten Journal, Day 20

Sigh . . . . it’s detachment time again!

This Lent, my first as a retired priest, is certainly focusing my attention on not focusing my attention, which is just a cute way to say “Detachment.” The need to “let go” is hitting me squarely between the eyes.

I’m feeling very much like a stubborn donkey.

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Lenten Journal 2019 (19 March)

Lenten Journal, Day 13

I had a first-in-the-morning appointment at the digestive disease medical office today, a pre-screening for the colonoscopy I have scheduled in two weeks. Weight, blood pressure, review of medications, instructions on which medications to discontinue ahead of the procedure, medical history review, that sort of thing … and, of course, the preparation instructions for the day before.

I can’t really think of anything more appropriate for Lent than colonoscopy prep, can you?

OK, I’m being facetious.

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Lenten Journal 2019 (12 March)

Lenten Journal, Day 6

“… rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.”[1]

A few days ago, a fellow priest complained about the difficulty of saying these words from the “traditional language” service of Holy Communion in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, especially early in the morning (which is about the only time they are said in most parishes anymore, if they are said at all). I responded with the snarky remark that if my colleague had grown up with them, rather than being a “convert” from another Christian tradition (as he is), they would not be difficult at all.

I did not grow up with them myself, but I did hear them at least three times each week during the academic terms of my high school years. A non-Episcopalian, I was enrolled in an Episcopal Church affiliated boarding school more than a thousand miles from home. Like all the students of that school, I was required to attend chapel which most days followed the liturgy of one of the Daily Offices but twice each week was a celebration of the Eucharist. Then on Sundays, unless one was attending church off campus, there was another mandatory service of Holy Communion.

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Eternal Now: Homily for the Requiem of Hildegarde B_____, 24 November 2018

We are gathered here today to honor and remember our friend and sister in Christ, Hildegarde B_____; to give thanks for her life and witness; to pray for her repose and for comfort for those who love her; and to praise God for God’s ineffable goodness. As many of you know, at times like these I turn to the work of the poets to help me process and understand the events of life. We have in our readings from Holy Scripture the work of the poet called “Qoheleth the preacher”, the famous opening of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, set to music by Pete Seeger in the 1950s and made popular in the 1960s by The Byrds. Hildegarde selected that reading both for her husband Earl’s funeral and for her own.

I’ll come back to the words of Qoheleth in a moment, but the poem that came to mind as I considered what I might say about or learn from Hildegarde is one by the contemporary British artist, poet, and cyclist Carlo Castelvecchio entitled A Ride Through Time:

I ride through time,
Stretching it out with surreal distortion,
I ride for freedom,
I am immortal, freedom from the fear of death,
I push myself to the limit of my mortal frame,
then transcend that human pain,
enter into that fourth dimension.

My wheels no longer touch the ground,
they’re floating on passionate effort,
a whole-hearted, single-minded effort,
the rhythm of a perfect circle,
a pulsing rhythm that rises above the world’s woes.

Movement brings freedom.

Unfettered yet fitting in perfectly,
unconventionally conventional,
an independent form of movement.

I know exactly how far I have traveled,
I can feel how far I have moved.

Allow the spirit of your surroundings to feed your movement,
the harder I push the more I merge with my surroundings,
my aim is to reach that point of effortless movement,
turbo boosted blood pumping round my muscles,
my spirit is one with my body,
brain, muscles and spirit in total harmony,
producing a pure single-minded effort,
human body, trees, mountains, rivers, spirits and bike.[1]

She was a strong woman, a strong-willed woman, sometimes abrasively so. She was opinionated and not unwilling to share those opinions, which she was quite convinced were correct and, if you disagreed with her, you were simply wrong. She might occasionally have been what one would call “cantankerous,” sometimes “curmudgeonly,” but mostly she was just forthright and plain spoken, take it or leave it as you would. Her name was Martha __________.

(I’ll bet you thought I was describing someone else….)

Martha __________ was the director of the Altar Guild at St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church where I was rector for ten years before coming to Medina. She was also a very active participant in every educational offering ever made at St. Francis Church. Bible studies, Anglican or Episcopal history courses, Lenten soup-supper programs, whatever, Martha took part in them all and in every one, eventually, Martha would get us around to what she really wanted to talk about: “What I want to know,” she would ask, “is what’s going to happen when I die?” I came to think of that, and still think of it, as “the Martha __________ question” – “What’s going to happen when I die?”

About three weeks ago around noon on a Friday, Jennifer B_____ called me to ask if I could stop by her mother’s room at Brookdale; Hildegarde wanted to talk to me. “Sure,” I said, “but not today. Would tomorrow be all right?” She said it would and so on Saturday morning, I went to see Hildegarde. After an exchange of pleasantries, we got around to what she wanted talk about. I could see it coming a mile away . . . the Martha __________ question! “What’s going to happen when I die?” Now, it’s the Hildegard B_____ question . . . and I gave Hildegarde the same answer I gave Martha.

What I told them, and what I tell you, is that I don’t know what happens when we die! I haven’t done that yet; I haven’t been there yet. However, what I could tell them and what I now tell you is what I believe, what I understand our faith to teach. First, I believe that everyone who dies rests in the Lord in a place – or perhaps it’s better to say a state of being – we name Paradise, and we rest there until what the church calls “the last great day,” the day of the general resurrection when (as the Evangelist Luke put it paraphrasing the prophet Isaiah) “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[2] On that day, we will be reunited with our loved ones and together we will stand before the throne of God. On that day, we will face judgment about which Jesus told us:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.[3]

But on that day we will also find mercy and forgiveness, for we are called to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy,”[4] and “mercy triumphs over judgment.”[5] Thus, St. Paul could rightly assure us

. . . . that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[6]

In the end, I believe, and I believe our faith teaches us, that we will be united with God in love.

That, of course, is from the human perspective of time, of chronos as it was called by the Greeks. It is this chronological time about which Qoheleth wrote when he said that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die . . . a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . . a time for war, and a time for peace.”[7] In Hildegarde’s life there was a time to be born, a time to experience the exotic sights and sounds of Tehran as a teenager in the early ‘50s, a time to fall in love with Earl B_____, get married, raise a family, a time to complete a couple of degrees and to teach high school English, a time to know the joys of piloting her own plane and to bicycle across the hills and through the valleys of Michigan and Ohio. This is how we humans experience time and so we think in terms of the Martha McEldowney question.

But there is another way to think of time and that is how we believe God sees it, what theologians call kairos, another Greek word for time. In Greek, it means “the critical time” or “the opportune moment.” Theologically, it is what theologian Paul Tillich called “the eternal now”[8] in which all those times listed in Ecclesiastes, all the times of our lives are the same moment, now. This is what the author of the letter to the Hebrews hints at when he says that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”[9] This is what John of Patmos tried to express when he described God as the one “who is and who was and who is to come.”[10] This is what we try to express in our liturgy when we end a psalm with the Gloria Patri saying, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.”[11]

We struggle to describe kairos, though occasionally we are able to perceive it through our prayer or our music. Sometimes we feel it during worship; in Eastern Orthodox theology, Divine Worship is understood to be an intersection of chronos and kairos. We are, however, limited creatures, trapped in chronos, and so we cannot fully experience God’s “eternal now” until that “last great day” when, as our lesson from the First Letter of John puts it, God “is revealed, [and] we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”[12]

That is what I believe, and what I believe our faith teaches us, that in the end we will be united with God in love, and experience God’s kairos. As St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”[13]

In that “eternal now,” we will (as our gospel lesson promises) abide in Christ’s love, just he abides in the Father’s love.[14] We will, as cyclist-poet Carlo Calvecchio wrote, “ride through time . . . immortal . . . free from the fear of death . . . in total harmony” with our Creator and with one another.

I believe that was what Hildegarde experienced in her cycling, the harmony about which Calvecchio wrote, and I believe that is what she is experiencing now, what we will all experience when our chronos finally and eternally intersects God’s kairos.

As I was looking for Calvecchio’s poem, I found another short piece by another cyclist poet with whose words I will close. This is October Warm by Michael Blotzer:

I cannot turn
down the road
to the house
where dinner waits

The morning’s frost
into October warm evaporated
and the road stretches through red and gold
to a sky as blue as the black of space

The rhythm of heart and lungs
of legs and cranks
the whisper of chain and gears
of tires on pavement
form a mantra that chants

There is no past
no future
there only
is.[15]

As our Book of Common Prayer expresses it, in death “life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.”[16] “Death [is merely] the gate of eternal life [through which] we [will be] reunited with those who have gone before.”[17]

And that, Hildegarde – and Martha – and all of you, that is what I believe and what I believe our faith teaches us happens when we die. No past, no future, only God’s eternal now, reunited with all who have ever been important to us and, in the words of our opening hymn, filled with God’s goodness and lost in God’s love. Hildegarde, the Christian hope is that some day we will see you again and confirm that what I told you is true!

Let us pray:

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: We give you heartfelt thanks for the good examples of all your servants, who, having finished their course in faith, now find rest and refreshment. May we, with all who have died in the true faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[18]

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on November 24, 2018, at the Requiem Mass for Hildegarde B_____ at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was rector.

The lessons used for the service (selected by the family of the decedent) are Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:1-2; and St. John 15:9-12.

The illustration is Bicycle Day by John Speaker, available for purchase here. Used here with permission of the artist.

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Bicycling Poetry, Bicycle Life, online

[2] Luke 3:6

[3] Matthew 25:31-33

[4] Hebrews 4:16

[5] James 2:13

[6] Romans 8:38-39

[7] Ecclesiastes 3:1-2,4,8

[8] See Tillich, Paul, The Eternal Now (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York:1963)

[9] Hebrews 13:8

[10] Revelation 1:8

[11] Daily Morning Prayer: Rite Two, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 80

[12] 1 John 3:2

[13] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

[14] John 15:10

[15] Bicycling Poetry, op. cit.

[16] Proper Preface: Commemoration of the Dead, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 382

[17] Burial of the Dead, Rite Two, Opening Collect, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 493

[18] Burial of the Dead, Rite Two, Additional Prayers, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 503

Reading Comprehension: Sermon for Pentecost 26, Proper 28B, November 18, 2018

When you sit there in the pew and I stand here in the pulpit and say to you “The Bible says this . . . .” or “The Church teaches that . . . .”, how do you know that I’m telling you the truth? When the writer of the Letter to Hebrews admonishes you to “approach [the sanctuary of God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith,” how do you have that assurance? When that writer, again, encourages you to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” how do you know what that confession is? And when Jesus commands you, “Beware that no one leads you astray,” how do you make the judgment to exercise that caution? In a word, how do you determine what is true?

I submit to you that all of those questions have one answer: on-going Christian formation, lifelong Christian learning, adult Christian education, call it what you will it boils down to the same thing – using, on a regular basis, the sense, reason, and intellect with which God has endowed us to enter into ever-deepening understanding of our faith. And it begins, as our opening collect suggested, with hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the Holy Scriptures.

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[1]

One of the first things Thomas Cranmer, the first Reformed Archbishop of Canterbury, did after being appointed in 1533 was to convince King Henry VIII to publish an English translation of the Holy Bible and to authorize its public use. Cranmer hired Myles Coverdale to undertake the task and between April of 1539 and December of 1541 seven printings of this translation were made. Because of its large physical size, it was called The Great Bible. Copies of it were distributed to every church in England, chained to pulpits or lecterns, and there made available to any literate person who wished to come and read the Holy Scriptures for themselves. In addition, a reader was provided in every church so that the illiterate could hear the Word of God in plain English.

Cranmer then undertook, with the assistance of other bishops and scholars, to translate the church’s liturgy from medieval Latin into the common English of the day. He is the chief architect of The Book of Common Prayer, the first edition of which was published in 1549. Cranmer’s vision was of an English national church gathered in household units each morning and evening, gathered in parish churches each Sunday morning, reading through most of the Bible each year. His vision was of a Christian people who would be, in the words of one of our Lenten prayers, “fervent in prayer and in good works.”[2] Fervent – on fire – energized for their mission “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and . . . to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.”[3]

Our church continues that tradition with that same vision today through a Daily Office lectionary which leads us through almost the whole of Scripture over the course of two years and a Eucharistic lectionary (which we now share with many other mainstream Christian denominations) that guides us through most of the New Testament in a three-year cycle and much of the Old Testament in a six-year cycle. In this, we continue what Australian priest and author Adam Lowe has called the “extremely strong tradition” of “Anglican openness to the Bible.” (He wrote that on an internet blog in an entry posted on October 29, 2010, which is sadly no longer available; the website has expired. I mention that expiration now and will return to it in a bit.)

When Cranmer and his colleagues devised the annual cycle of prayer and reading embodied in the Prayer Book, they created also the cycle of weekly collects which begin Sunday worship services. On the First Sunday of Advent each year, their calendar of collects bid the church pray for God’s grace to “cast awaye the workes of darknes, and put upon us the armour of light.”[4] We still offer that same prayer on Advent 1. On the Second Sunday of Advent, they prescribed the original version of the collect which we now pray on this, the penultimate Sunday of the church year.

Although the “collect of the day” is (according to the rubrics in the BCP) normally said only by “the Celebrant,” today I asked that we all read that prayer together. I did so to underscore the corporate nature of that and every prayer said during worship; the Presider does not pray alone. The word “Amen,” in which the congregation joins at the end of every prayer, is a Hebrew word meaning “So be it.” It means, “Yes! We agree. We said that prayer with you. That’s our prayer.” So, this morning, we made it our prayer not only in agreement but in fact, our prayer and our commitment that we, each one of us and all of us together, will “hear [the holy Scriptures], read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” We Anglicans have all been making that commitment, at least once a year, for 469 years!

We’ve been making that commitment, but let’s be honest, we’ve not been very good at keeping it. Even though our church teaches – in something called “the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation” – that “faith formation . . . is a lifelong journey with Christ, in Christ, and to Christ,” a lifelong process of “growth in the knowledge, service, and love of God as followers of Christ . . . informed by scripture, tradition, and reason,” I’ve been told by adult members of our church that (and I quote) “I don’t need any adult education.” Well . . . I can only tell you my experience.

When I moved back to Las Vegas as an adult in 1976 and, after a half-dozen years of not being active in the church, decided to attend Christ Episcopal Church, one of the first things I was invited to do was attend an adult education class. I’m glad I accepted the invitation. For the next dozen years I took part in at least one adult study every year, then I read for Holy Orders and got ordained, and for the last almost-30 years as a professional clergy person I have studied Scripture and church tradition nearly every day . . . and I still learn things. In fact, preparing for this sermon this past week I learned some things about The Great Bible that I hadn’t known before.

I believe that what our bishop calls the “tag line” of the Diocese of Ohio – “God Loves Everyone – No Exceptions” – is unqualifiedly true. With equal fervor, I believe that the statement, “I don’t need any adult education,” is unqualifiedly false. No one is ever too young, too old, or too knowledgeable to learn. And when we don’t make the effort and take the opportunity to do so, our commitment diminishes, the fire dies, the energy dissipates, and (in the words of our Ash Wednesday litany) we “fail to commend the faith that is in us.”[5]

So we have prayed every year for the grace to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures, and by so praying have committed ourselves to undertake the lifelong Christian formation that that implies, but what do these five educational activities entail? English priest and poet Malcolm Guite has called them “five glorious verbs” which “deepen as they follow one another in intensity of engagement.”[6]

Of hearing, Guite writes that this is “where most people, at the time of [our opening collect’s] composition would start; with hearing! Most people weren’t literate, and though the reformers had made sure a Bible ‘in a language understanded of the people’ was set in every church, most people had to hear it read aloud by someone else.” And many people are still there, at the hearing stage. We may hear the words proclaimed in worship and preached on from the pulpit, but though we may have a Bible in our homes, it is seldom opened. We really have to take the next step of our commitment: we have to read Holy Scripture ourselves.

Guite correctly notes that “the translation of the Bible into English was the single greatest spur to the growth of literacy in the English-speaking world and Bible translation remains today one of the great drivers of literacy and education with all the good that follows.” It was the Renaissance scientist Galileo Galilei who said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”[7] When we fail to read the Bible, we do forego their use, but when we study Scripture and tradition for ourselves we honor these gifts of God, with all the literacy, education, and good that flow from them.

The third verb in our prayer is “mark,” which in Cranmer’s day meant simply to “pay attention.” I’m one of those people who actually does mark pages as I read. My books (including my study Bible) are filled with color-coded highlights and marginal notations. Guite suggests that the action flows in both directions, that when we study the words of God they “underscore in us those passages which are marked out by God to make their particular mark in us.”

We all know what “learning” is; it happens when (as the dictionary tells us) we “acquire knowledge of or skill in [something] by study, instruction, or experience.” Guite reminds us, though, that we often talk of “learning by heart” and drawing on that he describes learning as creating pathways in and through our hearts. He tells the story of visiting an elderly woman suffering dementia when he was newly ordained:

At a loss as to how to pray I began to recite the 23rd psalm. Suddenly I became aware of a voice beside me, faint at first but growing stronger. It was the old woman joining in through laboured breath. I had a strong sense that the person speaking these words was not the wandered old lady but the little girl who had learnt them all those years ago. We made it to the end of the psalm together and she died peacefully as I was saying the Gloria. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” were the last words on her lips.

Though dimmed with age and dementia, the fervor, the fire, the energy of her learning still coursed the pathways in and through her heart.

And, finally, our collect commits us to “inwardly digest” what we hear, read, mark, and learn. Guite reminds us of Jesus words to Satan, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”[8] Says Guite, “We are to live on, and be sustained by scripture just as we live on and are sustained by bread, to take it in daily till it becomes transformed into part of the very substance of who we are, giving us new strength.” Daily, lifelong learning gives us the fervor, the fire, the energy needed for life.

What I have just said to you, I have said before. In fact, nearly everything I’ve just said is an almost verbatim repeat of a sermon I preached three years ago when we introduced the JOLT! intergenerational learning program which sadly only lasted for two years. Back then, that blog of Australian Anglican Adam Lowe was up and running and I could have given you a web address where you could read all that he had written about bible study; it was very good and I’m sad to have learned that it’s been wiped away like so many stray electrons.

And that’s a problem in our world. Friday, I listened to the NPR program Science Friday on which there was a segment with a neuroscientist named Maryanne Wolf who has recently published a book entitled Reader, Come Home[9] in which she explores the differences between reading from an actual, printed, ink-on-paper book and reading from a computer screen or a digital “reader.” She asserts that:

Human beings were never born to read. The acquisition of literacy is one of the most important epigenetic achievements of Homo sapiens. To our knowledge, no other species ever acquired it. The act of learning to read added an entirely new circuit to our hominid brain’s repertoire. The long developmental process of learning to read deeply and well changed the very structure of that circuit’s connections, which rewired the brain, which transformed the nature of human thought.[10]

And she argues on the basis of research data that reading on a computer screen or digital “reader” rewires the brain in other ways. Particularly, the data show that such reading encourages what she calls “skimming” rather than the “deep reading” that physical, printed material encourages. What electronic readers are reading is not being “consolidated in their reservoirs of knowledge. This means that . . . their capacity to draw analogies and inferences when [and from what] they read will be less and less developed.”[11] The “deep reading” encouraged by reading from a printed text, she said, gives us “the time to critically analyze and evaluate the truth of what we are reading;” it gives us “an opportunity to engage our feelings of empathy and also our engagement with alternative viewpoints.”[12]
On the other hand, the “skimming” encouraged by reading from an electronic screen leads to a loss of the ability to engage in critical analysis and to develop insight.

Reading from a computer or a digital “reader” discourages deep reading in three ways. First, the very act of using an electronic screen predisposes the reader to an expectation of “evanescence.” This encourages us to read quickly, to skim over the material rather than linger on it thoughtfully. In the words of our Bible Sunday collect, we don’t take time to “mark” what we are reading. Second, digital formats discourage what Dr. Wolf called “recursion,” the going back to reread and reconsider something from a prior page. And this, in turn, inhibits the third element of “deep reading,” what she called “comprehension monitoring,” that internal process of self-checking our understanding. This is the “inward digesting” which we prayed God would give us in regard to Holy Scripture.

We live in a world of digitized information which appears and disappears, which flits by and is gone, to which we devote little time or attention, which we skim, do not reread or critically reconsider, and whose effect on us we do not monitor. We must make the effort to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest,” not only the Scriptures, but all forms of written communication, else we will not be able to “analyze and evaluate the truth of what we are reading.”

This is the danger about which Jesus warned. “Beware,” he said, “that no one leads you astray.”[13] Jesus spoke of “wars and rumors of wars;” he might in our world speak of tweets, of Instagram, of Facebook postings, or of blogs and websites which come and go. These things can be and often are filled with lies and distortions which distract us from the truth and, because of their impermanence, they render us unable to distinguish truth from falsehood. “Beware that no one leads you astray!”

The truth, said Jesus, will make us free.[14] May we hear the truth, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it, that we may embrace and hold fast to freedom. Amen.

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 26th Sunday after Pentecost, November 18, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

The lessons used for the service (Proper 28, Year B, Track 2) are Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-25; and St. Mark 13:1-8. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Proper 28, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 236

[2] Preface for Lent, BCP 1979, page 379

[3] Catechism, BCP 1979, page 855

[4] The Book of Common Prayer of 1549

[5] BCP 1979, page 268

[6] Bible Sunday: Hear, Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest!, Malcolm Guite Blog, October 23, 2016, online

[7] Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, 1615

[8] Matthew 4:4

[9] Wolf, Maryanne, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (HarperCollins, New York:2018)

[10] Excerpt from Reader, Come Home, published on the Science Friday website, November 16, 2018, online

[11] Ibid.

[12] Audio recording of radio program segment, Science Friday website, November 16, 2018, online

[13] Mark 13:5

[14] John 8:32

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