That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Tag: Religion (page 1 of 4)

Walking Away: A Post-Retirement Meditation

I didn’t intend to walk away from religion when I retired from pastoral ministry, but it is sort of happening.

After decades of writing sermons (and posting most of them in manuscript form on my blog), I thought I would keep up the discipline of reading each week’s Lectionary texts and writing a brief meditation as if I were preaching. “If I were preaching,” I would write . . . and then follow it with some personal reflection on a verse or two from the readings. I’m not a theologian (any more than in the sense that we are all theologians) nor any sort of bible scholar; I’m just a guy who occasionally has some minor insight into the meaning, or at least the application, of Holy Scripture. So I thought this would be an exercise that would keep my faith focused and maybe be of some help to preachers.

I did a couple of those and then I stopped. I stopped for good reason; I had major surgery (total knee arthroplasty) and recovery and recuperation took (and is still taking) nearly all my energy and attention.

I stopped going to church, too. The first few weeks of retirement, my wife and I attended other nearby Episcopal parishes (nearby being a relative term . . . after 16 years of driving less than ten minutes to cover the two miles to church, a 40-minute drive to the nearest congregation doesn’t actually seem “nearby”). Then we visited family in another state. Then the surgery . . . and Sunday morning TV. I have on several earlier occasions commented on how I have come to understand those who stay home on Sunday morning to read newspapers, sip coffee, and watch Sunday morning television. I have found it much more restful, much more in honor of the sabbath prescription, much more spiritually uplifting than most Sunday morning experiences at church.

No longer burdened with the ministry of overseeing other people’s Sunday morning religious experience, I have tried (when attending church services) to relax into the experience of being a congregant. It’s practically impossible! My wife, no longer participating as a chorister or a eucharistic minister, has found the same.

Architecture, hymn choices, tones of voice, pronunciation of names, ritual gesture, the staging of choirs, inexplicable delays, inexplicable rushing, rubrics ignored, sermons with no point, sermons with too many points, announcements turned into sermons, prayers turned into sermons, the Peace that has become an intermission, too many people doing liturgical things, too few people involved in liturgical leadership . . . I could fill this page with all the intrusive details that capture our attention and fire our drive-home conversations, all the distractions that keep us from focusing on God, all the stage-craft and priest-craft errors (or, at least, questionable decisions) that leave us wondering what the liturgist’s point may have been. And, worst of all, the thought that for the past 28 years of parish ministry someone has been going away from every service I planned or led making those same criticisms, asking those same questions, wondering about those same worrisome details.

I was asked if I would like to take on a long-term supply gig, several weeks presiding and preaching (and attending committee meetings!) in a congregation from which a long-term pastor was retiring. After initially saying, “Yes, as soon as I’ve recovered from this surgery,” I talked it over with my spouse . . . and had to go back to the person who asked and say, “Sorry, but no.” I came to realize that after two long-term (one 10-year, one 16-year) pastorates, I need more than a few weeks to decompress. I need six months, at least.

I didn’t intend to walk away from religion. I just did. I need not to do that. I need to be intentional about it. I need to walk away from religion as a conscious choice, not simply as something that happened while I wasn’t paying attention. I need to be purposeful about ignoring architecture and rubrics and hymn choices and the liturgical decisions of worship leaders with other agendae and other sensibilities than mine.

I need to walk away on purpose. Not from faith, mind you, but from religion. On purpose. For a while.

Weddings & Marriages: If I Were Preaching, Epiphany 2, 20 January 2019

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. – John 2:1-2

I know that the natural inclination of preachers during the season of ordinary Sundays after Epiphany is to focus on the gospel stories of “manifestation” and we certainly have one this week, the miracle of water-into-wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. The story is ripe with focus possibilities: the miracle itself, the presence of the Holy Spirit as the activating force of Jesus’ power (suggested strongly this year by the lectionary pairing of this gospel tale with Paul’s listing of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12), the always popular look at the relationship between Mary and her son, Jesus’ attitude toward his public ministry at this time.

What is seldom preached on this Sunday is the context of the story: a wedding! So I think I might go there this week if I were preaching. The lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures positively invites us to do so; marriage is Isaiah’s metaphor (as it is other prophets’) for the relationship between God and Israel:

For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.[1]

I’ve been thinking a good deal recently about the nature of the marital estate. I recently had major orthopedic surgery (a total knee replacement) and find myself absolutely unable to attend to many of the everyday activities of life, some of them quite mundane, some quite intimate and personal. I am dependent upon my spouse to whom I have been married now for nearly 40 years. As she attended to one of my needs the other day, I quipped, “Ah yes, I remember well that part of the service where we promised to do this for each other” (which, of course, we hadn’t). We make formal promises in weddings to love and honor, to cherish and comfort, to faithfully keep one another “in sickness and health,”[2] but we don’t get into the nitty-gritty details. Perhaps we’ve been counseled in advance of the wedding as to what these vows mean and what that nitty grit might be, but no pre-marital instruction can cover everything.

My father-in-law probably didn’t realize in 1947 that those promises would commit him 50 years later to caring for an invalid wife suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the last eight years of their marriage, feeding her, bathing her, wiping her bottom, and all while she tried to fight him off because she didn’t know him. Those vows long before the onset of my mother-in-law’s disease had become water under the bridge, replaced by the fine, strong wine of human love and commitment. And though she hasn’t (I hope) had quite the same level of difficulty to handle, my in-law’s daughter follows in her father’s footsteps taking care of her temporarily invalided husband.

So . . . if I were preaching this week, I’d consider that context, a wedding. Weddings become marriages, brides become wives, grooms become husbands; those are transmutations, transformations, and differences as profound as water become wine. That alchemy of marriage manifests the Lord in our midst everyday.

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

[1] Isaiah 62:5

[2] The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 424

Murkiness: If I Were Preaching, Christmas 1 (30 December 2018)

If I were preaching this coming Sunday (which I’m not … but if I were …), I’d look at darkness. Strange choice, perhaps, for the Sunday after Christmas Day, but the Episcopal Church lectionary always specifies the prologue of John’s Gospel as the gospel lesson for this Sunday and it includes that verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[1]

My friend Scott, a scholar of all things Scottish (“If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” — Thank you, Mike Myers, for that memorable proclamation![2]) recently posted to Facebook the Scots version of the verse in question: “An, aye, the licht shon i the mirk, an the mirk dinnae slacken it nane.”

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Insecurity & Incarnation: If I Were Preaching, Advent 4 (23 December 2018)

They shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. – Micah 5:4b

If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.

Do not leave
without hearing
who you are:
Beloved,
named by the One
who has traveled this path
before you.

Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.

I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from danger,
from fear,
from hunger
or thirst,
from the scorching
of sun
or the fall
of the night.

But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.

I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.

I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
curious insistence
whisper our name:

Beloved.
Beloved.
Beloved.

That is the poem Beloved Is Where We Begin by Jan Richardson from her collection of verse entitled Circle of Grace.[1] It is a poem for Lent, but it also speaks to us of the Advent promise we hear in the prophecy of Micah, “They shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.”[2] On the Christian journey, as poet Richardson writes, wherever it may take us, there will be help; there will be the security promised by Micah.

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Today’s Vipers: If I Were Preaching, Advent 3 (16 December 2018)

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7)

I’m not preaching this Sunday, but if I were I would have to congratulate John the Baptizer on his social skills! He sure knows how to warm up and relate to a crowd.

What is John saying by greeting his audience thus? Is John speaking to the Pharisees and the Sadducees at all, or rather to the rest of the crowd? Or, more likely, is Luke saying something to us, his later readers?

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Changing Clothes: If I Were Preaching, Advent 2 (9 December 2018)

“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.”[1]

If I were preaching on the Second Sunday of Advent this year, I think I would select the first of the two options for the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, which is actually from the Jewish apocrypha.

Years ago (many years ago) when I was 18 years old, I worked in a small 100-bed community hospital in Southern California. Initially, I was a janitor (“housekeeper” in the hospital jargon of the time) but within a few months I was able to take the job of orderly.

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The Resistant Drape: If I Were Preaching, Advent 1 (2 December 2018)

If I were preaching this week, I would have to work with Luke’s version of the Little Apocalypse: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. * * * For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”[1]

Many read these words of Jesus as if they are predicting something which will be an act of God. The lectionary links this reading with a prophecy of Jeremiah: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”[2] To suggest that the apocalyptic scenes predicted by Jesus (and others elsewhere in the Scriptures) are the act of God would equate God’s promises, God’s righteousness, and God’s justice with destruction. If I were preaching, I would suggest a different understanding.

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On Retiring from Parish Ministry – 25 November 2018

Today, Lord, what shall I say?
What is there to say
when one enters
for the last time
the pulpit from which
one has preached
for more than fifteen years?
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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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