Signs of grace

Not preaching this week for a change, I have the leisure to thumb through any book that happens to be at hand. This morning I happened on Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Preaching Life, and found this:
“While preaching and celebrating sacraments are discrete tasks, the two particular functions to which I was ordained, they are also metaphors for the whole church’s understanding of life and faith. For me, to preach is first of all to immerse myself in the word of God, to look inside every sentence and underneath every phrase for the layers of meaning that have accumulated there over the centuries. It is to examine my own life and the life of the congregation with the same care, hunting the connections between the word of the page and the word at work in the world. It is to find my own words for bringing those connections to life, so that others can experience them for themselves. When that happens—when the act of preaching becomes of source of revelation for me as well as for those who listen to me—then the good news every sermon proclaims it that the God who acted is the God who acts, and that the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the world.

“Understood in this way, preaching becomes something that the whole community participates in, not only through their response to a particular sermon but also through identifying with the preacher. As they listen week after week, they are invited to see the world the way the preacher does—as the realm of God’s activity—and to make connections between their Christian faith and their lives the same way they hear them made from the pulpit. If the preaching they hear is effective, it will not hand them sacks of wisdom and advice to take home and consume during the week, but invite them into the field to harvest those fruits for themselves, until they become preachers in their own right. Preaching is not something an ordained minister does for fifteen minutes on Sundays, but what the whole congregation does all week long; it is a way of approaching the world, and of gleaning God’s presence there.

“Likewise, the sacraments of the church embody a broad Christian understanding of life on earth: c
hiefly, that the most ordinary things in the world are signs of grace. The God who created them and called them good keeps on doing so. Through the sacraments, we are invited to understand that all the things of this world are good enough to bear the presence of God and to deepen the relationship between heaven and earth …
“We may spend our whole lives learning what those sacraments mean, but the experience of them exceeds our understanding of them. Reaching out to handle God, it is we who are handled, gently but with powerful effect.” (33-35)
Meaningful words to me, and yet I wonder, is this enough? Or is this only and forever really all we have?
I’ve struggled so much with preaching over the past year. How to touch those who come to church only or mainly to be sweetly comforted, those who long for comfort in the form of a howling lament that gathers their pain into something bigger and harder to turn away from, those who only want confirmation of what they’ve already gleaned from whatever source.
*The photos are of pretty little St. Augustine’s Church (Church of Ireland), which stands next to the city wall of Derry, high above and looking down on Bogside. When the gate swings open and beckons to come in and face “east” toward the altar, leaving behind the “westward” view of that neighborhood with so much painful history, is it a call to know God’s true peace, or a well-disguised temptation?

Preaching prep: “Peace be with you.”

Preaching prep: I’m always inclined to want to defend poor Thomas. And yet …

He only wanted the experience the others already had, after all. And why not? Back when they were debating whether to risk going to Bethany, he’s the one who urged them on, saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” and here he appears to be the only one brave enough to be somewhere other than the locked room.

And yet, this year more than ever, I find myself pondering that blessing of peace: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

And the collect: “Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith … ”

I wonder if we don’t skip too easily past the true meaning of peace and reconciliation, which feels so complicated, and settle on the lesson about faith in things unseen. Which feels easier – and which so often seems to lead church people into the temptation of feeling superior to everyone else who isn’t in church.

Three crosses

Church of the Holy Ghost, Copenhagen

I took this photo in 2010 in Copenhagen, at the Church of the Holy Ghost just off Strøget, the long pedestrian street where tourists come to shop and watch the street performers. I’ve been coming back to it all through this Lent. Each one of the three crosses seems to have something different to say about how we hold this mystery. I love the big one on the wall, the sense of the Christ semi-hidden in the wood, emerging slowly, waiting to be noticed by those who have eyes to see. Christ embedded in the stuff of this world, arms open to embrace.

“Give us bread”

“So we say to God: Give us bread. Not delicacies or riches, nor magnificent purple robes, golden ornaments, and precious stones, or silver dishes. Nor do we ask Him for landed estates, or military commands, or political leadership. We pray neither for herds of horses and oxen or other cattle in great numbers, nor for a host of slaves. We do not say, give us a prominent position in assemblies or monuments and statues raised to us, nor silken robes and musicians at meals, nor any other thing by which the soul is estranged from the thought of God and higher things; no—but only bread! …

“But you go on business to the Indies and venture out upon strange seas; you go on a voyage every year only to bring back flavourings for your food, without realizing that … [it] is above all a good conscience which makes the bread tasty because it is eaten in justice. …

“‘Give Thou bread’—that is to say, let me have food through just labor. For, if God is justice, anyone who procures food for themselves through covetousness cannot have his bread from God. You are the master of your prayer if your abundance does not come from another’s property and is not the result of somebody else’s tears; if no one is hungry or distressed because you are fully satisfied. For the bread of God is, above all, the fruit of justice.”

~ Sermon 4 on the Lord’s Prayer, Gregory of Nyssa (died c. 394)

Feast of St. Patrick

Remembering today all those including my ancestors who came here from Ireland as refugees, seeking not just a better life but desperate to avoid starvation due to famine and an unjust system of food distribution. On our trip to Ireland, Chris and I saw many “famine cottages,” little stone buildings abandoned as people died or left in those terrible times, and still standing empty. These immigrants were not exactly welcomed as they arrived here. Nativists feared that they and their religion would destroy America. Part of the stimulus toward creation of a public education system was to advance the assimilation of all those dirty ignorant newcomers – Irish and others who followed – and make them just like “us.” And alas, how well that project seems to have succeeded.



 Q. What is grace?

A. Grace is God’s favor toward us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.                                      

   — The Book of Common Prayer

Back when I was in seminary, I bought a couple of basic theology textbooks and lined them up together on my shelf. High on my shelf, actually

I got them because I was a little curious to know the words and phrases professional theologians use in trying to express the mystery that underlies our existence, the mystery I as an amateur theologian know mostly by the experience of longing for it, and for which I can hardly ever find good enough words. 

A little curious, but mostly I got these books hoping that when the time came for me to be tried by the fire of the General Ordination Exams, enough of their words and phrases would stick to carry me safely through the flames.

Seems I made it.

Anyway, I still have the books in my office at church, and I was looking through them this week to see what they had to say about grace. And do you know what? Not one of them had a listing for grace in the index, which I found astonishing, because it seems to me that in my own experience, grace is one of the most important things I know about that mystery.

So thank goodness for the Book of Common Prayer.

But here’s a partial definition of my own: Grace is the heart’s desire that pulls you toward the bend in the road, and tells you to go forward even though you have no idea what lies past the part you can see. Grace is the light that shines through the trees, and somehow makes you believe that this same light will still be shining farther along the way. Grace is the love that lets you know you’re not alone, and the beauty that makes every hard thing endurable just to have more of it.

Grace is the desire, the light, the love, and the beauty.

And this is today’s picture of grace.

Sunday drive


After church, and after the nap that came next, I took my motorscooter and rode out into the country, past fields and woods, past the meetinghouse where we were married and where my father-in-law is buried, where we will likely be with him when that time comes.

From the farmstand I brought back three ears of fresh corn, two large and very ripe heirloom tomatoes, some fresh mozzarella, and this photo.

A little balsamic dressing, a little butter, some salt, and I will dine well tonight. My spirit has already been nourished.

I’m glad to live in a place where it’s still possible to feel connected to the earth, which sustains us through life, and is there to receive us at the end.

“We are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return.”

Small-town life is a blessing, but it has its odd moments. I know which families have the plots around ours. Some of their people are already at rest there. I looked around at the other shoppers in the aisle where I was pushing my grocery cart one afternoon and realized that all of us in that section at that moment would likely spend eternity in close proximity. The communion of saints. Or, as they say at Solebury Friends Meeting, the Friends across the road.