Becoming Attention In a Distracted World

What does it mean to “give attention” to something or someone? What does that look like? What faculties are employed? What thoughts are necessary to hold the other in our gaze for moments that matter, anticipating their speech or attending with our hearing in a way that could change us in an instant?

In an inattentive world what does it truly mean to “give attention?”

Surely, it is more than “paying attention” as if the attention being given will be reduced to some sort of transaction in which I extract something from the other or they from me. To “pay attention” is to invest, to force the will and mind into lock step so that we are literally handing over the equity of our faculties to the other…but in hopes of what? As the word insinuates, paying attention implies that the attending we give will reap us reward. Such seems to be a fairly common understanding.

For example, we pay attention in class in order to pass the test. We pay attention to our work in order to continue getting recompensed for our time. We pay attention when we drive in order to avoid a wreck.

 As these examples illustrate, attention is given in order to gain, it is never truly given as gift of attendance, gift of presence, without ulterior motive. When attention is a concept to be paid, it is a concept that is only given when we gain, all other situations of attending being lesser, and less worthy, of our attendance since they do not seem to have a direct bearing on our well-being or future.

So again, what does it mean to give attention if it is not something to pay.

Have you ever been present with someone yet not attended to in that space? In other words, have you been with someone, sharing a moment, yet it is painfully obvious they are not “present” with you? They are in attendance, but they are not attending to the space with you. They may ask a question and then when you attempt to answer, it is as if they are not there. Worse, have you ever been in brief conversation only to be ignored mid-sentence by the next distraction?

Over the last year I have become mindful of the epidemic of inattentiveness in our culture. Of course, this is nothing new. We live in an age of short attention spans. Forms of digital media, games or otherwise, have become an additional narcotic with multiple studies citing negative health consequences for long-term exposure to short term stimulation. Further, fewer and fewer folks seem to be capable of pulling out that old codex (a book), and staring at non-animated graphics, (called words) for hours on end. We have become addicted to movement, our collective brains feeding on the next hit of dopamine, stimulated by our phones or tablets. It is grindingly laborious to give attention because everything, and everyone, is competing for it. Do we even possess the ability to attend anymore or have we lost that part of our humanity?

In an age of distraction, this question begs asking.

Ironically, it is in the inattentiveness that we seek out attention, something to momentarily captivate us. We seek to be held captive, and to also captivate, if for no other reason that we would be captive by the fact that we have been captivated.

This is the quest of/for attention: to give ourselves to that in which we can invest our gaze in order to find meaning, satisfaction, purpose. Attention is that which we do because life depends on it. One must give attention while crossing the road or the results could be unseemly. We are losing our lives as we have lost our attentive spirit. We will never find that which we seek because the mechanism of attention as gift, life to the giver and the receiver, has been misplaced. Perhaps it has been disabused beyond recognition.

So many things have our attention. But allow me to ask, does anyone feel as if they are being given attention by anyone, the modern family that sits in the same room all on a different device? Where is attendance? Why do we tend to something that will always demand more than we can give? Must we be lost in the abyss of an attention disseminated, if not deconstructed? Many have observed that we are connected in a plethora of ways, yet we are fantastically disconnected all the same.

Time would fail us to recount all the many broken relationships, broken homes, and broken dreams of people that exist because the person with whom they shared life did not give attention to them. There are people who wake up every day hoping for a kind word from their spouse, a hug from their son, a call from their estranged parents, someone to love them. These people wait in quiet anguish for attention from the ones they love. Not receiving attention, real human attention as gift, they live disconsolately silent, craving attention but being victims of the distraction of others. In a real sense, they are missing a part of their own humanity because they are not being named by the other, which begs the question: does our naming require one to name us? To give us attention? To attend, and hence give birth to this thing called life together? Is this not the intention of wanting to discover our authentic selves and then have such attended by others?

We can bristle at these questions, the blasphemy of such insinuations in our woken age of authenticity, but we must consider the following: what good is a name if there is no one to use it? How are we to be called if there is no one to call us? And without hearing our name how do we know we exist apart from the Cartesian hamster wheel of logic? Human constitution and attention seem to be intertwined.

Living lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau aptly noted, we have discovered that there is something worse than public speaking and something worse than death. If one would like to kill someone one, one needs only to ignore them, withhold attention. This is worse than being the subject of ridicule, the topic of slanderous accusations, or the bane of your enemy’s existence, for at least in all those instances we exist. We are. We have attention, even if it is the sort we’d rather not enjoy. But to ignore someone is to neglect them. To neglect them is to reduce their identity to nothing; it is to name them nothing worse than the something of nothing.

To ignore someone is to heap death upon them. Even being dead is preferred to living dead.

Of course, this topic of attention goes to the heart of what it means to be human, to live together, and to be observant (which itself implies some attention). As for inattentiveness, our inability to give attention, we have now come to a time in which we have moved past theology and philosophy, not to mention psychology, as viable frameworks that can offer responses to our postmodern sin of distraction. One needs not God for that; the pharmacy already has the prescription waiting for our arrival.

I am afraid that this issue of attention is a knotty one, one that I am not talented enough to solve. But its thinking has me wondering, what if attention is not something we pay but something we are, something we become? What if our being is one of attendance without perpetual reminders that such attending requires a payment for something the other has and I need? What if attention is not something we pay, or something we give, but something we are in each moment, with each person, in each day?

How on earth do we become attention? How does our presence echo atten-dance to those with us? What might help us focus on the face before us and not become distracted by the device in our pocket or the person crossing behind our line of vision?

I am reminded of something Jesus said, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:

Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me. Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You? Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me. (Matthew 25. 41-45)

Jesus can be called many things in the Gospels, but the very least he could be called is the One who gave attention. Jesus didn’t simply pay attention, or give his attention, he became attention to many people the world over in the Gospels. He was the attention many needed to be healed, restored, forgiven, included, loved, redeemed, named. His entire ministry, among many things, could be typified as one of great attention. We see in story after story, not a distracted Christ, but a Christ focused on the one before him, intently engaging, and hospitably extending himself even when he is clearly busy, clearly doing other things, clearly not planning on being attentive. But none of that mattered because Jesus was attention incarnate, God incarnate.

As people of faith, let me first suggest that we should become attention because we seek to be like Jesus: we seek to be sanctified for God’s attending work in the world, a work incarnate in Jesus. How can such a distracted people as we have become learn to be like Jesus when we miss a central aspect of his character: Attention? This divine attention is not marked by intention, but by the gift of presence, a pure gift in that it does not expect anything in return. Jesus is the gift of attention, as pure gift, grace incarnate as attention to those unattended.

Secondly, we give attention because in giving attention we are giving life. The attention that Jesus gave was life giving. Have you ever encountered a small child and given them attention? Allow me a fatherly example.

My daughter will often request that I play dolls with her in her room. She will tell me to be this doll or that doll and ask that I play with her for “just 5 minutes and then that’s enough.” Sometimes, after a long day at work, I will not hurriedly participate. She will come to me and berate me to play in the most loving way she knows how. If I do not succumb to her requests, she will go to her room alone, play alone, and sulk. Her daddy was not giving her attention. BUT, as soon as I come to my senses and step into her playroom, her eyes light up, her voice gets lighter, her feet move quicker, and she is animated once more. My attention gave her life.

This is an elementary example of how attention can change a person; it can breathe life into them. When we become attention, Godly attention, we are literally giving life to those who have been ignored, abused, neglected, or perhaps are simply friendless in a distracted world. There are myriads of people we rub elbows with every day that are depressed, anxious, uncertain, lost, confused. There are people who we think have their life figured out that will go home at night and wonder whether their life has any meaning. In a world full of people, there is a world of people missing a world until someone takes the time to be the bodily attention they need.

When we give attention, becoming attention in each small encounter, we are with our bodies affirming the other as an adored and valued part of creation, not only worthy of our attention but also worthy of God’s. When we fail to give attention, or we incarnate distraction, our attention becoming an equity to be placed where we can most benefit, we end up saying the opposite of our faith confession: you are fearfully and wonderfully made but not enough to matter to me. As believers, those whom Paul calls the body of Jesus (the corporal witness of Jesus on earth), our bodies are the presence of Christ toward others. When we withhold attention, we are, theologically speaking, withholding the sacrament of Christ’s presence to the world at large, to the face directly in front of us. May God help us.

Thirdly, we give attention because even as the body of Christ we need the face of the other in order to see Jesus, to learn Christ. As the Matthew passage suggests, “As you do to the least of these, you have done to me.” We give attention because Jesus is in the face and body of the other. We do this not out of some bizarre confusion of God’s metaphysical composition or out of fear of hell, but because we know that if we have not seen God in the face of the other than it is not God we see; we have become Narcissus.  In attending to others, we attend to God, and in attending to God, we become part of the new creation. We become what we are created to be, and we help the other accept their identity as beloved children of God, as brothers and sisters created in the imago dei.

Lastly, though not exhaustively, the Christian community is attended to by Christ each Sunday at the table of Jesus, the altar of God. We hear the perpetuity of these words, “on the night that he was betrayed, he took, he gave thanks, be blessed, and said, as often as you do this do this in re-membrance of me.” The table is the ritual of anamnetically recapitulating the event of attending to the table with Jesus and with his disciples. As re-membrance, it is attending to the event of communion, of attending to Jesus’ attendance with us. As witnesses of, and atten-dants in that continually rehearsed event, one of the chief means we bear witness of that event is by going and attending to the world. The world is not something we can attend in totality; it is that which we attend to in the encounter with the other. The world is not the other but the other is the world.

The closing proclamation of eucharistic celebration directly states such, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” How? The Lord is to be found in the face of the other. As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me. The proclamation could well also be “go in peace, to love and serve the Lord, being attentive to the least of these.” It is impossible to serve Jesus and not be attentive. Lord, forgive us for what we have done, and what we have left undone.

It is a difficult thing when we start to see the world with the attentiveness of Jesus. We see others being neglected. We see persons not being heard. We feel the pain of solitude. We see to the bottom of aching wells in the eyes of the other. We see our own interactions often fall victim to shallow words and distracted minds. When we learn to see the world with the attentiveness of Jesus, the Gospel becomes painfully difficult to imagine but surprisingly simple to perform: the goodnews is that God gives attention to us. God attends to us. As those in attendance with God, we feel in our bones the need to attend to others, and in so attending, invite the face of the other into holy attention with us, with God.

In the simple act of attending, we are admonishing, valuing, affirming, and loving the other, each other, one another. In giving and becoming attention, for a moment, we do not have to pretend what it might be like for Christ to be attentive to the other; We are allowing that same encounter to happen through us.

As we consider the ways and means in which we give attention, we should consider what it might mean to transform our understanding of attention from one of giving, or paying, to one of becoming. This is the process of sanctification: to slowly become that of which we partake in order to perform a unique task designated for holy purpose. Next time you find yourself in that mindless conversation, or in that brief moment of quiet desperation entrusted to you by a friend, colleague, family member, etc., consider what it might mean, if in that moment, attention became who you are rather than something you give. It might surprise you not only what you see, but more importantly, what you hear. May we be the Christ we want to see in the world.

Lord, may you quiet our hearts and steady our eyes as we see you in the moments we share with others. Sanctify us to be the incarnation of your son, in order that we may attend to one another as Christ has first attended to us. Amen.

“Daddy, Is it our Turn to do the Bread?”

“Daddy, is it our turn to do the bread yet?” my little girls asks, her big brown eyes gazing up at mine awaiting the point in the church service when she gets to “do the bread.”

I am often beside myself at how much truth comes from the mouths of babes, especially my own.

This past Sunday we were running slightly behind on our way to church. As we entered the church, we took our seats in the back to not disturb the service that had just begun. And it’s a good thing to because my little girl was super ready to do the bread that day, so much so that I felt like we were on a long car ride and I kept being repetitively asked, “are we there yet?”

After the opening hymn, “is it our turn yet?”

During the lessons, “is it our turn yet?”

During the passing of the peace, “is it our turn yet?”

Even during the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, “is it our turn yet?” To which I could finally say, “almost, it is almost our turn.”

The most striking part about this engagement is that my little girl knew what was important. Not that the entire service wasn’t important, but she knew there was something special coming to her, her coming to it, and she almost couldn’t wait for her turn. The part with the bread is unique, totally unlike the rest of the service. She knew that at the end of all the details there is a meeting that happens, at this time, in this way, and she was ready for that event.

Lord, grant that we all would be so excited to meet you.

I will resist the urge to discuss liturgy as pedagogy, but I can think of fewer things that teach children more than the rituals of the faith.

She has not been in the Episcopal Church long, but she has learned there is a special time when we get to eat in church, and for her, it’s the most exciting part of the morning.

My little girl is only four years old. Her and I have not had deep conversations about eucharistic theology or the finer nuances of real presence, grace, and holiness that is extended to us in this holy meal. We have not discussed the history of its institution or the drama that it portends each time bread is broken over the altar.  She has not fathomed to the consider the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John.

She does not understand as we adults consider understanding, but she understands in the doing. In the doing grace comes to her beyond her understanding. She doesn’t know what she is receiving, but she knows she is receiving something. And this something is all that matters.

It is a pleasant surprise to be reminded by one’s daughter of the Anselmian dictum, “Fides quaerens intellectum.

We had come to the “Prayers of the People” in the service and she incessantly kept asking if it were her turn. As I knelt, my arm around her and whispering for her to be a little quieter, her petitions reminded me of the Healing of the Paralytic in Luke 5.17-26.

The narrative of Luke 5 is fascinating, it being one of my favorite biblical images of a persistent faith.

The story places Jesus inside a building of some kind and the entrance to the house, presumably, is blocked by crowds. A paralytic, lying on a bed, was being carried to the place to meet Jesus.

As the men carrying the bed surveyed the situation, the crowds, the impossibility of getting through the door, they decide to improvise and lower the man, on his bed, into the house and place him directly in front of Jesus. This story has been creatively imagined by many artists and the text is silent on exactly how this worked, looked, or transpired, but it is the only account in scripture of a men being so persistent that they lower their friend through a roof to see Jesus.

I can see the face of Jesus. If his clairvoyance had kicked in, perhaps a grin comes over his face, knowing what is about to happen. Maybe he is praying over a child, teaching a lesson on scripture, writing on the floor to make his point when suddenly, into the top of his sight, he sees a shadow slowly interrupting the light in the room and a bed making its way into the noise and crowded space of the home. The crowd probably began to murmur louder as they stood astonished that someone would be so rude as to drop a bed in front of Jesus.

Afterall, these folks had skipped the line.

Jesus, one who often embraces such radical expressions of faith, gives the man on the bed his full and undivided attention. Jesus was there. Jesus was event. To have an event happen to the man on the bed the men knew they needed to get to where events take place: the presence of Jesus.

This is a faithful picture of what we often see in the Gospels: Jesus’ presence attracted crowds, large unmanageable crowds, and sometimes these gatherings occurred in the small spaces of ancient society. The presence of Jesus drew people to him. Many who would come to him probably couldn’t have picked Jesus out of a lineup prior to their meeting him. There were no pictures, newspapers, or internet mediums to communicate who he was. They didn’t know what would happen or what he would do. They just knew they needed to get there because of what they had heard. They didn’t understand everything that was going to happen, but they knew they needed a turn.

A turn to “do the bread.” A turn at life.

They didn’t need to know the answers.  They didn’t need to have a full-scale theology of miracles or understand how Jesus would do anything. They just knew they needed to get there.

So, they acted. They went where Jesus was. They experienced what it is to be in the presence of Jesus.

While our situation on Sunday was vastly different, the persistence of these friends to bring someone that needed Jesus into his presence was also embodied in the persistence of my little girl to get to the place she didn’t understand but knew was special.

She was ready to go, to move, to see Jesus, even though she might not be able to talk about it in that way. Her spirit and childlike intuitions were drawing her to this special place, the same place everyone else would be going as well. There are times on Sunday when the entrance seems obstructed, plenty of people going to meet Jesus, but if we wait, we know that our time will come. We will get through the roofs of life, and the busyness of the rail on Sunday, and Jesus will be there with us.

Our turn finally came. We stepped out of the aisle, her hand in mine, and I have the holy honor of walking my daughter to the place where Jesus is present. She is shy, so she bows her head as she makes her way to the altar, to not see anyone looking at her. We arrive at the stairs, slowly step up into the chancel, and are now closer. It’s our turn. I bow, take her to the left, and she kneels with me at the rail. She extends her tiny, wonder filled hands to the priest, and she receives the bread. She holds the hands of Jesus and Jesus holds hers.

The cup makes its way to us, she looks at me as if to get approval, I nod and tell her it is ok to dip her bread, she dips it. For a moment she stares at it, this odd thing we are doing, this bread now wet with a red tint, and she puts it near her mouth. Again, she looks at me and I tell her its ok to eat. She takes a bite, as if to try it first, just to make sure this is good. She looks at me with a piece of the wafer missing, reminiscent of the Psalmist suggestion that we should “taste and see that God is good.” Then, without hesitation, she puts the whole thing in her mouth, chews quickly, and then looks at me with a smile you could stretch across the heavens.

Her turn came. She was finally able to “do the bread.” We walked back to our seats and I couldn’t help but think if this is what it might have been like for all those that came to Jesus in the pages of scripture, coming to an event they didn’t quite understand but smiling after they met him because they knew that something had happened, even if they didn’t quite understand it.

“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19.13-15

Lord, that we would be as fervent and undeterred in our desire to meet you where you are and may we persist into the mystery of your presence, believing that in the end the holy smiles upon our faces are reflections of your good work in us. Amen.

Part 3- Becoming an Episcopalian: The Sermon, Crossing Oneself, Smells & Bells

St Lukes Altar

The Altar at St. Luke’s

*This is the final essay of my 3 part reflection series “Becoming an Episcopalian,” reflecting on my transition into the Episcopal Church. Please scroll down to see parts 1 & 2 as your leisure or desire so determines*

6. Sermon in Support Role, Eucharist Central

One of the striking dissimilarities between a formal and “informal” liturgical order is the presence of the sermon. In the Nazarene Church, as for many low church or free church traditions, the sermon is the pinnacle of Christian worship. Everything in the service revolves around, and moves toward, the proclamation of the Word. This is a consequence of the Protestant Reformation and the elevation of the proclaimed Word/word above all else. As a corrective to abusive Catholic Church power, many Protestant Reformers gave the reading and explication of Scripture primacy in worship. A Renewed emphasis on Scripture, as seen in Martin Luther, John Calvin and others, was a welcome but unexpected historical development. Even though Anglican tradition emerges simultaneously as the Reformation in Europe, it, however, remained in harmony with broader Catholic tradition and the Eucharistic table retained its central importance.

First, let me acknowledge that I love listening to sound biblical preaching. As a vocational minister, I love to preach, and I enjoy the study of homiletical method. I have a passion for wrestling with the biblical text and delivering a well-crafted idea from the pages of scripture. I cherish the unexpected presence of the Holy Spirit that brings clarity of thought, words of power, and emotive delivery to the Word that is Jesus as I proclaim the words of men in the text. However, this foray into Anglican tradition has been a good check on the central importance of preaching and a much-needed relief.

One of the many temptations of making preaching central is the pride of the preacher and the pulpit becoming a personality cult of sorts. We all want to do well, especially pastors, preachers, helpers of any sort really. We want our words to inspire. Preaching is a practice preserved and performed within the institution of the church. Yet, preachers are humans and humans can be subject to the trappings of pride and inflated egos at the expense of the gospel. Of course, this is not merely a “low church” problem but in a tradition where there is so much pressure on the sermon because it is THE THING each Sunday, pride can seep into even the most sanctified of gifted speakers.

Consequently, the sermon being the pinnacle of worship, there is an unspoken amount of pressure many educated pastors place upon themselves to have a “great sermon” or be a “great preacher” all the time. After all, people come to church to worship and to hear a good sermon. They got their families ready, woke up early after a long week of work, and despite proclivities to maybe sleep in and enjoy coffee on the back porch, they came to church. Older folks, for whom attending church is sometimes a physical struggle, made coming to worship a main part of their day; they need a good sermon for their efforts. The preacher must make sure the sermon is worth listening to! Rarely will people remember all the songs of praise, or out of tune pianos, but most certainly the congregation will remember at lunchtime a sermon that lands with a thud (even as it fades quickly from memory).

Anglican tradition is full of great preachers, past and present. However, in Book of Common Prayer and liturgical rubrics, preaching is tangential and supportive of the central act of worship each Sunday: The Communion Table. The main attraction of each Sunday is not the preacher, whether that preacher was John Wesley, John Claypool, John Stott, or even the very alive NT Wright and Fleming Rutledge. Jesus, and him crucified, is the main attraction each Sunday.

The priest climbs into the pulpit, not at the center of the church, but to its right, when the Gospel is preached. The preaching matters; it is a lesson for the church and should be done well. Priests should not shirk behind the liturgical primacy of Eucharist and produce shallow or anecdotal sermons. There is a place in Anglican tradition of powerful proclamations of the Word.

However, the priest knows that no matter how well the sermon is crafted or how much insight they can demonstrate, the role of the sermon is to always move the church toward the paschal mystery of Jesus that takes center stage in worship. Regardless of the voluntaries played, hymns sung, prayers offered, or the homily presented, all of that is wrapped up into the mystery of the table and the sanctification of the body of Christ by eating the flesh of the savior. This is the direction of worship.

I am thankful that my words will fail before that mystery and that I have discovered, and learned, the efficacy of the Word does not rely on my clever rhetorical packaging.  I rest in this new tradition knowing that while I do matter, I don’t matter near as much as I would like to think, and the table can always accomplish infinitely more than I can with words that will eventually always be forgotten.

7. Crossing Oneself.

For those outside of catholic practice this is an odd thing to see and an even odder thing to begin doing. We often associate this practice with Roman Catholicism but church members in the Anglican Communion do it as well. This is one of those practices that can give the impression to some of the “dead traditionalism” noted by Jaroslav Pelikan. I have been in conversations with evangelical/lower church folk who have commented that it is a routine done by Catholic’s that doesn’t mean anything; it is a “going through the motions” without intent.

Of course, I cannot speak for the motivations of others regarding crossing oneself, or the automations humans develop over time, but I can share my own.

First, the act of crossing oneself is an act of consecrating yourself to God; it is my way of claiming my body for Christ. It reminds me of who’s I am and from where I have come. Whatever I am, I am foremost identified as one that identifies with the crucified Jesus. There are moments when I cross myself that I sense the Holy Spirit testifying to my physical affirmation through this simple act. This is a physical way of identifying with Christ, nothing flashy or presumptive

Scripture notes several ways people “mark” themselves, identifying with God or against God. Of infamy, the Book of Revelation notes the “mark of the beast.” The other mark noted is noted in the Old Testament at various places refers to carrying God’s law on our foreheads.

Marking ourselves (identifying) on the head or body is a common thing done in scripture for both ill and good, for both men and women. The “mark” in Revelation is juxtaposed by this Old Testament mark of the people of God. Crossing oneself is a means of not being marked with the mark of the beast, not succumbing to the powers of darkness that seek to inebriate us with false power and sin. It reminds me of all the promises that lie beneath the cross that has just marked my body.

Secondly, as crossing oneself is often done at moments when the trinity is named, after prayers or repentance, prior/after receiving consecrated elements, etc., it is a reminder of God’s otherness and my submission to the mystery of God. When I mark myself, it is my physical confession of acceptance of this Christ and affirmation of participating in this great mystery.

What I have discovered is that marking oneself is not something done out of a false sense of piety, as if this is a Timothean (2 Tim. 3.5) version of having a form of religion without the power thereof. It is a physical gesture of an aphysical reality that centers and reorients the one who crosses themselves with intent.

Lastly, as part of the liturgical renewal movement of several decades ago, fonts were placed where the nave and chancel meet. Fonts are also traditionally at the entrance of churches, prior to the sanctuary space. I sometimes mark myself with holy water (crossing myself) when exiting the chancel post-communion or when entering a church. I have seen fonts at both places (entrance of church/exit of altar area) and have used the water from both. This is a simple act of dipping one’s fingers in water (that has been consecrated) for the purpose of sanctifying the one that uses it and reminding us of the sanctifying power of our baptism. There is surely some grand baptismal theology do be done here, but my personal experience as an act of piety is that it takes me back to my baptism, reminds me of that birth in Christ, and extends grace to me through the watery chaos of death overcome in Jesus. For these reasons, with a thankful heart I dip my fingers and mark my head or body with the waters redeemed in Christ and presided over by the Holy Spirit.

8. Smells and Bells

As one who had never been in a service wherein liturgical time/events were marked with bells, nor the divine presence of God noted with incense, I too had the common “eye roll” over these sorts of activities. It was easy to sit on the outside and wonder “why” and then equate these sorts of things with traditionalism. I would argue at this point that I was wrong in these leanings and offer these remarks to those who wonder at the smells and bells we do in church. Key word of this section (as well as Eucharistic theology) is anamesis.

First, it should be noted that every context is different. I have been to churches in Cleveland, TN (where I attend), Chattanooga, TN, Orlando, FL, Philadelphia, PA and Glenmoore, PA. Each church has a tradition within the tradition and within their context have all been faithfully Anglican. Some churches chant more than others. Some use bells, some do not. Some use incense, some do not. Some have a full slate of Holy Week Services that culminate in the Great Vigil, some do not. Etc, etc. As in the Nazarene tradition, there is more latitude across region and context in the Episcopal church than many outsiders know.

Secondly, the smells and bells are not a dead traditionalism. They perform key functions in worship through sensory means. The smell of incense reminds (anamnesis/re-member) one that we are in a holy space, the presence of God, and takes us back to the same sorts of experiences that would have been shared by ancient Israelites. The smell permeates the space in much the same way the holy spirit can be sensed, but not necessarily seen. The incense is a cue that we are “somewhere” with this unique air and invites participants to ask, “what is that smell? What’s happening?” That, my friends, is the point. The smell is a trigger to look for what is happening, to seek out the reasons for the smell. The incense means we are in a different place, a place where this smell resides and that means there is something special about this place. Pay attention.

Likewise, the bells are a notation of action. The bells are typically used during the Great Thanksgiving to denote the sacrificial action of God in Christ. When the bell is rung, the intent is to look for the place from which the ring comes, to look for what it announces. When literacy was not as prevalent as today the bells were used to communicate various parts of the liturgy. This is the simple role of bells: they are an alarm, stop what you are doing and take caution, etc.

In the liturgy, the bells draw our attention to the table when the Christ has given us his body and blood. Jesus is lifted via the elements, and to make sure we do not miss this divine act, the bell brings our attention to the drama unfolding at the table. There may not be anything biblical about ringing a bell in worship but that does not mean that worship cannot incorporate means of drawing one’s attention to the central drama of worship.

*I trust that these brief reflections have been as edifying to read as they were for me to consider. I have not written all that can be said (or debated) on these issues  and I invite you to explore and reflect your own experience as a part of our deeply rich Christian tradition. May the peace of God dwell in your hearts and shape your lives continually*

Part 2: Becoming an Episcopalian: Using Written Prayers, Memorizing Prayer/Scripture, & Worship Space

St Lukes Caricature

*This post is part 2 of the previous post/reflections on my foray into Episcopalian piety. Please read part 1 for the theological context from which I come prior to being an Episcopalian. I below note three areas of piety that have been quite formative for me (two were noted in the previous post). I offer these reflections as one with a theological education yet one who has only begun to scratch the surface of liturgical theology and Anglican forms of life. These reflections are submitted for the edification of the church and in thanksgiving for the work God is doing at St. Lukes and in my family.*

3. Written Prayers are Powerful Tools of Formation.

A common misconception about saying written prayers is that they are not sincere or authentic, that saying written prayers or rehearsing the same words over and over can result in a mundane routine that stagnates the soul. Many folks in the lower church tradition prize spontaneity and instantaneous reactions to God as more authentic than carefully considered words of prayer. The former is considered real and the latter considered fake or “going through the motions” having a form of spirituality but denying the power thereof (2 Timothy 3.5). I have discovered this to be a shallow criticism.

There is great power in using written prayers. First, it should be noted that the Prayer Book itself is mostly composed of scripture. Many of the prayers recited, and words rehearsed, come directly from scripture. Other words and prayers come from Christian tradition, some prayers themselves literally going back to the Augustinian Era. When we pray the prayers offered in the Book of Common Prayer we are literally praying with the Apostles, with the early church, and with the most recent historical tradents. Thus, in using prescribed prayers we are embodying (hiding) scripture in our hearts and continuing in the teaching of the Apostles. What better way to internalize text than to pray it?

Second, using written prayers removes me from my own spiritual formation. The prayer book forces me to pray away from myself, they very act of praying being formative. Too often in Nazarene life I was lost at prayer, unsure what to say, how much I needed to say it, how often I needed to say it, and what words I needed to use. I would often confuse lengthy impromptu prayers with “good praying” or when leading congregational prayer as a pastor feel the pressure of using powerful words so that our prayer time wasn’t wasted by the rambling of my mind. As I got older, my prayers became shorter and less verbose (as I realized the waste of too many words and the powerful simplicity of a few meaningful words). Again, I may have totally missed Nazarene piety, but I felt lost on a sea of emotions and needs when I would consider how to pray.

My prayer was rarely focused on anything except what was top of mind to me. I was the all-important deciding factor on what I prayed and what/whom I remembered in my prayers. I was the all-important deciding factor when deciding what scripture to read in personal devotions or even what to preach (though I did follow church seasons). The Prayer Book solves that problem through Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as the Daily Offices. I am no longer responsible for my own spiritual formation by deciding the content of my prayers. There are times in the prayers where I can make my own petitions or thanksgivings, but the prayers now are the church’s way of shaping me, not my way of shaping myself. In other words, the Prayer Book showed me to my own spiritual humanism in my Nazarene days. This is not a blanket criticism of my former tradition; it is a personal awareness via reflection.

Further, the Prayer Book is concise. It is not the literary version of standing on the street corner so that we can be seen and heard with our long prayers. Too often in my former tradition (and other low church embodiments) prayer becomes a sermonette, a lengthy demonstration that is mostly mini-sermon in prayer form, telling the congregation in the prayer what was also (or in addition to) hoped to be understood in the sermon.

To the contrary, prayers in the Book of Common Prayer are short, concise, and easily memorized. We say what we need to say and then silence our mouths before the one Whose presence ought to have our undivided attention. I no longer feel guilty about what I did or did not say in a prayer. I pray with the saints of the church and then I stop, believing that I have joined my voice with saints past and present, and believing that as these very words shape me as they fall on the ears of God in ways that the words themselves even fail to express. With Paul, God hears my groaning through the prayers given to us by the history of the Church. It cannot get any more real or authentic than deliberately raising my voice with these voices. In sum, my daily prayer routines went from something I prescribed to something prescribed for me by the church, shaping me according the body of Christ.

4. Memorizing Prayer/Songs/Creeds.

I have memorized more prayers, songs, creeds and texts in these 7 months than I have in several years. Memorizing words can have one of two impacts. First, it can either become of such a secondary nature that it eventually is done without thinking and therefore meaningless, or secondly, it can become something that continually inhabits your spirit through its repetition. For me, the second has happened. I would argue that even in the case of the first scenario, the tradition is kept so close to your heart that even though you take it for granted the Spirit still uses it to remind you of who you are in God (see Proverbs 22.6)…but I digress. I am beyond thankful that I have hidden so much prayer, psalm, and text in my heart in the last 7 months.

I have memorized multiple forms of prayer in the morning and evening prayers, the Nicene Creed (yes, the long Creed), all the songs in the Prayer Books’ Rite II order of worship, most of Rite I, the proper responses therein, and also the post communion prayers. A friend of mine also gifted me with St Augustine’s Prayer Book and I have memorized several prayers therein. I have also begun memorizing smaller prayers that can be used with prayer beads.

Memorization is not the end all and be all of piety. Long ago I quit thinking that my spiritual health was contingent what bible verses I memorized, exact verse memorization not being equivalent to hiding the word in my heart. However, it is a tacit way of making prayer/scripture an integral part of one’s constitution, able to be rehearsed or remembered when necessary. We are what we eat and if we consume Christian spiritual things our body will begin to look like that which we place into it: we will begin to look like Christ. And there is nothing wrong with using the same material over and over until we become what we say. The Bible itself is a great repetition meant to sanctify its recipients through the repetition of its content.

5. Worship Space Matters.

This has been a contentious issue for hundreds of years. Let me simply communicate my experience.

I worship in a historic church built in the 1870’s. It is a beautiful brick building, with a stone slate roof (with a cross pattern spread on top), and all the furnishings in the inside are original. It is located on a downtown courtyard gifted to the Episcopal Church by the founding family. Inside the sanctuary is beautiful hand carved word work everywhere you look, old wooden floors, hand carved pews, and stained glass that takes one into the corridors of heaven. One’s attention is drawn to the front of the church where beautiful ornate stained-glass windows portray Christ and two disciples flanking his right and left. It is a Emmaus Road like scene over the communion table (see Luke 24). The church now houses a restored organ built in the 1950’s that fills its space with the work of matchless composers. Its intonations place you at the stairway of heaven on any given Sunday. The transition from nave to chancel is under a hand carved arch that resembles the curvature of an old maritime vessel, Noah’s ark even, marking this space as a transition into that which houses the arc/k of salvation. I have the privilege of using this space each Sunday.

I firmly believe, and partially agree, with many critics of such places that money can be better spent than in making ornate buildings to God. In fact, Jesus and Paul make clear that God does not reside in the temples of men, but that the temple and body of Christ are those who gather as leftovers of the resurrection of Jesus. We are the church. One does not need a certain space to do church, to be church, to have church. I have personally promoted in my previous pastoral assignment a contemporary approach free from the trappings of expensive worship spaces. I believe Jesus when he says he is present where two or more are gathered together and I hear the prophets when they remind us that God desires a heart rent in repentance rather than a people lost in their legality or forms.

Yet, when I enter this church each Sunday I am instantly reminded of Isaiah 6 and space makes deep spiritual sense, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple…” In other words, this space communicates to me the majesty and otherness of God, the train of God’s robe brushing against my spirit as I gather here to pray.

The door to the church is a line of demarcation; it is a transition from one reality and into another, another Holy reality that seeks to impress its holiness upon me when I exit this “holy” space later in procession.

I enter and am reminded I am to be reverent because I am in the presence of the maker of the world.

I enter in silence because I am a human that stands before God, my words failing to contain God.

I sit with attention to my surroundings because through these symbols God visits me.

I sit in the shadow of the arc/k, knowing that the table at the front is an extension of divine hospitality to me as a sinner and in need of grace. I frequently consider Noah and the early church allegorical interpretations of this story.

I hear the organ and piano because I know it’s a representation of the eternal heavenly throng that circle the throne of God filling infinity with the sound of beauty and adoration.

In this space, I kneel on benches where hundreds before me have knelt and petitioned God. My prayers join theirs.

At the rail before the table, I kneel and extend my hands to receive the body and blood of Jesus…hanging on the same rail as parents that untimely lost their daughter (the remembrance of whom dedicated this church) and countless sinners seeking a grace they did not understand but gazing a savior above them that made himself known in the breaking of the bread.

I dip my hands in the holy water of the font and remind myself of the baptism with which I was born. This space matters because it is a physical incarnation of the majesty of God and the connection of myself with the people of God throughout history, the space itself taking architectural inspiration from the Old Testament Temples.

Do we need this space to be Christian? No. But in a world where so much is casual and narcissistic, where nothing is sacred, spaces like this provide a visual reminder that God seeks to adorn us, and the world, with the same life and beauty that is exhibited in this carefully crafted place. Whenever I am tempted to believe my life is all about my own desires, this space reminds me I am invited to participate into something much greater than the fleeting nature of my aspirations.

*Part 3, the conclusion of my brief reflections, will be posted later this week…

 

Becoming an Episcopalian: Observations on Spiritual Practice In The Episcopal Church- Part 1

Confirmation Picture April 7, 2019

Confirmation Picture: St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland, TN, April 7, 2019.

*This is Part 1 of a 3 part post. This series will offer observations on the following 8 subjects, the first 2 covered in this post: Praying the Psalter, The Role of Scripture, Praying Written Prayers, Memorizing Prayer/Scripture/Songs/Creeds, Worship Space, Role of the Sermon, Crossing Oneself, & affectionately Smells and Bells.*

In January I embarked on a Spirit led journey into Anglican tradition via the Episcopal Church. My place of departure was the Church of the Nazarene, a specific branch of the Methodist tradition that is a precarious balance of 18th century Wesleyan Theology and 19th century American Holiness theology.

At the local level, the Nazarene church has been greatly influenced by both Baptist and Pentecostal forms of spirituality, at least within the South and within my context in East Tennessee. For many, the University is the first exposure we ever had to a deep sense of what it means to be not only Nazarene but also part of the Wesleyan tradition. It should be noted that Wesleyanism has its roots in Anglicanism.

To be sure, there are aspects of Wesley that are alive and well in Nazarene Church, the extent of which typically depends on congregational context and the education of the local pastor. For the most part, however, theology and doctrine have taken precedence over spiritual practices as major influences in Nazarene Tradition (which I should also note is a young Church, founded in 1908 as a result of the Holiness movements of the 19th century).

As far as Nazarene life goes, the parts of Wesley most dismissed, or simply not even known, have been his spiritual practices and any form of spiritual routine that reflects a history in the Book of Common Prayer or even historical vestiges of Methodist societies. When it comes to personal piety, however, it is often subjective, up to the individual on what they say or do. Further, when congregants are admonished to memorize and learn scripture, there are few opportunities built into worship or communal life that would help anyone memorize anything beyond the routine order of service or hymns/music, good and noble to be sure but not scripture, prayer, or creedal. Of course, this varies on context.

This is a brief sketch of the place from which I came as I encountered Anglican spirituality, not merely as an academic, but as a participant. Through the years my course of study exposed me to catholic tradition. It is one thing to know some facts about a tradition; it is quite another to know a tradition by living within it and allowing it to shape you. For most of my life I have been shaped by the American Holiness tradition as embodied in Nazarene life. For another large portion, University professors and teachers shaped me and offered me Wesleyan roots that lay dormant underneath the American Holiness influences. And now, as one who has left my homeland, I have begun to be shaped by another rich tapestry of Christian tradition: Anglicanism & The Book of Common Prayer.

This month marks the 7th month I have been in the Episcopal Church and the 4th month since my confirmation. My family was baptized into the church on Refreshment Sunday (3/31/19), an odd day traditionally for a baptism, but one that makes sense theologically. I offer these remarks as one who had heretofore only observed from the outside, while now on the inside and doing them daily. I further offer them as one with a theological education (and now pursing doctoral studies) yet one who has only begun to scratch the surface of liturgical theology and Anglican forms of life. Thus, my sentiments may be true to intent, or slightly off, but these are my impressions of the piety I have thus far encountered and experienced without any Anglican academic credentials.

1. I never knew the power of praying the Psalter until this year.

Prior to Anglican spirituality, the Psalter was Israel’s prayer and song book; it was also a book I never used for those purposes. Maybe I was a bad Nazarene. I’m not sure, but the Psalter wasn’t a central part of any piety or practice offered to me and I was raised, educated, and ordained in the Nazarene Church. The Psalter is one of the ways the Holy Spirit confirmed to me that I was in the right place.

I had never chanted the Psalms until my first Sunday at St Lukes. I didn’t even know how to chant them. As we came to the Psalm after the first lesson, suddenly the Holy Spirit came over me in an unanticipated way. The Holy Spirit is an old friend, one that I know is present when it comes around, and in this strange new place my old friend, the comforter, came alongside of me and confirmed in my spirit I was in the right place.

The beauty of the Psalms words, the collective chanting of these ancient signs with the contemporary people of God, and the way God spoke to me through this means of worship, was palpable. Tears gently filled my eyes as the chant filled my mouth and my eyes focused on the Christ making himself available through his visible presence in the stained glass at the head of the chancel. The psalm had brought me into the sanctuary, and I caught a glimpse of majesty I had never seen, nor did I expect to encounter.

This sort of experience does not happen every Sunday, in fact, it hasn’t happened since, but the chanting has become something I look forward to each Sunday and praying the Psalms are something I regularly do in my morning/evening prayer. They are a powerful source of divine communication, constantly reminding me that my own words are unnecessary, and I can lean into the words of the Psalmist to say what I often feel but cannot describe. It is has been described as the prayer book of ancient Israel and now it has also become my own.

2. The Bible is Everywhere.

Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan made a notable statement when he remarked, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” (The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities).

It is often noted by those in more “spirit filled” (experientially spontaneous) religious traditions, that more formal churches are cemented to their tradition and shackled to their structure, not having the freedom to respond to God in worship. Authentic worship is measured by a person’s ability to respond at will, at any moment, to the moving of the Holy Spirit in the service.

Further, it is believed by many that these formal traditions are not “biblical” and are more faithful to their traditions and liturgy than to scripture. In other words, it is believed that many in Anglican and Catholic churches are living out traditionalism (the dead faith of the living) and calling it faith.

While I could compose a treatise in response to these non-reflexive prejudices, I will simply note my experience. As a confirmed Episcopalian I engage more scripture in church each Sunday than I ever did as a Nazarene. Scripture is literally everywhere in the Episcopal church. We pray it. We read it. We sing it. We responsively say it. I find myself rehearsing it at work because of my frequent recitation of it.

Most of the prayer book is composed of scripture. Scripture and prayer are central; in fact, it is this commonality of practice and commitment that unites the church over any doctrine or theology. Many that find their way to the Episcopal Church, after being in lower church settings that claim a high view of scripture, are surprised to discover the centrality of scripture in the Anglican Tradition. The bible is not dead here. It is alive and well.

Further, liturgical structure does not imply a dead spirit. Quite the contrary; it is in the very structure of worship that I have had the Holy Spirit commune with my spirit in unexpected ways, God not needing my “freedom” to respond in a charismatic fashion. Tradition, like scripture, provides time tested avenues through which God can commune with the us.

The freedom so touted by experiential expressivist spiritualities is not found in the anarchy of spirit but in the order of creation and ordered response, a case that can be made theologically and biblically. There is, therefore, freedom to be obtained within the structure. As in any institution, freedom happens inside of limits. I quote Augustine loosely at this point, “Love God and do what you please.” The love of God being the structure within which our freedom is expressed.

I do not get the sense of cold traditionalism in the church I attend nor in any I have attended (which at this point is 5 different Episcopal churches). I get the sense of a deep commitment to the tradition handed down, a deep commitment to preserve it as a means of communication used by the Holy Spirit, and a deep sense of holy awe inspired within in the liturgical offerings. Of course, this may rely upon the participant and I do not deny that things can become routine and dry or that some churches are “cold.” But no tradition holds that tendency hostage. One can even become numb to Pentecostal ecstasy when those modes of worship become too familiar or normative, no longer having the power to allow the Word to be made Strange and, therefore, no longer alluring.

Stay tuned for Part 2 to be posted Sunday…