We Become What We Pray: Final Thoughts On Confession

In this concluding post discussing gleanings through the practice of daily confession, I will note four areas of focus:

  1. We become what we pray
  2. Prayer sanctifies us
  3. The epiphany of grace that happens within confession
  4. Confession creates awareness that leads to proper witness.

Firstly, the practice of daily Confession gives fresh meaning to the ancient phrase lex orandi, lex credenda: the rule of prayer leads to the rule of faith/belief.  In other words, we become our prayers. We become what we pray and our prayers shape our orientation to the world.

When I was a child, around the age of 9-17, there was a well-known traveling evangelist that had a profound impact on my life. His revival was one my local church routinely scheduled. During one of his sermons, he said something that has stuck with me all these years. Back then, it had a much different impact on me than it does today, but the words continue to resonate. He proclaimed with divine authority, “to live right, you have to believe right,” words that were followed with a string of loud “amens” back then.

As I repeat that statement, I cringe with all that is wrong with it, not to mention its deep sense of pride. While that statement can be parsed multiple ways, the crux of the matter is that he presumed that right belief produced a rightly formed life. That conception is really, and quite profoundly, a very modern way to construe Christian faith. The irony is it’s quite a liberal theology to ground faith in our right belief, epistemology preceding all else (liberalism is something he would have adamantly denied). So much for revelation. I digress.

Notably, he left out one crucial thing that leads to right living: prayer. In order to live right, one must not simply believe right, since the category of “right belief” is largely subjective. Rather, to believe right one must first pray right. Right prayer leads to right belief, which then leads to right action. Prayer precedes all else in the life of the church because the church prays its theology well before the church commends its doctrines. Long before there was Christian theology, there was prayer. Prayer informed theology and, in turn, theology would then shape prayer. Quite simply, prayer shapes belief.

When we use prayers given to us by the church, the church and its prayers shape us. When our intellect, convictions, or even personal concerns are all that shape our prayers (because they will shape our prayers to an extent), it is not the church that shapes us but our “right belief” and our faith surprisingly looks a lot like us. No wonder so many people live narcissistic or stunted lives of faith.

If you want to know what a church values, listen to its prayers. If you want to know what a church believes, pray its prayers. And unless you personally want to be changed, then never ever pray the prayers of the church. It’s dangerous to your current state of being and threatens to turn you into something you could never make yourself.

In other words, lex orandi, lex credendi: we become what we pray, the rule of prayer leads to the rule of faith. It is a dialectic held in perfect tension within the practices of the church. The daily Confession of Sin teaches us to live into a life of repentance and penance. For the first time in my life, in all my sordid interactions and decisions, the prayer of Confession comes to mind throughout my day, reminding me of the confession and the One to whom my actions testify. My daily journey is thus constantly integrated with a biblical one.

Secondly, in addition to direct prayers of Confession, the Daily Office itself saturates my comings and goings as I am constantly reminded that my life is one sanctified through daily prayer and confessions, which are made perpetually present in my interactions because they are made perpetual in my sayings.

In a way never comprehended, I have begun to understand the importance of praying the hours in the ancient church or what the Apostle Paul may have meant by “praying without ceasing”: when we keep holy time through constant prayer we are constantly acknowledging that time is holy and our lives are sanctified by God. Indeed, we are bought with a price and we are not our own.

I am here reminded of a quote by the 4th century hymnist and saint, Ephraim of Syria, who wrote on prayer, “Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven.”

In other words, confessional prayer sanctifies us, ridding us of vices, and creating a new heart within us shaped by the church and the resurrected Christ.

Thirdly, while bringing to the fore my own ineptitude and incapacity for anything good, Confession also reminds me of the gracious act of God that is meritoriously extended to me without my having earned any of it. I would that I was a good person. Alas, I am not. I am here reminded of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “We have all become like the one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64.6).

Because Confession makes me mindful of my daily shortcomings, my past indiscretions, and my future failings, I am more concertedly aware that God’s grace is far deeper and greater than anything I can imagine. The boundlessness of God’s love and concern for me, for you, for creation, is unfathomable. I stand at the altar completely speechless in my attempts to understand a grace so deep and wide. I stare at the portraiture of Christ, in stained glass, above the altar, in absolute awe of a love that evades every word, every symbol, every definition.

We come to the moment in the Great Thanksgiving that reminds us He “delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” (Book of Common Prayer, 368). This love and unmerited grace bends down in the incarnation of God, Jesus Christ, and forgives us because he has always already forgiven us on Calvary. Hence, what the Daily Confession of Sin allows is a deep awareness, and rest, in God’s grace.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is remembered to have said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11.28-29). In daily confessing our sins, we do not stand as people condemned and burdened with guilt; rather, we kneel as ones who are honest and resting fully in the necessity of God’s grace to be whatever we are only through the grace extended to us in Jesus Christ. I confess my sins, how I have missed the mark, not in an attempt to avoid hell, but as an awareness that I need Christ even more, the Christ who desires that no one will be lost but that all will be saved (II Peter 3. 8-10).

Finally, the concluding prayer of the Daily Office is rehearsed with the full awareness that we have confessed ours sins and stand as people enshrouded by the robe of God’s grace.  This final prayer gives thanks to God for his mercies and gifts. One line especially stands out to me that directs us back to the Confession of Sin, “And, we pray, gives us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise.” BCP, 101.

This phrase is a concluding portion of a final office prayer called “The General Thanksgiving.” It is preceded by reference to God’s creation, redemption, and preservation. It’s tone and tenor are one of thanksgiving for all the things God has done. However, during the giving of thanks, the above phrase in this final prayer is one more reminder of our dependence on the meritorious grace of God. The verb in the phrase is passive in tense, “give us such an awareness of your mercies.” Only God can make us fully aware of the mercies, chances, opportunities, and gifts we have received. It is our default setting to forget those things throughout the busyness of life. Unless God shake from out of us the narcissism of our culture and ego-centricity of our worldviews, there is no other means whereby we can be made aware of gifts given to us.

One of the reasons we can, possibly, possess a fully repentant heart yet be stuck between the dialectical tension of what we should and should not do, is because we neglect this portion of prayer.

Our voices and lives must echo repentance because in so doing that vehicle of confession is the vehicle whereby God can continually “make us aware” of those said mercies.

In fact, perhaps more so than moving God to forgive anything in particular, our confessions of sins committed, or omitted, actually serve to bring those mercies top of mind so that we might attain thankful hearts and show forth the praise of God in our lives. We need not always imagine that we confess our sins out of some fear that anything left unconfessed make the trek to heaven harder. Just as we are fallible humans in our doing, we are also fallible in our memory or recollection. The act of confession, rather, binds us to the action of forgiveness given and brings those mercies front and center, God’s very means of providing the awareness we need when we encounter the others that could benefit from pulling up a chair to the table of Christ.

For when we are aware, we a less likely to judge and more likely to empathize. We are less like to be filled with fear, and more likely to be filled with hope. When we are aware, we are less likely to consider our own holy walk with God and more likely to consider the eternally present act of God in Christ that makes even walking itself possible. Just as the Daily Office early on directs us toward our contrite hearts, it redirects us back to that reception of mercy prior to sending us into the world, thereby bookending our beginning and endings of holy time with Confession.

Only as we first realize we are the ones who are forgiven, are we humble enough to go into the world and be symbols of forgiveness to others, ambassadors of reconciliation. Thus, Daily Confession of Sin precedes our ability to be faithful ministers of Christ, for only those who have taken up their own Cross, and spoken their sins into its wood, can heed the call to go into the world, follow Him, and make disciples.

The Daily Confession of Sin, Part 2: Being Mindful

When I mention engaging in a Daily Confession of Sin, I do not mean repeating daily the popularized version of the “sinners prayer,” in which one confesses they are a sinner before God in need of forgiveness, and then “accepts Jesus into their heart.” I am assuming that Daily Confession of Sin precludes that one is already Christian, i.e., baptized and one’s “sins” submerged into the watery grave with Christ and resurrected into newness of life. Confession is a daily part of Christian piety, not strictly something one does one time in order to begin to follow Jesus and then never revisited. Thus, I am not speaking about re-initiating a new walk with God daily. It is assumed that the one praying daily prayers of confession are doing so precisely because Jesus is already “in their heart” and directing their life.

That little bit being cleared up, I’d like to begin this second post by reciting the Confession from Morning Prayer, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer, 79.

“Most Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will and walk in your way, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

This is not the only Confession found in The Book of Common Prayer. There are several forms of confessional prayer in the BCP itself, as well as in extant Episcopalian and broader catholic tradition.

While I was initially concerned about the efficacy of saying a Confession of Sin daily, what I found in the experience was quite different. Herein lies my first of two takeaways that provide the content for Part 2 of this brief series.

Far from being empty prayers reciting written words, the practice of confession is life giving because it is life minding.

A regular confession of sin brought forth a mindfulness about life that I had heretofore never experienced. It pulled me into a state of attentiveness. It brought a new awareness of my human actions, even seemingly insignificant ones. Any previous premonition that such regular praying was for folks that wanted to indulge in cheap grace was completely abolished. The last thing folks in search of cheap grace want to do is spend 20-30 minutes praying the Daily Office or utilizing prayer beads or any other means/context within which confessional prayer takes place. Confession is part of a larger story, not an isolated event. More on that in a bit.

Contrary to my bias, I discovered that the experience of daily confession would most likely not be the daily confession of those seeking cheap grace. Assumptions of cheap grace are likely to be followed by a cheapening of prayer life as well. In fact, I discovered that daily confession of sin led to a more profound understanding of grace, a deeper appreciation of the act of God’s forgiveness (because it is engaged/acknowledged more frequently), and my requisite need of it. These were not prayers said in the shadow of deliberative sin, their utterance being a holy check mark, a spiritual firewall against an untimely mortal demise. Instead, they were prayers I said even as I sought to be as faithful as possible, yet still being more keenly aware of my shortcomings. Confessional prayers helped me bring my life to mind, and thereby, to more regularly life mending.

For example, considering my former self, so long as I did not break a “known” law of God, I would keep it moving. No need for an apology or admission of my own shortcomings. I fully acknowledge that maybe I was a bad Nazarene and not in tune with a proper sense of spirituality. It’s totally possible. My story is my own and I cannot project this on the entirety of the tradition. Yet, as I began to trust the catholic Church, and trust it’s prayers, the Book of Common Prayer became a part of my life. I began to be mindful of all my interactions throughout the day. The literal confession of “known and unknown, done and left undone” made me mindful of my actions in a way I had never imagined possible. Suddenly, the ordinary interactions of my day became animated with a confessional prayer seeking God’s grace, and not only my need of it, but of its necessity for daily sustainability in a life that tempts us to forget our state as forgiven and loved people.

I recalled daily communications with my kids, my wife, my employees, and my reactions to folks in public. I recall impure thoughts or times I was filled with anger or pride, or when I expressed values that did not always value what Christ valued. Confessing my sin daily, my known (commission) and unknown sin (omission), made me deeply aware of how much I really do need God’s grace because I am not nearly as sinless as I once thought, which was a bummer by the way.

To be human is to miss the mark, to commit the sort of missing the mark sin described in the New Testament. There is so much I am leaving undone and so much I do that I wish I could undo, or do better, daily. And if such were not the case, I believe I would need forgiveness for the spiritual pride that would accompany such a holy life that knew how sanctified it really was. There is something of a holy humility that characterizes those that bathe themselves in the prayers of the church long enough.

Pelagianism is good in theory, but when I search my heart, mind, and soul, I find I am far from what Christ wants me to be even as my daily prayers make me mindful of the Christ that is within me. Confession allows us to resonate with Paul’s use of Psalms 14 in Romans chapter 3, when he writes that everyone is under the power of sin and there is “no one who does good, no not one.” Yet, before you accuse me of a spiritual masochism, recall that even Jesus said, “why do you call me good? There is no one Good but God.” (Luke 18.19 & Mark 10.18)

It is ironic that my home tradition relies so much on John Wesley for its understanding of sin, yet John Wesley is recalled as an Anglican Divine that prayed these prayers daily even as he spoke of a sanctification that takes place through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, an indwelling that is the presence of the bond of love between the Father and the Son.

For the record, Wesley never confessed to be a sinless human.

Secondly, within the context of the Daily Office, I found that my confessional prayer life was a theological testimony to God’s saving actions in history, in Christ. To pray confessionally is to rehearse the story of God with Israel and of Christ with us, daily. Prayer gives way to theology as we become counterparts with the many biblical characters that also sought forgiveness not infrequently. The prayer of Confession is an admission of one’s need for forgiveness as a part of the larger story of God. Thus, a prayer of confession is a prayer of witness, first to self, and then in order to be a witness to others.

It’s not that we were forgiven once. Rather, God acted definitively in Christ in the past. Then, we were forgiven, and that forgiving action extends into the present. We are forgiven and are being forgiven. Forgiveness is present perfect in tense, being an action that happened in the past with implications upon the present.

Therefore, this Confession of Sin does not have to be accompanied with a profound sadness or guilt. Perhaps traditions with a narrower sense of sin also have a narrower sense of sorrow that must accompany prayers. Often, our knowledge of missing the mark is simply that, knowledge, and such knowledge can precede new actions apart from a daily crisis experience with God. These daily confessions are not accompanied by tears of oblation as if my trust in God, and God’s trust in me, had been broken and mangled irreparably by evil. It is more that the prayer of confession seeks to acknowledge to God that I am not God, I am not always doing what I should, and that the task before me is larger than my humanity can reasonably perform. The confession places me within the biblical story. I become Israel, one chosen yet also lapsed, and my adoption by God makes me more aware of the mercies extended to me. The confession, thusly, becomes an entrance into active witness and re-enactment of God’s story with us, rather than a means whereby we enter a morally pristine state prepared for heaven, as if Aristotle’s Ethics were the entire goal of the death of Jesus.

Such an acknowledgement is predicated on God’s always already present forgiveness; God’s forgiving all people everywhere, all the time, in the very being of God as God acted to forgive definitively on the Cross.

In Confession, we desire to accept that already given forgiveness, not wrench it from God’s hands if only we are sorry enough. Daily Confession of sin is not a spiritually present means of begging a vengeful God to forgive me. It doesn’t beget some daily spiritual PTSD that hits me as soon as I awake and send me into panic until I have appeased God’s sorrow police (I have suffered spiritual PTSD as a teen and have felt what it is like to be Jonathan Edwards’ sinner in the hands of an angry God).

Instead, Confession is a daily act of acknowledging my incompleteness and then giving thanks for God’s eternally forgiving completed act, given to us, from the Father, through the Son, and manifesting itself in the Spirit.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11.28)

Confessional prayers are the literal resting of our hearts, souls, body, and mind in the embrace of Jesus, who carried the heaviest burden of all so that we wouldn’t have to. The Risen Christ knows what we need prior to asking, yet it is in the asking, confessing, and rehearsing that we become one with Christ, and he becomes one with us.

The Daily Confession of Sin, Part I: A very Brief Introduction

It may be news to some that not all Christian traditions embrace a daily routine of confessing sin. Though Forgiveness is part and parcel of Christian teachings, for many, regular prayers of repentance would imply that one is indeed not Christian, or to use an old school nomenclature, that one has “back slid” or “fallen from grace.” Indeed, a quick google search will take you down some serious rabbit holes on this issue. If I had a nickel for every time I back slid as a kid, I would literally have hundreds of nickels, maybe thousands.

This doesn’t mean that these traditions believe people are immune to sin (though some parts of my home tradition would go as far to say that the depraved nature of humans could be “eradicated” by the work of the Holy Spirit. In case you’re wondering, that theology hasn’t aged so well). It is more the case that these traditions are so optimistic about humans (they might even say God’s grace to enable humans) that have been filled with the Holy Spirit that they believe Christians can, and should, live without sin through the power of God. Hence, regular prayers of repentance are eschewed because such would be an indication of a truly non-repentant heart. If one needs to pray for forgiveness daily, then one has a serious spiritual issue. This does not mean there is no room for “growth in grace,” but it does mean that some traditions believe Christians do not have to, and must not, sin daily or even frequently.

Of course, what is often at work in these sorts of distinctions are definitions. Not everyone in the household of Christian faith is working with the same definition of “sin.” For example, some hold to a strict definition of sin, sin proper being confined only to those activities that “violate a known law of God.” These are called sins of commission. While others view sin as a more expansive and systemic human reality that is not as narrow in orientation. Under this category are sins of omission and the tangled web of human depravity around the globe.

The former definition of sin is bequeathed to us from a truncated reading of John Wesley, and the biblical Book of James, if you’re keeping score. Of course, other biblical resources are marshaled as well, but these are notable. Hence, sin under this paradigm would be an outright rebellion, a deliberate act to discontinue following God. Anything not under that paradigm of action would be considered a mistake, a misstep, an opportunity to grow in grace but it would not be a sin because you didn’t know you were sinning. Humans are not perfect, but they don’t have to violate a “known law of God.” Sin, then, is something known and committed. If you do not know it, and did not do it on purpose, then you are living a life without sin.

The traditions that follow this line of reasoning are usually Wesleyan, American Holiness, or even Pentecostal in heritage. Perhaps there are also some non-denominational churches that follow suit. Furthermore, if we go way back into Christian history, say 4th and 5th century, we can even find this sort of sentiment in the teachings of one Pelagius who placed emphasis on human efforts regarding salvation. His contemporary, an early Church Father named Augustine, had some serious problems with his premodern humanism.

Regarding the latter definition, Latin Western Christian tradition has held that sin is more expansive and determinative of the human condition. Sin certainly includes violating a known law of God, but it also includes, to use the New Testament Greek word for sin (hamartia), any area in which we “miss the mark” in our service to God. Suddenly, the ante on sin has been upped. Humans will miss “the mark” daily, both as individuals and as communal wholes. As the Daily Confession of Sin suggests, sin is that which we have done, OR left undone, known and unknown, and includes any intimation or embodiment of not loving God with our whole heart or not loving our neighbor as ourselves. Well, if this is sin, seems we have a little more at stake than muting our resident Jimminy Crickets.

When sin is limited to simply not telling a lie or murdering someone, those boxes are easy to check. Many Christians can fill those requirements, as well as the Pauline lists of heavenly stipulations (though these Pauline Lists seem to leave few of us guiltless). However, when sin is looked at from a more expansive view of “missing the mark,” I would dare say there are precious few among us that would say they hit every target, every day, or even the known targets if we’re honest. Acknowledging this isn’t a bad thing, it’s a humbling thing, and it reminds us of the origin of our salvation as elsewhere than our participation as a day trader in spiritual equities with the God.

I have now been a practicing Episcopalian for a year. As an outsider to Anglican Tradition, and The Book of Common Prayer, this native Nazarene initially read and looked at these Daily Confessions of sin with not a little apprehension. Questions had always been present, such as the following:

What is true repentance if one must repent each day? Does this prayer mean anything if it must be repeated on the regular? Does this prayer drown itself in mundanity because it becomes familiar and spiritually boring, another thing we say because we are Christian but nothing that effectively changes us? Is the prayer written a heartfelt, efficacious one? The word repentance means to turn away from, to be sorrowful for, and then walk differently. If we in fact do that, then why seek forgiveness as a part of the Daily Office?

These were my questions. My premonitions, at first. (I will answer these rhetorical questions in Parts II and III of this series in a more theologically reflective style than I am rehearsing here).

Asking for forgiveness was not a good thing in my theological book, or anyone’s theological book that I knew, unless of course one was asking the forgiveness of another person that had been wronged by hurtful words, wrongful conduct, or some other form of moral lack unbecoming a follower of Jesus. Those “mistakes” deserved an apology, but they certainly did not amount to needing God’s saving and forgiving involvement all over again. Mature Christians knew how to seek the forgiveness of others, but mature Christians certainly shouldn’t seek God’s forgiveness on the daily. After-all, we’re only human and are born to make mistakes (by the way, the 1980’s called and The Human League wants its theology back.)

Then, I started praying them, these daily prayers of repentance. This happened as I integrated the Daily Office into my prayer practices. There is nothing like personal experience to expunge bias and provide understanding.

At first, the prayers were odd, tough to say, as the new words of old prayers had to be pressed from my lips. It’s hard to pray a theology that rubs against the humanism of a former theological sense of self. The only thing I knew to do, even with my years of study, a couple degrees, and pastoral experience of two decades in another tradition, was to trust the prayers of the Church and pray them. There is nothing like doing that changes our being. When we are unsure of our own faith, or what to do, it is not bad advice to lean into the faith of the Church for help. Sometimes we need others to pray and believe for us. If these daily utterances contained a truth that shaped saints of ages past, they are powerful enough to change us. As my grandmother was not wont to tell me as a child “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.” Touche grandma, touche.

Thus, I began to pray the prescribed prayers and internalize the language. I memorized them, much as I had memorized scripture as a child. The prayers became me, and I became my prayers. In praying them, I have learned a few things that I would like to share. So I welcome you back in the days ahead as I share my experience of seeking forgiveness again for the first time on the daily. Please see the schedule below.

*Part II of this series will be published Wednesday, February 19, and Part III will be published Sunday, February 23. Thank you for joining me in these reflections and following*

“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…