Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent

The Prodigal Son Feeding Swine by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1660.

The Prodigal Son Feeding Swine by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1660.

God of faithful love, ever resourceful, ever merciful, we draw near to you because you have first drawn near to us. You create the longing in our souls, the love in our hearts, and the faith which delivers our whole being from frustration. May our actions honor you, our words praise you, our thoughts marvel in you, and our spirits utterly adore you. Through Christ Jesus, who comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Prayer provided by Ormonde Plater, Archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.

Living with (un)Gratitude

The Thankful Poor by Henry Tanner, 1894.

The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1894.

Later this week many in the United States will be celebrating Thanksgiving. Many will gather around a table and enjoy all manner of seasonal and traditional food. Prayers and conversation will be shared along with shouts at the TV during broadcast sporting events. However, for many none of those things will apply. Many people will not have a house to go to or a family that would welcome them. Many will spend the day on the street lonely or alone. Some may attend public meals offered for little or no cost but they will remain nameless and unknown to those dishing out the food. Some may have a home and family but hardly have the finances to put out the feast that we traditionally picture (thanks Mr. Rockwell.) Instead, many may experience something similar to today’s featured artwork, The Thankful Poor, by Henry Ossawa Tanner. This got me thinking about the very different reality of Thanksgiving for a lot of people in light of our traditional expectations.

What happens when what’s on our table does not meet our expectations?

What happens when what’s on our neighbor’s table does not meet our expectations?

Can we be thankful? Can we show gratitude regardless of what’s on the table, who we are with or the circumstances of our neighbors?

There’s a nasty assumption that a full table is somehow blessed and a lean table is not. In thinking about this in light of our cultural expectations, blessings and gratitude my mind drifted to Jesus expectation-upending statements in the Sermon on the Mount. Especially the opening lines we refer to as the Beatitudes. Each line famously begins with “Blessed” or “Happy” depending on how your translation renders the Greek word μακάριος. I wondered how would our reading of it change if we read the first word as “Thankful”. We are typically thankful for our blessings so, could we be thankful in those circumstances that Jesus was pronouncing as blessed?

What would gratitude in those situations look like?

Thankful are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Thankful are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Thankful are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.

Thankful are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.

Thankful are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

Thankful are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

Thankful are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

Thankful are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

How transformative would our faith actually be for us and our neighbors if we could be thankful in these ways?

This is world-changing (un)gratitude.

I call it (un)gratitude because it does not depend on table-filling blessing, but an unexpected and subversive gratitude that exists in spite of our cultural/economic expectations. The people and situations Jesus calls “blessed” in these verses are not typically those the world would consider blessed. Thus, they would not be expected to give much thanks in those situations.

However, if we ARE blessed in those situations, then we CAN offer thanksgiving and gratitude. It is quite subversive when we are gracious in spite of the seeming absence of blessing (i.e. as in today’s featured artwork). Through this (un)gratitude, difference in “blessing” should no longer serve to separate a full table from an empty table. Our thankfulness should not come from the fullness of our personal table, but through God’s provision for the World around the communal table established by Christ and served by the Church.

We are blessed when we have a table to sit at that welcomes the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, the meek and the merciful.

We are blessed when we come to the table with open arms to both share and receive blessings in peace.

We are blessed when we come to the table hungry for righteousness and not for a full belly.

For those blessings, we can always give thanks.

 

I am participating in the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from ‪#‎Unco14‬, focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The theme for November is (Un)Gratitude. To read more reflections, check out UncoSynchro.

Prayer for Christ the King Sunday (Ordinary Time)

Shepherdess with Her Flock by  Eugène-Joseph Verboeckhoven, n.d.

Shepherdess with Her Flock by Eugène-Joseph Verboeckhoven, n.d.

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Unless otherwise noted, prayers come from the Book of Common Prayer, Revised Common Lectionary.

Prayers posted during Ordinary Time will feature art that is often not specifically religious, but art for arts sake. Enjoy!

Starbucks’ Red Cup and the Creeping Commercial Advent

The new sign of the season.

The new sign of the season.

I walked into Cost Plus World Market a couple of weeks ago to buy some coffee. As I made my way to the coffee aisle I suddenly realized the familiar Christmas colors of red, white and green were surrounding me. I smiled a bit as I pulled out my phone to check the date.

It wasn’t even Halloween yet.

Not long after that, and only days after Halloween had passed, I began to see people carrying around the iconic “red cup” from Starbucks. This little cup that keeps your coffee and hands warm has become an unofficial cultural marker that we have entered the holiday season.

Shortly afterwards I began seeing emails and television commercials promoting early “Black Friday” or holiday sales that were starting well before the “traditional” Black Friday day-after-Thanksgiving sales. This also included promotion for which stores would be opening later on Thanksgiving after (I assume) workers were given the minimum time deemed necessary to spend with family and friends.

Every year it seems stores start promoting holiday and Christmas merchandise earlier and sales creep deeper into November or sometimes into October. The underlying narrative seems to say that you need to start planning and purchasing for the holidays now. If you do not, that precious sale or sought after item (remember the Tickle-Me-Elmo fiasco?) will be gone and your loved one will end up in a heap of tears below your under-decorated, dried out Christmas tree that you waited till the last-minute to buy. You would not want to ruin your family’s Christmas or other festive holiday celebration now would you?

I’m calling shenanigans on ALL of that.

One thing the Bible reminds us over and over is the importance of time and the less-importance of money, stuff, things and treasures. There’s the famous verse in Ecclesiastes which states, “There’s a season for everything and a time for every matter under the heavens…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1 CEB, but keep reading through 8 or listen to the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds.). The importance of time and season in the Bible has become even more clear to me as I learned to appreciate the Christian lectionary calendar more and more. I grew up in a Christian tradition that did not recognize the Christian calendar outside of our normal celebrations of Christmas and Easter. I was eventually introduced to Advent and Lent but it would not be until my time in seminary that I discovered the scope and beauty of the Christian calendar.

Generally speaking, Advent begins the Christian year which leads into the season of Christmas (yes, Christmas season for Christians actually begins AFTER Christmas day). After Christmas comes Epiphany followed by Lent, Easter and Pentecost. After Pentecost we move into Ordinary time for the rest of the Christian year until we reach Advent again. We are currently wrapping up Ordinary time as we approach the Christian New Year with the arrival of Advent. There’s a few more things in there depending on the various traditions, but that’s basically the Christian year in a nutshell.

Since we’re still officially in Ordinary time, lets ruminate on that for a second in light of these early “Black Friday” and “Red Cup” cultural icons. The majority of the Christian year runs between Advent and Pentecost. Marking those seasons are great Feasts and memorials the two major ones being Christmas and Easter. During Ordinary time, there are no major feasts beyond the regular Sunday observance. It’s Ordinary time because, well, it’s pretty ordinary. It’s the time to recognize and acknowledge that there are times when life is ordinary. Returning to the Ecclesiastes verse mentioned previously, there is “a time for searching and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for throwing away, a time for tearing and a time for repairing, a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking,” (Ecclesiastes 3:6-7 CEB). There is a time for everything, and sometimes that time is just spent being ordinary. There is a time for going about, doing your regular everyday business of living, working, family life, hobbies and sleeping. In fact, this is how we spend the majority of our life. The Christian calendar recognizes and honors that time of just…being. The more we let “Black Friday” or the “Red Cup” infringe on that Ordinary time and try to pull us into something that it’s not really the right time for we can get caught up in the fervor of chasing the next “special” thing and miss the value of the ordinary. When we’re talking about “Black Friday” and the “Red Cup” that chasing usually involves spending money. The value to time is quickly overshadowed by the value of our spending and monetary value. Listen to the news and a “good” holiday season would be one where shoppers spend their time spending lots of money (see how we can “spend” money and “spend” time in the same sentence?). There is little to no mention of the valuable time shared with family, friends or volunteering. Our value is not based on the time we spend, but on the money we spend. Just as the Egyptians valued Hebrew slaves in Exodus by the amount of bricks they could produce, so to does our modern culture and economy place a value on the amount of money we can make and spend.

It is exhausting to live our lives a constant chase of the next, newest, bigger and more special thing. There are ordinary times to live life and to wait. There is a right time for things and a wrong time for things. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes, “While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people,” (Romans 5:6 CEB). The Greek word behind “at the right moment” is the word kairos (καιρός). This word translates elsewhere as “seasons” and generally refers to an appropriate or timely moment and not just generically referring to the passage of time. Paul is telling us that God revealed his plan through Jesus at the right moment. Jesus did not come early, he did not come late, he came precisely when he was meant to. As Christians, we should acknowledge that there is a “right moment” for things. By staying in Ordinary time and waiting for Advent and we resist the whispers of culture that it’s time for the Holidays which also subconsciously means it’s time to get out and shop. The more we can wait for the kairos moment, we begin to learn to value the time we are in. Even if it is ordinary we can value the present moment, instead of always looking for (or coveting) the next special moment.

Advent will come.

Christmas is not far behind.

Can we still be ordinary for a little longer?

Prayer for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary Time)

Iqra - Read! by Ali Omar Ermes, 1991.

Iqra – Read! by Ali Omar Ermes, 1991.

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

 

Unless otherwise noted, prayers come from the Book of Common Prayer, Revised Common Lectionary.

Prayers posted during Ordinary Time will feature art that is often not specifically religious, but art for arts sake. Enjoy!

Prayer for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Ordinary Time)

White Rose in a Glass by Piet Mondrian, 1921.

White Rose in a Glass by Piet Mondrian, 1921.

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Unless otherwise noted, prayers come from the Book of Common Prayer, Revised Common Lectionary.

Prayers posted during Ordinary Time will feature art that is often not specifically religious, but art for arts sake. Enjoy!

Brittany Maynard’s Choice and the Challenge of Death

Brittany Maynard, 1985-2014

If you have paid attention your social media platform of choice the Brittany Maynard story has probably been shared or retweeted many times. With it comes a great divide of opinions on the matter. For those who might not know who Brittany Maynard is, her website is here and she has a video explaining what her story is. In a nutshell, Brittany was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer (officially a glioblastoma) on New Years day this year. She was given, at best, six months to live. There was no cure and whatever medical treatment she had available would only prolong her life in small increments. The rapid growth of the tumor combined with its difficulty to remove meant that Brittany would eventually succumb to the cancerous cells growing on her brain. Because of the terminal nature of the cancer, Brittany made two very important, and seemingly at odds, decisions.

From her website it states, “Brittany chose to live each day fully, traveled, and kept as physically active and busy as she possibly could.”

And later, “Brittany chose to make a well thought out and informed choice to Die With Dignity in the face of such a terrible, painful, and incurable illness. She moved to Oregon to pass away in a little yellow house she picked out in the beautiful city of Portland.”

Brittany chose life and she also, in a way, chose and embraced her own death. With the limited amount of time she had left, Brittany chose to live her life to the fullest and would also choose to die on her own terms. Brittany moved to Oregon because Oregon has a “Death with Dignity” law where patients with terminal illnesses, in consultation with a physician, have the option to be prescribed a lethal dose of medication to take whenever and however they choose. I recommend the documentary How to Die in Oregon for a peek into what the law is about and what is involved in the deeply personal process of choosing to die on your own terms.

This past weekend, on November 2nd, Brittany chose to take the prescribed medication and passed away in her house in Portland.

One of the typical Christian responses heard to this story (and many like it) is that we should not “play God” by choosing when and how we die. The Bible seems to often encourage us to choose options that lead to life and not death. And we are reminded over and over that God is the author of life which he supports until the day of our death.

The Lord!
He brings death, gives life,
takes down to the grave, and raises up!
1 Samuel 2:6 (CEB)

I would agree with many of my fellow Christians that we should always choose to support life as much as possible and that the breath in our lungs is a blessing from God.

However, the story of Brittany Maynard I think demands that we think much more deeply about what life is, the choices we have and what death really means.

For example, it struck me in thinking about this story that the Bible actually asks humanity to “play God” on a regular occasion. In fact, the Bible opens up with God asking the newly created humanity to act as his caretakers over the new creation.

Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”
Genesis 1:26 & 28 (CEB)

Everyday we are asked to “play God” and make decisions along those lines. Everyday we are given choices between good and bad, obedience and disobedience, life and death. God has created us in His image in order than we can take charge and make decisions on Earth. When we “play God” we are actually doing what he has called us to do, acting as His vice-regents here on Earth. Now, one only has to turn a few pages after Genesis 1 to see that humanity is habitually bad at the command to take charge and rule over the Creation. Sometimes we make good choices but most of the time it seems we make bad ones. But every decision we make is essentially humanity “playing God”, some decisions are just better than others.

So, was Brittany Maynard’s choice a good one or a bad one? Before I land on my answer to that, let’s consider one more thing. For the ancient people who penned the words of the Bible, death was a very mysterious and regular occurrence. Death came for many people without much warning. Most children died in infancy, mothers often died in childbirth, and any kind of serious sickness, infection or wound was very likely to end with death. For our ancient brothers and sisters, a long life often seemed the exception and death was an almost daily reality. Death came without much warning and without much regard to status, ethnicity, faith or family heritage. Compare this now with our modern medicine practices. Today, someone like Brittany can visit a doctor and after a battery of tests, scans and procedures and receive a diagnoses and treatment plan that will often cure whatever is wrong with them. Death has become the exception and we can extend life longer than our ancient ancestors. So long that we can even reach the point of artificially maintaining the image of “life” through all manner of machines, feeding tubes and drugs.

Often, however, someone like Brittany can with go through the same battery of tests and receive a terminal diagnosis and be given a timeline for when death will probably happen. Treatments will not matter much and will only prolong and drag out the emotional and physical pain of the inevitable

Death suddenly is not a random occurrence and it is no longer the exception. Sure the estimates are just estimates and death will eventually come for everyone. But, honestly, who at the age of 29 expects to be told (with reasonable certainty) they will probably die within the next six months. Within those six months, your body will rebel against you, you will have seizures, headaches, pain, nausea and progressively become weaker to the point where you can only tolerate lying in bed. As Brittany Maynard said in an interview with People magazine, “there’s not a single part of me that wants to die. But I am dying.”

I do not know Brittany Maynard, and only know what she has told us through her website and videos, but I have watched a very close friend go through a very similar process. I have watched the body become a pale shadow of what it once was. I have seen pain, nausea and weakness bring down a once lively, active and intelligent person. I stood in the hospital room the day they chose to stop fighting. I hugged, kissed and cried as I watched a nurse progressively increase a morphine dose that slowly took away the pain that had stacked up for years.

I watched as his mother whispered quietly, “It’s okay, we’re all okay, you can stop fighting now.”

I watched as life slipped away and I heard the last breath leave his lips.

All on the day that he and his family accepted the challenge to “play God” as He asks us all to do, and accept the reality death.

Life and death are rarely easy and the questions surrounding them should not be answered with a quick yes or no. Do I support Brittany Maynard’s choice to take her own life? With a reasonable amount of confidence I can say yes. I support Brittany just as I support my friend and his family. God’s command to act as his vice-regents gives us the option to “play God” and choose life or death on a daily basis. Most of the time, I would rather we choose life. But now when modern medicine can give us some certainty about the imminence of death, I would support someone’s reasoned choice, like Brittany Maynard, to die with dignity surrounded by the loving support of their friends, family and loved ones. Extending life beyond the point of dignity, value and necessity can be just as harmful as ending a life prematurely and without reason. I pray that we would put a high price on the value of life and not give it up cheaply but be just as willing to love and support those who accept death when it is staring them in the face.