Monday, March 30, 2015

Keep Watch

“Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace.”

This prayer from the Order for Compline is said twice, though not in succession, toward the end of the service. It is a lovely way to end that last “hour” of the day.  At the most recent session of our parish’s prayer group, we prayed with the reading from Mark that takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Stay here and keep watch” says Jesus to Peter, James and John.  A while later he advises Peter to “Watch and pray that you do not fall into temptation.” Naturally, I started wondering about the word “watch.”

At prayer group, we decided that to watch meant to maintain a high level of awareness. This is more than just keeping your eyes open, more than just not falling asleep.  But, if you don’t know what you are watching for, you might drift off. If watching becomes simply looking or gazing, awareness falters.

Peter, of course, is the text book example of a failed disciple - until later on when he isn't. Peter promises valiant loyalty and courage "til death us do part". Peter would do anything for Jesus, except the very thing he is asked to do. Blunders and enthusiastic claims aside, Peter is a follower of Jesus. He may not always understand what Jesus tells him but he boldly states that Jesus is the Messiah. He may try to save his own skin on this particular night, but he will bravely proclaim the Gospel and go to his own death with no hesitation.

Jesus’ remark, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” has always sounded to me like a rebuke to the flesh. But what if these words are actually in praise of the spirit and no rebuke at all? What if Jesus is acknowledging that the physical person may fall asleep in awkward situations but that the spirit continues to breathe and live in that person. The spirit continues to follow, to pray, to see? 

Jesus famously touts the spirit over the flesh in his late night meeting with Nicodemus. "Flesh is flesh and spirit is spirit," he says. "You must be born of the spirit in order to enter the kingdom of heaven." * Nicodemus failed to understand that teaching, but I think Peter understood it very well. Peter followed in spirit, beyond what his flesh did, beyond what his intellect could grasp. This is what Jesus commended. This spirit is what saved Peter after his betrayal and it is what saves us, too.

What did Jesus want on that dark night before his arrest? He wanted the disciples to watch with him, even as we pray to watch with Christ every time we say Compline. 

If we go back to Gethsemane and understand Jesus’ fear and sorrow,” watching,” in that context, simply means being there. Can we be present with Christ in this hour? Without understanding, without answers, can we, thanks to our shared humanity with him, watch with Christ as people die horrible deaths, as children are stolen, as the innocent and the guilty suffer?

That is what we are asked to do in Gethsemane and that is what we, perhaps foolishly, pray to be able to do. What does Christ see? Can we see it, too? 

*Paraphrasing John 3.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Glory Job

In our house, the glory job is applying the finishing touches in the kitchen – plating up the pear and endive salad just so, and then adding the sprinkle of pecans.  Growing up, our son was always keen to step in for these kinds of tasks. At church, the glory job – if you don’t count the priest – is the lector. Some might say that the chalicist is more important and I would agree, but the glory goes to the lector.

It is the lector who delivers the word of God from the Old Testament and the Epistle (or Revelation)(or Acts) to the congregation. It is the lector who stands alone under the gaze of all and reads the holy words. I am a lector at my church and I take the job very seriously. For about 15 years now, this has been my great pleasure.

A good lector will practice the reading ahead of time. Even a familiar reading can trip you up with a barrage of subordinate clauses (Paul is famous for these) or a tricky pronunciation. Two very helpful websites will ensure that the lector can access the Sunday readings and pronounce even the most exotic words correctly. They are   and  
I recommend these sites highly. 

The lector will want to read the passage smoothly, of course, but more important still is to read it in a neutral tone. Some passages are emotional, some are fraught with harshness, and some are simply puzzling. The lector must strive to deliver all texts without prejudice. The congregation should not get a sub-textual sermon from the lector. If the lector is transported with love or filled with disgust at the reading, the congregation must never know.

Being a lector is a holy task. Reading Scripture aloud in church changes a person. I felt such a change a few years ago when I was set to read the section of Genesis 2 where God creates Eve to be a partner for Adam. I was sure I would be repulsed by that reading.

It’s easy to read this passage as an anti-feminist text. That was certainly how I felt about it going in. Could I hide my disdain? Did I even want to? But as I read through the verses, I felt strangely moved. I am not a romantic person. I do not have an ideal marriage. The idea of females being created to “help” males is just a bit offensive to me. Yet there was something in Adam’s words of joy upon beholding Eve that moved me almost to tears. I found something in that text I had never heard before: God’s love for humankind. Adam was made in love. Eve was made in love.

In fact, there was more love for Eve than there was for Adam – 100% more if I have my math right. Who am I, with my 21st Century feminist mind set, to question God’s love or the manner of its working?

Perhaps the hardest text for me to read is the “binding of Isaac” Exodus 22:1-19. We can hear that story a hundred times and be shocked with every reading. When it comes up in the lectionary, I take at least a week to prepare. I sit with it and pray with it and ask God to show me how God loves Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, me. What does this test of Abraham’s faith say to me? Where is truth in this nightmare story? I do ultimately find answers. I find a way to read that passage conveying only God's mystery. 

In Hebrews 4 we are told:"...the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”  These words of Paul go double for the Exodus passage. 

Another passage that tempts the lector to add voice ever so subtly to the reading is Ezekiel's "Valley of the Dried Bones." Ezekiel 37:1-14. When God asks, "Mortal, can these bones live?" we all know what's going to happen. A lector can play on this and invite the congregation's (silent, of course, in the Episcopal church) response. A lector can take the insider position almost making the prophesying to the bones, the sinews, the breath a bit of comedy. 

If there are comic elements to some folks in the pews, if the passage is deadly serious to others, that is for them to decide. The lector should not lead. The preacher may do so, but not the lector. The lector reads, carefully and articulately, but leaves the message to the hearer. The only idea the lector must convey is that here are the words of a loving God to God's people.

I have learned that every passage is brimming with God’s love. You don’t have to be a Biblical literalist to see this. All scripture is holy and has God in it. It was written and selected by God’s servants. It has been argued over and prayed with for millennia. It is opened with tenderness to the wondering eyes and ears of our children in Sunday School. It is held in the firm grasp of the sick and elderly who can’t even read it any more but who want to hold it close nevertheless.

When I perform my lectoring duties on those Sunday mornings, I think of the people reading the same words all over the world. I remember all those who have read in the past and all who will stand in my same spot in the future. The glory job that is mine is to stand up and read the holy words for all those who will listen.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Ash Wednesday was almost two weeks ago, I realize. This post is a bit late.

I attended the evening service at my parish. Many of my fellow parishioners were there. The choir processed in silence as is our custom in Lent. Ashes were imposed at the proper time. Our director of faith formation helped the rector with the imposition. I was in the line that would go to her - Anna.

As I approached Anna to receive my ashes, she looked directly into my eyes and said, “Marguerite, you are dust and to dust you will return.” Just like that. The same to me as to everyone. What did it mean, that she would say this? That she would make this obvious but nevertheless profound proclamation?

I think this is what church does for us. I can walk in the woods and understand God as creator. I can volunteer at a food shelf and see the face of Jesus in every customer. I can sit in my room and pray to my father in secret, but nowhere but in church can I get Anna to tell me that I’m dust. 

This holy and ancient moment, this world-defying practice of kindly reminding each other that we are like the grass in the field that blooms one day and the next is known no more – this blessing is the stuff of Christian faith, of being part of a church.

There was another person of note in Anna’s line. Little Andy who is about three. He is in line roughly 15 people ahead of me, with his family. Anna squats down so she can look him right in the eye as she always does with children.  There is no peering down form a lofty height for her. And she says the very same thing to Andythat she says to everyone else. Why wouldn't she?

Andy, marked with the ashes, runs back to his pew, grinning like a crazy fool. Oh, dearest God, please let him stay a fool. Please let this mark remain on him for his whole life. 

That’s the other thing church can do for you. It can mark you for life. It can put a dab of faith on you that nothing can erase. It can look you in the eye, in your three year old eye, and tell you that you are dust. And, in doing so, make you so happy you might burst.