I entered the Episcopal Church as a young college student. At the time, the Vietnam War, with all its passions and protests and confusions, was raging. Something brand new, called “free love,” had been amazingly discovered by 20 year-olds or so, whom I very much looked up to. And the combined benevolence of the newly-founded Peace Corps and Head Start, of Lady Bird Johnson’s flowers and trees on highways everywhere, and the presumed-innocence of the United States and our much-acclaimed generous foreign aid would surely win over the world for the better, please. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. It was the epoch of credulity, it was the epoch of incredulity. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” [i] And I was on an insatiable quest as an overly-earnest young Christian.
One thing I was desperately searching for was some help dealing with “sin” in my life. There is a phrase in the opening prayer appointed for today – what we call “the Collect,” the collecting prayer, that I clearly understood (and understand) and desperately sought. The prayer: “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word Jesus Christ.” By the time I was in my early 20s, I had been born again, and again, so many times by that point, and it didn’t seem to helping. Honest: I loved God with all my heart… except when I didn’t, and that paradox I was trying to reconcile. I was looking for a sacrament that I didn’t know existed, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The other thing, related, I was looking for was a sense of rootedness or groundedness in the same kind of tradition that had informed the Psalms, a good number of which I had even memorized. Psalm 27, the psalm appointed for today’s liturgy, was very both familiar and compelling:
One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek;
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life;
To behold the fair beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple . [ii]
There was a word, often repeated in the Psalms, that kept hounding my attention. The word was unavoidable and undeniable and for me, inaccessible. The word was “worship”: Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness . [iii] I craved worship, though I didn’t even know what all that meant. And yet this craving in my soul for worship was so deep, like an infinite vacuum. It was a longing for something More, for some deeper sense of belonging to a God who had “created my inmost parts; [who had] knit me together in my mother’s womb” [iv] , whom I could acknowledge and praise and worship…. I desperately had to find the Way. And with all that, I sort-of stumbled into the life and worship of the Episcopal Church. – I’m only guessing that my story might overlap with some of you here. The statistics at least used to be that a significant percentage of those now active in the Episcopal Church are not “cradle Anglicans.”
Sam Portaro says that “as Christian people, we Anglicans are distinctive. Other traditions within the body of Christ possess and make confessional statements and creeds inherited from history, derived from distant times and places. From our inception, our common prayer and worship have been the articulation of our faith. Worship is our central act of being together, our most consistent and convincing witness.” [v] L ex orandi: lex credendi, as we pray, so we believe. [vi] And it seems to me that it is the worship and glorification of God that we must ever keep at the center of our life and prayer… Not our own selves at the center. Not our own work, not our own causes. Not even our own like-minded friends and colleagues, but God. That is what it is to be “orthodox,” which comes from the Greek compound orthós , which means ‘rightful,’ and dóxa , which means glory. Orthodox – the rightful glory (not so much the rightful belief, but the rightful glorification of God). It’s all about God, about our participating and leading others to participate in the worship and life and love of God, who is the beginning and end of our lives, who gives us breath, whose praise we breathe.
In the Gospel according to John, we hear described what is “true worship.” True worship is the engagement in “spirit and truth” … which can create quite of bit of tension. [vii] Tension, though it is sometimes very uncomfortable, is quintessential or else there will be no freedom and no strength. Tension is necessary, and that is as true for muscles of the body as it is for matters of the heart. It seems to me that we must seek to live in the tension that the Incarnation informs. The Incarnation: that God became human (just like us) in the face and form of Jesus. Jesus’ arms on the cross are open very wide, for all, “for God so loved the world.” [viii] Not just our own little world, but the whole world. I have sitting on my desk just now mailings from two different Anglican groups: one called “United Voice,” and the other, “United Religions.” They could hardly be more different. I don’t know if they would even be on speaking terms with one another, but they must, and we must help, because God is on speaking terms with us all: with this very mixed bag called “Anglicans,” with our sisters and brothers in other Christian traditions, and with those who would in no way call themselves “Christian” (which, of course, is the majority of the world). When we gather our focus to the altar, as we will momentarily do, when we “lift up our hearts,” we are offering our own lives and our labors to God. When we pray, “lift up our hearts,” we are also praying to God for the merciful enlargement of our hearts to have space for all to whom Jesus’ outstretched arms so generously welcome… including our enemies… including ourselves… who, some days, can be our own worst enemies. We do this in remembrance of Christ, and to the glory of God. We offer our worship: that to which we ascribe the highest worth. A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with someone who had come to talk about “the meaning of life.” And we ultimately came onto this theme of “worship,” worshipping God with our lips and our lives and our labors. And they said to me finally, “It sounds like it’s meant to be a ‘24-7′ experience.” I said I thought that was right on the mark.
Here a prayer of oblation – of self-offering to God – that comes to us from the Celtic tradition, centuries back:
I am giving Thee worship with my whole life,
I am giving Thee assent with my whole power,
I am giving Thee praise with my whole tongue,
I am giving Thee honor with my whole utterance.
I am giving Thee love with my whole devotion,
I am giving Thee kneeling with my whole desire,
I am giving Thee love with my whole heart,
I am giving Thee affection with my whole sense,
I am giving Thee my existence with my whole mind,
I am giving Thee my soul, O God of all gods.
Blessed be God, for ever and ever.
[i] From the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities , Chapter I , “The Period”.
[ii] Psalm 27:5-6.
[iii] Psalm 29:2.
[iv] From Psalm 139.
[v] Quoted from Brightest and Best; A Companion to Lesser Feasts and Fasts , by Sam Portaro (Cowley, 1998), p. 95.
[vi] The phrase lex orandi: lex credendi comes from the writings of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 435-442), a monk who served as a secretary to Leo the Great. The phrase refers to I Timothy 2:1-6, where St. Paul calls for “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings,” because such things are “right and acceptable in the sight of God… who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” See Geoffrey Wainwright’s Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life; A Systematic Theology (Oxford University Press), 1980.
[vii] John 4:18.
[viii] John 3:16.
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