A few days ago I held a baby. That might not seem like such a remarkable thing, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a chance to do it. I suspect it’s been a couple of years. Babies don’t frequent monasteries much.
Holding a baby is wonderful. That is, it’s an experience full of wonder. I marveled at his tiny fingernails, perfectly shaped on the end of delicate little fingers. And his full brown eyes, captivated by the lights in the ceiling of the chapel. The incredible softness of his head against my cheek, and the sweet smell of his hair. At first he was squirming, but then he settled in, dropped his head on my shoulder and relaxed. I could feel his breathing. I thought, what a miracle! To be alive! To be breathing, and seeing, and hearing, and touching. Wonderful!
People often ask me: “What has surprised you living in the Monastery?” One surprise is how much we acknowledge, encourage and remember death. We acknowledge our own corporate and personal brokenness and fragility more than I experienced in other communities. We say in our Rule of Life that the Christian life is a path of death and detachment, daily letting go and dying to our old selves, letting go of abilities, personal preferences, and expectations for how God will call or use us.[i]
One of my earliest experiences of exciting worship came when I was about fourteen years old, and found myself among a huge gathering of worshippers in London. Even before things began, the singing started, and got louder and louder. You couldn’t help but pick up the atmosphere, and get swept along. I started singing as well. I remember one of the songs was printed on the booklet we all had: and some people started swaying and waving their arms in the air. But the best moment came at three o’clock, when the Chelsea football team came running onto the pitch, and the crowd exploded with shouts and cheers.
I couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 at the time. It was a gorgeous summer day and I was out making my rounds of the neighbourhood. I stopped in to see Mr. Ratcliffe who lived three doors down from us. He was a friend and a contemporary of my grandparents and I must have been a frequent visitor to his garden as he wasn’t surprised to see me that day. I headed in through the back gate and found him down on his hands and knees weeding. He greeted me with a smile and called out to me: “Hello Jim!” At that I pulled myself up to my full 3 foot something height, looked him in the face and said sternly, “My name’s not Jim, its Jamie!” And with that I turned around and walked out. Clearly the story got back to my family as it and my reply have become one of the family stories told and remembered frequently over the years. It particularly delighted my father who would push the irony of the story to its limits, because, after all, Mr. Ratcliffe’s name was of course, Jim! And my grandmother’s nickname was, of course, Jim
In the tradition in which I was raised, the Christian Reformed Church, a predominantly Dutch Calvinist denomination headquartered in western Michigan, the psalms played a prominent role in worship. In fact, the Psalter Hymnal, the official hymnal of the denomination in which I grew up, gave about two-thirds of its pages to the words of the psalms set to music. In the tradition in which I now practice my Christian faith – the (Anglican) monastic tradition – psalms are a mainstay of worship as well. We Brothers sing and pray the psalms several times a day, moving again and again through a cycle which covers the entire Psalter.
Recently I was reminded of the story of John Newton, the 18th century London-born seaman who authored the extremely-popular Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Newton was captain of a ship that plied in the slave trade, but in 1748 he underwent a dramatic conversion. His conversion took place at sea, in the midst of a raging storm, when he cried to the Lord for mercy and the ship was delivered. As he reflected on what had happened, Newton began to believe that God had addressed him through the storm and that grace had been at work in him. Not long after, he penned the words to the well-known hymn, “Amazing Grace,” in which he acknowledged that God’s grace had rescued him when he was lost, and given him sight when he was blind. Following his conversion, Newton left the slave trade, became an Anglican minister, and advocated for the abolition of slavery.
I feel that Jesus did not intend for the disciples to feel bound by a particular form of words. This is based on Jesus’ teachings on prayer and examples of his own prayers found in all of the Gospels. Jesus’ words in response to the disciples’ request, “Lord, teach us to pray,” are intended, I believe, as examples and guidelines to use and to expand upon when we pray.
Let’s take a very few minutes to think about what we mean when we say the Lord’s Prayer. I shall use the form of that prayer that we use in our worship here at the monastery, the contemporary form from the current Episcopal Prayer Book.
At the beginning of the prayer we address God as Our Father in heaven. This acknowledges both the way Jesus referred to God, and the way Jesus taught his disciples to think of God as our heavenly Father “by whose Name all fatherhood is known”. (Hymn 587)
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8; Matthew 22: 34-46
Tender is not a word that easily comes to mind when I think of Saint Paul or Leviticus. Usually Paul seems sharp or at times condescending and sometimes downright confusing. Leviticus, so concerned with purity laws is downright off putting, because I often feel that I could never make the grade, even if I wanted to. But this morning tender is the very word that springs to mind when I read them both. Listen again to Paul:
But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring
for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we
are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God
but also our own selves, because you have become very dear
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-41
Back in the days when my time was more my own, I used to watch a fair amount of television. My favourite shows came on in the evenings; things like Falcon Crest, Dynasty and Dallas. You might remember them. Each week I was glued for hours on end to my television as episode after episode played out. One of the shows, Falcon Crest, I think, a character named ‘Father Bob’ turned up every so often to minister to the needs of the family. When he would come on, I would wonder to myself what it would be like to minister to the fabulously rich, the enormously powerful and the incredibly beautiful.
Perhaps it is because of God’s wry sense of humour that that young twenty some year old priest who wondered about ministering to the fabulously rich, the enormously powerful and the incredibly beautiful now stands before you as one who has taken the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. Wealth, power and beauty, or “Sex, Money and Power” as the title of one book puts it, are not quite my stock and trade.