Thursday, October 11, 2007

Meditation #1

Meditation #1 - The first in a series of three meditations for the ECW Quiet Day at Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchez, MS.

Yesterday, at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School where I serve as chaplain, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the school’s founding. “Six Decades of Stars Rising” was the theme of our campus-wide worship out by Lake Sherwood Wise, nestled behind the observatory, where stars were visible not in the sky above but rather in the procession of students and faculty that wound its way to the lakefront.

“It’s like we’re the stars, right?” a third grader asked me earlier in the week. “For six decades the students have been like lights rising up in the sky?” So much has changed in the 60 years since students first gathered in the fellowship hall at the parish of St. Andrew’s. They have twice outgrown their space. Headmistresses and headmasters have come and gone. Textbooks have been introduced and become worn and outdated. Laptop computers have taken the place of notebook paper.

So much has changed in 60 years, but my third grade friend is correct – the students have always been the stars, lighting the way for succeeding generations, so that yesterday morning the campus was positively radiant. Through six decades of stars rising, the light of learning has been overshadowed only by the yet more brilliant light of Christ shining through the school’s founding as a community of faith and service. The light continues to shine.

And things continue to change. This year there are some forty new women and men added to the constellation of faculty and staff, and a search is underway for a new head of school. A new schedule has been implemented, based on some unintelligible mathematical formula that concluded six days of the week would be better than five, and that classes should be rotated from day to day, so that if this Monday were an A-day, you’d start with 1st period and go through 7th period, and then next Monday would be an F-day, starting with 6th period and working its way around to 4th period… And there is a new chaplain this year, still a little blinded by the light, still a little confused by the schedule, still in the process of learning how to read the stars, how to read the students…

When I accepted the call to serve at St. Andrew’s, not long before the start of the new school year, the old but familiar anxieties started surfacing… What would I wear the first day of school? How would I find my way around? What if no one talked to me? Would I be cool enough? Funny enough? What if no one liked me?...

According to Webster, anxiety is “a state of being uneasy, apprehensive, or worried about what may happen.” It is almost a poetic definition, I think, imbued with the very uncertainty that makes us anxious, for what may happen, of course, may also not happen… When worry whispers what if, what if, we find we are not as sure of the way forward as we once were, and we become anxious about what may happen.

According to theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, anxiety is the state of being within 24 hours of delivering a sermon or, say, a series of quiet day meditations. According to the new chaplain at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, anxiety is the state of just having realized that she is required to prepare no less than three sermons every week. My anxiety rose as my star sank into a sea of what if’s. What if I’m boring? What if they laugh? What if they don’t laugh? What if I don’t have anything to say? What if I do, and they don’t listen?...

I know, of course, that our lectionary dictates the annual appearances of passages from scripture and prayers from our tradition, but I can’t help but wonder whether God was casting stars my way not long ago when I opened my prayerbook (anxiously!) to begin preparing a sermon and read this collect assigned for the Sunday on which I would be preaching.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to that which shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

We hear this collect every year on “the Sunday closest to September 21,” the Sunday closest to the beginning of fall, the Sunday closest to the beginning of that season when earthly things burn orange and red and yellow and gold and then fade and pass away. We hear this collect on a September Sunday when the air, still warm with summer winds, is beginning to stir both leaves and lives with a sense of uncertainty about what lies ahead.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, or in its more traditional form, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly. Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious, not to mind Another piece of poetry for me, when now in my work I ask children to mind in class, to give their attention, to be obedient. Not to mind earthly things, then, is not to give them our attention, not to be obedient to them, but instead to love things heavenly.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about, not to mind earthly things. What if, I wondered, what if I did not give the what if’s my attention? What if I did not mind them? What if I was not anxious about being cool or funny or profoundly inspirational? What if I didn’t worry about what may, or may not, happen?

Today, in community and in quiet, in word and in sacrament, I want to invite us deeper into this poem-prayer, this collect that accompanies us at the turn of a season and through the changes and chances and challenges of life that does not often stand still. I want us to rustle playfully, like children not minding, in the leaves and stars it casts at our feet.

I started first grade not at an Episcopal school but, rather, at a public school in the most Episcopal place on earth, in Sewanee, Tennessee, perched high up in the Appalachian Mountains as near to heaven as one can get. I remember walking to school past buildings that looked like ancient castles and cathedrals. I remember listening to the tower bells ringing out hymns I knew as well as my nursery rhymes. I remember the giant tree in our backyard that offered its roots as a playhouse and its leaves as a carpet. I remember hiking with my family on long afternoons when the air around us and the leaves underfoot were crisp and filled with the fragrance of fall. I remember not being anxious about anything.

So much had changed years later, when we returned to those mountains a little further north, and made our way one autumn day along a favorite path around a mountain. I was in junior high school, at an age when the changes in our bodies and hearts and minds reshape us daily, it seems. I was a teenager at a new school, with new friends, and a new desire to fit in. Childhood was ending, and I was anxious. As we crunched along the wooded path that afternoon, we began to notice and then to pick up and carry with us some of the leaves that had fallen. Orange, gold and brown surrounded us, lovely leaves we would press later on between the pages of our encyclopedia. But we were determined to find that one elusive perfect red leaf, with no blemishes or tears or any other imperfections. I do not remember if we found it. I do remember relishing our time searching together.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly;…even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away. We might see in autumn, with its falling leaves and lengthening shadows and long, slow drain of green warmth and life… we might see in autumn a reflection of those seasons in our lives when things that have fostered contentment and happiness and wholeness in us change, then fade and pass away and leave us in the cold. What may happen to us when these changes occur? What may not happen? Of course we are anxious.

At least we are in good company. Over and over in our scriptures, we read about women and men of faith who nonetheless struggled when life as they had always known it burst into flame and then faded away. In fact, it very literally happened that way to Moses. We know well the story we heard this morning, about the day when Moses stood before a burning bush and was never the same again. Everything had already changed from the comfortable life he had known as a child in Pharaoh’s household; when the truth of his Hebrew heritage came to light, he had fled, and was now content to live as shepherd in the hills of Midian.

On as ordinary a day as this one, upon ground that Moses walked every day, the angel of the Lord appeared in a flame of fire out of a bush…Moses, Moses! God called to him…The place on which you are standing is holy ground. In a flash, Moses understood that his life was passing away, changing beyond his ability to measure, and for two chapters he pleads with God to let things remain as they have been. Pharoah won’t listen, Moses insisted. The Israelites won’t believe me. I’m not as powerful as the Egyptians. And I can never think of the right things to say. Who am I that I should go to Pharoah, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?...What if…

Moses, Moses, God said, I will be with you. And in the end, that’s what Moses would cling to, and not for the first time and not for the last, God changed everything, and life passed away, and a new life began.

On another ordinary day, upon ground that she walked every day, Martha saw Jesus and his disciples going by. Something in him compelled her to invite them in, a bold and reckless move for an unmarried woman to make. But the flame she had kindled in her kitchen sparked a fire in her when she realized her sister, Mary, was sitting at Jesus’ feet rather than helping her prepare a meal for their guests. Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.

Martha, Martha, Jesus said, You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. And in the end, that’s what Martha would cling to, and not for the first time, and not for the last, Jesus changed everything, and life passed away, and a new life began.

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly;…even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away. Life on this earth is constantly passing away, isn’t it? We know of course, because both scripture and experience teach us, that such earthly things as wealth and success and status, and even beauty and health and skill, are only temporary. But far less measurable things also fade – things like life and love and hope and dreams and traditions and relationships and security. We don’t usually call these things earthly, but I submit to you that even they take on an earthly quality when we make them the center of our world.

In the same way, things that are of the earth can take on a heavenly quality, even though they, too, may pass away with time. Writer Molly Wolf explains, “A Maserati is one sort of thing; beef stew with Merlot is another, especially when the purpose of the stew is to express one’s delight in God’s creation and one’s love for those to be fed…Earthly says, ‘Make these things your God’; earthy says, ‘God is here in God’s extraordinary creation, give thanks.’ Earthly says, ‘We can make and control, and suffer for and make others suffer for, things we declare to be beautiful and valuable.’ Earthy invites you to pick up one single fallen leaf from a scarlet maple and be clonked cross-eyed by its sheer glory.”

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly;…even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away. So much has changed since first grade, since our first encounter with God, since Jesus first came into our lives. There is so much to be anxious about. There are so many what if’s. As we move, in our own lives, through seasons of transition and uncertainty, how is God calling us? How do we respond? Like Moses, perhaps, making the case that we just can’t change? Like Martha, maybe, complaining that the change isn’t fair? As we move, in our own lives, through seasons of transition and uncertainty, how is God calling us? How do we respond?

We are now going to enter a time of quiet reflection (for many of us, this is itself a big change!). I invite you use this space, if you wish, for prayer or meditation, for journaling or drawing, or simply for sitting in silence. There are pens, pencils, paper and other art supplies in the front pews. You are also welcome to find another space on these lovely and holy grounds, to walk, or to rest. When you hear the bell ring, about thirty minutes from now, please return to the church.

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