Expecto Patronum: Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the world is not ending

An intense cold swept over them all. Harry felt his own breath catch in his chest. The cold went deeper than his skin. It was inside his chest, it was inside his very heart. (JK Rowling, The Prisoner of Azkaban)

As Joseph Campbell famously intuited, all True Stories share a basic narrative pattern. Campbell identified as the Hero’s Journey a model that all archetypal stories follow. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (Campbell: The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 1949.)

The hero’s supernatural encounters are, clearly, not always “fabulous” in a good way; it is obvious that not all supernatural forces are benign. There are myriad examples of evil forces in the battle of Good vs. Evil, but I am thinking of three which seem particularly apt.

Before CS Lewis’ White Witch goes to battle with Aslan and the true Narnians, she assembles her followers, among them Hags, Ogres, Boggles and Werewolves. When JRR Tolkien’s wizard Saruman seeks to destroy Middle Earth, his army consists of the slimy and bred-for-war Orcs as well as the flying, undead Nazgûl. And then there is JK Rowling’s Voldemort, the Dark Lord. When Voldemort is finally restored to human form, he gathers to himself a host of Death Eaters, Dementors, and (these guys again!) Werewolves, among others.

Common among all of all evil forces, besides a taste for murder, is the emotional violence they unleash. One has had a sense of the worrisome seriousness of the situation, but then the day comes when Evil Itself swarms or swoops or rises up from the sewers in its full malignity. It is only then that the good guys realize what they are truly up against, and, dangerously, start to lose hope. We who read the story or watch the scene on the screen share this loss of hope, the despair, and the emerging, horrifying conviction that all is lost. We feel sick.

Here’s why I bring this up, just in case it isn’t obvious. Like many, the above paragraph is a pretty accurate description of my emotional state in recent months. Maybe for you as well. (If not, God bless you. Please reach out to us.) But the wondrous thing is that as soon as I realized the source–the archetypal truth–of my emotions, I began to calm down. We may feel sick, but Orcs and giant snakes are not, in fact, about to feed on our flesh. We are not about to be turned into stone; we are not back-to-the wall in a cavern, soon to be torn limb-from-limb by a broadsword. That’s good news, no?! There is, of course, the bad news. Gandalf is not going to ride in on his magical horse Shadowfax, driving the darkness back. Aslan is not coming to save us.

But there is this. There is this. Harry Potter was thrilled to think that his father had come to save him just when the Dementors were sucking his soul away. Just in case you haven’t read the story, suffice it to say that in a very complicated turn of events, it turns out that it was Harry himself who wielded the power, who cast the spell, saving himself.

You have the power to do good. You may be wandering in the dark forest and afraid you are lost forever. But remember that Campbell’s archetypal hero always gets lost and despairs but then fights himself (herself) and keeps going. Even better, for people of faith, hope and life are restored in a mystical combination of human effort and divine grace.

Do not despair. See the good. Be the good. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Be a hero. Summon your own Patronus. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God.



Something’s Coming: A Sermon for Advent 2

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

The musical West Side Story was written in 1956: Leonard Bernstein wrote the music and Stephen Sondheim wrote the words. West Side Story of course tells of Maria and Tony: a Puerto Rican girl and an Anglo boy who fall in love. The story is modeled on Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy about young lovers from different sides of the tracks. From opposing gangs, in Tony and Maria’s case.

As West Side story opens, Tony’s first song is called “Something’s Coming.” It is about his sense that something momentous is about to happen to him.

Could be!
Who knows?
There’s something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something’s coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great!

I thought of this song—for the first time in years—this week. It occurred to me that the lyrics of this song are a pretty good reflection of where we are in our church year.

Our liturgies, our preparations, our scripture readings… All have a sense of anticipation that points towards something coming. Since we tell the story of Jesus’ anticipation and birth and life and death and resurrection…since we tell this story over and over and over, we know how it turns out. But I think we could learn a thing or two from Tony’s sense of anticipation, of something coming. He has no idea what is about to happen to him, but his knows it’s gonna be great.

If we look at this Gospel reading about John the Baptist with fresh eyes, it’s pretty easy to think: what In the world is he talking about? WHO in the world is he talking about?

John is attracting all these people out to his revival at the river. It is a huge event that has attracted the people of Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region along the Jordan, and John baptized them. Just to give you some idea of the scope of the thing: the Jordan is over 20 miles east of Jerusalem. We are talking about a lot of people coming long distances.

And yet, even though he is the headliner of his event, John himself tells the people: You ain’t seen nothing yet. “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

I get the impression that John’s baptism is a kind of temporal thing earthly repentance. I imagine him pointing to Jesus who is beyond time. The way he talks about Jesus is more timeless and universal. John the Baptist’s job was to point to Jesus. Even with all the attention he garnered with his shouting and his wild-animal outfit and his locusts and wild honey…even with all the attention he attracted, John knew that his job was to point to Jesus. He was a messenger from God.

We hear from several messenger-prophets today: Isaiah, the writer of the psalm, and the apostle Paul. The opening prayer for the day, the collect of the day, thanks God for sending messengers to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. We ask God in our opening collect to give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

The Greek word for messenger is angelos: it means messenger, but also it’s where we get our word “angel.” Angels figure prominently in our story this time of year. We hear a lot about the heavenly host of angels, about the angel Gabriel who announces to Mary the news of her miraculous baby.

Heavenly beings do not often visit regular humans. But make no mistake: God talks to us. God sends us messengers and angels all the time. Who are some of the other, less famous messengers from God? Messenger can be a word of Scripture, a Word from a friend or a song, or it could be, as with Tony in west side story, it could be a feeling that something’s coming.

For Christians, the season of Advent anticipates the coming of Christ from three different perspectives. Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) spoke of the three comings of Christ: in the flesh in Bethlehem, and in glory at the end of time…but most present to us in this moment: we prepare a place for Christ in our hearts daily, The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming.

West Side Story begins with anticipation that something wonderful is about to happen. And it does, when Tony meets Maria and they have a brief, miraculous few hours together before the reality of their world tears them apart. Tony dies in a street fight between the gangs. And yet. And yet. As the show closes there is a sense that the warring gangs have been chastened, there is a sense of hope for a new unity.

The story of Jesus’ birth always foreshadows his death. But it also promises his resurrection, and his coming again. The beginning and the end come together in this time of anticipation. We will look back with a celebration of the first arrival of the Messiah. We will look ahead as the collect says, to greeting with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

In between, we prepare. And we look for signs of God’s kingdom NOW. We keep our eyes peeled and our ears tuned for God’s messengers, who come to us in ways we cannot always expect. We are so used to seeing what we expect to see. This is the season to look for the unexpected. The conjunction of what God has done in the past, what God is doing among us now, and what God promises to do in the future come together to undergird the seminal Christian virtue of hope.

Could be! Who knows?
There’s something due any day;
we will know right away, Soon as it shows.

God is With Us. Be Not Afraid.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

[Sermon preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Marble Falls TX, November 8, 2016.]

These words from Julian of Norwich have carried me through this year, and this season. I have a heart full of hope today. The world will not end today. The sun will rise tomorrow, and we will remember, again, that God is in the midst of us. We will remind each other—in the coming days—that where two or three are gathered in God’s name, God is there. As people of faith, we are actors in a great drama, the story of God’s people. We are the people to whom God says, over and over: Be not afraid. Do not fear. I am with you.

It has helped me, during this season, to remember history: to take the long view. Humanity has seen fearful times before. In every generation, someone—or some entire group—has hated or imprisoned or gone to war with another someone or another entire group. The victims of hunger, fear, injustice and oppression (for whom we pray every Sunday in our Prayers of the People)…these have always been among us. Sometimes WE are the victims of hunger, fear, injustice and oppression.

History is on our side, my friends. Remember this today.

Nearly 3000 years ago, the Jewish people of Palestine were conquered and carried off into captivity in Babylon. They were not only captives, but exiles from their own country, cut off from their home and from their religion. In Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7, the prophet Jeremiah is sending word from Jerusalem to the exiles. The prophet speaks an encouraging word from God to the exiles, telling them, in essence: All shall be well. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters.” In other words: you might as well get on with your lives, because this is going to take a while. But while you are settling in, seek the welfare of the place you live, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. In other other words: Bloom where you are planted.

The Babylonian Exile lasted 60 years. That’s nearly two generations, or about the length of time it has been since the post-WWII era. Think how the world has turned since then: in wonderful ways, and in other ways. When the wheels of time and history are turning, as they are now, it’s easy to feel pinched in the gears. But remember that time does turn. History is on our side. God is with us. Be not afraid.

The Apostle Paul reminds us that we are all one in Christ Jesus. We belong to God, and we are one people. Paul is talking about unity: not unanimity. We are one body, one people. We are not all the same, but we do not let our differences divide us. This language “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” was not poetry when Paul wrote it, it was not scripture.  This was a letter written in anger to the church at Galatia, whose priorities were in the wrong places. He’s banging some heads together here, reminding them to re-focus their attention from divisions and theological arguments back to their unity in God.

And then we have the reading from the Gospel of Matthew. I encourage you to read it over and over today and in the next few days. This is typical Jesus, who said “Be not afraid” over and over. Here he says Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Our greatest fear, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, is fear itself. The anxiety in our nation, and the world-wide anxiety caused by our national anxiety, is just an outward sign of our own individual fears. It is the fear that reverberates.

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) has a book on creativity, which contains this: It is her Letter to Fear: “I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still—your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”

Perfect love casts out fear. We are a people of love. We are a people of the resurrection. Do not allow fear to cause you to forget who you are.

Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song. Know this: The Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise; give thanks to him and call upon his Name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age.

One Lord. One faith. One birth.

Wade in the water/wade in the water, children/wade in the water/God’s gonna trouble the water (African-American spiritual)

Flat Polycarp and I had all kinds of things to say about our wanderings through the UK. The first two-thirds of my sabbatical journey were easy-going, green and friendly. In contrast, upon my arrival in Israel/Palestine, all my muscles tightened, words stopped working and the travel experience became largely sensory and visceral. So no blog for a week.

Wading at Banias Nature Preserve
One week ago I arrived in Tel Aviv. It was before I even had left London, however, that I entered Israeli territory. I spent 20 minutes at Heathrow answering questions about why I was going to Israel, who I was seeing, what I was doing, where I was staying. And for how long. And why was I going, again? I don’t know anyone there? Where was I staying? Who? What? Why?

This is my second time in the Holy Land. Last time, our tour guide was an Israeli Jew: a scholar and former soldier born the same year as the nation. This time, I am taking a course at St. George’s College in Jerusalem (“Women of the Bible”), and our guide is an Israeli Arab Christian. Suffice it to say the two men tell the story differently.  

Microcosm: a Jew and a Muslim, both wearing the Star of David of the Israeli police, shopping for candy in Nazareth.

This land we call “Holy” is a strange place. Bitterly contested for thousands of years, given by God to several people at once: the land itself is a story. From the desert wilderness to the cities to the lush Galilee area, today’s people live right on top of the ancestors. 

We pilgrims have traveled the land and told the stories of the women, in their places. We remember some of them by name: Bathsheba, Elizabeth, Martha and her sister Mary of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, and of course Mary of Nazareth. Others are known to God, but we know them only by their relations or their deeds: Jephtha’s Daughter, the Syrophoenician woman, the woman healed of the hemorrhage, the woman who talked to Jesus at Jacob’s well. All these women lived and died in an area which today can be traveled from top to bottom in less than three hours.  

You know how in the movie National Treasure, one of the great finds is this freaky pair of glasses with multiple, colored lenses? Manipulation of the lenses made it possible to decode the treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. This land could use such a translation device. 

One’s view, and one’s perspective–one’s truth– depends entirely on the lenses one sees through, and where one stands. There are infinite contrasts and layers: of history and religion, hate and love, war and peace. We strain to understand this land, but ultimately it can only be felt in the gut.

I waded in the water at Banias, one of the three springs that create the River Jordan. The springs rise on the Israel/Syria border, form the boundary with the Kingdom of Jordan, flow into the Sea of Galilee and beyond, and finally die in the Dead Sea. Banias is a paradise of archaeology and greenery and cold water. It also sits adjacent to a mine field. Like I said: one’s experience depends on where one stands.

A woman. At Jacob’s Well in Nablus.

The Holy Land speaks and sings and prays and scolds and feeds. The music of prayer layers–like baklava–with the music of the people’s speech and the smell of spices and dust. Depictions of the Lion of Judah pop up all over: near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, in Christian cathedrals and monasteries in the desert. Like C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, this lion engenders awe and fear and deep love: this is not a tame lion. We must not presume to say we understand it. 
The separation walls and barbed wire, the soldiers and the checkpoints, are outward signs of deep divisions. And yet they do not tell the true story. So many people- Jew, Muslim and Christian-are working and praying for peace and the healing of the Holy Land. Last Sunday at St. George’s Cathedral, we sang The Church’s One Foundation. Like a cloth woven of many textures and colors, we embodied the people of God as one body. We sang in English (from several continents) together with Arabic:

Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth. Her charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth. One holy name she blesses, partakes one only food. And to one hope she presses with every grace endued.  

Cheerio, England. Lovely to have met you. 

and I don’t want to be alone/but sometimes I just want to be somewhere else/untethered and unknown/when I am far from home/From departure to arrival/what does it mean to travel? (MCCarpenter)

Along one-lane roads and train tracks, and back and forth across borders, I have been wandering around the UK for three and a half weeks now. My peregrinations have taken me from Galway to Edinburgh to Hexham to Devonshire and finally to London, from which I will launch into the final phase of my journey.

I have loved all of it, every single moment. I have reveled in the fact that all places are holy, not just the “holy” places. Before I leave England, a few random non sequitur observations.

Flat Polycarp appreciated that there are no silly toilet wars in the UK. This one has accommodations for weirdly shaped babies.
  • I have appreciated–even as it caused me stress–that there is a lot to be learned by not knowing what to do or how to do it. 
  • Cities are the same everywhere: London looks a lot like St. Louis or New York. 
  • On the other hand, there is always something to remind you that you are Somewhere Else: things like backwards traffic and doors, weirdly numbered floors, and mushy peas. 
  • It’s so hard not to think that everything and everyone in England is adorable, for which I blame every single Hugh Grant movie. 
  • Where else are you going to get the Piccadilly line to Cockfosters?
  • Duvets are brilliant. 
  • The English are the masters of the subjunctive. 
The Queen has had quite enough of this silliness .
  • It turns out that the yellow flowers as far as my eye could see were canola.
  • The words “in” and “on” are totally reversed: You live in Croftdown Road, but you don’t leave your bags unattended on the train station.
  • You don’t ask for the bathroom, which would be a place you take a bath, silly. You ask for the toilet. And it is down 100 stairs and the light switch is on the outside. 
  • American news is news in England. I heard an Irish priest called Fr. Brian talking on the radio about a trip he had taken to Louisville, where he had met Muhammad Ali–whose name means “Beloved of God”–while on a pilgrimage to Thomas Merton’s monastery. Fr. Brian quoted Ali: if a man does not have the courage to do something that scares him, he will accomplish nothing.
  • American music is everywhere, in the form of Michael Jackson, Motown and the 60s. 
  • If you miss your train, another will come along. That will preach. 
  • It’s pretty cheap entertainment just to read the labels in other countries. “Upend before pouring.”

What’s in a name? Part 2

My two weeks in England have been bracketed by two deeply personal bookends. As I have mentioned elsewhere, my journey started in the far north at the sweet River Tyne, whence came my family surname in the 11th century. I had an atavistic reaction to the Tyne valley, a combination of imagination and emotion, and the place brought tears to my eyes. 

I left the borderlands in the northeast, and made my way to the far southwest. Armed with some family tree data and a map, my intention was to find a more tangible, “recent” family connection in Devonshire, in the form of a 17th-century Anglican vicar named John Tindall. 

England is a country where words like “new” and “old” seem insanely out of whack to an American. Glory be: a visit to the Devon Heritage Center in Exeter turned up parish marriage, baptism and burial records relating to the Rev. Tindall and his family, my most recent English relatives, 350 years ago. 

The Rev. Tindall was vicar of the Church of St. Andrew’s in the tee-ninesy village of Bere Ferrers, Devonshire, from 1655 until his death in 1673. Bere Ferrers, about as big as a football field, is tucked obscurely at the end of a peninsula in the River Tavy. After (yet another) hair-raising drive, I found St. Andrew’s, a funky, 750-year-old wonder. It’s got 13th-century effigies, and a crazy floor plan, and steps so worn they would hold water. The pews date to my ancestor’s time. Parish records show that John and and his wife Ann were married here, baptized at least two children, and were buried here. 

If you know your Anglican church history, you can appreciate that this was a hell of a time to be a vicar in the Church of England. I would love to know where the Rev. Tindall received his theological education, whether he came to Protestantism willingly, and how he avoided being burned at the stake. Did he know anyone who knew George Herbert? 

Unfortunately, no headstones exist at St. Andrew’s from the mid-17th century, so my usual, favorite touchstone was not available to me. There was this, though: in the heritage center, I had seen the record of a letter stating that the Rev. Tindall and others asked permission in 1665 to start a school with the next parish, two miles up the road. Late that afternoon, alone in the church, I found a banner celebrating the school’s 350th anniversary. Now that’s a legacy. 

Pilgrimage: doing the walk of life

But we look back, with thanksgiving, in order to look forward. We cannot stand still. God is always calling us on to larger life. Geoffrey Tristram SSJE

I am mulling over the difference between a trip and a pilgrimage. The two things have a lot in common, of course: the careful planning, and the evaluation of potential stops along the way.

Perhaps a key difference is intention. At the beginning of a yoga class, the teacher will often ask participants to “set an intention” for the class period. The idea is to call to mind something–a person, a joy, a worry–and set it down in the space at the front of the mind. This is a way of clearing the way to make room for the practice, as well as marking the intention as a kind of offering. 

There is also the matter of why one travels. The purpose of my to-ing and fro-ing is not simply to see some other landscape, but to seek the transformation of my own, interior landscape. It also helps if the outer landscape is already holy.

Which brings me to Lindisfarne. The road signs point to “Holy Island,” so that’s pretty helpful. On the other hand–and this will preach–the road only goes there sometimes. Or rather, the road is always there, but sometimes it is obscured. The road to the sacred place is not always open. 

A tidal island in the North Sea off the extreme northeast coast of England, Lindisfarne has been destination for pilgrims and monks and Vikings for more than 1500 years. Whether they come for prayer or pillage or just commerce, all comers must cross the water, and take heed of the tides.

It is easy here to look back and visualize the past, to feel oneself walking in the same footsteps as Aidan, Cuthbert, and other saints whose names are known only to God. The priory is in ruins, of course, but it is still tangible. Adjacent to the priory, St. Mary the Virgin Church stands on the site of the monastery founded by Aidan and is an outward sign of the continuity of faith. I worshipped there with a small group on a Sunday, the 1662 prayer book communion presided over by a vicar whose sonorous voice made me think of Simon Callow.

Just on the other side of the vicarage is the beach across from Cuthbert’s personal retreat island. While Lindisfarne’s buildings evoke humanity, the beach transcends human memory; it is empty and timeless. A bit of devotional beachcombing yielded a tiny crinoid known as a Cuthbert bead. This is pilgrimage: mindful walking, in anticipation that the path will bestow a gift.