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THE HEAVENLY CITY

City, when we see you coming down,

Coming down from God

To be the new world’s crown:

How shall they sing, the fresh, unsalted seas

Hearing your harmonies!

For there is no more death,

No need to cure those waters, now, with any brine;

Their shores give them no dead,

Rivers no blood, no rot to stain them.

Because the cruel algebra of war

Is now no more.

And the steel circle of time, inexorable,

Bites like a padlock shut, forever,

In the smoke of the last bomb:

And in that trap the murderers and sorcerers and crooked leaders

Go rolling home to hell.

And history is done.

Shine with your lamb-light, shine upon the world:

You are the new creations sun.

And standing on their twelve foundations,

Lo, the twelve gates that are One Christ are wide as canticles:

And Oh! Begin to hear the thunder of the songs within the crystal Towers,

While all the saints rise from their earth with feet like like

And fly to tread the quick-gold of those streets,

Oh, City, when we see you sailing down,

Sailing down from God,

Dressed in the glory of the Trinity, and angel-crowned

In nine white diadems of liturgy.

~by Fr. Thomas Mertin in Selected Poems

Robin_Williams_2011a_(2)I was on the Isle of Iona, Scotland several weeks ago when I heard the news about Robin Williams’ suicide and subsequently, his depression and the revelation that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

This death has had an unexpected and deep impact in my heart. I do not know why, I just know it is true. Since his death, I have found myself watching videos of his appearances on old Johnny Carson shows or David Letterman, or Williams’ stand-up routine on stages.  In addition, I have watched some clips from his movies–one from “Good Morning, Vietnam” that had me laughing so hard I was crying. Then I watched a most powerful and moving clip from Dead Poets’ Society, where the young men defy someone in power by standing on top of their desks as their former teacher leaves for the last time. “Captain, My Captain,” several say, as each climbs to stand tall and proud.  I watched this clip and wept as I thought of the loss of this brilliant, funny, deep man.  He also happened to be a Christian, and a fellow Episcopalian  [yes, Robin Williams is the one who gave us the Top Ten Reasons For Being an Episcopalian (on an HBO Special)--you may have seen computer mouse pads or t-shirts with these]:

“10. No snake handling.

 9. You can believe in dinosaurs.

8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.

7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.

6. Pew aerobics.

5. Church year is color-coded.

4. Free wine on Sunday.

3. All of the pageantry – none of the guilt.

2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.

And the Number One reason to be an Episcopalian:

1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.”

I read somewhere that someone, upon hearing of Williams’ death, did what she admitted was illegal. She pulled many pictures of him from the internet, and looked at them all. She said that when she did, she could see that over time, the light in his eyes had dimmed, then seemed to go out completely. She noted that he still smiled, but that the smile no longer reached his eyes.

Depression is a terrible disease.  Many people suffer from depression, or bi-polar disorder or other mental illnesses.  Many of us (yes, I, too am affected in some way) experience varying degrees of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), especially in January, February and March, when the days are very short, and we have lots of gray days. In such long stretches of winter darkness, I am grateful for having purchased what I call “Happy Lights,” portable full-spectrum lighting lamps that I use in the morning, that truly do help me.
 
This week, Bishop Scott Benhase, the Episcopal Bishop of Georgia, posted his response to Robin Williams’ suicide.  A flurry of responses followed, many of them unhappy ones. One of my clergy colleagues in the Alexandria, VA area responded.  Joan was diagnosed some years ago with bi-polar disorder. Thanks to good therapy, a good physician, the correct “cocktail” of meds, and a regimen of taking care of herself with diet and exercise, Joan is now living what she calls a “balanced” life. She has a blog, where she journals (quite powerfully, I might add) about her mental illness and how she has learned to cope.

 If you would like to read Bishop Scott Benhase’s letter and Joanie’s response, use this link to her website: http://celticjlp.wordpress.com/2014/09/03/a-response-to-the-bishop-of-georgias-e-crozier-post-on-the-death-of-robin-williams-from-an-openly-bipolar-cleric/

The 16th century poet John Donne wrote Meditation 17.  The final line of this poem reads thus: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. . . .

  From Meditation 17 by John Donne

Although we would now use such patriarchal language today, the meaning is still the same. What diminishes one of us, diminishes all of us. This is true whether it is in our society at large, or in the church community. A butterfly flutters its wings somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, and eventually, climate is changed in the Northern Hemisphere, hundreds of thousands of miles away.  One person’s joy radiates. Likewise, that person’s despair affects others. Truly, we are one for all and all for one. 

Too many people suffering from depression give up. The light goes out for them, and they believe–whether rightly or wrongly–that suicide stops being a question and becomes an answer. Unfortunately, that particular answer leaves families with unanswered questions, inevitable “what if’s” and deep, lasting grief. 

If you are deeply depressed and you have thought about ending your life, please know that a) you are not alone and b) you can get the help you need to keep suicide a question and not an answer.  Please know that there are many professional resources, some of which are available 24/7. 

You could use this link: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/  

 There are mental health professionals available to help you–whether that is a physician, therapist, Twelve Step group or other support group. It really is okay to ask for what you need! 

If you are a veteran, you can also use this link:

http://veteranscrisisline.net/ 

Teenagers could use http://www.help4mdyouth.org/ 

Many people live with depression and other issues. If I can help prevent one death, I promise, as your priest and pastor, to help in any way I can.  There are many mental health professionals available to help you–whether that is a physician, Physician’s Assistant, therapist, Twelve Step group or other support group. It really is okay to ask for the help you need—and yes, you–beautiful child of  God–you are worth it. 

If you have not seen this beautiful, one-minute tribute to Robin Williams, take sixty seconds and watch it:   

http://www.sunnyskyz.com/happy-videos/1033/The-Most-Beautiful-Tribute-To-Robin-Williams-And-It-s-Just-A-Minute-Long  

I hope you will give thanks to God for, and celebrate, his life. I also hope you will give thanks to God for, and celebrate, your own life.

Faithfully, Sheila+  

The Mother: Dinner on Iona

En Route

She sits, solitary dinner guest at a small, candle-lit table.

Looks out of the window at a gray sea.

Reads a newspaper.

Eats her dinner.

Then the young man arrives

And pulls up a chair.

She puts the paper down.

He leans over and

Gives her an awkward hug.

 

I sense, more than see, that he has Downs.

Looks like he is in early twenties (yes, shaving)

Or maybe he’s an older teenager.

The boy hands her three postcards

With careful, child-like printing on them.

While she reads them,

He pulls out his I-Phone and texts someone.

 

He leans over and hugs her again.

They talk quietly.

He stands up.

For a third time, a hug.

He leaves, and the woman watches him go.

 

The owner of the hotel comes over

And the woman at the table asks,

“Is he having a good time at the Abbey?”

Ah yes, the young people on pilgrimage

Who lead worship at the Abbey every evening.

I listen, hoping he has found community

In this sacred place.

The response is affirmative.

 

Satisfied, the mother asks for a pot of tea

To enjoy after her dinner.

As she waits, she picks up her newspaper,

Then puts it down to

Look out of the window

At the gray sea

                                                    SNM

                                                    08/13/2014

A Pilgrim’s Way

It is true that the way is made by walking.

We put one foot in front of the other,

Feel our walking on the good earth,

Connect to what has birthed us at the first dawn.

But it is also true

That the way is made by others’ walking before us.

We don’t see that on the road

But then we lift the latch,

Slip through the gate and

Grassy Path SmWalk a grassy path

That others have walked.

Cattle have been here

And sheep

And goats.

But human feet have flattened the grass

To make a rough path to follow.

They have left footprints in the coarse sand

Along the sea.

A few still linger in sight.

Man on north beach Iona Sm1

One stands on top of dark, volcanic rock

And looks out over a windy sea.

Another hooded figure walks slowly along the water,

Then leans over to choose a stone.

We walk on this beach, my friend and I.

Yet we are not the first pilgrims here.

The footsteps of thousands of others now washed to sea,

Their journeys have gone before ours began.

But their prayers remain,

Whirling around us like the wind,

As present as the fresh air we breathe in deeply,

As at the first dawn.

                                                                    (c) Sheila N. McJilton

                                                                    13 August, 2014

Recently, as I thought about the texts for that upcoming Sunday, I realized one of them was Genesis 22. Somehow, in fifteen years of ordained ministry, I had dodged that difficult text in preaching—the gospel was always easier. Besides, how do children hear such a primitive, terrifying text? (Yes, some of them may be happily coloring pictures during the sermon, but parents have told me they hear more than one might think!) But this year, I decided it was time to wrestle with that theological alligator, thanking God that I had saved class notes from Dr. Ellen Davis’ Old Testament class years ago.

When one of the teenagers at St. Philip’s saw the lessons that morning, he said to his mother, “Mother Sheila won’t preach on that passage. She’s going to avoid it.” His mom replied, “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Later, she said she elbowed him when I began preaching. At the end, he said softly, ‘But she still didn’t answer my questions.’ His mom replied, “Of course she didn’t.”

He still has questions? Good. So do I. And I was glad that he does have questions about his Christian faith. Young people (those I know, anyway) don’t just accept blindly whatever a church leader tells them about faith and how they should believe. Instead, they question, push back, engage in deeper conversations about what they believe and why.

I was also pleased to see what happened at Coffee Hour that morning. Someone commented on the sermon and a thoughtful discussion ensued. I was able to share some of this difficult passage’s interpretations and was amazed at the depth of conversation over coffee.

Having been raised by Southern Baptists, I understand the differences between that view of Holy Scripture and that of Anglicans. My love for the Anglican way deepens every time I preach or teach about a difficult text. I appreciate the fact that Dr. Reginald Fuller argued that the Church of England—even at the time of the Reformation—never made the claim for the inerrancy of Scripture. Instead ( he referenced Article VII of the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Prayerbook), we see the Son of God as ‘the Word of the Father,” hence this Word of God is living and personified.[1]

I also appreciate that as long as humankind has had language and the ability to communicate, words have been used as illustrations, symbols, and vessels of great power. Yes, sometimes those vessels and symbols have been used by some humans to divide, to hurt, even to abuse. Yet I cannot imagine that a scripture passage a) means the same thing to a twenty-first century person as it did to a person living in the Bronze Age of history and b) has only one meaning forever. I also do not believe that revelation of God’s Word ended with written texts or a particular time in history—wouldn’t that be limiting the power of God’s Spirit? Yes, we will continue to wrestle with interpretation of scripture—even within my beloved Anglican Church. But I hope, and pray, that in this wrestling, the One who first created us, the One who gave us the living Word, changes us—for the better.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] Reginald Fuller, “The Bible as the Word of God” in Sykes, Booty & Knight, The Study of Anglicanism, 87.

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-29, 58-67

Sacrament of Holy Baptism for Matteo Miranda Spado

The circle of life is both interesting and amazing. Sometimes this journey becomes a spiral, going ever deeper, bringing people and events we had not expected. Yet somehow, our great story goes on, from one generation to another. In the past few weeks, we have heard parts of Abraham and Sarah’s story—their circle of life. We have heard stories of unexpected blessing and joy—a child given late in life. We have heard stories of deception, rejection and division with implications for all subsequent generations. And last week, we explored a story of Abraham’s extreme proof of faith. After that terrifying incident on top of Mt. Moriah, Abraham does not go back to Sarah’s tents in Hebron. Instead, he lives apart from her in Beersheba. According to midrashic tradition, Sarah dies of grief over what we know as “the binding of Isaac.” When she dies, Abraham bargains with the local Hebron tribesmen for a cave in which to bury his wife.

In the next chapter of Abraham’s story, Abraham has grown very old. Yet as patriarch of this family, Abraham must do one more thing before he dies. He must find his son Isaac a wife, and he has no desire to find that wife among the pagans with whom he lives.    So he sends his most trusted servant back to the land of Haran, where Abraham and his family had once lived. Abraham knows that in Haran, the servant will find family members. In the ancient tradition, you marry from within your tribe and parents arrange marriages. So Abraham’s most trusted servant sets out on a long, desert journey to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham trusts that God will, once again, provide. His servant trusts that God will provide. And God does. In a delightful story, the servant finds Abraham’s relatives, a beautiful young woman, and in her, a wife for Isaac. It is interesting to note, however, that rather than making the legal arrangements as their custom and culture dictates, Rebekah’s mother Bethuel and her brother Laban ask her “Will you go with this man?” In a gesture that reveals her courage, Rebekah says, “I will.” So Rebekah and all the women who attend her pack, mount camels and follow Abraham’s trusted servant back to Hebron. We get a clear image of Rebekah’s first glimpse of Isaac. She dismounts her camel, asks the servant who that man is who is walking towards them in the field, then covers her face with a veil—not to be uncovered until her wedding night.

Isaac—who has grieved deeply after his mother Sarah died—takes Rebekah to be his wife. In what is perhaps the only passage in the Hebrew scriptures to speak of romantic love, the story says “He took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”

Today, we gather as God’s people, many, many generations after Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah. yet we, too, are part of a great family. This weekend, we celebrate our nation’s independence, while we also celebrate the great diversity of these United States of America. People have come to these shores from all languages, tribes and nations. They have arrived in a search for freedom, the opportunity for education the chance to have a higher standard of life. Many of us at St. Philip’s have come from nations wide-flung: Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia. From England, Ireland, Scotland. From Germany, China, Jamaica and Trinidad. From Canada, Guatamala and recently returned Americans from Bogata, Columbia.

Today, we gather to celebrate another circle of life in the great family of God: the baptism of Matteo Miranda Spado. his toddler has come into this family as great blessing. Ana came to this country when she was twelve, speaking almost no English and bringing with her a heritage and language passed on to her from her family. In 2010, she and Matt married in great joy. They experienced deep grief, when they lost their first baby. Yet the circle of life has come around again, spiraled deeper, and with it, the gift of this beautiful child. Matteo has already experienced love, illness, challenges and happiness as he explores his rapidly expanding world. Ana and Matt and their family and friends come today to present this child for the sacrament of Holy Baptism. The words of baptism are not some magical formula recited over him. Instead, with powerful, sacramental words, his parents, godparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and others make vows on Matteo’s behalf. You, his family, will vow before God and a community of faith that you will raise him in the Christian faith. This means that you read and tell him Bible stories. You say bedtime prayers and prayers before meals. You teach him the “Padre Nuestro”—the Lord’s Prayer—and the 23rd Psalm, so that they become as much a part of him as his breath. If you teach him these things, he will become two things in his life: A Keeper and a Seeker.

For some of you, the greatest game in the world is currently being played in Brazil: football, otherwise known as soccer. In the game of soccer, there is a keeper—a goal keeper. The keeper is “the only member of a team who is allowed to touch the ball with the hands. Positioned directly in front of goal, it is the keeper’s job to prevent the opposition scoring. The keeper is only allowed to use his hands in the penalty area, and will be penalized if he uses them outside of it.”[1]   The keeper is the last line of defense. He or she must be brave and agile and able to counter all threats. This past week, despite the United States’ loss, Keeper Tim Howard was lauded with great respect when he “pulled off 16 saves—a tally unmatched since such World Cup records began—to often single-handedly keep USA in contention.”[2] It is the job of a keeper to keep away what should be away, so that what needs to happen, happens.

In that sense, I pray that Matteo will be a Keeper. He must keep the Christian faith deep in his heart. He must keep away from him the people and situations that would destroy or compromise his faith. He will only know how to do that if you—his parents, grandparents, godparents and others—teach him in clear, specific practices of the faith.

Father Abraham, his son Isaac and later, his grandson Jacob, also kept the faith. They held it close in their hearts; they taught it to their children; they knew that no matter what depths or heights life held or what unexpected challenges, God loved them. There were Keepers of God. They were also Seekers.

In her mythic Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling gives us Quidditch, a game that is a little like basketball and a little like soccer—played as young people soar in the air on brooms. Like the one in real-life soccer, the Quidditch Keeper must prevent the other team from scoring—except in Harry Potter’s world,    he flies around three goal posts in order to do this. The seventh player on the team is the Seeker. “This is a smaller, lighter player who buzzes about, often high above or around the periphery of the other action, looking for the Golden Snitch, the small fourth ball, which has wings and darts about so quickly that it is difficult to see.”[3] One author has noted that “the Golden Snitch is an important symbol, for securing it is the highest objective of the game of Quidditch. It is like the essence of life itself, which many people seek only to learn that it is highly elusive and difficult to capture.[4]

The real essence of Christian life is not one that is elusive or difficult to capture. It is a life shaped, formed, nurtured and practiced—but it must be done so intentionally. As a Seeker, Matteo will follow Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings. With God’s help and that of those who love him, he will live into his baptismal promises. He will regularly come to a table where bread is broken and wine poured for God’s family.   He will resist evil and when he strays, he will ask God’s forgiveness. He will proclaim Christ in his words and in his actions. He will seek and serve Christ in himself and in others. He will work intentionally for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being. With God’s help.

With God’s help, this child of God will live into the fullness for which he has been created. He will be both Keeper and Seeker of God’s Truth. And in his own circle of life, he will keep and seek always, always, always, with the certain and deep knowledge that God loves him, no matter what. Amen.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

[1] From http://worldsoccer.about.com/od/glossary/g/Keeper.htm

[2] http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/news/y=2014/m=7/news=heroic-howard-earns-global-praise-2398047.html

[3] John Killinger, The Life, Death and Resurrection of Harry Potter, (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2009), 36.

[4] Ibid., 37.

Many years ago, while I was a seminary student, we had two Quiet Days each year. The first year, I decided that on every Quiet Day, I would use that time to write a poem or reflection of some kind. Earlier in my life, I had sent poem after poem to different literary magazines, hoping to be a published author. No luck. Time and time again, I got rejection notices–some rather abrupt, some kind, but with the same end result. However, amazingly enough, several of the poems I wrote during Quiet Days at Virginia Seminary were published–either in the VTS Journal or in the Anglican Theological Review.

The following poem was my reflection on Ellen Davis’ lecture on Genesis 22. This morning, I preached on this passage, and while I did not include this poem in the sermon, I am posting it along with the sermon.

Reflection on Genesis 22:1-14

 

Dedicated to Dr. Ellen F. Davis

You called me from my father’s land with promise of blessing, and I trusted You.

Hunger made Egypt my exile, and You delivered me.

 

The promise of son and land came again and again, in visions divided by fire, in

Heaven’s destruction of Lot’s family, in a slave’s weeping child, in the cutting of my very body.

Still, though I could not understand, I trusted You.

 

And when the white head of she whom I loved bent over this sweet promise fulfilled,

I wept and thought my heart would burst with joy.

 

Now You have called again, O Lord,

With a voice that slices my soul into countless pieces,

With a voice that burns the promise of stars into total darkness.

 

After so many years and so long the promise, will You now

Seize the heart of my heart?

 

And yet You and I have traveled long together, and I have trusted You.

So now, when You demand back what You gave, my questions stop

In stunned silence.

 

I cannot look his mother in the face, and so

We leave before light for the darkest journey I have ever known.

 

I face You on the mountain, and my white head bends over this sweet boy whom I love.

I weep and know my heart will burst with pain.

 

You have asked too much this time, O God of mine.

But You promised to provide a lamb for sacrifice, and so I struggle to trust.

 

I see nothing but hard stone and glittering knife.

I feel nothing but icy winds of grief that freeze my tears.

I hear nothing but disbelieving whimpers of my son.

 

The Covenant, O Lord, the Covenant!

Do not forsake your promise of faithfulness!

 

For high on this windy mountain of wailing grief,

It is all I have on which to cling.

 

© Sheila N. McJilton

Published in the Virginia Seminary Journal

July 1998

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