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Some Random Prayers

FullSizeRender-7Dear God,

There are some people who need Your help this evening:

The very young-looking woman who has been cleaning our hotel room this week told us that her mama “cut me off, so I had to get a job.” She has a three year old daughter, and although I didn’t ask, I suspect she is a single mom. Maybe she finished high school, but she sure looks young. But of her job, which she’s only been doing for about six weeks, she said enthusiastically, “I love my job and I love my co-workers.” Then she carefully made up the bed and left fresh towels. Dear God, bless this young woman. Help her not to be doing back-breaking work like cleaning hotel rooms all of her life until she is tired and bitter and broken.

The good friend who has been betrayed this week in a rather public way. That is all I will say, God. You know the story, and You certainly know how hateful so-called Christians can be. Soothe my friend’s soul and give him peace and courage.

The young woman who was in the hotel elevator with us this afternoon, jiggling her foot and leaning against the elevator wall. When my beloved touched her gently and said, “Are you all right?” (she looked very agitated), she replied, “Oh, I’m just so tired.” And when we got to the lobby, she said, “But thank you for asking.” Give this young woman some hope, oh God, and thank you that someone noticed that another was in distress.

Those who live on the margins–those brothers and sisters who have been judged or pushed aside because of who they are, or because they are substance abusers, or because they are “basement people.” Send those marginal folks someone who really see them this night, and who accept them, no matter what.

Bless the staff who set up coffee, or served lunches, or sold soft drinks, or cleaned up after the conference-goers this week, oh Lord. Most of them were invisible to us. Make them visible to some child of God today, and let them know that we are grateful for their efforts.

Bless all those who are willing to stand on the edges of power, who are willing to speak Truth to institutional power, no matter what the cost. Give them voices, oh Lord, and give others the ears to hear what needs to be heard. Bless the Truth-Tellers, God. Bless them.

I pray for the repose of the souls who died in the plane crash between France and Egypt, and for the families and friends who are drowning in deep grief this night. I pray that they now feast at Your Table, where all are welcome, and where no one is a stranger.

Thank you, God, for your unconditional love and acceptance. Thank you for taking our doubts and concerns into Your heart. Thank you for giving us space to rest and re-create ourselves. Make us again into Your image, so that we can be Your hands and feet and face in this tired, broken, violent world. And help us to have the courage to speak Your truth, regardless of the cost. Amen.

Easter After Easter

IMG_2012We sat, waiting expectantly, in a very large worship space. Every pew was full of people, and the 1500 seat church was packed—even people in the side balconies.

After a lovely organ and brass prelude, there was a hush. Then the trumpets and timpani began the introduction to the hymn. I looked back down the aisle to see a crucifer coming towards me. He bore a large brass cross decorated with Easter lilies and greens; he was flanked by two torchbearers with white gloves and tall candles.  The huge crowd began to sing that great Easter hymn: “Jesus Christ is risen today, alleluia!”

I had never in my life experienced such a wall of sound.  I have been in gatherings (General Convention of the Episcopal Church, for example) where people sang.  But this was different. This was 1500 Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Church of Christ, etc. people—an ecumenical gathering of mostly clergy.  I suspect the greatest percentage were Lutheran, because Luther Seminary has sponsored this National Festival of Homiletics.  You may have heard a rumor (thank you, Garrison Keillor) that Lutherans can sing.  This Episcopal priest can testify to that truth. Wow. Can they ever. And when you get that many pastors together in a great space? It is an experience in which words fail.

That huge worship space filled completely with the sounds of voices, organ, brass and timpani. Suddenly, without warning, I found myself weeping as I watched the choir process, slowly and with great dignity. Bell ringers, their bells adorned with long blue and white streamers, processed. Readers, someone bearing the Gospel book. Among the ranks in procession, two more processional crosses were borne down the aisle. What did I think? I stood there thinking that I had truly been given a delicious taste of Heaven.

No, Monday evening was not Easter. In fact, it was the day after the Feast of Pentecost—51 days after Easter. It was no longer the Easter season. Why had we suddenly been transported back to the great Day of Resurrection?  The hymns were all Easter hymns. The Gospel was the resurrection story in John.  No Pentecost here in this place on Monday, May 16.

The preacher, the Rev. Anna Carter Florence, told us why we were celebrating Easter all over again. She said that we needed a celebration of Easter so that all these preachers could experience a special service “that you did not have to plan.” That drew laughter, and not a little appreciation, I must say.

FullSizeRender-6From Monday evening until this afternoon, I have been able to sit among colleagues of all denominations, men and women, of all shapes and sizes and colors. We have come from all over the US and Canada. We have heard amazing preaching. We have listened to rich lectures on various topics of faith. We have heard all sorts of musicians—from that mighty pipe organ to historic Ebenezer Baptist’s Celebration Choir to a bluegrass group called “The Fleshpots of Egypt” to an African American woman who sang a spiritual to us as she walked up and down the aisle this morning.

On Monday evening, I could not sing because I was weeping—my senses overwhelmed with joy and a strange sense of relief. I realized that sometimes you just do not know how thirsty you are.  Only when you are standing under a waterfall of sweet water that quenches the thirst of every part of you—body, mind, spirit—do you understand what it means to be fed. The gifts of God, poured over the people of God.  I cannot speak for the others, but I can tell you that this particular child of God had no idea how weary and thirsty she was, until she has gotten some rest for her body, and spiritual food and drink for her heart and mind and soul. Grateful. She is most grateful.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

Photos taken by McJilton

 

The Path(s) Taken

FullSizeRender-3Today was the Feast of Pentecost.  Instead of celebrating with my St. Philip’s community of faith, I (on sabbatical) walked into West Market Street United Methodist Church in Greensboro, NC with a dear friend of mine for the 8:30 a.m. service. While the order of service was quite different from my usual one, and there was no celebration of Holy Communion, there WAS excellent music–at least 17 singers in the choir (yes, at 8:30 in the morning!) and the handbell choir (14 people) rang several anthems. Dan, the Senior Pastor, preached a very engaging, thoughtful and, to this careful listener, an exegetically sound, sermon. He is obviously a very good teacher, weaving in the context of the original Jewish community that experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit.

As I worshiped in a very different environment, I found myself thinking about my original Southern Baptist roots in NC, and how amazing it is that I took a different path from that childhood upbringing. I continue to be grateful for the heritage of learning scripture, of the discipline of prayer that I learned from my preacher-father, and of hymnody that I still know by heart. Sing one phrase of some hymn, and I will join you in singing it–almost without thinking! Yet I fell in love with the Episcopal liturgy, of the deep grounding I found in a sacramental life. To share the Body of Christ WITH the Body of Christ each week is such a gift–one I still regard with awe.

Pentecost in 1999 fell on May 23.  On that afternoon, I was ordained to the diaconate in the Episcopal Church. There were many paths in life that I had not taken: a career in music, having more than one child, a career in writing, to name a few. There are some paths I took that I had not expected to take: working in a family restaurant business, being a single mom, selling life insurance, working in broadcast sales and management for twelve years, living out my calling by moving into a dorm room at Virginia Seminary in 1996 and studying full-time for three years before being ordained.

Of course I will never know what I have missed with the paths I did not take in life. I do agree with Robert Frost that the road taken “has made all the difference,” but in this life, I will not ever be able to know all of the nuances of the difference.

Butterfly on Trail NC ZooYesterday, I sat at table with three of my dearest friends in the world. We went to high school together many years ago. As I looked at their faces, I was in awe of God’s love and providence. Four women who have all taken different paths in life. We do not see each other very often. Three of us have had, or are having, challenging health issues. All well-educated people who continue to learn on many levels. Yet despite not having seen each other much throughout the years, here we sat, and without any trouble of all, we had lunch, laughed, shared stories, and it was as if years melted away. We were all like four seventeen year olds who spent many a night in sleeping bags in front of one of our homes’ fireplaces. (Note: back then, we stayed up most of the night talking and giggling–not much sleeping going on!)

Trail at NC ZooThis afternoon, I took a walk on one of the hiking paths at the NC Zoo. There were several options. My friend chose one, and off we went. I would not say it was a cakewalk. A lot of it was uphill, the path was rather rocky, and I had to pay close attention, so that I didn’t slip on rocks. Two miles later, I turned and took a picture of the path with my camera.

It is important to know that we take paths in life. Sometimes they are chosen paths. Sometimes we are pushed into paths that we had not asked for. Yet on all of them, if we pay attention, there will be butterflies resting on the ground, spiderwebs delicately spun among tree branches, wind rustling the tops of tall trees, blue sky and birds singing. Best of all, whatever the path, good companions appear on the way, and blessings abound.

(c) The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. Mcjilton

 

 

Yesterday morning—for the first time in a very long time—I put on a blue Oxford shirt rather than a black clergy shirt. Pat and I then drove over to a place that holds memories for both of us: the church on Kent Island where I spent the first four years of my ordained ministry.

My hope, during sabbatical, is to visit some different churches and to see what it feels like to be an outsider. Do people welcome us? If so, how?  What about their welcome makes me want to be a part of THIS world? Or is there none? Of course I could not test this out at Christ Church, Kent Island. Not a chance. The rector, Mark, knows me;  as soon as he saw us, his smile spread from ear to ear and he came to greet us and hug us. He was delighted that we had come to worship. Within one minute, a woman who was to be lay chalicist saw us, and the same kind of effusive welcome happened. Later, at coffee hour, this same woman told me that all those years ago, I had had such a positive influence on her granddaughter’s life. I remembered this lovely young woman. I had no memory that I did anything special for her—other than to be present to her during her parent’s painful divorce, and to walk with her through that chaos and darkness. Just hearing this story, though, made me wonder at the amazing ways God works through what seem like chance encounters in my life. Once again, I was reminded that I am called to be a vessel of God’s love, and my role is simply to be faithful, and to be a listening presence. Maybe this is really what is important.

I sat in the worship space, first in quiet, then enjoying music as the organist began to play the prelude. The space was quiet and reverent, with the lingering feel of early morning sleepiness that the 8:00 congregation had brought with it. Almost as if—even by 9:45 a.m.—people had eased into this sunny morning and were not yet fully awake.

I looked up. In the wall above the altar, there is a window that is shaped like one of the windows in the old 1880 church in Stevensville.  It is clear, so one can see the trees that gently move with the wind. Seeing this made me smile. This is a relatively new worship space—built since I served this parish as an associate. I was remembering the rather stark “other” worship space that was Phase One of a building campaign. For a number of years, the parish worshiped in what they knew would eventually be the parish hall. Virtually everything was movable there. Along one of the long sides of the room were bays of windows. Yesterday, with everything in bloom outside, I remembered one cold winter morning when I was celebrating worship. I happened to glance out of the windows, then I stopped where I was—maybe during announcements, maybe not—and said, “Oh, look, it’s snowing!”  For a few sacred moments, liturgy was enhanced by silence. The entire congregation stopped to look , delighted by the sight of snow falling quietly, the backdrop of pine and fir trees dark against that white snow.

Yesterday, I remembered this long-ago gift, and how important it always was for this parish family to have some concrete sign of nature, of God’s creation that has always included more than human beings. That creation which existed long before human beings. That creation that we human beings have been given “to serve and to preserve,” as my Hebrew Scriptures professor Ellen Davis used to phrase it.

In front of the window at Christ Church hangs a beautiful wooden Canterbury cross. Later, in his sermon, Fr. Mark Delcuze reminded four young children (who were celebrating their First Communions yesterday) that this cross has four equal-sized arms. That means that the gospel is to go to all directions of the world equally, that the gospel is to go everywhere. And the arms are wider as they go in each direction—that means that the gospel is to grow. Jesus’ message of God’s love must get larger and larger as it is proclaimed in the gospel.

Mark also pointed out that the altar table was constructed with several different kinds of wood. There is some wood that came from the 1880 church in old Stevensville.  There is some wood that came from the Old Wye Oak that was destroyed in June of 2002—at the ripe old age of at least 460 years!  As Mark talked about that, it brought up yet another memory. The morning after that horrible storm, big trucks moved slowly down Romancoke Road, bearing the remains of that old oak tree. Before the 8:00 Sunday morning service, a group of us stood, hushed by reverence to silence, as we watched what looked like a funeral cortege going down the road. Now, as I sat in worship, I smiled, glad that part of that old giant’s wood was part of holy space, part of welcome to all who gather at this table that bears holy bread and holy wine.

Yesterday, it was a very different experience to sit in the congregation. On one side of me was the person who shares my life. On the other was the man who was rector and my first “boss” in ordained ministry. What a privilege it was to sit there and absorb all of the sights, sounds, silences of worship in a different way than I am accustomed to. I was fed on so many levels. Good space, holy place, good sermon. It was good to see old friends. It was good to experience worship like the average person in the “pew” (Christ Church has some pews, but most of the seating is cathedral seating, which I love). It was good to be welcomed—not exactly as a stranger, but like I had come home. On some level, I had.

© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton

 

 

Night Prayer from A New Zealand Prayer Book

“Lord,

it is night.

The night is for stillness.

Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.

What has been done has been done;

what has not been done has not been done;

let it be.

The night is dark.

Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives

rest in you.

The night is quiet.

Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,

all dear to us,

and all who have no peace.

The night heralds the dawn.

Let us look expectantly to a new day,

new joys,

new possibilities.

In your name we pray.

Amen.” (p. 184)

“What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be.”

As I stand on the edge of an unknown journey, I am thinking about this prayer. I am about to embark on four months of sabbatical. After sixteen years of ordained ministry, I am going to stop working for four full months. This is hard to comprehend. Since college days, I have never not worked. I do not really know much about Sabbath.

I was raised in a Southern Baptist preacher’s home. This means that other people’s Sabbaths was a work day for my father. And since Mama taught Sunday School, played the church organ and sang in the choir, then taught elementary school from Monday through Friday and then took care of family needs on Saturday, she never had a Sabbath either.  In fact, the longest vacations I remember were. . .work-related. We traveled to different parts of the United States when I was a child, but almost all of those times, we were going to wherever the Southern Baptist Conventions were meeting.

So this business of taking four months to decompress, to rest, to play, feels strange to me. It is an experience I have never had. And sadly, the model that I learned, early in life, was to work all the time. This model, plus being a single mom for a number of years, means I have much un-learning to do!

We have prepared for this sabbatical time in the parish. My present and past Vestry helped me to plan. We applied for, and got a Lilly Foundation grant. When Vestry members first saw my proposal, they told me, “You have to cut some of this stuff out. We want you to rest. We don’t want you coming back to us as exhausted as when you left.” Oh. That. So I went home and excised some of the things I had put in the proposal.

A sabbatical prep team formed, and my just-past Senior Warden (head lay person of our governing board, in case you are not Episcopalian) said she would be the leader of this group. So I met with that group a number of times, so we could plan how to handle the different tasks of the parish: pastoral care, administrative tasks, worship, special events that focused on our general sabbatical theme of Creativity and Welcome, etc. We found a very capable priest to be supply during this time.

So now, it is time.  I have registered for a preaching conference; a National Geographic Photography weekend; some relaxing time with dear friends in NC and Canada; a digital technology conference at Virginia Seminary; a writing workshop at Kenyon Institute. And vacation—the usual “happy place” called Maine. I will spend chunks of time at home as well—writing, playing with my camera, and walking. Working in the yard. Taking deep breaths. Sleeping. Reading. Journaling. Thinking.

My life has been so busy with “to do’s” that I have not spent very much time just “being.” All that is about to change, I hope.

This next four months may be life-changing for me. I may find parts of myself that I have forgotten. I may find parts of myself that I have never known.

Nervous. Excited. Eager for this journey to begin. My soul is ready.

In my parish, we have moved Announcements to just before the Processional Hymn and Dismissal, to see if the liturgy flows more smoothly (yes, it does). At the Announcement time today, my Sr. Warden did them, then asked whether there were any more. I said, “I have a request, not an announcement.” Then I told the gathered folks that as their spiritual leader, I would like to ask them to join me and pray EVERY DAY for the violence and political division in this country. I said, “I don’t care if you are Republican, Democrat or Independent. What I care about is the conflict, violence, and lack of civil discourse that has become reality in the US. We in this country are blessed. We have the freedom to express ourselves. We have the freedom to vote. But I see that our brothers and sisters of color are even more scared to go into certain public spaces. And this past week, a young Muslim man showed up at a political rally to give away coffee and doughnuts as a sign of peace. The way a so-called Christian treated him broke my heart.” I noted that we have eight months to go before the election, and that they were welcome to consider this an open-ended invitation, but that I hope they will join me in praying every day for the situation in this country. Parents are forced to turn off TVs so that their nine, ten, eleven and older year olds don’t see and hear this brutal and abusive behavior (yes, name-calling is abusive behavior) and mimic it? Really? God must weep over God’s children.

Silent, Strong Women

During Lent, I have been going a bit deeper with morning quiet time. I have, for years, read the scriptures appointed in the Morning Prayer office in the Book of Common Prayer. But while on Vestry retreat with my folks, we all promised each other that we would read the Daily Office–a commitment to deepening all of our spiritual lives, and particularly as leaders of a parish. Our plan was to then ask the parish and other parish leaders to do that with us during the Easter season.

Fortunately, I have had, at hand, my I-Phone app for Forward Day by Day, so reading the Morning Office has been easy. In the past couple of weeks, we have worked through the Joseph novella in Genesis, and at least one person has commented that they have loved reading this. He said he was seeing new things in it, deeper things.

Yesterday was the story of Joseph’s death, and burial. Today, we moved into Exodus. But I noticed something I had not paid much attention to before. The two Egyptian midwives, in the previous chapter, are named–something that is not usually done unless someone is important in scripture. They defy the Pharaoh and do not throw male Hebrew babies into the Nile. And God blesses them.

Now, in this new chapter, Moses’ mother has a baby boy. She successfully hides him for three months. But three-month old babies, with new-found sleep schedules and stronger cries, can not be hidden so easily. So Moses’ mother (who, by the way, is Jochebed, according to Numbers 26:59, but we don’t know that yet) prepares a special boat/cradle for the baby and places him in the reeds near the Nile.

What I love is her craftiness, her wisdom, her strategy. This mother seems to have known the daily bathing habits of Pharoah’s daughter. She knew when this wealthy young woman  was going to come down to the Nile, accompanied by her women-servants, to bathe. And Moses’ mother placed him right where he would a) be safe (perhaps at low tide) and b) be found by a princess. But Jochebed did not just abandon her baby son. She left Miriam, her daughter, with him. So as babies will do, Moses cried, the princess heard him, and decided she would adopt him. But what then?  She could not nurse him.

But Miriam–clearly as smart and strategic as her mama–piped up from nearby. “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Oh. That. Yes, what a good idea. So Pharoah’s daughter agrees, and of course the “Hebrew woman” the child fetches is the baby’s own mother.

Here’s the best part: Pharoah’s daughter, who clearly does not put two and two together, orders Moses’ mother “‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages’.” so the woman took the child and nursed it.”

Jochebed’s calculated strategy works far better than she might have imagined. Not only does she save her infant son from death, but she provides a life for him that will include wealth, education and a home. Better yet, SHE IS PAID FOR IT. In a culture of slavery, where her husband and other men are forced to “brick bricks” under a hot sun in Egypt, building buildings for a cruel ruler, she provides an income for her family.

As I read this passage this morning, this “I will give you your wages” popped off the page at me. Moses’ mother is, at this point, just an un-named slave. Yet she has incredible power. She, like African-American slaves in the United States in the 1700’s and 1800’s (and arguably beyond that), lived under oppressive conditions, where community mattered, and where strategy and courage were critical. I thought about the Ignatian Solidarity Network devotion, which I have also been following every morning on my I-phone (entitled “Lift Every Voice; A Lenten Journey Towards Racial Justice), and today’s meditation was entitled “In the Presence of Enemies.” While this reflection focused on Dr. King and his own enemies, the questions at the end were broader–about how enemies don’t have to be people. They can be “any kind of oppositional force in your life that keeps you from flourishing as you were created to do.”

So there are many forces in my, and your, lives, that oppose us, that hold us back. Today, I am strengthened by the silent, strong presence of those in our midst who–in the throes of conflict, oppression and political power–speak Truth to such power. Sometimes they do it with words. And more often than not, they speak Truth to power with their very bodies and minds. For such, I am deeply grateful. Jochebed, may your daughters keep on keeping on.

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